Is patience always a virtue? Our Torah portion and President’s Day invite us to consider when patience is a sin.
The first laws after Sinai permit slavery. Rich Israelites can enslave poor Israelites. Indeed, poor fathers can sell their own daughters into slavery. Horrible, painful texts, what Bible scholar Phyllis Trible calls “texts of terror.”
How to understand our holy Torah, God’s word, permitting atrocity and evil?
No less an authority than Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks says it’s all about patience. God wants to abolish slavery, but slowly. Incrementally. Patience is called for. In an essay entitled “The Slow End of Slavery,” he writes:
So slavery is to be abolished, but it is a fundamental principle of God’s relationship with us that he does not force us to change faster than we are able to do so of our own free will. So Mishpatim does not abolish slavery but it sets in motion a series of fundamental laws that will lead people, albeit at their own pace, to abolish it of their own accord….
If history tells us anything it is that God has patience…
What does patience look like, what is the price to be paid for patience, and who pays that price? As Alexis Coe writes in her new biography entitled You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington (2020), our first president was a massive slave-owner. He was on record as saying that slavery should be abolished “by slow, sure, & imperceptible degrees.” What that meant in practice was that he never freed a single slave during his life, and he pursued zealously his own slaves that ran away. When he needed money to buy molasses, rum, limes and tamarinds, he sold a slave named Tom to the West Indies knowing that this slave would work hard, eat poorly, receive no medical care, and die young. His own words and letters testify to this. To his credit, at his death, his will did free his 123 slaves upon the death of his wife Martha. (By contrast, Benjamin Franklin freed his slaves while he lived, and he petitioned Congress to abolish slavery.)
Only somebody who is not and has never been a slave can speak of patience here. If you are a slave, patience is no virtue. It is a sin. George Washington’s slaves suffered grievously, and his grounds at Mount Vernon are filled with the unmarked graves of the human beings he enslaved.
But this is not only about Mishpatim and George Washington. This is about us. When do we commit the sin of patience?
When is the better response, the moral response, the response of the Rebbe, the late Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who taught that “Anything worth doing is worth doing now.”
In winning Best Picture at the Academy awards and being the first non-English-speaking film to do so, Parasite made history. When I saw Parasite several months ago, the wisdom of Ernest Hemingway came to mind. You know something is good for you if it feels good not while you are doing it, but if it feels good after you have done it. I found watching Parasite exquisitely uncomfortable. For large stretches of the movie, I was squirming, it was that uncomfortable. And yet, in the months since, more than any film I have seen recently, it has stayed with me.
The film is about economic inequality, the very rich and the very poor, in South Korea, and the simmering resentments that lie just below the surface.
But the film is not only about South Korea. It is about us. Think about the New Hampshire primary this week. So much of the energy is around different responses to economic inequality, to the problem of the persistent and permanent economic underclass–a perennial issue in every election cycle.
About this problem the Torah has something sober to say, something that no politician running in Iowa or New Hampshire would or could ever say: Poverty is insoluble. There will always be a permanent economic underclass. There is no program, no policy, no plan that can change that. There is no sermon, no teaching, no exhortation that can change that. God seems to have a special solicitude for the poor, but that does not stop them from being poor. Economic inequality there always was, economic inequality there always will be.
On Shabbat, we will examine the Torah’s sober wisdom, and then talk about two very different responses: our prophets and our rabbis. Echoes of both voices are heard at every campaign stop in this, and in every, election cycle.
See you tomorrow!
“Do not cast us off as we grow old; When our energy wanes do not desert us.”
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy
How do we approach the season of our life where there is much more in our past than there will be in our future? When we are in those later chapters, is it possible to live with joy, lightness, happiness, purpose, impact? How do we not get weighed down by the heaviness of mortality?
In this week’s Talmud class, we will read our last Elizabeth Strout story, Friend, in which Olive wrestles with how to wrest joy and meaning out of her last chapter:
But it was almost over, after all, her life. It swelled behind her like a sardine fishing net…the billion streaks of emotion she’d had as she’d looked at sunrises, sunsets, the different hands of waitresses who had placed before her cups of coffee— All of it gone, or about to go.
Olive shifted slightly in her seat…(p. 288)
On Shabbat we will do three things:
We will explore the story Friend for any insights it yields on how to think about and live out our own later chapters.
Because it is also Shabbat Shira—a time to think about how Jewish music and song convey our deepest questions and aspirations—Elias will join us to chant the lines of the High Holiday liturgy in which we confront our own mortality. His father passed. His aging mother lives in Buenos Aires. How does he think about these lines as he utters them in our holiest season?
We will explore a companion text from the prophet Zecharia. Zecharia sees our last chapter very differently from the way many of us, and our parents, live ours.
See you on Shabbat!
Is it possible for us to be one nation?
Please read The End of the Civil War Days by Elizabeth Strout. It is (to me anyway) a hilarious and helpful response to the hard problem of civil war, within families and our nation. Surprisingly, while tackling this serious conundrum, the story is at times laugh out loud funny.
On Shabbat morning, we will consider three questions.
What is the story’s wisdom about how to respond to, and end, civil war?
How does this message compare and contrast to the classic Jewish message in the Talmud? Strout’s posture and the Talmud’s posture are very different from one another.
What does this story say to our divided nation now? Would her wisdom work for you?
See you on Shabbat!
PS If you happen to be easily offended, please do not read this story, which features
a dominatrix. The fact that one of the characters is a dominatrix drives the story. There is discussion at a broad level of what a dominatrix does, and it is not typical shul fare. So be forewarned, please do not read this if you might take offense.
Whatever happened to the God that we will read about this coming Shabbat? The God that intervenes in history, smites the Egyptians with plagues, defeats the Pharaoh, liberates the slaves, splits the sea? That God is nowhere to be seen and has not been since the Exodus story itself.
If we take the Exodus story seriously, when we read it in the Torah, and when we experience it at our seder tables, one haunting question is hard to avoid: whatever happened to that God and God’s vaunted strong hand and outstretched arm?
One move, certainly understandable after the Shoah, is that of Rabbi Richard Rubinstein: God is dead. Rabbi Rubinstein’s answer that God (certainly the God of the Exodus story) is dead is a bit brusque but hard to deny. It also doesn’t leave us with much to work with. Are there any other moves that could also be honest and leave us with something to work with as we try to figure out how to live our best lives?
On Shabbat we will encounter something of a dialogue, the theology of somebody we have never before studied, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg. His thinking is a helpful contrast to that of Elizabeth Strout’s gorgeous, luminous story “Light” in Olive, Again. Please read the 21-page story before class.
Where is God in a world without God? See you on Shabbat!
Why a Talmud teaser on Tuesday?
Because this Shabbat I am asking the class to do something I have never asked before: a little homework. I am attaching the short story “Helped,” part of Elizabeth Strout’s new collection of stories in Olive, Again.
A few words about this short story. It is dark. Creepy. And at a certain point, yucky, which is the word Shira used when she read it at my request. The moment of disgust will be obvious when you get there.
And, for all that, the story is poignant and beautiful. It features the one and only Jew in Olive, Again, somebody whose family was largely wiped out in the Shoah. This story speaks about faith and God, what God has not done and cannot do, and what a belief in something larger than us can do.
As you read the story, please think about its title. A lot of religious language is more robust than the title. Religious language often uses words like save, redeem, transform. Help is more humble. And the title is in the form of a past participle, helped. Who or what did the helping, and who or what was helped?
This short story is long on meaning—exactly the kind of meaning we try on a good day to make at Temple Emanuel. Thank you for reading it. Look forward to our conversation on Shabbat morning.
Click here to read “Helped.”
At the end of Genesis, in our portion this week, our ancestors lie through their teeth.
Perhaps surprisingly, our rabbinic sages are okay with their lie. They acknowledge the lie–and then justify it for the sake of peace.
What happens when truth becomes dispensable? When we can set aside truth because doing so advances an agenda that we deem more important than truth?
The end of Genesis does not instruct us to tell the truth. It instructs us to weigh the truth against other values that are upheld when truth itself is denigrated. The Talmud takes this point and deepens it. What matters are not raw facts, but human relationships and feelings. What do we need to say that will preserve peace, make people feel good about themselves, strengthen relationships? Say that—even if it is not true. This is extremely destabilizing, even dangerous. What are the limits of this kind of thinking? Where does it lead?
What do you think about a religious tradition that invites that kind of complexity? Is that wise, or a recipe for a hot mess that never ends?
See you tomorrow at 8:30.
He was one of the most prominent rabbis at one of the largest and most influential congregations in the world. He was lauded and applauded, his advice and counsel sought after by presidents, popes, and the Dalai Lama.
And then, at the height of his career, he had to resign from his congregation. Why?
An affair with a congregant? No.
Embezzled funds? No.
Addicted to drugs or alcohol? No.
Why then? Because he stole a designer necktie from a store in Palm Beach, Florida, and the police discovered four more stolen neckties in his car. He spent the last chapter of his life, twelve years, no longer doing the work he loved to do—over a necktie. What is that?
It’s not just him. It’s us. Why do we shoot ourselves in the foot? Why do we trade everything for nothing? Where does our capacity for enormously stupid self-destruction come from, and what can we do about it?
Shabbat morning we will encounter one story that is well known but suffers for its familiarity (Esau’s trading in his birthright for a pot of stew), and one story that we know about but never study (Samson trading in his God-given strength for Delilah even though he knows she means him ill in Judges 16).
Both men do what this rabbi did: trade everything for nothing.
How do we not do that?
Happy Thanksgiving, and see you on Shabbat!
One of the more enigmatic relationships in the Hebrew Bible is that of Jonathan and David. They are natural antagonists. Jonathan is the son of King Saul, and according to dynastic principle would be king himself. David is the youngest son of a shepherd who becomes king.
Yet for all this natural antagonism, they are famous not for fighting but for love.
The Hebrew Bible uses words of love and intertwined souls to capture their relationship. But when you read the text closely, the nature of their relationship is hard to pin down.
Tomorrow we will do three things.
Read the text in I Samuel and II Samuel closely, and let it speak for itself.
Read a classic rabbinic interpretation—namely, that the relationship of Jonathan and David is a paradigm of unconditional platonic love.
Read the interpretation of a queer scholar who argues that the couple were clearly lovers. Whatever you think of the merits of this view, the reinterpretation of the facts of the story—the stripping of clothes, the shooting of a bow—in homoerotic terms is really interesting.
What if neither the traditional nor queer read takes in the complexity of the story? What do Jonathan and David teach us about us?
See you tomorrow at 8:30.
When you have an important decision to make, whose advice and counsel do you seek out? Whose wisdom do you heed? Whose wisdom do you ignore? How do you know? What are your criteria for figuring out whether to heed or ignore somebody’s counsel?
Tomorrow morning we will see that the entire United Kingdom of Israel split over just this issue. We will explore a chapter of the Bible most have not read, and the actions of a protagonist most have not heard of, to extract a lesson about how being open to wise voices can help us make wise choices.
Your living regret-free sometimes turns on hearing and heeding the wisdom of other people.
See you tomorrow at 8:30.