Ethics Now & Then 74 – Avot 4: 28 – 29

Pirkei Avot 4: 28 – 29   

Rabbi Elazar HaKappar says: Jealousy, lust and [the desire for] glory remove a man from the world.

He used to say: The newborn will die; the dead will live again; the living will be judged – in order that they know, teach, and become aware that He is God;
He is the Fashioner, He is the Creator, He is the Discerner, He is the Judge, He is the Witness, He is the Plaintiff, He will judge.
Blessed be He, before Whom there is no iniquity, no forgetfulness, no 
favoritism, and no acceptance of bribery, for everything is His.
Know that everything is according to the reckoning. And let not your evil inclination promise you that the grave will be an escape for you – for against your will you were created; against your will you were born; against your will you live; against your will you die, and against your will you are destined to give an account before the King Who rules over kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He.

 

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 4:28  Rabbi Elazar HaKappar says:

Rabbi Elazar HaKappar, a highly respected and well-loved Sage, lived at the end of the second century and was a contemporary of the illustrious Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi – Judah the Prince – leader of the newly formed Sanhedrin. He lived in Lydda and was the teacher of Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi, who went on to become a great scholar of his generation.

Jealousy, lust and [the desire for] glory remove a man from the world.

The famed Jewish commentator Maimonides (Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon, also known as the RaMBaM – the acronym of his name ) was both a brilliant scholar and a world-renowned medical specialist. He claimed that, when harbored negatively, any one of these personal weaknesses will not only adversely impact a person’s moral virtue but also one’s mental and intellectual capabilities. It would even cause the person to forget any knowledge of Torah, of the Word of God, that he had gained.*

Most can agree that when a person is consumed with jealousy, driven by his physical passions – over-indulgence in eating, drinking and/or sexual activity or, on the other hand, an inordinate focus on diet and physical fitness – or striving to gain position and power for himself, he will suffer effects that are damaging to his mental, physical and spiritual health. The Sages knew this 2,000 years ago and in our day, too, medical science is discovering proof of the link between mind, emotions and the body, and realizing the necessity to care for and treat the whole person. Unless the negative  thought patterns of envy, jealousy and resentment, and/or the habitual indulgence of physical lusts, and/or the frustration and inevitable disappointment of striving for position and power are recognized and dealt with, they will seriously effect the inner well-being of a person and could well lead to disease and early death.

As the wise King Solomon taught, “A tranquil, healing heart gives life to the flesh, but envy brings a rotting of the bones” (Proverbs 14:30). The Hebrew word for bone, etzem, also carries the meaning of the essential core of an issue. In this case, a person’s bones can represent the person’s innermost core of being – his deepest, genuine character, which usually only is seen and known by the true Judge, God Himself

Irving Bunim presents the interesting perspective that jealousy, passionate desire and pursuit of honor are traits naturally present in every human being. If used and trained in a healthy, positive way, they will “…arouse and encourage genuine, creative activity,” which will be of benefit in building true self-esteem and, in addition, will result in the building up and esteeming of others.** Bunim also notes the commentary of Don Isaac Abarbanel that these three qualities have their roots in the imagination, “…the creative inclination of the heart; in the human capacity to build structures of vision.”***

When the enemy of our souls is allowed access and control over these drives in our lives, abuse and injustice and harm to oneself and to others will result. When, rather, these drives are harnessed in service to our Creator, our Father in Heaven, He will enable the achievement of whatever work or endeavour He has planned and prepared for each one to do (cf. Jeremiah 29:11). The result will be contentment and satisfaction with one’s lot; the ability to rest in in Him and trust for His provision and protection – and b’etzem, at the core of the matter, to find lasting joy in the glory of His Presence.

“Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear [reverential awe] of God.”
(2 Cor. 7:1)

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 4:29  He used to say: The newborn will die; the dead will live again; the living will be judged – in order that they know, teach, and become aware that He is God; He is the Fashioner, He is the Creator, He is the Discerner, He is the Judge, He is the Witness, He is the Plaintiff, He will judge.
Blessed be He, before Whom there is no iniquity, no forgetfulness, no 
favoritism, and no acceptance of bribery, for everything is His.
Know that everything is according to the reckoning. And let not your evil inclination promise you that the grave will be an escape for you – for against your will you were created; against your will you were born; against your will you live; against your will you die, and against your will you are destined to give an account before the King Who rules over kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He.

This lengthy and laden-with-wisdom final mishna, or verse, of Chapter 4 speaks for itself. Each phrase naturally engenders much thought and is ripe for discussion; however, it does not need much commentary in our context here.

The concept of Torah as Law, although considered in a negative light by some, is derived  from the fact that God proclaims Himself to be a Law-giver and a Judge as well as a loving and merciful Father. Knowing that He is a holy and just Judge, we can rest assured that He will give a true and righteous judgment.

After reading and considering these verses it comes as no surprise that Rabbi Elazar cherished tranquillity above all else. He also taught, “Great is Shalom – peace, for naught else but peace is the ending that sets its seal on all the blessings.” He also said, “Love peace and hate dissension.” He connected peace with humility, as he illustrates in this graphic metaphor: “Do not be as the upper lintel [of a doorframe] but as the threshold; everyone steps on it yet ultimately the entire structure is destroyed and it remains in its place.”****  Only in humility can we examine ourselves honestly and fairly,  and where we find fault can turn our hearts in teshuvah (repentance) to God. Then, in His forgiveness, we can endeavor to right any wrongs we have committed; to seek forgiveness from those we have hurt, and to make restitution where we can. As the Sage Hillel urges, “If not now, when?” (Avot 1:14). In the grave it will be too late.

An observation once was made that when we come into the world we cry and others laugh with joy. We must try to live our lives so that when we leave this world we can laugh while others may cry. It is told that when the saintly Baal Shem Tov was dying, he was surrounded by his talmidim, disciples, who were sobbing uncontrollably. “Why do you weep?” he asked; his face lit with a radiant smile. “I have been preparing for this moment all my life!”

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Conclusion of Chapter 4

Rabbi Chanania ben Akashia says: “The Holy One, Blessed is He, wished to confer merit upon Israel, therefore He gave them Torah and mitzvoth (commandments) in abundance, as it is said: ‘HaShem desired for the sake of its [Israel’s] righteousness that the Torah be made great and glorious'” (Isaiah 42:21).

PLEASE NOTE: Next week the Hebrew month of Elul begins the season of teshuvah that culminates with the High Holy Days and the Feast of Tabernacles, crowned with Simcha Torah, in October; marking the start of the new Festival Cycle. We will therefore be having a break and will continue with Avot Chapter 5 the first week of November, 2014.

Thank you  – and look forward to seeing you then!

~Keren Hannah

 Footnotes:

*   Kravitz & Olitsky, Pirke Avot, 68
**  Irving M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, Vol 2, 192
*** Ibid., 192
**** Ibid., 228

Ethics Now & Then 73 – Avot 4: 25 – 27

Pirkei Avot 4: 25 – 27   Elisha ben Avuya said: One who studies Torah as a child, to what can he be likened? – to ink written on fresh paper. And one who studies Torah as an old man, to what can he be likened? – to ink written on smudged paper.

Rabbi Yosei bar Yehudah of Kfar HaBavli says: One who learns Torah from the young, to what can he be likened? – to one who eats unripe grapes or drinks unfermented wine from his vat. But, one who learns Torah from the old, to what can he be likened? – to one who eats ripe grapes or drinks aged wine.

Rabbi Meir says: Do not look at the vessel, but what is in it; there is a new vessel filled with old wine and an old vessel that does not even contain new wine.

 

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The three sayings all comment on the roles of youth and age and how they relate to spiritual knowledge and understanding and the teaching thereof. Also of interest are the three prominent sages quoted, their personalities, and the relationship between them.

Rabbi Elisha ben Avuyah, although an outstanding Sage and a colleague of Rabbi Akiva, was eventually shunned and considered a heretic who had turned away from his faith in God. Differing reasons are recorded. One tells that he witnessed an incident when a father instructed his son to climb a tree to retrieve eggs from a nest but first to shoo away the mother bird. In so doing, the boy fell from the tree and died. Rabbi Elisha was shocked that in performing the two commandments that promise long life – honoring one’s parents and not taking eggs in the presence of the mother bird (Ex. 20:12 and Deut. 22:7) –  the boy had lost his life. Elisha, therefore, lost faith in the truth of God’s Word. Another account offers that his apostasy occurred after great and saintly Sages, including his close colleague Rabbi Akiva, were cruelly executed by the Romans. He could not make peace with this and asked the perennial question, “Where was God?”

He completely withdrew from the religious world and, thereafter, when referred to by the Sages, he was simply called A’cher – meaning ‘other,’  ‘different’ or ‘transformed’. Many opinions recount that he was ‘transformed’ by his study of the mystical, theosophical subjects of Judaism (Avot 4:1) and by the strong Hellenistic influences of the time and, therefore, was torn by deep conflicts in matters of faith. Irving Bunim comments, “It is unknown whether the term Epicurean, heretic, Sadducee, or atheist was conferred upon him. …This much is certain, however; in his latter years he did not interpret the Torah according to tradition, nor was he [fully] observant of Jewish law.” *

Rabbi Meir, quoted in verse 27, was a student of Rabbi Elisha and it was commonly known in his generation that there was none to match Rabbi Meir’s brilliance, which was fully balanced by his kindness and love for others. Even after his beloved mentor “fell from faith”, Rabbi Meir continued to openly associate with him and to learn from him. Although this engendered much criticism, it was accepted that with Rabbi Meir’s great intellect he was able to eat the inner fruit of the pomegranate but “…the shell and the rind he discarded.”** Or, in modern vernacular, he was able to “eat the fish and spit out the bones.”

Rabbi Meir was with his aged master Rabbi Elisha at his death, at which time Meir urged him to proclaim his faith in the One true God. The dying Sage answered, “Can [my repentance] be accepted even now?” HIs disciple responded by quoting, “Thou dost bring men back even at dacca – the moment of the spirit’s utter brokenness.”***  Then Rabbi Elisha wept, and amid his tears passed on to his eternal reward. Rabbi Meir was content, crying, “I believe my master departed in repentance.”****

The third Sage, quoted in verse 26, Rabbi Yosei bar Yehudah of Kfar haBavli, a village in the Galilee, was younger than Rabbis Elisha and Meir, and was an example of a new jug containing old wine. His father, Rabbi Yehudah bar Ilai was one of the foremost scholars and one of the renowned Rabbi Akivah’s last disciples. Rabbi Yehudah survived Hadrian’s persecutions and when the Sages reunited thereafter, he was recognized and chosen to be “the leader among the speakers” – the one who had the authority to always speak first in the discussion of Torah or the judgment of any religious matter. As his son, Rabbi Yossei was immersed in Torah study from birth and from a very early age he exhibited great wisdom and understanding of the Written and Oral Torah and their meaningful and practical application in a person’s life.

4:25  Elisha ben Avuya said: One who studies Torah as a child, to what can he be likened? – to ink written on fresh paper. And one who studies Torah as an old man, to what can he be likened? – to ink written on smudged paper.

The remarkable factor at the outset of this verse is that the Sage’s name is quoted here, rather than the usual pseudonym, A’cher. This, likely, was due to Rabbi Meir’s influence. Perhaps included in Rabbi Elisha’s tears at his death were tears of gratitude for his own early years of Torah education and the knowledge of God gained thereby. His saying here clearly describes the lasting value of study by the young, when the mind is fresh and absorbent, uncluttered by the concerns of puberty or adult responsibilities, and one’s memory is clear and vivid.

It is believed by educators that the time one learns the most and a framework is set in place, as it were, for all future learning, is from birth until the age of six. The Roman Catholic Church, Communism and Islamic jihadists, among others, know this well and share a common principle of, ‘Give us the child and he is ours for life.”

Study at any age is good. Indeed, study of God’s Word in order to continue to learn and grow should be one’s life-long aim and pursuit. However, as well described here, if one has not had the privilege of receiving an education in the truth of God’s Word from an early age, the challenge of learning is more difficult later. When one is older all previous knowledge must first be ‘erased’, unlearned. It is, nevertheless, still vital to begin at any age and to press forward in gaining spiritual knowledge and understanding.

4:26 Rabbi Yosei bar Yehudah of Kfar HaBavli says: One who learns Torah from the young, to what can he be likened? – to one who eats unripe grapes or drinks unfermented wine from his vat. But, one who learns Torah from the old, to what can he be likened? – to one who eats ripe grapes or drinks aged wine.

Rabbi Yosei grew up surrounded by scholars and Sages and, despite being younger himself, offers the wisdom that when seeking a teacher, the youth of the person is not an advantage. He makes the excellent comparison of the ripening of grapes. Only time can bring grapes to ripeness and fullness. The young grapes certainly possess the potential, but need time and experience to acquire true maturity. The same applies to good wine that settles and mellows with age and acquires a fullness of flavor and fragrance.

4:27 Rabbi Meir says: Do not look at the vessel, but what is in it; there is a new vessel filled with old wine and an old vessel that does not even contain new wine.

Maybe also as an encouragement to the younger Rabbi Yosei, Rabbi Meir here emphasizes another truth. “On the other hand…” we must not judge a book by its cover.  Age alone is not a guarantee that a person is wise. A person might not have studied and gained understanding of God and His ways of truth and an ‘old vessel’ might not contain the ‘wine’ of wisdom at all.

The Torah commands us to respect and honor the aged (Leviticus 19:32). In another simile for wisdom, however, the Midrash records, “The Torah’s words can be likened to water… Just as an older person would feel no shame in asking a younger one for a drink of water, so in matters of Torah would an older man not be ashamed to [receive teaching] from a younger one.” ***** What is needed is a fine balance and discernment – a respect for the knowledge and experience of the elderly and an encouragement of the zeal and energy of the young and, in addition, a recognition and appreciation of true wisdom in whatever the vessel.

 

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Pause and Reflect

In the light of history, and the fact that the Sages lived in times of great Messianic expectation – Rabbi Akiva himself had believed that Bar Kochba was the long-awaited Messiah who would bring freedom and peace to Israel – could Rabbi Elisha ben Avuyah, who reportedly had retired to Emmaus, have believed and followed the teaching of the disciples of the Messiah Yeshua and, as a result, become considered one of those who then were labelled ‘heretics’?

 

Footnotes:

* Irving M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, Vol. 2, 171
** Talmud Bavli, Hagigah 15b
***  Psalm 90:3
**** Irving M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, Vol. 2, 172
***** Midrash Rabbah, Song of Songs i 19

Ethics Now & Then 72 – Avot 4:24

Pirkei Avot 4:24   Shmuel haKatan ( Samuel, the ‘Little One’) says: “When your enemy falls be not glad, and when he stumbles let your heart not be joyous. Lest HaShem see and it displease Him. and He will turn His wrath from him [to you].”

 

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Shmuel haKatan ( Samuel, the ‘Little One’) says… 

The Jerusalem Talmud records that Samuel, the Sage qouted here, was called the “Little One” due to his true humility.* The verse is a direct quote from the book of Proverbs (23:17-18) and the fact that it is attributed here to Shmuel the Sage reflects that this principle must have been a central facet of his teaching and, thus, of his personal belief.

Interestingly, the controversial inclusion of a 19th benediction, in the thrice daily Amidah prayer called the Shmonah Esreh (18 blessings), which addressed the sectarian groups  viewed as heretical, was composed by Shmuel haKatan. At that time, in the 2nd century, the Romans dominated and Hellenism was rife among the Jews of Israel as well as in the Diaspora. Also, Jewish sects such as the Sadducees were seen as revising the very fundamentals of the Jewish faith. The renowned medieval commentator Rashi noted, “This [19th benediction] was instituted at Yavneh …in regard to the developing influence of new religious concepts that were inculcating the upheaval of the words of the living God.” No doubt , included among those seen as heretical were the Nazarenes or Christians. Initially, the disciples of Jesus had continued to live as Jews in accord with the Hebrew Scriptures, as Jesus himself had done and taught. “And day by day, attending the Temple together and breaking bread in their homes, … [they were] praising God and having favor with all the people.”** By the time of the 2nd century, however, it seems that many were affected by the Roman Hellenistic influence and, sadly, had abandoned the “words of the living God” and were now recognized as “…heretical Jews who turned against their mother religion with malicious fury when their missionary attempts were rejected.”***

The original text of the 19th benediction reads: “May there be no hope for the apostates; may all infidel heretics perish in an instant, and may all Thy enemies be cut down soon. [This first sentence was amended in recent history]. Do Thou speedily uproot the dominion of the arrogant evil, and crush, cast down, and bring low all our enemies most soon, in our days. Blessed art Thou O Lord, who dost break enemies and bring low the arrogant.”

It reads as a strong indictment against those who were threatening both the physical and spiritual safety of Israel and could only acceptably be received in a spirit of true humility that bore no arrogance or animosity. Shmuel haKatan’s words stemmed from a true love of God and of His people and, while not naming any individual person or group, it decries any who have made themselves instruments of evil in opposition to God and His Word. As the Psalmist proclaims, “You who love the Lord, hate evil” (97:10). While leaving the fate of every individual in the hands of God, evil itself – that which is in contradiction to the Word and goodness of God and which is a danger to one’s life – must not be condoned or tolerated in your midst.

When your enemy falls be not glad, and when he stumbles let your heart not be joyous.

When your enemy falls ( Heb.: bin’fol ) be not glad ( tis’mach ), and when he stumbles ( u’vee’cashlo ) let your heart not be joyous ( yag’el ). Repetition often is used in the Hebrew Scriptures for emphasis or greater clarity. In this case, a different concept is being described via the Hebrew words used in the two phrases; which bears our taking a closer look. The first verb, binfol, is derived from the root word nafal, to fall, due to a Providential cause beyond a person’s control. U’vee’cashlo, from the root cashal, to stumble, indicates  the result of a fault made by the person himself. We find an example in Hosea: “Repent O Israel, …for you have stumbled (cashalta) in your sin” (14:2).****

The second set of injunctions are: to not be glad (tis’mach), from the root meaning of a happiness resulting from considered contemplation, nor to be be joyous (yag’el), a spontaneous exultation – a type of inner joyous laughter. When applied in the context of the fate of one’s enemies we are warned, as Irving Bunim describes: “When a misfortune overtakes your enemy that appears to be an act of Providence, do not …decide that since it is a punishment from [God] you should be happy; and if your enemy stumbles by his own fault, by his own carelessness or stupidity, do not [exult in glee].”*****

There is a subtle difference between expressing grateful praise to God for deliverance from one’s enemy and rejoicing in his downfall. The difference lies in the atitude of one’s heart,  which can be arrogance or humility. We have a clear example in Exodus 15:1-19, when the Israelites experienced the miraculous parting of the sea, crossed to safety and freedom and then witnessed the destruction of the pursuing Egyptian army as the sea closed upon them. Moses leads a song of praise for the glory and greatness of God that was revealed by this miracle. It was not a crowing of personal triumph of the Israelites over their enemies.

Lest HaShem see and it displease Him, and He will turn His wrath from him [to you].

Based on the belief of the all-encompassing and constant goodness of God, a  basic tenet in Judaism is “Gam zu le’tovah” – “Even this is for good.” In all that God allows to happen, He will be working within the circumstances for the ultimate good of each individual, as each is created in His image. God’s Word clearly teaches that we are not to harbor resentment in our hearts nor take revenge on another, rather we are to, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Humanly speaking, taking revenge is extremely sweet, as is seeing the downfall of one’s enemy, and yet we are called to emulate God and, while we cannot love our enemies’ evil actions, we must restrain any excess of satisfaction or joy at his downfall. If a person rejoices and celebrates at another individual’s harm or destruction, this may well incur the wrath of the Almighty, the Father of all.

 

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Pause and Reflect

The Torah expresses the command to , “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). The great sage Hillel, realizing that should a neighbor prove to be an enemy it would not be humanly possible to love him, rephrased the injunction as, in effect: “Do not do to another what you would not wish him to do to you!” A thief would not wish to be stolen from and a murderer would not wish to be killed himself – nor would a terrorist like to be terrorized!

When asked what he considered to be the greatest commandment, Yeshua restored the negative, although practical, statement of Hillel’s to the positive, by reciting the Shema, which all knew since childhood, saying: “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. ’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”(Mark 9:29-31) By connecting the two Yeshua was emphasizing that only by fully loving God and walking in His love, can one have the ability to overcome our natural inclination to harbor resentment and even hatred in our hearts toward one who has done wrong and harmed us, and thus be glad or inwardly enjoy satisfaction at any misfortune he, in turn, may suffer.

Most often, the root of discord and the cause of pain inflicted, even among the people of God, is the obverse of the love of God – the desire for personal power, and material gain. We are exhorted in 1 John 2: 15-16, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world— the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life —is not from the Father but is from the world.”

Let us consider where any root of resentment against another may have a hold in our lives and pray in faith that this be removed and the wound healed in the mighty love of our Father in Heaven. Pray also that any hatred be revealed, removed, and replaced by His love and concern for all His children.

 

Footnotes:

* Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin ix 13
** Acts 2:47-47
***
Irving M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, 167
****
Ibid., 169
*****
Ibid., 169

Ethics Now & Then 71 – Avot 4:23

Pirkei Avot 4:23   Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says: Do not appease your fellow in the time of his anger; do not console him while his dead lies before him; do not question him about his vow at the time he makes it; and do not attempt to see him at the time of his degradation.

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Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says… 

Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar was a close disciple of one of the leading sages, Rabbi Meir; whom he often accompanied and frequently quoted. He lived in TIberias toward the end of the second century.

Each of the instances listed by Rabbi Shimon addresses a time when someone is overcome by an emotion – whether great sorrow, extreme anger, suffering personal failure and humiliation or making some form of serious commitment. He advises that these are times when it is wise to remain silent. To attempt to counsel, to reason with or to appease someone in any of these situations would be counterproductive. He does not say that one should ignore the distress of others and not intervene or kindly offer advice or assistance when possible. Rather, he is underscoring the importance of proper timing in expressing our care for and in our interaction with others.

Do not appease your fellow in the time of his anger…

As we all likely know, it is difficult to calm oneself in, hopefully rare, moments of extreme anger let alone to be able to calm another person. The attempt to intervene at the height of his anger would be, as the saying goes, to foolishly “rush in where angels fear to tread!” Once he shows signs of calming down, one can help to settle him further.

The great 15th century sage and spiritual leader in Jerusalem, the Bartenura,** cites the example of how at the time of Moses’ great distress and anger at the incident of the Golden Calf, God did not immediately intervene. He waited until after Moses’ anger had passed and later assured him, “My Presence shall go with you and I will give you rest” (Ex.33:14).

…do not console him while his dead lies before him;

It is considered a great mitzvah (good deed) to console one who mourns in his or her time of grief. When a close loved one is lost, a person is distraught at the loss and also, as it were, the amputation of a part of themselves. Grief is raw, like an open wound from which blood needs to flow in order to facilitate cleansing and healing.  If this natural process is  not acknowledged and is covered up and ‘dammed’, the grief will be suppressed and will need to be ‘undammed’ at a later time and with more difficulty.

In Judaism, the practice of mourning the loss of a spouse or close family member, starting after the burial, is to “sit shiva” (connected with the  Hebrew words shevah, seven and shavua, week) and to spend a week away from the routine demands of life and to simply sit quietly at home with family while friends come by and offer their condolences. Usually, the community rallies round to organise meals for the mourners, to provide and serve refreshments for visitors and to help take care of daily affairs where necessary. This break from routine allows the reality to sink in slowly  and the healing-of-grief process to begin. The mourner is not expected to “carry on regardless” in a show of abnormal courage and strength.

We see, in Genesis 50:1-14, that Joseph mourned the death of his father Jacob for seven days. The tradition also is based on the example in Job 2:13, where Job is grieving the tragic loss of his children and all his worldly goods. His friends came and “…sat with him on the ground seven days…and none spoke a word to him, for they saw the ache was very great.” Initially, there truly are no words suitable enough to say. All one can offer is a sympathetic silence and, just by being there, to allow your presence to bestow the warmth of empathetic concern. Part of the ‘sitting shiva’ tradition, therefore, is to visit and be with the mourner and share their grief but not to speak unless they personally initiate the conversation, indicating that they are ready and able to communicate verbally.

…do not question him about his vow at the time he makes it;

In biblical times, and in certain aspects of Jewish law today, the making of a vow or oath is a serious matter. The oath is considered legally binding and due process must be undertaken to be released from it. In more general terms, one can consider the vows of marriage, or an agreement entered into when purchasing a house or a car, or signing a contract in a business deal. At the very time the person is involved in the action and “making the vow,” it will not be of any benefit to question the decision or to discuss it with them. Their mind is already made up and they are strongly motivated to to proceed with the action involved.

To be a true friend, or simply a caring person, one would be available well beforehand to offer any helpful advice, if in a position to do so, or merely to be a sounding board and to raise any questions before the decision is made. In addition, if it transpires, G-d forbid, that it was a bad decision and the person is suffering as a result and regrets the action taken, then one also can be of help by being there and standing with them in support and encouragement.

 …and do not attempt to see him at the time of his degradation.

In the first record of mankind experiencing degradation or humiliation, when Adam and Eve sinned and were ashamed, God waited until they had “…fashioned coverings for themselves” in order to hide their nakedness, before He approached and spoke with them (Gen. 3:7-8). There are occasions in life when our emotions can get the better of us and we “blow it” and act in error to one degree or another. Controlling emotions is a challenge. Emotions are real and necessary and we do not need to apologize for experiencing them; we do, however, need to keep them in check and to direct them productively and to not allow them to result in destructive actions that will harm ourselves or others.

William Berkson records how the wisdom of Rabbi Shimon has been confirmed by a principle of modern psychology called the Yerkes Dodson Law. The basic premise relates the emotional state of a person to how well they are able to function. On one end of the scale, if a person is not aroused emotionally at all they will not be motivated or able to do anything, as in the case of severe clinical depression. As one’s emotional arousal increases so does the level of motivation and the ability to function. However, if this arousal becomes excessive, the person will become less functional and, at an extreme level, it will render him or her dysfunctional and ineffectual.*** Each of the cases cited by Rabbi Shimon relate to the lesser extremes on each end of the scale. Extreme dysfunction should only be treated by professionals.

In the context of Rabbi Shimon’s teaching, the person referred to is a “fellow” or a friend. While one should be hesitant and cautious before intervening with strangers or acquaintances, one should always be prepared to step in and offer assistance, encouragement and support to a friend who is undergoing any of the emotional challenges described. He is saying, in effect, “Yes, you must attempt to placate your friends, to console them in their time of mourning, to deliberate with them concerning a decision they are making and to stand with them if they experience any form of failure or humiliation.” Yes – that is what a caring friend does. It is a function of tikkun olam – of bringing healing to a damaged and hurting world. It is “loving your neighbour.” They are actions we need to take, but, sensitively and at the right time.

 

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Pause and Reflect

Whatever we do with the motivation of sharing more of God’s goodness and lovingkindness in the world around us matters a great deal. Also of much importance is when and how we act. Can you think of examples of this truth in your own life and consider how a little tikkun (repair, healing) in that area could make a big difference?

Footnotes:

Obadiah ben Abraham of Bertinoro (c. 1445, Italy – c. 1515, Jerusalem), commonly known as “The Bartenura,” was a 15th-century Italian rabbi and outstanding scholar who also excelled in business matters. In his later years, the desire to visit the Land of Israel led him to Jerusalem. He arrived there on March 25, 1488, having commenced his journey October 29, 1486. On his arrival, he rejuvenated and built up the downtrodden Jewish community of Jerusalem and became acclaimed widely as the spiritual leader of the Jews of his generation. (based on Wikipedia information)

** L.Kravitz & K.M.Olitzky, Pirke Avot, 66

*** William Berkson, Pirke Avot, 155

Ethics Now & Then 70 – Avot 4:22

 

Avot 4:22 He used to say: Better one hour of repentance and good deeds in This World than the entire World to Come; and better one hour of spiritual bliss in the World to Come than the entire life of This World. 

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He [Rabbi Ya’akov] used to say: 

This verse is a continuation of 4:21, in that Rabbi Ya’akov (Jacob) pursues a comparison of our life here on earth (Olam HaZeh) with life in the eternal World-to-Come (Olam HaBa). Previously, he compared life here to a waiting room where one ensures one is prepared to enter the banqueting hall of the king. In this verse, Rabbi Ya’akov assures that this concept does not devalue life here and we should not consider it less important than the eternal life that awaits us.

Better one hour of repentance [teshuvah – turning to God] and good deeds in This World than the entire life of the World to Come…

 Although the Word of God tells us there is life hereafter, we have no concrete idea of what life will be like in the World to Come. As Paul describes in 1 Cor.2:8, in reference to Isaiah 64:4, “…no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.” With the information we are given, however, we can anticipate and imagine the glory of such a life – one lived fully in the light and the beauty of His Presence. And yet, Rabbi Ya’akov says that only one hour of true repentance, returning one’s heart fully to God, and the doing of good deeds (mitzvoth) here on earth is better than the entire life there! How is this possible?

There is a story of one of the most respected Rabbis of Eastern Europe, the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797), who is known as the gaon (genius) and tzaddik (saint) of Vilna, or Vilnius, the Lithuanian city where he was born and where he became a brilliant scholar and outstanding spiritual leader. When the Hassidic movement started and became influential in his native town, the Vilna Gaon joined the “opposers” or Mitnagdim, rabbis and heads of the Polish communities, to curb the Hasidic influence, which focussed on joyful praise and service to God. He, rather, promoted an intellectual, scholarly approach to gaining knowledge of God and encouraged his students to study secular sciences, and even translated geometry books to Yiddish and Hebrew.* Later Jewish leaders understood that a balance of both spritual and scientific knowledge is most desirable.

As the Vilna Gaon approached his final moments before death, it is recorded by his disciples that, in an uncommon display of emotion, he began to weep. In surprise and concern they asked him how one like himself, who had spent his lifetime in honoring God and preparing for the Hereafter now, on the threshold, had reason to be weeping. He pointed to the tzitzit (fringes) of his tallit* that he constantly wore and said, “By wearing these each day, I was able to fulfill such precious mitzvoth (good deeds one can perform in obedience to God). I weep because in the world-to-come I will be deprived of any further chance for mitzvoth.” ** Although he had achieved much, was he perhaps repenting of his focus on intellectual study over the doing of deeds of lovingkindness towards his fellow man?

The Midrash also enforces this concept by saying that on the day of Judgment there will be no opprtunity to repent and to do good deeds, for this world is like a Friday and the next world like a Shabbat. If one does not prepare food on Friday, what will one eat on Shabbat, when – as was illustrated with the manna in the wilderness – the work of collection and preparation of food is forbidden? This world also is compared with the seashore and the next world to the sea. If the crew does not stock up with food before setting sail, what will they eat once at sea?***  We see this concept vividly described by Yeshua in his parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25) who took their lamps to meet the bridegroom at night. Five were prepared with extra oil, not knowing the exact hour he would arrive, but five were not and, as a result, were excluded from the wedding banquet.

With all its promised wonder and bliss, one thing the World-to-Come cannot give is the deep satisfaction we can experience here of wrestling with the challenges, temptations and difficulties of this life and overcoming them with the guidance and enabling of our faithful God and Father. With His help, in Yeshua our Messiah, and by His Spirit of holiness, we gain the satisfaction of spiritual growth and understanding through both the study of His Word and in our obedience expressed in deeds of loving-kindness. We can enjoy contentment in so doing, here and now in simple faith and trust, even when we see no material gain in this world for we know that any reward wlll be be stored up for us in the life to come.

…and better one hour of spiritual bliss in the World to Come than the entire life of This World.

We indeed have no clear concept of the joy we will experience with the absence of evil and of life in the full glory and beauty of the Presence of God. While we are able to enjoy the fruits of goodness when the ways of God are followed in this life, we also continue to face the ravages of evil, as King David well knew when he wrote the Psalms: “The wicked have laid a snare for me, but I do not stray from your precepts. Your testimonies are my heritage forever, for they are the joy of my heart. I incline my heart to perform your statutes forever, to the end” (119:110-112).

Again, as Paul taught, who was content whether with much or with little, “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life” (1 Timothy:17-19).

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Pause and Reflect

To this generation, for those who have ears to hear, it is not news that Jesus was a Jew in every way and that he grew up in a Jewish world that was flourishing within the framework of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Written Law or Torah) as well as the Oral Torah transmitted by the Sages. We see in the gospels that Jesus was scrupulous in keeping the Jewish commandments. Renowned scholar David Flusser (z”l) notes in his book, Jewish Sources in Early Christianity, that: “Jesus regarded the Torah, with all its jots and tittles. as a world complete in itself [one prescribed by his Father in Heaven] on which the existence of the material world depended” (Matthew 5:17-20).

He was fully conversant and in accord with the Sages. Flusser points out that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches according to the more stringent moral views of, for example, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai and Shammai; whereas in the more ritual and institutional matters, and those directly involving others, he was more lenient according to the sage Hillel. He therefore bridged the strictness of the school of Shammai in more personal moral matters regarding sin and the school of Hillel’s love of one’s fellow man.

From the second Century onward the officially established state religion of Christianity forbade Jewish believers, or those drawn toward the values of Judaism, to keep the commandments of Torah and persecuted them as heretics. We are challenged today to consider the stance of Jesus himself and how three times in the gospels he proclaims, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Luke 8:21). “”Blessed…are those who shemah / hear the word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:28) and “Whoever does the will of God [his Father] is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Mark 3:34-35).  In the light of the Church’s new understanding of the Jewish Roots and Hebraic sources of the faith, what changes in attitude toward the Torah or Law of God should be evident? What would Jesus do?

Footnotes:

*See Vilna Gaon, Wikipedia.

* The purpose for the tzitzit on the corners of a tallit katan (worn as a vest under one’s outer garment) and on a large outer tallit or prayer shawl  is to remind one of the commandments of God. The cords and knots in their design add up to a total of 613 – the number of mitzvoth in the Hebrew Scriptures.

** Irving M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, 152

*** Midrash Mishle, vi; Rabbah, Eccl. i:15

Ethics Now & Then 69 – Avot 4:21

 

Avot 4:21  Rabbi Ya’akov said: This world is like a lobby before the World to Come; prepare yourself in the lobby so that you may enter the banquet hall.

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Rabbi Ya’akov said:

Rabbi Ya’akov (Jacob) is considered to be a student of Rabbi Meir and a teacher of Yehudah HaNasi. He lived in the second century and is mentioned in disputes with the renowned Rabbi Akiva. *  The extent of interaction with the Hellenistic culture in that era is evident in the use here of perozdor (foyer or lobby) and teraklin (banquet hall or  court of the king); both Greek loan words.

This world is like a lobby before the World to Come; prepare yourself in the lobby so that you may enter the banquet hall.

Although the context here is likely that of a Graeco-Roman villa, a comparison can also be made with a palace or the Holy Temple itself.  It required great preparation on the part of the cohanim, priests, before they could serve in the Holy Place. Most commentators however, including Rashi and Maimonides, interpret this verse of Avot in the context of the ante-chamber in the court of the king.

The commentary Yen Levanon ** focuses on three types of people who could be found waiting for an audience with the king. The first are those on legal business, or seeking consultation on matters of state. The second could be those who have received a royal invitation to attend a banquet or celebration at the palace, and the third would be the servants of the king who would be attending to the necessary procedures required and be on call for any need that may arise. The Yen Levanon notes, interestingly, that a human being who is a child of God belongs to all three groups and, as a result, his preparation needs to be on three levels simultaneously.

When we view our life on earth as a temporary existence between the timelessness before birth and the eternity to come after death, and understand that it is a time of testing and opportunity in anticipation of the full redemption of the world and the final establishing of the Kingdom of God, then the three aspects of preparation become vital. It is a time of preparing oneself before the door opens and we are called into the king’s presence; the exact time of which is never certain. An appointment might have been made or an invitation issued, but the king could be detained on urgent matters of the kingdom; therefore one waits and can utilize the time to ensure one is fully prepared.

Each person, ultimately, will stand before the King of kings and will give an account of the life he or she has been given. We do not know when that time will come and, therefore we need to be waiting in preparation and intentionally living each day with an awareness of the fact that Olam HaZeh (this world) is of a temporary and fleeting nature, while our life in Olam HaBa (the world to come) is eternal. Does this mean that our life here and now is not important? To the contrary, our days here are vital. Our earthly life is a precious gift – a time of learning and growing; of anticipation and preparation. It is a time of discovering truth and beauty and the value of a life that will endure forever – a life in unity and communion and ever-deepening intimacy with our Father in Heaven, the Creator and Giver of all life.

Rabbi Ya’akov here compares this world to a lobby or waiting room which we traverse before entering the large, beautiful banquet hall. In terms of, for example, a wedding banquet and in the role of servants, all the culinary work, decorations  and preparation must be perfected and completed in the noise and bustle beforehand. As guests and participants, the banquet can then be enjoyed in the beautifully arranged setting and the meal partaken of in a relaxed and joyous ambience.

We see an illustration of the wedding theme in the love song of King Solomon: He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love. (2:4) The Bible begins with the ‘marriage’ of Adam and Eve and ends, in Revelation, with the marriage supper of the Lamb. Yeshua’s first miracle was at a wedding, and he taught many parables with a wedding motif, e.g., Matthew 22 and Luke 12, in connection with servants of the master, and also Luke 14, warning guests in regard to protocol and pride.

Our short traverse of life on earth is inevitably challenging and difficult – often a “vale of tears” and, yet, also filled with times of joy and laughter. One can suffer failure and enjoy success. When evil predominates in any form, whether affecting an individual, a community, a nation or, even, as we have seen with terror and war, on a global scale, one may be tempted to give up in despair and resolve to simply survive and “get through” in a state of meaninglessness. No! In every situation the Word of God exhorts us to, “Choose life!” The circumstances, whether good or ill, comfortable or painful, lavish or poor, do not determine the eternal value of one’s life. Rather, it is how one reacts, in faith or fear, that determines one’s journey, and each small action is of importance. Each act of kindness, each mitzvah or good deed, every word of prayer and every charity given is a small seed planted in the fertile soil of eternity. It may remain hidden and unseen now, but will bear a great harvest in the World to Come.

In one of his first letters to those of the nations new in the faith, who had “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God,” Paul writes these words of encouragement and assurance of eternal life: “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Yeshua the Messiah. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thess 5:23-24).

 

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 Pause and Reflect

As mentioned, the three levels of preparation can be considered as those of a legal petitioner, a banquet guest and a servant.
1. The legal petitioner must ensure that his petition is clear and in order, that his accounts are balanced, and that his case can be presented succinctly .
2. A banquet guest must ensure that he is appropriately dressed and is familiar with palace protocol.
3. A servant must be thoroughly trained for his particular service and needs to know clearly, to the minutest detail, what is expected of him in the role he is filling.

Let us consider our lives in the three aspects of those waiting to be summoned into the presence of the King. How do we react emotionally? Are we preparing ourselves in each role and function?

 

 

* Kravitz & Olitzky, Pirke Avot, 65

** Quoted in Irving M Bunim’s Ethics from Sinai Vol. 2, 147

Ethics Now and Then 68 – Avot 4:20

Avot 4:20  Rabbi Mattya ben Charash said: Initiate a greeting to every person; and be a tail to lions rather than a head to foxes. 


Rabbi Mattya ben Charash said… 
Rabbi Mattya ben Charash was a disciple of Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkanos, the greatest student of Yochanan ben Zakkai who was the leading Sage during the Second Temple period. At the time of the Roman siege and the destruction of the Temple, Rabbi Eliezer and fellow student Yehoshua ben Chananya smuggled their aged teacher out of Jerusalem in a coffin. Ben Zakkai, with a group of dedicated students and sages, then established the new spiritual centre of study in Yavneh. In similar pattern, after the Bar Kochba revolt  and just prior to the Hadrianic persecution, Rabbi Mattya ben Charash fled to Rome, where he established a school.*

Initiate a greeting to every person… 

There may be a number of reasons why people do not greet another first. One is pride. The person wishes to stand on his ‘dignity’ and to be greeted first is an acknowledgement of his loftier position. On the other hand, some may hesitate to greet another due to insecurity. Perhaps if they extend a friendly greeting to another, they might be ignored or receive an icy stare in return. So, to play it safe, they wait for the other person to greet them first. Both approaches are wrong. Rabbi Mattya teaches that one should always take the initiative and be quick to greet another with a welcoming smile and a friendly greeting.  It is said of the great sage Yochanan ben Zakkai, that no one had a chance to greet him first, not even a heathen in the market place.** All are to be greeted, as the Talmud concurs, for the sake of promoting peace.***

When encountering a person one is at odds with and who is not particularly friendly towards you, to offer a genuine smile and a warm greeting will hopefully melt through any barrier of misunderstanding or even bitterness they may have built up. No pursuit of peace costs less and yet can accomplish a great deal to heal and restore a damaged relationship. In any community and family, conflicts or differences of opinion are inevitable. The Sages remind us to place Shalom – the value of Peace – as our top priority and, through concern for the welfare of all, to make every effort to preserve and to establish peace in our daily dealings with others. When any form of dispute arises one should aim to initiate reconciliation and to be the first to seek peace; even when it may be interpreted as an admission of being at fault, one’s ego should be quelled and the step should be taken.

…and be a tail to lions rather than a head to foxes.

A lion in Scripture always is associated with power and strength. In nature, too, he is considered the King of the animal kingdom. Lions and lionesses are large, strong animals that hunt in the open, often in pairs or as a pack. On the other hand, the fox is a small, weaker animal that can run with speed and relies on alacrity of movement to hide from pursuers. Rather than raw strength, a fox needs cleverness and cunning in order to catch its prey.

Rabbi Mattya’s advice to be the tail of a lion primarily addresses those who might have healthy ambition but, due to lack of self esteem, may bolster themselves by demanding to be the “head” and have control over those whom he considers inferior. In doing so, he necessarily resorts to fox-like methods that are cunning and hidden. He relies on his own wits and scheming. He may appear small and harmless, however, as King Solomon warns, “Seize the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vineyards, for the vineyards are in tender blossom” (Song of Songs, 2:15). In their sly raiding of vineyards, the foxes damage many tender vines and harm any harvest they may have produced for the pleasure of the Vinedresser.

A lion walks tall, erect and in the open. Generally, it is considered a blessing to “be the head and not the tail.” For example, “And the Lord will make you the head and not the tail, and you shall only go up and not down, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your G-d, which I command you today, being careful to do them…” (Deut. 28:12). Also, Isaiah proclaims, “…the elder and honored man is the head, and the prophet who teaches lies is the tail.” (9:14). In the context of Rabbi Mattya’s teaching, however, the tail is still part of the lion, representing strength and majesty, and the head is part of the fox, representing hiddeness and scheming. It is preferable to be a follower and learn together with the great lions of our Father G-d , than to be a self-sufficient leader of those who neither fear nor trust and obey Him.

When the infamous, false prophet Balaam sought to curse the people of Israel he could not do so and the Lord caused him, instead, to speak blessing. A description he employed was, “Behold, a people; as a lioness it rises up and as a lion it lifts itself” (Numbers 23:24). Israel’s Messiah, son of David, who will rise up and rule from His throne in Zion, is referred to as “the Lion of the tribe of Yehudah.” We can rejoice in being part of the humble tail of that great Lion.

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SELAH! Pause and Reflect

 

*Kravitz & Olitzky, Pirke Avot, 65
** Talmud Bavli, Berakoth 17a
*** Mishna, Gittin v9; Tosefta, Avoda Zara, 3; quoted by Irving M. Bunim; Ethics from Sinai, 141

Ethics Now and Then 67 – Avot 4:19

Avot 4:19    Rabbi Yannai said: It is not in our power to explain either the tranquility of the                       wicked or the suffering of the righteous.

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Rabbi Yannai said:

Rabbi Yannai, a descendant of the High Priest Eli, lived in the first half of the 3rd Century. He was a prominent sage who lived  and established his own school of disciples in the town of Akbari, near Safed in the Galilee. He was attributed the title of Yannai Rabbah / Yannai the Great. Yannai was very wealthy; he is said to have planted four hundred vineyards (Bava Batra 14a) and to have given an orchard to the public. * Interestingly, his school differed from others in that the students become, as it were, part of the Rabbi’s family. Together with their studies, they worked on the estate, received a share of the revenue, and lived under his roof.

It is not in our power to explain either the tranquility of the wicked or the suffering of the righteous.

With the limitations of our finite human minds we are not equipped to truly judge the position of a person and whether their apparent success and wealth, or conversely failure and poverty, will be for their blessing or harm. This applies, in particular, when considered in the perspective of eternity. And yet, when we see the wealthy and powerful prosper to the detriment of the poor and helpless, and increasingly “good is called evil and evil good,”** it is a reality we wrestle with in an attempt to gain some understanding thereof.

Rabbi Yanni was both wealthy and righteous. Sadly, as history too often has illustrated, this combination is seldom guaranteed. The ungodly and unrighteous, even the blatantly wicked, succeed and prosper while the G-d fearing and righteous suffer. In his great work, Man is Not Alone, Jewish author Abraham Joshua Heschel includes a chapter entitled, ‘The Hiding God’, in which he addresses this question. In the face of life’s tragedies and of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man in the form of distress and dehumanization, torture and terror, the question arises: “Where is God?”

Whereas the backdrop to Yannai’s teaching was the oppression and destruction inflicted by the Roman Empire, Heschel frames the question in the light of the Shoah, or Holocaust, “history’s most terrible horror.” Many survivors emerged from the pit of indescribable darkness with strengthened faith, having witnessed miracles of God’s protection and provision. Many lost faith in the God who is characterized by love and deliverance, mercy and compassion. How could He allow His people to endure such suffering? Is God directing the history of man or is He indifferent to it? Why, so very often, does evil reign and trample goodness into the ground? Heschel answers the underlying universal question by offering the view that man attempts to  “…shift the responsibility of man’s plight from man to God; in accusing the Invisible though iniquity is ours.”***

We see a clear picture with Adam and Eve’s first sin in Genesis 3, when, in response to God’s challenge, the blame is shifted to someone else. Adam blames God and Eve; Eve blames the serpent. What happened prior to the confrontation also is important to consider. In their shame they tried to hide. As Heschel points out, “Man was the first to hide himself from God…and is still hiding.” The first question in the Bible is asked by God, “Ayekah?” “Adam – man – where are you?”

God’s intent and desire from the beginning and ever since is relationship, to “walk and talk” with mankind. Since man’s exile from the Garden, the injunction has been to “build it” – a place of meeting, primarily in our hearts, to which “He will come.” He will meet us there, but will not intrude uninvited. “When we long for Him, His distance crumbles away.”**** In our hiding from Him, in a misguided effort at self-protection, and shifting blame onto others in an attempt to justify ourselves, many evils are wrought.

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Special insert – June 2014 – In Memory of the three teenage students abducted and murdered this month by Palestinian Arab Jihadists, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks – past Chief Rabbi of the UK, wrote the following, which captures an important element of our topic here:

“Eyal, Gilad and Naftali were killed by people who believed in death. Too often in the past Jews were victims of people who practised hate in the name of the God of love, cruelty in the name of the God of compassion, and murder in the name of the God of life. It is shocking to the very depths of humanity that this still continues to this day.

Never was there a more pointed contrast than, on the one hand, these young men who dedicated their lives to study and to peace, and on the other the revelation that other young men, even from Europe, have become radicalised into violence in the name of the God of Islam and are now committing murder in his name. That is the difference between a culture of life and one of death, and this has become the battle of our time, not only in Israel but in Syria, in Iraq, in Nigeria and elsewhere. Whole societies are being torn to shreds by people practising violence in the name of [Allah] their God.

Against this we must never forget the simple truth that those who begin by practising violence against their enemies end by committing it against their fellow believers. The verdict of history is that cultures that worship death, die, while those that sanctify life, live on. That is why Judaism survives while the great empires that sought its destruction were themselves destroyed.

Our tears go out to the families of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali. We are with them in grief. We will neither forget the young victims nor what they lived for: the right that everyone on earth should enjoy, to live a life of faith without fear.

Bila hamavet lanetzach: “May He destroy death forever, and may the Lord God [of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob] wipe away the tears from all faces.” May the God of life, in whose image we are, teach all humanity to serve Him by sanctifying life.”

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Pause and Reflect

 

* Jewishencyclopedia.com
** Isaiah 5:20
*** Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone, p 151
**** Ibid., p 153

Ethics Now & Then 66 – Avot 4 :18

Avot 4:18   Rabbi Nehorai said: Exile yourself to a place of Torah – and do not assume it will come after you – for it is your colleagues who will cause it to remain with you; and do not rely on your own understanding.

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Rabbi Nehorai said…

There is no clear evidence regarding the identity of a physical Rabbi Nehorai. The Hebrew word nehorai reflects enlightenment, from the root ohr – light. Many believe it could thus be a pseudonym for Rabbi Meir whose name, meaning illuminate, also is derived from ohr.

Exile yourself to a place of Torah – and do not assume it will come after you… 

The Hebrew phrase hoveh goleh, exile yourself, appears to be an extreme injunction. It denotes a journey, leaving one’s home, moving to an unfamiliar place. Rashi suggests, particularly if there is no teacher in one’s present vicinity, one should travel to a place where Torah teaching is available rather than wait and hope that a teacher will come to you. The Scriptures often are compared to living water. Isaiah writes: “Hey, all you who thirst, come to the water!” (55:1) Water flows downward until it finds a place to settle; it will not flow uphill. In order to obtain what you need to satisfy your thirst, you must to go to the place where it is found.

In the context of this verse, ‘Torah’ has the wider meaning of all of God’s Word and the teaching based thereon. A “place of Torah” means a facility where Torah is studied and a community where the values and ethics of Torah are lived. Often that might mean physically relocating. Today we can be grateful for the positive wonders of Internet and the multi-media available whereby we can enjoy good teaching and even a form of online community and active communication. However, a good, strong basis of Bible study and an understanding of the character of God and one’s relationship with Him is needed as an anchor before launching into the wide, world of the Web with all its endless options.

I know of a Rabbi and his wife who lived on the West Coast of America, where they were prospering. When their two small daughters were old enough to start school they realized there were no fully Torah-based schools in their state and, although it meant uprooting and starting over, they moved the whole family to a city on the East Coast in order that their girls could be immersed in a full Torah education and lifestyle. We have a perfect example of this action in our forefather Abraham. He followed the command of God to, “Go you out of your country and your birthplace and your father’s house…” He had to leave his native, secular, idolatrous setting for a spacious, desert place of simplicity in order to gain clear knowledge of his Creator, the One true God, and of the understanding that there was another way of life – one for which he was created to live;  God’s way.

– for it is your colleagues who will cause it to remain with you…

The Rabbi and Abraham literally changed location, which demands much and is not always possible. The important “move” or “exile” is one of mindset. This is illustrated in the Scriptures by the tribe of Levi, with whom one also can connect the phrase: “…it is your colleagues who will cause it to remain with you.” Traditionally, those of the tribe of Levi were devout Torah scholars from whom came the kohanim, priests who served in the Tabernacle, and the scribes who taught the people.  Moses’ final blessing upon the tribe includes the initially shocking words: “Levi… who said of his father and mother, ‘I regard them not’; he disowned his brothers and ignored his children.” Does this indicate they were callous and hard-hearted? Not at all. The context was their reaction to the sin of the Golden Calf and the quarrel at the waters of Meribah, where even when it meant standing apart from their own family members, the Levites did not participate in the sin, “For they observed Your word and kept Your covenant” (Deut.33:9). Therefore, Moses continues: “They shall teach Jacob Your rules and Israel Your law; they shall put incense before You and whole burnt offerings on Your altar”(v 10).

The Levites were of one heart and mind, to know and to serve the God of Israel and to learn and teach His Word and ways. As we see, this meant that they did not participate in the social life around them, especially if it was counter to the ways of God. In a sense it meant a form of “exile.” What strengthened them in their calling was the fact that they could work together as colleagues and learn from and encourage one another in their sacred task. So, too, we are deeply blessed and strengthened when we find like-minded colleagues – friends and fellow students – who are intent on studying and pursuing the Torah – the Word and ways of our Eternal God.

…and do not rely on your own understanding.

People often say that wisdom comes with age or with experience, and one can always rely on good old, practical ‘common sense.’ A problem with this attitude is that a person can become set in one’s own predisposed ways, which, although they might look good and be based on common sense and worldly know-how, may nevertheless not be in accord with the true ways of God. Thus, the warning to “not rely on your own understanding,” no matter how intelligent and worldy-wise you may believe you are. Rather, constantly question, explore and share the learning and wisdom of others, never become complacent and simply be satisfied with what you already know.

 In one of the greatest records of Wisdom literature, also quoted here in the last phrase of the verse, the book of Mishlei – Proverbs, King Solomon says: “If you seek it [the wisdom of Torah]  like silver and search for it like hidden treasure then you will understand fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God” (2:4-5). People will travel far and wide, do enormous amounts of research and make great efforts and sacrifices in the pursuit of worldly treasures and wealth. When we apply this same desire and diligence in seeking the treasures of God’s Word, then we will gain deeper wisdom and understanding and ‘awe and reverence of the Lord.’

This advice also can be applied to one’s knowledge and understanding of the Torah itself. Even when we have begun to mine the extraordinary treasures of Torah and found, for example, a handful of precious, sparkling diamonds or gleaming nuggets of gold, we are advised, “do not lean on your own understanding.” Don’t be satisfied with what you have learned and settle there. There is so much more beneath the surface, dig deeper, keep questioning, learning, discovering, for the riches the Lord has for us to discover are endless.

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Pause and Reflect

1. How can one determine if one’s “mindset” is stuck in old, familiar and comfortable patterns that need adjusting or moving on from?

2. The annual Biblical Festival Cycle, God’s calendar, and the Torah Reading cycle, are a means of centering one’s life in harmony with His timetable and of focussing one’s mind and thoughts on the foundation of His Word.  Are you availing yourself of these stores of treasure, and, if not, why don’t you begin to explore them with us, right here on His-Israel?

3. Please remember to bless Israel with your prayer and any way you can. In spite of widespread secularism, Israel is the only country on earth where the Word of God is nationally honored and adhered to and where the throne of our returning Messiah and King of God’s Kingdom is being prepared.  Do not forfeit the blessing you will receive in return.

Ethics Now & Then 65 – Avot 4 :17

 Avot 4:17  Rabbi Shimon said: There are three crowns – the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of kingship; but the crown of a good name surpasses them all.

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Without the respect and affection of one’s friends and colleagues, all the glories of scholarship, priestly office or even kingship carry little meaning or worth. People seem to harbor a deep inclination to seek after positions of power and to gather for themselves accolades and titles. At the end of the day, however, what truly counts is the honor and respect one has accorded to others, even the least in the world’s eyes, for this, eventually,  is what will rebound to oneself.

The famous medieval commentator, Rashi, notes that the crown of Torah is a result of study and application of God’s Word and is open and available to all. The crown of priesthood, when connected to the line of kohanim linked to Aaron and the Levitical priesthood, requires a particular lineage. Interestingly, that link can now be ascertained as a result of the breakthrough in DNA testing. In connection with the promises of God to Judah and King David, the crown of kingship also requires that particular lineage.

On the other hand, it also is our Father’s expressed will that all His people be a “kingdom of priests” and, as children of the King to also rule and reign with Him in the earth and to help bring about tikkun olam – healing to the world. Together with those sealed in His covenant, the house of Israel, we see this made clear in the book of Revelation, when the Lamb of God takes the scroll from God who is seated on the Throne (5:9-10):

And they sang a new song, saying,
“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”

The Scriptures describe a glorious vision and hope for what lies ahead in eternity. The question we are posed with at present is, “How does this apply to our lives here and now?”

The Hassidim [an orthodox Jewish group who worship the God of Israel and honor His Torah and believe we always should serve Him in joy] have a reference during their marriage services to the Holy Place of the Temple. The indication being that each home should be a mikdash me’at – a small sanctuary where we serve as priests of His living Temple. The words proclaimed are:

“To the south I will arrange the menorah of wisdom, to the north I will set the table with bread; With wine in the cup, and myrtle clusters (which have sweet fragrance like the altar of incense) for bridegroom and bride, the weak will be given strength. Let us make them crowns of precious words…”

Crowns of words! This refers to the blessings recited over the bride and groom and also to those spoken on Shabbat: of parents over children, of husband over wife, and on all the guests present. The concept presents a striking picture. When we speak a blessing over someone it is as if we are placing a beautiful, shining crown on their head. For this reason, the Sages and Rabbis of Israel say we should find ways to bless God one hundred times a day, for it is a way of crowning Him with many crowns!

In addition, what a good and gracious opportunity lies in our hands to place crowns of blessing upon those with whom we live, work and have interaction with in any way. We can find ways, in humility and sincerity, to convey our respect and acknowledge and esteem their worth as a precious child of God; as one who carries the spark of Divine life and all the potential inherent therein. In our consideration, appreciation and respect of the other, we can help and encourage one another in our  God-ordained calling as priests and royalty in the family and Kingdom of our Father.

 

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Pause and Reflect

While we earnestly hope and aim to earn a good reputation and name in the eyes of  others, only our Father Himself knows the full story and deepest heart of each person.
It is the name He bestows upon us at the close of our journey on earth, the one that will last for eternity in His Presence, that is of ultimate and enduring value.

How can we live right now, while we are on our earthly journey, in order to earn that final crown of the blessing of a ‘good name’ from His hand?

 

Ethics Now & Then 64 – Avot 4:14 – 16

Avot 4: 14 – 16  Rabbi Yochanan ha’Sandlar said: Every assembly that is dedicated to the sake of Heaven will have an enduring effect, but one that is not for the sake of Heaven will not have an enduring effect.

 Rabbi Elazar ben Shmuel said: Let the honor of your students be as dear to you as your own; the honor of your colleague as the reverence for your teacher; and the reverence for your teacher as the reverence of Heaven.

Rabbi Yehudah said: Be meticulous in study, for a careless misinterpretation is considered tantamount to willful transgression.

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The three Rabbis quoted here, in verses 14, 15 & 16,  lived in the latter half of the 2nd Century and were among the last disciples of the great Rabbi Akiva. Each was dedicated to preserving the importance of the study of the Torah and the application of its truth.

 Rabbi Yochanan Ha’Sandlar said: Every assembly that is dedicated to the sake of Heaven will have an enduring effect, but one that is not for the sake of Heaven will not have an enduring effect.

Rabbi Yochanan, whose name Ha’Sandlar, the sandler, most likely indicates his trade as a sandal maker, posits that any communal gathering, and in particular that of a religious institution or congregation, should primarily assemble for the purpose of honoring God and transmitting His ways. The enterprise will only endure if its deepest and most fundemental motive is that of doing all for His sake – for “the sake of Heaven.”

An interesting point to consider is that the success or endurance of an enterprise or work in the Kingdom of Heaven is not measured in worldly terms; that is, in its size, production output and material gain. The enduring principles are those of strengthening one’s faith through study of His Word, growth and transformation of character in reflection of Him and the deepening of intimate relationship with our God.

Rabbi Elazar ben Shmuel said: Let the honor of your students be as dear to you as your own; the honor of your colleague as the reverence for your teacher; and the reverence for your teacher as the reverence of Heaven.

While Rabbi Yochanan highlights the most basic focus of all our endeavours, that of honoring and pleasing God, Rabbi Elazar highlights how this genuine reverence of God will affect our other relationships. When asked how he had lived to such a ripe old age, Rabbi Elazar responded, with reference to his students, “I never trod over the heads of the holy people.” (Talmud Bavli, Megillah, 27b.)

In general, he always was considerate of the feelings and interests of others. He never “stepped on” people, nor imposed his authority on another person, whether student or colleague. He understood that respect and honor of the other creates the ideal atmosphere for learning and growing in wisdom and faith.

Rabbi Yehudah said: Be meticulous in study, for a careless misinterpretation is considered tantamount to willful transgression.

Finally, Rabbi Yehudah, who is the Sage most often mentioned in Pirkei Avot, proclaims the point that pertains to the motives for an individual’s personal study of God’s Word. If one’s reverence and love for the Word and its Author are not true and deep, one consequently will be careless in one’s studies and in applying His teachings. It is important to have a regular time and a plan of study of the Scriptures; it’s not a casual pastime. As we read in Joshua 1:8, “This Book of the Torah shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.”

The renowned commentator, Rashi, also takes Rabbi Yochanan’s statement as a warning to scholars that great care must be taken in their analysis and teaching of the Scriptures. They are responsible, as teachers likened to God, to transmit the knowledge and understanding of the Word that brings Life as accurately as possible, in order that the young minds and lives in their care are not negatively affected.

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A clear visual comparison can be made here of the assembly of the recently redeemed Israelite slaves at Sinai and the large assembly at the Tower of Babel. Both spoke a common language, and were of one mind and purpose. The first, however, were looking  to Heaven and anticipating to hear His voice and, in response, to do His will. They said to Moses, “Go near and hear all that the Lord our G-d will say, and speak to us all that the Lord our G-d will speak to you, and we will hear and do it ” (Deut. 5:25).

The second assembly, who were gathered with a common purpose and with great efficiency of operation, said: “Let us make a name for ourselves” (Gen.11:4). They were gathered with an aim to flaunt Heaven and to build their own kingdom . An outcome of this motivtaion was that materialistic values dominated. For example, if a brick used for building fell and was broken they were most upset, but if a worker fell from the building and was injured or killed they ignored him and showed no care or compassion. Their love for a fellow human being had grown cold.

Organized power and efficiency, used in the interests of man to build his own name and kingdom, do not hold enduring value. When the faithful gather in love and in genuine humility and dedication to the purposes of Heaven, although their numbers and influence may be small, their actions will have longlasting effect in God’s eternal plan of Redemption.

The assembly of the overseers of the Tower of Babel had exalted themselves, trusting in their own power, and their mission failed. The Israelites had witnessed the power and salvation of God and in reverence and wonder could sing: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the Name of the Lord our God” (Psalm 20:7,8).

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 PAUSE & REFLECT

The concept of “for the sake of Heaven” can be healthily and wonderfully applied in our relationships at home, at work, in the neighborhood and in wider circles.

1) Consider ways and opportunities where this principle can practically be applied.

2) Are there times, however, when kindness and caring interaction for “Heaven’s” sake could result in a compromise of God’s Word?

Ethics Now & Then 63 – Avot 4:13

Avot 4:13  Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov said: He who fulfills even a single mitzvah gains himself a single advocate, and he who commits even a single transgression gains himself a single accuser. Repentance and good deeds are like a shield against retribution.

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Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov said:

There are two sages by this name but it is believed that the Rabbi Eliezer quoted here lived during the 2nd Century and was a disciple of Rabbi Akiva.  Rabbi Eliezer was a member of the synod that convened after the vicious persecutions perpetrated by the Roman emperor Hadrian. The aim and purpose of the synod was to restore and preserve the spiritual and communal life of the Jewish people.

 He who fulfills even a single mitzvah gains himself a single advocate…

The rather challenging fact is stressed by Rabbi Eliezer that every small deed we perform is significant. Every action we take is like a seed that is planted and will bear a harvest. Each deed has greater repercussions than we can realize. To help in our appreciation of  the effect of our actions, the Sages present the metaphor of angels.

In connection with the undertsanding that we each have an inbuilt yetzer tov (an inclination for good) and a yetzer ra (an inclination toward evil), when you act in accord with your yetzer tov and do a mitzvah (good deed), an angel is created that acts as an advocate for you; one who will act as a protector and defender. The Midrash thus records that if a person does many mitzvoth, “…the Holy One gives him half His camp”!* Even thousands of angels to encamp about him. We hear an echo of this in Yeshua’s words when, late at night after the Passover Seder, a large group of the camp of the corrupt High Priest and elders came to the Garden of Gethsemane to arrest him: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and He will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53).

Every act of goodness and holiness has an invisible ripple effect and adds to the power of good in the world. In addition, there is an effect within the person who does good himself and his character and life are deeply and positively influenced. Grasping this truth can strongly encourage us to obey the commandments for good (mitzvoth) that we are presented with in God’s Word. We can happily aim to act in obedience with the perfect will of our Father in Heaven, whose unfailing love we can fully trust and whose will we know is only for our unending good.

Yeshua himself taught and lived and commissioned his disciples: ” I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father” (John 14:31). He came that all the world might come into knowledge of God and His chesed ve’emet, His loving-kindness and truth. In the prayer Yeshua prayed with all his being before he was arrested and taken for trial and crucifixion, he proclaims: “I have given them Your Word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that You [Father] take them out of the world, but that You keep them from the evil one. Sanctify them in the truth; Your Word is truth” (John 17:14-17).

…and he who commits even a single transgression gains himself a single accuser.

Conversely, with every evil deed (sin or transgression of God’s will – averah) a person gains an accusing angel, a “prosecuting attorney” that will have a negative influence in his life and upon his character and that will result in ripples of evil in the world. Every known transgression is, in effect, a disregard of and a rebellion against the will of one’s Creator. It therefore carries with it a cloud of guilt that brings a degree of separation from His light and Presence.

In this context, the Sages say that at Rosh HaShanah, following a special time of grace and opportunity to finely examine one’s heart and life  in order to repent during the month of Elul, the time of Judgment of the year’s deeds arrives and “…the Holy Blessed One bids the ministering angels, ‘Erect a platform; let the defense attorneys stand [there]; and let the accusers stand [here].'”**  The Sages also consider that one does not cancel out the other. They all stand. A mitzvah does not cancel out an averah. A simple example: If a store owner deliberately overcharges a customer by $10- he cannot then give $10- to a beggar thinking that will absolve his guilt. The only recourse is true repentance. To do justly, he needs to face and admit his guilt and return the money to the customer, and he must determine to not repeat the sin in the future.

 Repentance and good deeds are like a shield against retribution.

Repentance in Hebrew is teshuvah, from the root ‘to turn and return’. The concept, as we know, is perfectly described in Yeshua’s parable of the Prodigal Son – or, better still, the Merciful Father. The errant son was not restored immediately, at the time the realization of the extent of the transgression of his father’s will dawned on him. It required a process. Whatever was done needed to be corrected. To be shielded from sin as he went forward, he needed to make the journey of return in humility and with full resolve to not act in the same way again.

From these verses in Avot we can gain a deeper appreciation of how important it is to keep far from sin and to keep our focus on walking in obedience to the mitzvoth in God’s Word and to spread His goodness in the world. This is the conclusion shared also by King Solomon, as he wrote in Ecclesiastes 12:13, “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”

At the same time we can rest and rejoice in the overwhelming love and mercy of our Father God. His eyes are ever upon us to do good and we are reminded: “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at My Word” (Isaiah 22:2b).

As we turn and return to Him we can sing each day with grateful hearts: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him’ (Lamentations 3:22-24).

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 PAUSE & REFLECT

Based on the belief that Jesus died as an atonement for sin, a prevailing teaching in the Church holds that sins are automatically pardoned and the commandments of God are thus made null and void.
Does the law/Torah/teaching of God expressed in the Hebrew Scriptures still have relevance and, if so, how is it applicable in the life of a believer today?

Romans 8:1 reads: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Messiah Yeshua/Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”

Sadly, instead of applying this verse to the “law of sin and death” – the inclination toward sin that seeks to indulge and satisfy the flesh – it is applied to the Holy Scriptures themselves – the Word that brings life! Paul clarifies this in verse 7:  “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law/Torah; indeed, it cannot.”

Many Christians believe, as has been taught in Replacement Theology and in the majority of the Church’s denominations, that the “law” that one is set free from is the Law/Torah of God. This thinking, built on and substantiated by other random verses from the letters of Paul, effectively frees one from paying attention to the commandments of God given in the  Hebrew Scriptures. Rather, the Torah, we are told, was written by the finger or Spirit of God, and will stand when all else fades. By His Spirit given in Yeshua all can cry, “Abba! Father!” (v. 16) and can learn, through His Word, to walk after the Good Shepherd Yeshua in Abba’s Torah (teaching) and ways of truth and kindness.

“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Rom.8:14).

 

Footnotes:

* Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 32.

** Talmud Yerushalmi, Rosh HaShanah 1:3

Ethics Now & Then 62 – Avot 4:12

Avot 4:12  Rabbi Meir said: Reduce your business activities and engage in Torah study.               Be of humble spirit before every person. If you should neglect [the study of] Torah, you will come upon many excuses to neglect it; but if you labor in the Torah, God has ample reward to give you.

Rabbi Meir said:

Rabbi Meir, the greatest disciple of Rabbi Akiva, became a scholar renowned for his wisdom. His wife, Beruriah, also was recognized as a scholar in her own right. Rabbi Meir gathered and recorded the teachings of the Oral Law, which served as a basis for the Mishnah compiled by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi. Rabbi Meir remained a loyal friend to another of his teachers, Elisha ben Abuyah, even after the latter had become a “heretic.” Although not specifically stated, and simply a supposition, it is possible that Elisha received a revelation of Yeshua as Messiah through his deep study of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Reduce your business activities and engage in Torah study.

One needs to maintain the study and appreciation of the Word of God as the foremost priority in one’s life and as one’s primary occupation; if not, neglect of it will grow. Many excuses and distractions will rise up to draw one away.  The Hebrew phrase translated ‘many excuses’ is devarim betelim, which carries the meaning ‘worthless things of no value.’ For example, one can have the excuse of not having enough time to study Torah on a regular basis and yet spend endless hours engrossed in front of a computer or television screen. We need to examine our “reasons” and test our justifications for lack of constant study of the Scriptures, and particularly their foundation of the Torah.

In Pirkei Avot 2:6, Hillel states that an ignorant person cannot be pious or fearful of sin. One must have heard and studied and worked at applying God’s Word to one’s life in order to honor it meaningfully and to avoid the violation of His expressed will.

Be of humble spirit before every person.

Interestingly, this exhortation is inserted by Rabbi Meir before continuing with the main theme of Torah study. There is a danger that a person or scholar who is highly educated and well-versed in the Bible might become arrogant of attitude and proud of his knowledge. Rabbi Meir teaches that humility of spirit should be evinced before every person with whom one comes in contact. This may be easier when in the presence of a well-known celerity or a great scholar but the test of humility comes in one’s dealings with the clerk at the grocery store, an employee, a neighbor, or a beggar in the street.

A genuine student of the ways of God knows that, in the spirit of His Word and as perfectly demonstrated in the life of Yeshua, the Torah, or revelation and understanding of the One God, can only thrive and grow where there is humility. The Sages teach: “As water leaves a high place and settles in a low one, so will the Torah’s words remain viable only in one of humble heart” (Talmud Bavli, 7a). Also, it “will leave anyone of haughty mind and cling to someone modest in his thoughts” (Midrash Rabba, Song of Songs 1:2).

True humility is not thinking less of, or demeaning oneself. It is having a clear knowledge of yourself and accepting who you are as a beloved child of God. One then is able to rest in the understanding that, just as a child can fully trust in the wisdom, protection, provision and greater strength of a good parent, so one can trust in our Father in Heaven. In the same vein, Yeshua called a little child to himself and taught his disciples who were seeking greatness in God’s Kingdom: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn [from your own strength and understanding] and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 18:2).

True tranquillity of soul can only flow from a deep faith and radical trust in the One who is Father of us all and as each one fulfills the purpose for which he or she was created. Every person is wondrously unique and individually formed according to the will of our Creator and only He can guide our steps and lead us in the way He has prepared for us from before the beginning of time.* Our faith is anchored in the One who is faithful to draw us and woo us to Himself, and who strengthens and enables us as we walk in harmony with His will. In this place of rest we can, in humility, offer grace and peace to others in His unfailing love.

If you should neglect [the study of] Torah, you will come upon many excuses to neglect it; but if you labor in the Torah, God has ample reward to give you.

Our Father sent His Word of chesed ve’emet / grace and truth, enfleshed in His anointed Son and Messiah, Yeshua, to be a living demonstration of His Torah. As sons and daughters created in the image of God,  and being conformed in the likeness of Yeshua, we too are in the family business and our occupation is to study the truth of His Word, obey its precepts and act in love and kindness. In so doing our minds are transformed, we live in accord with our Father’s will and influence our fellow human beings for good.

As we commit ourselves to “labor in Torah” we are assured that our Employer is faithful to recompense us justly and fairly. In the economy of God’s Kingdom all our efforts are noted and valued and the rewards are forthcoming. Should a ‘laborer’ become lazy and neglect his task or become focussed only on selfish, material gains or personal satisfaction then the person will find that they need to strive harder in order to cover their own ‘expenses’. These will become greater and will devour more of their time and energy as the lust for material gain or power is seldom satisfied. By neglecting Torah study in the amassing of greater material fortune, one forfeits the opportunity to enrich and exalt one’s life with the higher meaning for which we are created.

When we immerse ourselves in the Living Word, all our every-day activities become set apart in service to God and for His purposes. Then we enjoy not only the provision of our specific needs but also the abundant rewards of Divine revelation and insight. We grow in  a spiritual understanding that brings us into closer and more intimate relationship with the Almighty Creator of the universe – the Giver of all good things – our Father Himself.

Ethics Now & Then 61 – Avot 4:11

Avot 4:11  Rabbi Yonatan said: Whoever fulfills the Torah despite poverty will ultimately fulfill it in wealth; but whoever neglects the Torah because of wealth, will ultimately neglect it in poverty.

Rabbi Yonatan said:

Rabbi Yonatan is not mentioned elsewhere in the Talmud. It is believed that he was Rabbi Yonatan ben Yosef, a student of Rabbi Akiva. *1

Whoever fulfills the Torah despite poverty will ultimately fulfill it in wealth; but whoever neglects the Torah because of wealth, will ultimately neglect it in poverty.

On first reading, verse 11 is a direct affirmation of the principle of reward and punishment. In other words, in the context of obedience to God’s Word, what you reap you will sow, what you give you will receive. If a person respects and upholds, and makes every effort to live in accord with the will of God, particularly when in trying circumstances and suffering a lack of resources, financial or otherwise, they ultimately will be rewarded. As well as an eternal reward in Olam HaBa, the World to Come, they also can expect material reward and provision of their needs in this present world. As a result, they will be encouraged to continue and further their faithfulness to God in relative comfort and not under physical duress.

On the other hand, if a person chooses to disregard and violate the Word and will of God while they are being blessed with abundance physically and materially, they could well suffer the loss of that provision or the comfort they expect to gain thereby.

When we take a realistic look at life on the planet in general, this principle is not always apparent. The question often is raised, as illustrated in the title of the book by Rabbi Harold Kushner, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. The righteous often suffer and struggle to make ends meet, while many wicked live in luxury and plenty. A point Kushner makes is that thinking that nothing bad will happen because you behave well and are a good person, is like thinking that a bull wont charge you because you are a vegetarian. This thinking also inclines one to condemn others who may suffer misfortune or illness as paying for some sin or being ‘bad’ – G-d forbid.

The issue, rather, is to trust that in His greater wisdom and in the economy of His Kingdom, our Father is working all things together for good for those who love Him. In this understanding, Rabbi Yonatan gives assurance that, in time, the principle will hold true. As Yeshua also taught, “… the one who lays up treasure for himself is not rich toward God. Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!” (Luke 24:21 ff).

In reference to the Torah, as the foundation of the Word of God, it is expressed in Proverbs, “Long life is in her right hand, in her left are riches and honor” (3:16). Again questions can be asked: “What if a good person dies young?” “What about the tzaddik [righteous, holy person] who lives his or her life in poverty and lack of physical comfort?” In response, we again need to consider the verse in the light of eternity. If one is faithful to God’s will no matter the external circumstances, the eternal rewards of life, riches and honor will be gained.

Another aspect to consider is that of the mind and the spirit; the lasting treasures of truth. When we first gain awareness of, and entry to, the Kingdom of God, our knowledge and understanding of Him and His ways are minimal. We need to respond in eagerness to learn and obey and say, as did the Israelites at Mount Sinai, “We will do and we will hear! Our doing of Your will takes precedence over our understanding of it. We trust in Your wisdom as our Creator and we will obey in faith and do the little we know as we continue to hear and learn of Your ways.”

If the opposite occurs, Heaven forbid, and one who has gained much knowledge of God and studied His ways turns away to worldly knowledge and dealings in order to gain greater financial profit and a more luxurious lifestyle, their reward will be an emptiness of soul, bitterness of mind and a hardened heart lacking in compassion. Without the illumination of God’s Word, fueled by His Spirit of holiness and grace, only disillusionment will be reaped.

No matter our outward circumstances, we know that “…the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness hereof” (Psalm 24:1) and “…riches and honor come from Thee” (1 Chronicles 29:12). Thus, when we trust that our lives are in His faithful and loving care, we also can trust that He constantly knows and will provide for our needs. In addition, as we walk in obedience to His will, He will enable us to grow in wisdom and character. In so doing, we will grow in closer and more intimate relationship with Him, which is after all our greatest reward.

 Pause and Reflect

1. What is my own experience of suffering physical linitation and hardship and how has it affected my relationship with God?

2. What is my reaction to the suffering of others? Is there any judgmentalism or can I empathize with compassion?

 

*1 ARN 30:1, referenced in Pirke Avot, by L. Kravitz and K. M. Olitzky; 61

Ethics Now & Then 60 – Avot 4:9-10

Star of David ENT

Avot 4:9-10   Rabbi Yishmael his son said: One who withdraws from
                       judgment removes from himself hatred, robbery, and
                      [responsibility for] unnecessary oath; but one who is too
                     self-confident in handing down legal decisions is a fool, wicked
                     and arrogant of spirit.
                     He used to say: Do not act as a judge alone, for none judges
                     alone except One; and do not say, ‘Accept my view’, for they
                     are permitted to but not you.

Avot 4:9  Rabbi Yishmael his son said: One who withdraws from judgment removes from himself hatred, robbery, and [responsibility for] unnecessary oath…

Rabbi Yishmael son of Rabbi Yossei, is quoted once again. Literally, he is saying that one should keep as far as possible away from the worldly “law” or din – דין. One should avoid litigation and “taking one’s brother to court” at all costs when the legal system is not based on the truth and values of the Scriptures. This principle is clear in G-d’s Law, or Torah, in connection with all one’s dealings with fellow members of the family of G-d. The “letter of the law” is not what overcomes all else. There is a higher level of justice; a higher “law” that should inform our lives; a law of kindness together with truth – that of chesed ve’emet – which is true righteousness.

Righteousness goes beyond the requisites of the law. The righteous person does not insist on his or her rights and demand every last cent that he believes is due him, often at the expense of another. He is willing to forfeit what is his to avoid legal wrangling and controversy. In fact, as we will explore in verse 15 of the following chapter of Avot, the truly righteous will exhibit an attitude that says: “What is yours is yours and what is mine is yours.” This is almost incomprehensible to the modern, materialistic mind but the concept should encourage us to rethink the moral code of the Western system in which the “letter of the law” rules and the traits of kindness and compassion are in general overridden.

…but one who is too self-confident in handing down legal decisions is a fool, wicked and arrogant of spirit.

The cold machinations of the legal system can result in the breakdown of human relations, which eventually can cause much harm in the wider community. One who, even in righteous anger, takes issues to court can be operating in pride and with an ‘arrogance of spirit’, which will further engender any underlying resentment and ill-will among all concerned. Even if the case is won, more will be lost in the light of G-d’s Kingdom and eternity. If a person becomes demanding in the protection of their own rights and possessions, they may become wrong in their demands and may even take what does not actually belong to them and “…in the zealous pursuits of your rights you may take the Name of the Lord your G-d in vain” (Exodus 20:7).

The Hebrew word translated ‘pride’ in this context, literally means one whose ‘heart is oversized.’ The heart is the seat of desires, emotions and personal ambition. Our ambitions and desires must be in balance with reason and commensurate with our abilities. We cannot seek high position at the cost of personal integrity and the human rights of another. Arrogant self-righteousness and misguided entitlement, particularly in the family of G-d, will cause confusion, dire consequences in the community and, worst of all, chillul HaShem, desecration of His Name. 

Star of David ENT

Avot 4:10  He used to say: Do not act as a judge alone, for none judges alone except One; and do not say, ‘Accept my view’, for they are permitted to but not you.

There is one true and righteous Judge over all, who sees and knows all and who says, “Vengeance is mine.” May we, by His grace, avoid the pride of self-righteousness and every attempt to justify ourselves in our own position and power and, as a result, become like the hypocritical Pharisee who was praying in the Temple court along with the tax-collector, as we read in Yeshua’s parable in Luke 18:10-14:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get. But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to Heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The concept of “do not act as judge alone” also applies when judging oneself. One’s perspective can be blurred by one’s own self interest; therefore, one should always be transparent and open to seeking the counsel of others in one’s own personal affairs.

The key character trait underlying these verses is humility. William Berkson offers a pertinent observation, relevant to our modern age: “ Humility has become so unpopular in our time that it is often viewed as a vice. …Self esteem is seen as the core virtue, and lack of it as the source of all evil. [There is ] little or no recognition that some kinds of positive self-regard can be harmful. It has no place for humility.

…The prophet Micah said that all G-d asks of us is to, “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your G-d” (6:8). Humility is a prerequisite to both reverence and compassion. If we are full of ourselves, we cannot experience the awe of G-d, and if we don’t view the other person as worthy, our hearts will not be open to compassion.”*

To conclude on a lighter note: The Judge said to the Dentist, “Pull the tooth, the whole tooth and nothing but the tooth!”

PAUSE and REFLECT

Every person acts as a judge in his or her own life. We constantly need to deliberate issues and make decisions. Often these can involve a difference of opinion with others. If you believe you are correct in your judgment, when would it be right to make a compromise and when not?

 

* William Berkson, Pirkei Avot, 143

~Keren Hannah Pryor

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