The Tenth Man

I remember being four and five years old, walking down the hill with my grandfather on a Saturday morning from our Bronx apartment building to the little shtibl (one-room storefront synagogue) where he prayed regularly with a group of retired men.  Many of them would fuss over me, and I knew there’d be sweet treats (honey cake and grape juice) waiting for me if I could only hold out and not fidget too much until the end of the seemingly interminable service.  It was such a relief when I would hear the sweet strains of Adon Olam and Ein Keloheinu that meant that we were nearly done.

Around the middle of the service, one of the men would solemnly take the Torah out of its ark, raise it up while everyone sang, and then set it down on the podium.  The cloth covering would be removed, the string would be untied, and the Torah would be unrolled to the proper place for reading that week’s portion of the Pentateuch.

What everyone knew is that there’d be no Torah reading unless a minyan, a quorum of ten men, was present.  Being under bar mitzvah age, I didn’t count.  Neither did the few old ladies who would show up and sit behind the mekhitzah (curtain) in the back.  It seemed we always had enough in attendance to do a proper Torah reading.

But that was in New York City, half a century ago.  Today, in northern California, there is no guarantee of a minyan.  In the synagogue that my elderly parents attended for about 20 years (they stopped going about a year ago), whether there would be a minyan or not on Shabbat (or, sad to say, even on a holiday) was a decidedly hit-or-miss affair.  My father, who has a marked antipathy to religion of any type, would chauffeur my mother to synagogue with the intent of heading to the public library for a few hours.  Inevitably, the rabbi’s son would come running out of the sanctuary, tzitzit (prayer fringes) flying, to implore my father to stay and make the tenth man needed for the minyan.

Orthodox Jews tend to take the rule of ten very seriously.  I believe the origin of the tradition is that ten men are considered representative of the community as a whole.  The Jewish jokes about this are legendary.

Of course, it’s not just any ten men who must be present to read from the Torah.  They must be ten Jewish men.  (My personal preference tends toward the modern egalitarian practices of many Conservative congregations, where both women and men count toward the minyan.)  And just what constitutes a Jewish man?  Well, traditionally the answer to this question involves far more than faith and practice.  A man is considered Jewish if his mother was Jewish.  I suppose fathers don’t count because the child develops and comes forth from the womb of the mother.  But what if your mother had a Jewish dad and a non-Jewish mom?  Then you’re not Jewish, at least according to Orthodox tradition.  So determining whether a minyan is or is not present may involve inquiries into the provenance of the tenth man’s grandparents.

I suppose the emphasis on pedigree arises from our heritage as the “children of Israel.”  Either you’re descended from the tribe or you’re not.  This has caused a lot of trouble for those of us who were born into other faiths, or into no faith, and later convert to Judaism.  It seems to me that those who wholeheartedly embrace our traditions should be counted as full members of our religious community.  In some places they do (many Reformed congregations, for instance), while in others, they don’t.  The disputes about converts that go on in some of the Conservative movement synagogues that I’ve attended remind me of the way many Christian churches tear themselves apart over whether to accept gays as full members of the congregation.

I started thinking about this topic earlier in the week when President Trump announced that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and would (eventually) move our embassy there.  My first reaction was “it’s about time.”  But I had to laugh, as Jerusalem has been the capital off Israel for millennia.  Trump deciding that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel is a bit like me declaring that Cheerios is a cereal.  It really doesn’t matter what we think.  Some things are just facts.

I’m sorry to see on the news that violence has broken out in Israel over the United States’ recognition of what has always been true.  Perhaps it is just another excuse to demonstrate ancient animosities among religious groups that are neighbors in the Middle East.  Yet I don’t see such garrulousness as an excuse to perpetuate a lie.  Tel-Aviv has never been the capital of Israel.  I heard a comment on TV that Tel-Aviv is “a lot more fun” than Jerusalem.  Perhaps Tel-Aviv is the industrial and technological hub of Israel, and perhaps its nightlife is better than Jerusalem’s.  But that doesn’t make Tel-Aviv any more the capital of Israel than it makes Portland the capital of Oregon or of Maine.

Hanukkah, the Jewish eight-day festival of lights, begins this week.  Just as recognizing the fact that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel has touched off partisan bickering in the Holy Land, so has it been in our own capital of Washington.  President Trump was in attendance at the annual White House Hanukkah party this week, to which Democrats and others opposing his policies were not invited.  Latkes (traditional fried potato pancakes) were served, of course, along with kosher lamb chops (apparently an annual White House tradition since 1996).  The party was held the day after Trump’s proclamation regarding Jerusalem.  There was an after-party at the Trump International Hotel (more latkes, more Republicans, salmon, caviar), at which the president received even more congratulations.

I had a good smirk when the New York Times article about Trump’s Hanukkah celebrations mentioned that the president’s grandchildren are Jewish.  Oh, really?  Not by Orthodox standards, certainly.  True, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, is Jewish.  But Trump himself is Christian, and his daughter was raised as a Presbyterian.  Although Ivanka has converted to Orthodox Judaism and is far more observant than I, that won’t be enough for many congregations to recognize her kids as genuine members of the clan.

When it comes time to read the Torah, either son of Jared and Ivanka shouldn’t be too surprised if name dropping “my grandpa, the president” isn’t enough to make him the tenth man.  And that sort of clannish, non-inclusiveness seems rather sad to me.

We need to find more reasons to bring us together, not more reasons to drive artificial wedges between us.  I pray at this Hanukkah season that the people of Israel, and those who profess to be Jewish around the world, will find it in their hearts to renounce the evils of divisiveness and embrace the spirit of acceptance and love.



Ninth of Av

Last week was the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av, or the Ninth of Av.  This fast day is arguably a minor religious holiday (compared to the High Holy Days, Passover or Sukkot, for example) and often passes unnoticed by all but the Orthodox.

We have quite a few fast days on the Jewish calendar throughout the year.  Like many Jews, however, the only one that I observe is the granddaddy of them all, Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).  Growing up, however, I attended a very religious Jewish school and was quite observant.  My memories of Tisha B’Av are not the best, which I suppose is fitting, considering the nature of the holiday.  The fast day always fell during summer vacation, so I had to watch for it on the calendar in order to avoid missing the date.  I was aware that it was a day of obligation and that I was expected to fast.  My parents and sisters, however, were nonobservant and had no interest in fasting.  I recall stopping at Dairy Queen with them on a sweltering summer afternoon and then remembering that it was Tisha B’Av and that I was not supposed to indulge.  As I was always obese, my parents didn’t mind a bit that I chose to abstain.  I would stew quietly as I watched them munch their Dilly Bars and ice cream sundaes.

Tragedies, mourning and hope

Tisha B’Av commemorates the date on which both the First and Second Holy Temples, in which we offered daily sacrifices to God as required by the Torah, were each destroyed.  The First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians (under King Nebuchadezzar) in 586 B.C. and the Second Temple by the Romans (under the Emperor Titus) on this date in the year 70 A.D.  Other tragedies befell the Jewish people on the same date in later years, including the expulsion of the Jews from England (by King Edward I in 1290) and from Spain in 1492.  The latter event is known as the Alhambra Decree, signed by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in the very year that their speculative investment bore them vast riches when Columbus discovered the New World.  Interestingly, the Alhambra Decree was not formally revoked until 1968.

As you may imagine, Tisha B’Av is traditionally a day of intense mourning.  The destruction of the Second Temple and the razing of Jerusalem irrevocably changed the face of Jewish life, ushering in the exile (known in Hebrew as the galut) to the Diaspora that continues to this day.  Where we once were unified in the Holy Land given to us by God, our misdeeds resulted in nothing but sorrow and tragedy as we were scattered al arbah kanfot ha’aretz, to the four corners of the earth.  According to Jewish tradition, Moshiakh (the Messiah, Elijah the Prophet) will one day gather the dispersed from even the world’s most remote outposts and return us to Jerusalem where we will rebuild the Holy Temple and once again offer the sacrifices as prescribed by the law.  The Shemonah Esrai (18 prayers) that the observant recite three times daily reiterate our fervent wish for the return of Elijah, as we believe that constant prayers of yearning will hasten the Redemption “speedily in our days.”

Thus, while the theme of Tisha B’Av is certainly one of expressing grief over our losses, it is also tinged with hope for Redemption that we believe may be at hand.  The Torah closet is draped in black and we read verses prophesying doom (from Jeremiah), verses describing catastrophe (from Job) and the entire mournful book of Lamentations.  Yet we balance this with verses from Exodus describing repentance of sin and God’s grant of our request for absolutions.  Finally, we recite 16 verses from Isaiah, beginning with “Seek the Lord when He is found, call Him when He is near.  The wicked shall give up his way, and the man of iniquity his thoughts, and he shall return to the Lord.  Who shall have mercy upon him, and to our God, for He will freely pardon.”  Is. 55:6-7  We know that the pain of what has been taken away from us will not last forever and will, in fact, be replaced by the joy of restoration in due time.

Rituals and culture

On Tisha B’Av, many engage in symbolic gestures that, in the Jewish faith, are associated with mourning the death of a loved one:  Ashes, sitting on low benches and refraining from all signs of joy or luxury (even extending to not wearing leather or jewelry).  Weddings, parties and even haircuts are not scheduled on Tisha B’Av or the weeks leading up to it.  From the days of my youth, I recall much cultural ribbing associated with these proscriptions.  For example, I remember my mother singing a Yiddish folk song that began with the verse “The wedding was held on Tisha B’Av and no one came.”  And then there was the Allan Sherman comedy album song (played on my father’s stereo turntable) about lost love that contained the clever rhyme “Oh why did she have to fall in love/I haven’t seen her since Tisha B’Av.”  Before I was old enough to appreciate the solemnity of the day, I remember thinking that both of these were hysterically funny.  At the risk of being sacrilegious, I now realize that injecting a bit of humor into a black situation is a psychological coping mechanism that helps us get past the gloom that is the order of the day.

The prayers and scriptural readings of Tisha B’Av are actually the culmination of a three-week period of solemnity beginning with another fast day, the 17th of Tammuz.  A number of disastrous events befell the Jewish people on that date as well, including Moses’ breaking of the first set of tablets of the law (upon witnessing the worship of the Golden Calf), the end of the offering of sacrifices in the First Holy Temple (due to running out of sheep during the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem) and the Roman breach of Jerusalem’s protective walls that led up to the burning of the Second Temple.

The three weeks

The 21-day period between the two fast days is supposed to be a deeply introspective time, during which we reflect upon ways in which we can improve the state of the world through deeds of kindness and charity, and through forgiveness.  We all get caught up in our regular routines, spending our time in fulfilling professional and family responsibilities, and it becomes all too easy to overlook the needs of our community that stare us in the face daily.  Turning a blind eye to our homeless, our poor, our children, our elderly and our lonely is part of the reason that we suffered all the losses that we mourn at this season.  Our only hope of hastening the Redemption is to take assertive action to take care of those who most need us.

This three-week period of mourning that just concluded presages another time of introspection coming up at the end of next month.  The asarah y’mai teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance, begin with Rosh Hashannah (Jewish New Year) and end with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  Informally, we refer to this period as the High Holy Days or, in Hebrew, as yomim noro’im (the Days of Awe).  Tradition holds that this is the time of the year that God judges us on our deeds of the past year and decrees our fate for the coming twelve months.  It is a time of prayer and repentance, of recognizing and confessing to our misdeeds and the needs of others that we ignored.  As many of us do on January 1, on the Jewish New Year we make resolutions for self-improvement.  Rather than focusing on personal goals such as weight loss, smoking cessation or increased fiscal prudence, however, our resolutions are other-directed.  We say in the liturgy that we “afflict our souls,” meaning that we search inside ourselves for the strength and motivation to bring our agendas closer to God’s agenda.  We seek to “avert the severe decree” by changing our ways, by being less selfish, by opening our hearts, our homes and our wallets.

Honoring our Father

While the month of Elul (an Aramaic word meaning “search,” as in “to search our hearts”), the final month of the Jewish calendar, is the direct lead-in to the High Holy Days, one could say that the current month, the month of Av, is the true start of our holiday season.  As we do at Halloween, we realize that the holidays are upon us even though we still have a couple of months to go.

The very name of the month of Av is fraught with meaning.  At its most basic level, av simply means “father.”  Many Christians are more familiar with another Hebrew word for “father,” abba, as the phrase “abba father” is found in many modern Christian hymns and sermons.  However, av is the word for “father” most commonly used in the Torah, perhaps most famously in the Fifth Commandment (kibbud av va’em or “honor thy father and thy mother”).

In our secular tradition, we honor dear old Dad on Father’s Day in June.  In the Jewish tradition, however, we have not just one day, but an entire month to express our appreciation to our av!  While, on one level, this underscores the deep reverence and respect for our parents that is an integral part of Jewish culture, the month of Av is equally dedicated to our Heavenly Father.   Av is a great time of year to increase the attention and affection we bestow upon our parents, or to fondly remember them and ponder the many things we learned from them and the many kindnesses they bestowed upon us.  But Jews the world over also find it an appropriate time to improve our relationship with God, to spend more time studying scripture, to spend more of our discretionary income on charity and less on Starbucks, and to spend more of our energy attending to the needs of our children, our elders and our community.

For the fasts of the 17th of Tammuz, Tisha B’Av, and the big one, Yom Kippur, are rendered meaningless unless our ritual practice spurs us on to action that makes our world a better place in which to live.

How to Eat a Grapefruit with a Plastic Fork: A Sukkot Story

This is a story about Sukkot.

If you are not familiar with this weeklong Jewish holiday (often translated into English as Feast of Tabernacles or Feast of Booths), you have a lot of company.  Although Sukkot is a major holiday and one of our shalosh regolim (three festivals), along with Passover and Shavuot (Feast of Weeks), even many Jews are unfamiliar with it.

The holiday has its origins in the Biblical command “on the fifteenth day of this seventh month is the festival of booths, seven days for the Lord.”  Leviticus 23:24

The very sound of the word “booths” makes me laugh.  The image that comes to my mind is that of a toll both on the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey.  Actually, the booths referred to in Leviticus were temporary shelters that were hastily erected using leaves, branches and whatever natural material was at hand while the Jews wandered through the desert for forty years.

Sukkot is a fall festival that occurs at the time of the harvest.  Hence, it is sometimes referred to as the Festival of Ingathering.  It makes one wonder whether makeshift dwellings might have been erected in the fields at the peak of the harvest when it may have been too far for the hands to travel between their homes and the fields daily.

These days, the sukkah or booth is often erected of bamboo poles or 2x4s, with sod, branches and leaves used for a loose covering.  It is traditional to eat all one’s meals in the sukkah for a week, and the Orthodox make it large enough so that they can sleep in it and watch the stars through the spaces in the thatched roof.  Kids love this form of camping out in the backyard.

Aside from the sukkah itself, the other major tradition of this festival is the waving of the lulav and etrog (palm fronds and citron).  As harvest and fertility symbols, they remind us nonfarming city dweller types of the enormous bounty with which we have been blessed by God.

When I lived in areas where synagogues were available, I usually made an effort to go to worship and eat a meal in the sukkah at least once during the holiday.  In the hustle and bustle of our daily lives, however, it is easy to forget about this colorful holiday entirely.  I have been reading online that many assimilated Jews have never even heard of it.  Kind of sad, really.

I recall a rabbi who once related to the congregation in my presence that many Orthodox Jews in Israel decorate their sukkot with strings of colored Christmas lights.  Seems like a bit of an irony there.  Most of the sukkot I have seen in the United States have been decorated with pine cones, fruit and pictures drawn by children.

I am about the most unhandy person you can imagine, and there is exactly zero chance of me ever attempting to construct my own sukkah.  Nevertheless, our living situation this week has unintentionally helped me to feel a connection to the wandering Jews of old.

We are in the process of moving and, with three days left in our current residence, the place is rather empty.  Due to the expense of moving furniture and the fact that we are moving in to my mother-in-law’s fully furnished home, we have sold or donated just about everything.  The TV went a week ago; over the weekend, we sold the living room set, the kitchen set, the washer and the dryer.  All that remains to find homes are the refrigerator and our bed, which will be picked up by their new owners on Wednesday night and Thursday, respectively.

So my wife and I have been sitting in canvas camp chairs in our big empty living room the past few nights.  Instead of television, we have the music we’ve downloaded onto our smart phones.  We moved our folding table into the living room to serve as a staging area for packing (see photo); one edge remains bare so that we can pull up folding chairs and eat.  As for eating, well, we are doing our best to use up all of our refrigerated and frozen food.  We are almost there.  Needless to say, this can result in some rather interesting and humorous meals.  No surprise that a pizza was ordered today.

staging area

Aside from food itself, the question remains as to what to use for utensils with which to eat said food.  The majority of our dishes, pans and flatware have served us for entirely too many years and will not be traveling north with us.  All of our forks and spoons were discarded.

Last night, I awoke at about 2 AM with my stomach rumbling and complaining that the needle was on Empty.  I hadn’t eaten much in the way of dinner.  I hauled myself out of bed, headed for the kitchen and began rummaging among the dribs and drabs of our remaining food.  In the fruit bin, I found the last of our citrus supply, one lonely grapefruit.  But it was a fat, juicy grapefruit.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I cut my grapefruit in half and then scoop out the sections with a spoon.  The problem is you have to have a spoon.  The only utensil available was a plastic fork.  How on earth would I eat a grapefruit with a plastic fork?

Well, I am living proof that it can be done.  By using the plastic tines to prise out as much of the flesh as possible from each section, it then becomes possible to use one’s fingers to grab onto the pulpy parts and pull the remainder of the section of the grapefruit half.  This is a bit of a time-consuming process, particularly if you intend to eat the entire grapefruit.  On a paper plate while seated on a folding chair at two in the morning.

Although I haven’t been able to attend a Sukkot service or sit in a sukkah to eat a meal this year, I believe I’ve gotten a taste of what it’s like to camp out in a temporary dwelling for a few days.  And if I am not able to wave the lulav or look up at the stars through my thatched roof this time, I just have to step outside to watch the palms up and down the street rustling in the breeze and to observe the canopy of stars that dots the sky every night out here in the middle of the desert.


On Seeking Forgiveness in a Mexican Restaurant

Earlier this week, friends of ours drove out from Los Angeles to provide new homes for our big screen TV and our antique china cabinet.  We are moving 641 miles north at the end of this week and “everything must go.”

I thought it was cool when our friends texted my wife a photo of the china cabinet in its new location in their house.  It’s a little easier to say goodbye to an old friend when you have a visual of it settled comfortably into its new digs.

We took our friends to dinner during their overnight visit, which also afforded us an opportunity to say goodbye to our favorite little Mexican restaurant here in town.  Husband, who pastors a church in the South Bay, sat across from me as we tucked into our burritos, tacos and chile rellenos.  Wife began gushing over the delicious Rosh Hashannah dinner that her beloved prepared a few weeks ago, complete with all the traditional dishes and the traditional blessings.  This was a bit awkward, as I’ve been a practicing Jew for more than half a century, and I am not familiar with any traditional Rosh Hashannah dishes other than tizmmes and apples dipped in honey.  I also don’t know of any traditional Rosh Hashannah blessings beyond “l’shannah tovah” and “may you be recorded in the Book of Life.”  The blessing to which she referred had something to do with salvation, she told me.  Salvation?  Hmm, primarily a Christian concept, I responded.  She reminded me of the salvation that occurred when we were freed from slavery at the hands of the Egyptians.  True, I said, although I don’t normally think of the Exodus in terms of “salvation.”

I have never associated the concept of salvation with Rosh Hashannah, but perhaps that is a way of establishing a connection that would make our holiday more relevant to Christians.  To me, the concept of salvation is inextricably entwined with Jesus, who, let’s face it, sought to “save” the people from many of the very things that we Jews hold dear.

What really took me aback, however, was when husband brought up Yom Kippur.  “Did you afflict your soul?” he asked.

Why, yes, I did, I answered.  I suspect his question was asked with sincerity, although (at least to me) it came off as tinged with sarcasm at the time.  I have to assume that, as he is a pastor, he was not attempting to belittle my beliefs.  But if he was trying to make me think, it worked.

This was one of only a handful of times that my rear end was not planted firmly in a seat in synagogue for most of the day on Yom Kippur.  Being our holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur is a time when I generally find my way into shul regardless of where my wanderings take me.  Out here in the desert, however, it’s not so easy.  Two years ago, we trekked to makeshift services in a hotel ballroom 2½ hours away in the Phoenix area.  Last year, we attended Rosh Hashannah services in San Luis Obispo on the central coast and Yom Kippur services in Palm Springs.  With no Jews to speak of in our little desert oasis, our choices consist of either traveling or making do.  This year, there was no way for me to get out of work early enough to travel, eat before the fast and still make Kol Nidre services.  So the “make do” option was the order of the day.

This meant that I sat on the sofa in our living room (our beautiful red sofa, now sold… did I mention that I hate moving?) with my mahzor and, wearing my frayed purple kippa, spending hours chanting the Yom Kippur service.  Just like in shul, I stood for as much of the Shmonah Esrei (silent devotion) as my back and knees would allow.  The remainder of the service I chanted aloud, alternating between the Hebrew and the English, doing my best to correctly pronounce the bits that are in ancient Aramaic.  My wife sat in the chair opposite me as I droned on for hours in a language that means nothing to her.  God bless her for being so patient with me.

My favorite part of the Yom Kippur service has long been the reading of the Biblical book of Jonah, which we do late in the afternoon.  Before we reach that point, however, we recite the vidui, the ancient formula for the confession of sins, over and over during various parts of the service.  Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu (we have been guilty, we have betrayed, we have stolen), and on and on goes the list of our transgressions.  Whether I recite this in the Hebrew or the English, it makes me feel dirty.  Positively filthy with sin.  It’s like a physical thing; I imagine sin covering me with a sticky stink as if I had just stumbled out of a miasmic swamp.

And indeed, I have.  The miasmic swamp is our day-to-day lives in which we are more concerned about ourselves than about others, in which we “do what we have to do” to get ahead, crushing the spirits of those upon whose backs we tread without a thought.  The vidui ends with “we have gone astray, we have led others astray,” as poignant an indictment of our misdeeds as one could imagine.  The fact that we have debased ourselves to every kind of sin should be bad enough.  But let us not forget that every action in which we engage, every word that we speak, consciously or unconsciously influences others.  Someone, sooner or later, is going to follow our example.  Because that’s what we, as human beings, do.

The Avinu Malkeinu (“our father, our king”) is the other prayer that I have trouble with.  This lengthy list of our personal failings goes on for two pages of printed text and never ceases to get me choked up with emotion.  For the sin which we have committed in spurning parents and teachers.  (My parents are about to celebrate their eightieth birthday.  How much longer are they going to be around?  Why don’t I give them more attention?)  For the sin which we have committed in speaking guile.  (I am not known for holding my tongue, or my keyboard for that matter.  When am I going to learn to speak more kindly, to recognize my employees for the little miracles they create every day, to tell my wife how much I love her more often?)  For the sin which we have committed in eating and drinking.  (I can’t even begin to enumerate my sins on this score.  But since Yom Kippur I have (mostly) kept my resolution to eat a more healthy diet, so perhaps there is hope for me yet.)

The final verse of Avinu Malkeinu is sung in unison by the congregation, a moving plea to the Almighty to forgive our human frailities and to give us another chance to be the better people we are capable of being rather than executing the severe decree that we so justly deserve.  I love the tune of this particular hymn, but I can’t get to the end of it without my voice cracking.  I am overcome with emotion every time.

So I think I was telling our friends the truth when I answered that yes, I did afflict my soul on Yom Kippur.  I only wish I had taken time to go into the details of the vidui and the Avinu Malkeinu so that my response didn’t sound so facile.

Yom Kippur may seem like an anachronism to some, but I am one of those who take its message personally.  Which, of course, is what Yom Kippur is all about.  But suffice it to say that it is difficult to explain this adequately in a Mexican restaurant over chile rellenos.  And I can’t begin to fathom how I might translate this message into terms that would be meaningful to a committed Christian.


The Last Day of the Year


In the coming year we will sit on the porch
and watch the flocks of migrating birds
Children on vacation
will be merrily running between the house and the fields
Oh, how wonderful life will be in the coming year!

                                   — Approximate translation of the Hebrew folk song Od Tireh

Today is the last day of the Hebrew month of Elul and hence the last day of the Jewish year.  And just as on December 31, the close of one year and the start of another leaves me in a reflective and introspective state of mind.

Most of us approach the new year with a sense of hope and anticipation.  We like to think of the new year as a clean slate, a fresh opportunity to do better, reach higher, love stronger.  But I recently became aware that, just as many approach the Christmas holidays with a sense of dread and even depression, not everyone enjoys Rosh Hashannah.  For some of us, the apples and the honey, the singing and the shofar and the big holiday se’udot (dinners) just don’t cut it.

One reason for this, I believe, is that if taken seriously, the High Holy Days can be an emotional roller coaster.  Rather than engaging in the riotous merrymaking and drinking of 12/31, on Rosh Hashannah we very somberly admit to our shortcomings, try to figure out where we went wrong and commit ourselves to making changes that will help to make us into the people we really want to be.

Admittedly, this is not exactly fun!  If we are honest, for example, about how we have wasted our time and money, or about some of the awful things we have said and done to those we supposedly love, it can be difficult to look in the mirror.  Everyone wants to think the best of themselves; none of us wants to admit that we’ve done wrong.  Wouldn’t we have a lot better time if we were to play dance music, drink champagne, scream and shout and kiss at midnight?  What is wrong with this type of behavior is that it is geared to help us forget our troubles, not to do something about them.  Inevitably, morning comes and we’ve gained nothing but a hangover.

But why beat ourselves up?  We are not evil people who deliberately set out to do wrong.  Sure, we mess up from time to time.  We’re human.  Can’t we just accept that we’re not perfect?

The answer is that God accepts that we are not perfect.  But since we are made in His image, He also recognizes that we could be much closer to perfection than we are today.  So you’ve made mistakes?  Yes, the Lord forgives, but not so that we can forget about it and then make the same dumb mistakes again.  He forgives so that we can move on, remember where we went wrong before, and do better the next time.  God accepts that we are works in progress, but He does expect us to actually make some progress.  Saying “oh well, I did the best I could” is not acceptable.

So, yes, soul searching is not exactly a source of kicks and giggles. What we are called upon to remember is that God knows all and sees all; nothing can be hidden from Him.  We may as well admit the error of our ways, as they are already known by He who determines our fate.  And indeed, the reason that our holiday season is known as yomim naro’im, The Days of Awe, is that in the Jewish tradition, “on Rosh Hashannah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.”  In between these two holidays are ten days of prayer and repentance.  The “eraser” is still in play; the Lord has pity on us when we are honest about our misdeeds and genuinely commit to turning our lives around.  In the liturgy, we pray that “repentance, prayer and charity avert the severe decree.”  God believes in second (and 128th) chances.  But if we are hard-hearted, aver that we have not done wrong and refuse to change our ways, then we have only ourselves to blame when the fate decreed for us in the new year is grim indeed.

The end of the Biblical book of Deuteronomy that we read at this season riffs heavily on the theme of choices and free will.  God has given us the ability to choose whether to do right or to do wrong.  Whichever path we take, we must accept the consequences.  For we are also choosing whether to bring the blessing or the curse into our lives.  If we close our eyes to the suffering around us, ignore the needy and the lonely in our communities, make excuses for not giving liberally of our time and our money, then we have willingly given up the blessing and have no one to blame but ourselves when our prosperity and security comes crashing down around our ears.

I do understand why the gravity of our holiest of seasons makes some people depressed and causes others to dislike Rosh Hashannah.  Yet if we vow to correct our mistakes and to improve on what we’ve done right, we have nothing to fear.  It is then that we can, as in the Hebrew folksong quoted at the start of this post, bring peace, contentment and happiness into our lives all year long.

Hag sameakh and may you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a sweet and fulfilling year.


Commanded to Be Kind


(Note:  The above saying has been posted on the wall of my office for the past three years.  Some days I need a reminder.)

My wife is one of the kindest people I know.  Kindness is certainly one of the many sterling attributes that attracted me to her in the first place.

Take today, for instance.  On the way to doing one kindness (running to the store to buy snacks for my employees because I texted her that they were out of candy bars), my wife noticed a woman trudging down the sidewalk carrying a bag full of groceries in one hand and a gallon of juice in the other.  The temperature?  113 degrees Fahrenheit.

No, we don’t live in the Sahara or on the planet Mercury, but here in the American desert southwest, it’s just your typical August day.

A few minutes later, on her way back from dropping off the goodies, my wife saw the woman still struggling along.  She stopped and asked if she needed a ride.

“Which way are you going?” the woman asked.

“I’ll take you wherever you need to go,” replied my wife.

The grateful woman hopped in our air conditioned SUV, dragging her groceries with her and explaining that she lived clear at the other end of town.  My wife was incredulous that this poor soul would even attempt to trek that far in the extreme heat, weighed down as she was.

They reached the top of the woman’s street, and she told my wife she could let her off there.  “No,” my wife said, “It’s too hot.  Let me take you all the way to your house.”  Over her objections about what the trip up the road and back would do to our vehicle’s suspension and tires, my wife jounced along the rutted, unpaved path to the woman’s humble abode.

This type of behavior is not at all unusual for my fair bride.  Not too long ago, she learned that a homeless dude who was hanging around by the supermarket needed towels and soap.  You can guess what she did.  That’s just the way she is.  Isn’t she wonderful?

Back in college, I remember reading about different levels of altruism, with the highest being the situation in which neither the donor nor the recipient knows the identity of the other.  Anonymous charity.  Something about that seems cold and sterile.  The subtext seems to be that there is something wrong with taking pleasure from seeing the needs of another satisfied with your own eyes.  Oh, but the recipient of your kindness might be embarrassed.  Um, would it be better for the guy not to be embarrassed and go without towels and soap or the woman not to be embarrassed and lug her food miles in the searing heat?

I like to think of three types of kindness:  Kindness to loved ones, kindness to fill the need of a stranger, and my favorite of all, random acts of kindness.  A few years ago, I read that the phrase “random acts of kindness and senseless beauty” was coined as a foil to the ultimate in ugly, random acts of violence.

Allow me to make a suggestion.  If you are feeling down one day, try committing a random act of kindness to pick up your spirits.  If you are filling your car with gas, also pay for the gas of the stranger who pulls up at the next pump.  If you are getting lunch at a fast food drive-through, pay for the person behind you and then quickly drive off.  It really is quite a kick, I must tell you.  And if you happen to catch the beneficiary’s look of shock and amazement in your rear view mirror, so much the better.

By the way, if you should happen to be tagged as the recipient of a random act of kindness yourself, don’t forget to pay it forward.  If you don’t know what that means, go now, immediately, and download the Kevin Spacey/Helen Hunt (and Haley Joel Osment) movie of that title.

One of my favorite blogs in our WordPress world is The Gratitudenist, on which Julie Richie (wonderful writer that she is) recently waxed poetic about the importance of kindness in a post titled “How to Make the World Better.”   As she points out, it’s not about money.  It’s about making connections, about really listening and paying attention to people, about making others feel that they are not alone in the world, about being a friend.

Julie’s post led me to the commencement speech that George Saunders recently gave at the Syracuse University commencement, soon to be published as a book.  He argues that we tend to be strivers, go-getters and accumulators when we are young, and that we mellow out and become less selfish and more other-centric as we grow older.  Saunders suggests that we simply ratchet the timeline backward a bit, beginning our career of kindness earlier in life since we are just going to graduate to it eventually anyway.  As Julie points out in her blog, kindness is indeed the way to make the world a better place.

The many varieties of kindness available to us struck me hard when I was reading this week’s Torah portion, Parshah Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy 21:10 through 25:19.  This lengthy section is packed so full of kindness, it could easily be the subject of an entire book.  I was amazed to discover that seventy-four of the Torah’s 613 commandments are contained in this one section that is read on the Sabbath this week.

When you really think about it, why shouldn’t God require us to be kind when you consider how kind He is to us every minute of every day?  Note that we aren’t asked to be kind.  Kindness is not a preference or an option.  God commands us to be kind.  The following is just a partial list of the kindnesses that God requires of us in this week’s Torah portion.  The general theme is kindness to those less fortunate than us:  The poor, the employee, even animals.

While some of these “kindness rules” may not seem to be particularly applicable to our busy, modern lives (who keeps slaves or takes prisoners of war anymore?), peeling away the layers of meaning reveals a kernel of pure kindness that is both universal and timeless.

  • Kindness to prisoners of war.  For millennia, savage tribes would treat women as spoils of war, summarily committing rape and other violent atrocities against them.  God recognizes the frailty of human nature and says:  Don’t act like this!  Instead, be kind.  If you really must take a captured woman for your wife, at least give her the decency of 30 days to grieve over the family she has lost, provide her with new clothes, and take her in as a full member of your family, entitled to all the benefits thereof.
  • Kindness to the slave.  If you come across a slave who has run away from his master, do not return him to the cruelty from which he has escaped.  “He shall dwell with thee, in the midst of thee, in the place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best; thou shalt not wrong him.”  Deut. 23:17  If you really must have a slave, be kind!  Provide him or her with all the benefits and comforts that you yourself enjoy.
  • Kindness to the employee.  When you hire employees to harvest your field or your vineyard or orchard, do not refuse them the right to pick a vegetable or fruit and eat it while they are working.  This applies even if your “employee” is a draft animal; do not muzzle the ox to prevent it from grazing while it is doing your work in the field.  Pay your day laborer at the end of the day.  He expects his wages and you have no right to delay them.  Oh, and by the way, treat your employees with the same kindness that you would expect.  “Thou shalt not oppress a hired servant that is poor and needy, whether he be of thy brethren, or of thy strangers that are in thy land within thy gates.”  Deut. 24:14
  • Kindness to the buyer.  When you are the seller, you have superior power in that you know how much items really weigh.  Do not cheat the buyer who does not know any better by using false weights and measures to unjustly enrich yourself.
  • Kindness to the poor.  When you reap a field or harvest the fruit of your trees, do not go over the field or the trees twice.  Any leftovers are for the poor to come and help themselves.  And if you accidentally leave a sheaf in the field, do not go back and retrieve it.  It, too, is for the needy.  Share the wealth!
  • Kindness to the debtor.  If you lend money to one in need, do not extract interest.  It is bad enough that he in financial straits; do not make it worst by making it difficult or impossible for him to pay back his debt.  (This is the sin of usury, without which much of modern business would not be possible.  But then again, kindness never does have much of a place in the world of finance, now does it?)  If you take a poor man’s coat or blanket as collateral, you must return it to him by sundown so he does not fall ill or freeze to death for lack of a proper covering.  If a debtor does not repay his loan and you go to his house to reclaim his security, do not shame him by going into his house and seizing it; instead, wait for him to bring the item out to you.
  • Kindness to (the belongings of) others.  I love this “lost and found” provision!  If you find your neighbor’s garment or any lost thing of his, you must return it if the owner is known or take care of it until the unknown owner comes looking for it.
  • Kindness to animals.  Do not ignore an animal who has wandered off or who is found sick by the side of the road.  “Thou shalt not see thy brother’s ass or his ox fallen down by the way, and hide thyself from them; thou shalt surely help him to lift them up again.”  Deut. 22:4  If an animal has wandered off, you shall return it to its owner.  If you do not know who the owner is, you shall take it home and care for it until the owner comes to claim it.  Respect parenthood, even among animals.  If you must take eggs or baby birds from a nest, chase away the mother bird first.

Although the theme of kindness appears throughout the Old Testament and is continued into the New Testament, I have long been disappointed by Christians (and, alas, many of my fellow Jews) who dismiss the kindness rules of Deuteronomy as no longer being applicable in modern times or as not applying to those who are “under grace” rather than “under the law.”  In my humble opinion, they are missing the boat.

Wishing a good and sweet Sabbath to all!

For more information on this week’s Torah portion, click here.