Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Off the wagon

יום שלישי ז' בכסלו תשס"ז

Last week, I said I was going to take a week to reevaluate the daily Torah elements of this blog and come up with a new plan that better supported my personal goals for learning and growth. . . . I haven't really done that, yet. :)

So, I think I need to give myself permission to take a little more time before getting back "on the wagon." So, I think this will be a second week of relatively light posting. I will be back from an interfaith conference on "Problem Passages" a week from Wednesday. I hope to have a new plan in place by then!


Monday, November 27, 2006

No one dies alone

יום שני ו' בכסלו תשס"ז

It's a tremendous program started at a hospital in Oregon to provide volunteers to sit with dying patients who have no family. And now we're bringing it to our hospital! Tomorrow night I will be one of the teachers in our very first training session for volunteers in our own No One Dies Alone program.

I am so happy to be a part of making this happen. It's such an important program . . . . and my participation really fits in with my vision of how chaplains need to operate in today's hospitals. The fact of the matter is that very few facilities have the financial resources to afford to fund a large department of trained chaplains to work with every patient.

The effective professional chaplain, therefore, needs to function largely as a catalyst to help others to provide spiritual care to patients. That means that the roles for the chaplain need to be: chaplain as educator and chaplain as leader and coordinator. In my work with No One Dies Alone, I am functioning in those kinds of roles and thus acting as a catalyst to provide compassionate and spiritual care for patients who don't have their own resources.

Here is a short excerpt from what the Oregon hospital's web site has to say about No One Dies Alone:

No one is born alone, and in the best of circumstances, no one dies alone. Yet from time to time terminally ill patients come to Sacred Heart Medical Center who have neither family nor close friends to be with them as they near the end of life.

No One Dies Alone is a volunteer program at Sacred Heart that provides the reassuring presence of a volunteer companion to dying patients who would otherwise be alone. With the support of the nursing staff, companions are thus able to help provide patients with that most valuable of human gifts: a dignified death.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

A business?

יום ראשון ה' בכסלו תשס"ז

The lastest issue of "Healing Spirit", a chaplaincy advocacy kind of publication from the Association of Professional Chaplains, includes an article on a program that the US Navy went through to upgrade its chaplaincy services. The article says that a Navy steering council decided
two things -- to establish the best practice for chaplain/patient interaction, charting, and working with providers; and to start thinking with a business mind about the development of standards of practice. [Emph. mine]
Now, I'm a big believer in having really solid policies and procedures (if nothing else, it helps us appear professional in the eyes of the rest of the medical care team and we need that if we're going to be trusted by the team to be full partners in patient care). But, I seriously wonder if we're ultimately undermining ourselves by talking about functioning like a "business".

Isn't one of the things that we're supposed to be (as chaplains) is a living, walking, breathing alternative to viewing _everything_ about patient care as being about a business (and numbers and charts and graphs and everything that goes along with that)? Isn't part of our job to be someone who insists that patients are human beings and not just diagonses and revenue sources. Aren't we supposed to be a walking embodiment of the fact that there are values that we (that is, every human being) holds _higher_ than just numbers and business? Isn't that what we mean when we talk about ourselves as being advocates of "holisitic" care?

Anyway, the plan that the Navy decided to use is the Discipline for Pastoral Care Giving, which is something I've heard of before that was developed by Larry VanderCreek and others. It's some kind of comprehensive spiritual assessment and communication too. I think it's something that the time may have come for me to learn more about.


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A new month

יום רביעי א' בכסלו תשס''ז

Today is the first day of Kislev, only the second Jewish month that his (now nearly one-Jewish-month old) blog has seen. . . . I'm really happy about how its first month has gone. . . . Many plans for the future.

Happy Thanksgiving!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Goodbye, Mr. Altman

יום שלישי ל' בחשון תשס''ז

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Robert Altman, the caustic and irreverent satirist behind
"M-A-S-H," "Nashville" and "The Player" who made a career out of bucking
Hollywood management and story conventions, died at a Los Angeles Hospital, his
Sandcastle 5 Productions Company said Tuesday. He was 81.

I only really learned to appreciate Altman over the last year or so . . . . At one point, I held my own retrospective, watching nearly every movie of his available on Netflix. . . And I just the other day watched his final film, Prairie Home Companion. . . . What a great way to go out. A wonderful flick and so much classically in his style. . . The constantly (but slowly and gently) moving camera. . . The overlapping dialogue. . . that can feel so amazingly natural and rich and real. . . . I especially loved the scenes with Meryl Streep, Lilly Tomlin and Lindsey Lohan playing an aging couple of singing sisters and one of their (teenage angst ridden) daughters. What beautiful women. What great actresses. Such (deceptively seeming) simple material. . . With the sounds of the radio show shifting in and out between being in the background and in the foreground -- the classic Altman technique of an “overlapping” soundtrack.

I’ll miss him. Nashville. Short Cuts. . . . I think those long flicks with the great multitude of characters and story lines were the richest. But MASH and The Player were awesome, too. . . . . Not my favorite director – Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese are probably my top ones – but a true great . . .. And an American original. . . Thanks, Mr. Altman.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Rethinking this thing

יום שני כ''ט בחשון תשס''ז

Wow . . . It amazes me to think it’s less than a month since I started this blog – it’s so quickly become a major part of my life and spiritual practice. . . . The one-month (Jewish months, that is) anniversary of the blog falls on Thanksgiving (the Second of Kislev).. . . So, it’s a good time to look back a bit and think about what works . . and what I might change.

I think I need to back off a bit and give myself a break this week (with Thanksgiving and all) and give myself permission to miss days with posting on Pirkei Avot and the Hebrew date. . . . But I need to come back strong (but different) the week after.

I’m not exactly sure what shape that will take, but here’s what I’m thinking: I’ll keep posting a regular Torah feature every day, but instead of it being a Mishnah from Pirkei Avot every day, I will probably cut back to two or three days a week of posting from Avot. . . . The other days I will use to start some _new_ Torah features . . . Probably focusing on prayers and/or psalms. . . I’m excited!!!!

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The strong, silent type (Avot 1:15)

יום ראשון כ''ח בחשון תשס''ז

שמאי אומר: עשה תורתך קבע; אמור מעט ועשה הרבה והוי מקבל את כל אדם בסבר פנים יפות.

Shammai says, make your Torah study a fixed thing. Say little and do much. And
receive every person with a friendly face.

Jews sometimes describe themselves as more talkative than the people among whom we live and understand this talkativeness as part of our culture.

There may be some truth to this being a cultural value, but, as Shammai’s words instruct us, our tradition also instructs us to be careful in our speech – “say little and do much.”

Albeck says that “say little” actually means something more specific – that we should promise little.

It is important for us to think about what the impact of our words are on others. Are we saying things that they may understand as promises?

Will our deeds meet those understood promises, or will we leave people feeling disappointed?


Thursday, November 16, 2006

Finding a balance (Avot 1:14)

הוא היה אומר, אם אין אני לי, מי לי? וכשאני לעצמי, מה אני? ואם לא עכשיו, אימתי?

He [Hillel] says, if I’m not for me, who is for me? And when I am for myself,
what am I? And if not now, when?
We have come to one of the most famous of all Hillel’s sayings. It would be hard to add to the many words of wisdom that have been written about these sayings. The the first two speak to me as a pair – calling for us to find a balance in our lives between pursuing self-interest and thinking of the interests of others. Judaism always seeks a middle way; neither extreme is considered praiseworthy. This spirit is extended to our laws of tzedukah, which forbid one from giving too much of one’s money to the poor.

The meaning of death, the meaning of comfort (Parshat Haiyei Sarah)

יום שישי כ''ו בחשון תשס''ז
This week’s
parsha brings us to the first time in the Torah that we find a report of mourning – as well as the first report of somebody being comforted in their mourning.

The parsha opens with the death of Sarah – Avraham’s beloved wife and the mother of Yitzhak (Isaac). The Torah says Avraham came to mourn for Sarah and to cry for her (Gen 23:2). The word for mourning here is לספוד/lispod, which comes from the same root as the Hebrew word for eulogy (הספד/hesped).

That is, Avraham came to eulogize his wife and to cry for her. From this. we learn that these are the proper ways in mourning. We should speak of the dead person and lament their loss. And we should cry for them.

Of course, every one has their own individual way of mourning; certainly, no one should feel required to cry. But, the problem is that, in today's society, so many people seem to think that comforting a mourner means helping them to stop crying. I see this so often in my work in the hospital; well-meaning people trying to help a crying mourner to stop crying. The Torah tells us this is a mistake. It is entirely proper to cry and to speak of the dead person. As a chaplain who works with families in the wake of death, I understand my job as very much helping the family member -- if, and only if, they are ready -- to speak of their loved one. In chaplain-speak this is called "eliciting story." It provides true healing for people.

The following lines in the Torah also have a great lesson for us regarding how to deal with death. The Hezkoni sets the stage for it in his comment on the verse I already cited. Why did Avraham cry for Sarah, asks the Hezkoni? He answers:

לפי שלא היה לו מקון מוכן לקבורה

Since he did not have a place prepared to bury her.

Burial of the dead is extremely important in the Jewish tradition. It is no accident that the account of the very first purchase of Land in the Torah -- a detailed account in the lines that follow -- involves obtaining a place to bury a beloved family member. A full 17 verses -- the remainder of the chapter -- are devoted to a loving recording of this Holy act, the acquiring of a burial place for Sarah.

In this day and age, an increasing number of people -- especially those who are not associated with any house of worship -- are skipping burial in favor of cremation, and are even skipping the establishment of any permanent place of burial for their loved ones. Ashes are just being scattered to the wind.

This is not the Jewish way. This is not the way to show love and honor to a loved one.

There are many wonderful ways of memorializing a loved one, including the purchase of a proper burial site and the giving of tzedukah in the deceased's name.

Yitzhak chooses another beautiful -- and more subtle way -- of honoring his mother. The Torah reports that upon marrying his wife Rivka (Rebecca), Yitzkah was comforted; this is the first time in the Torah that a mourner receives comfort:

ויינחם יצחק אחרי אמו

And Yitzhak was comforted after his mother. (Gen. 24:67).

The Hezkoni asks, what does "after his mother" mean? And he answers:

אחרי שהיתה דומה לאמו במעשים

After that she was similar to his mother in deeds.

So, often I have seen people in a situation similar to the one Yitzhak found himself in -- to find the joy of one's marriage, or of the birth of one's first child, happening around the same time of the loss of one's parent. My own beloved father passed away only shortly before my sister gave birth to her first child.

There is no replacing a parent. Certainly, one should not marry someone exactly like one's mother. But it is a beautiful thing to be able to find someone who matches a beloved parent in the kind of good deeds that he or she performs. This upholding, and continuing, of the deeds of a loved one is a true memorial -- a living memorial -- to them.

May the memories of your loved ones who have passed be a blessing to you. And may you see their good deeds performed all around you.


One element of the Jewish calendar is the weekly Torah reading, or parsha. This coming Shabbat's reading is Haiyei Sarah, Gen 23:1-25:18. The parsha brings us towards the end of the first two generations of the Jewish people and sets the stage for the beginning of the story of Yaakov -- the man who would give the people Israel their name -- in next week's parsha. Our parsha begins with the death of Sarah, the first of the first generation to die, and ends with the death of Ishmael, the first of the second generation to die. It also includes the first purchase of land in the Torah (Avraham's buying a burial site for his wife Sarah), as well as the story of the quest of Avraham's servant to find a wife for his master's son Yitzhak.

The centrality of Torah (Avot 1:13)

הוא היה אומר, נגד שמא אבד שמא, דילא מוסיף יסוף, ודילא יליף קטלא חייב, ודישתמש בתגא חלף.

He [Hillel] says, the one who aggrandizes his name, loses his name. The one who does not add [to his Torah] brings its end. The one who does not learn earns death. And the one who does not make use of the Crown [of Torah] shall whither away.

These words may very well strike you as quite harsh next to those (also of Hillel) in yesterday's Mishnah. But what they most certainly share is a sense of the centrality of Torah. This is the legacy passed on to us by this great Sage, one first true greats of the rabbinic era.
Notably, this is the second in a row of three sets of sayings by Hillel; all the previous Sages in Avot have been assigned only one set. Also of note is that this Mishnah is in Aramaic, not Hebrew; Hillel is understood to have originally been from Babylonia.

Peace amid the chaos -- the legacy of Hillel (Avot 1:12)

הלל ושמאי קיבלו מהם. הלל אומר, הוי כתלמידיו של אהרון--אוהב שלום ורודף שלום, אוהב את הברייות ומקרבן לתורה.

Hillel and Shammai received it [the Torah] from them. Hillel says, may you be like the students of Aharon: love peace and pursue peace; love all living creatures and bring them close to Torah.
In my commentary to our last Mishnah, I proposed that the central defining concept in Judaism is Galut, or Exile. On some days, I would give you another answer if you asked me what that central defining concept in Judaism is. I might say it's the subject raised by today's Mishnah -- Shalom (שלום), usually translated as peace, but also having meanings of wholeness.

Not suprisingly, two of the very most central prayers in Judaism -- the
Amidah and the Kaddish -- conclude with calls for peace; I also conclude every spontaneous (freeform) prayer I offer in my hospital work with a call for peace (for the ill person, for his or her family and for all people).

It is almost a breath of fresh air to be reading the words of Hillel after the darker words of the last two Mishnahs, with their expressed fears of government oppression and of being exiled.

Hillel, too, may have lived in dark times -- likely around the same time as the great upheavels for the Jewish people in which the Christians' Jesus lived. But it is not darkness this great rabbinic sage passed on to us -- it is statements about peace and love and Torah. It is he who helped create a Judaism that could withstand Exile, a Judaism of peace and love.

May your day be one of peace and love and Torah.

The other side of exile (Avot 1:11)

אבטליון אומר, חכמים, היזהרו בדבריכם--שמא תחובו חובת גלות, ותגלו למקום המים הרעים, וישתו התלמידים הבאים אחריכם וימותו, ונמצא שם שמיים מתחלל.

Avtalion says, Sages, be careful in your words: For you may you earn for yourself the punishment of Exile and be banished to a place of Evil Waters. And the students that come after will drink from them and die. And in this way the Name of the Heavens will be defiled.

As in our last Mishna, today we see signs of a dark cloud falling over the Jewish people; this is the first mention of Exile -- גלות/galut, in Hebrew (and sometimes pronounced "golus") -- that we have seen in Pirkei Avot.

Since the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE, Exile -- Galut -- has been a part of the fabric of the life of the Jewish people. Historians tells us that even after the Second Temple was built, large Jewish communities remained scattered throughout the ancient world. And -- to the dismay of the most committed Zionists -- even now that the State of Israel has stood for over 50 years, large Jewish communities remain outside of Israel and show no sign of a mass return to the native land of the Jewish people.

At first glance, Galut looks like a curse. Who would want to be expelled from their home and have to wander the Earth and live among strangers?

Yet, it may be an acceptance of Galut that is the central genius of the Jewish religious tradition – a genius that has allowed the Jewish people to survive through the millennium while countless other peoples, and empires, have arisen and fallen. This relationship with Exile may also be the central genius that has allowed Judaism to inspire the birth of the two other great monotheistic faiths.

This is all because Galut is not just a physical condition that is specific to the (painful) historical experience of the Jewish people. It is also a spiritual condition that is universal to all human beings.

Every one of us is in Exile from something, even if it is simply from the comfortable and secure feeling of drinking from our mothers' breasts as infants. We will never return to that pure, innocent and unknowing state, and we live every day with that knowledge. Like Adam and Eve having eaten of the Tree in Gan Eden, we – unlike all other living things -- live with knowledge that one day we will die. We know shame. We have the capacity to know the difference between good and evil. We live with the burden of the responsibility that means. We are in Galut from the bliss of innocence.

In a more explicitly spiritual sense, we all live in the pain of being in Exile from God. It is from the perfection and glory of God from which we all sprung. We were created in God's image. But we do not live in the Heavens. We are not angels. We live in this world with all of its imperfections. When the spiritual side of our characters is awakened -- as it can be by the death of a loved one or by a moment of profound epiphany -- we become aware of this Exile. We thirst for a return to God, for a connection with the Ultimate, the Eternal and the Truly Perfect. This is something truly universal among all people.

The genius of Judaism has been that it teaches us a way of living in Exile. I think the central image in Judaism may be that of Moshe (Moses) standing on the border of the Promised Land. Moshe -- and the Midrash reports this at great length -- pleads with God. Pleads again and again. Begs. But his plea is denied. He will never know an end to his Galut. He will never enter the Promised Land.

This, by the way, is the image in which the Torah -- the first five books of the bible that are in the scrolls we read from each Shabbat -- concludes. It did not have to be this way. There could have been six books of Torah. The Torah could have included the next book -- the triumphant Book of Joshua, where Israel enters and conquers the Land. But, that is not where the Torah ends; it ends with Moshe standing on the edge of the Promised Land.

However, Moshe -- even in all his pleading and begging -- never shows any sign of true despair. He never shows any sign of losing his love for God. He never shows any sign of regret. Ultimately, he accepts the judgment that is put upon him -- the judgment that his life will be one lived in Galut.

This is the judgment -- even for those of us fortunate enough to be able to live our lives in the Land of Israel -- that is upon all of us: the judgment of a life in Exile. Judaism teaches us how to do live a life in this state of Galut. It teaches us how to make every moment and every place Holy. It teaches us the proper way to live and to relate to one another. It teaches us how to go on even in the face of pain and isolation. It teaches us that we should never lose hope -- that we should live every day in the expectation that tomorrow will be the day that the Messiah will come and God's Kingdom will be restored to us on earth and that, in the words of the Aleinu prayer that concludes every prayer service, everyone will know that God is One.

But, Judaism also teaches us how to live in every day that the Messiah does not come. We do not live these days in despair. We live in the comfort of each other and of God. The Torah accompanies us on our journey. And, in the words of the first psalm:

אשרי האיש אשר. . . בתורת ה' חפזו ובתורתו הגה יומם ולילה

Happy is the man . . . whose delight is in HaShem's Torah, and who utters His Torah day and night.

May your day indeed be one filled with the Joy of Torah. May you accept your Exile and yet yearn for its end in every moment.

Telling the story (Avot 1:10)

שמעיה ואבטליון קיבלו מהם. שמעיה אומר, אהוב את המלאכה, ושנוא את הרבנות; ואל תתוודע לרשות.

Shemayah and Avtalion received it (the Torah) from them. Shemayah says, love work, hate domination and don't reveal yourself to the authorities.

You can almost feel a black cloud falling upon the Jews in today's Mishnah. The previous Mishnas so far in Avot had mostly dealt with general advice about how to live a life of wisdom and about how to properly judge others in a court of law. Today, we see a concern about protecting yourself from the government.

Jews down through the ages have been at the mercy of the people among whom they have lived. We in American live in what is in many ways a Golden Age for the Jews; we fear the government no more than any other inhabitent of these lands.

But, we are still called to be a "light unto the nations". We must not forget the oppression of the past and we must not stop telling others the story of it. It is only in this way -- through the telling of story and the consciousness-raising that engenders -- that new oppressions, of Jews and of others, can be prevented.

Falling down on the job

[יום רביעי כ''ד בחשון תשס''ז]

יום חמישי כ''ה בחשון

I really fell behind on my regular blog entries -- especially the Hebrew date and Pirkei Avot -- over the last couple of days. . . . That's not such a bad thing (and I'll catch up, today), but I was really hoping I would get to the point where I could feel confident about adding a couple of new features -- especially what I call "prayer toolbox" features. . . . But we'll see.

Anyway, my goals for this blog today are to catch up on pirkei avot and to write a devar on the Torah reading.

It's pouring right now where I am; hope it's dry where you are!

Monday, November 13, 2006

Core texts (having a favorite artist)

One of the best assignments of my final year in Rabbinical School was to come up with a presentation on my "core spiritual texts". That is, the texts that you return to time and time again in your life for meaning, when you're in pain or trouble or in a crisis of doubt.

What was liberating in the assignment was that we were _not_ required to use traditional Jewish texts. We weren't even required to use books.

While I started out my presentation with Heschel, the heart of it was me showing some clips from the final scenes of three movies that have great power for me. Other students played music or read poems that had meaning for them.

I realized today that I have been missing a "core text" in my life, musically, for the last couple of years. . . or, more specifically, I have been missing having a favorite musical artist . . . whose work I return to again and again. . . for comfort . . . for inspiration . . . for joy . . . to help me get centered.

Music has always been an important part of my life and identity, and phases of my life can be marked by who was my favorite artist at the time. But I really haven't had a favorite artist these past couple of years. . . . So, recently (unconsciously, that is), I have been spending some time reviewing some of my favorite artists of old -- especially the jazz-rock greats Steely Dan and Traffic. . . . I don't know what's coming next, but I miss being in love with an artist's work (as I was with the music of Juliana Hatfield for so long; I still like her stuff, but it just doesn't play that central place in my life anymore).

By the way, the full text of the written parts of my Rabbinical School presentation can be found here (apologies for the messed up formatting, but all the important text is readable). It includes the text of the final scenes from the three movies I mentioned . . . . (Which were Crimes and Misdemeanors, Terminator 2 and Fargo . . . . I think I also showed the opening credits for Working Girl.)


יום שלישי כ''ג בחשון תשס''ז

Yep. I went and saw the controversial mockumentary comedy film , tonight. . . . I didn't like it as much as I had expected (the _practical joke_ kind of humor that is the film is based in is a genre I often find more cruel than funny) . . . . But Sacha Baron Cohen clearly is a great comic talent. . . . And this flick has the most amazing lampooning of anti-Semiticism I have ever seen. I know some people have been offended by it, but the Jew in me felt empowered -- Cohen just brutally exposes how absurd anti-Semetic ideas and images really are.

One thing I noticed -- that I do not recall seeing mentioned in the reviews that I had read -- is that Borat speaks in Hebrew (and Yiddish?) words and phrases for a substantial part of the film. I had been under the impression that the foreign phrases he uses were gibberish, but apparently many of them are Polish in addition to the Hebrew ones. . . . It's part of the brilliance of the thing that Cohen is pretending to be an anti-Semite, while at the same time speaking Jewish language.

Grey Day

יום שני כ''ב בחשוו תשס''ז

I was on-call last night here at the hospital and only got around three hours sleep. . . Not much energy left for blogging. :) . . . But, it's ok. I've been on a bit of a 'tear' lately in this blog. . . So I'm taking something of a break, today.

The value of truth (Avot 1:9)

שמעון בן שטח אומר, הוי מרבה לחקור את העדים; והוי זהיר בדבריך, שמא מתוכן ילמדו לשקר.

Shimon ben Shetah says, may you diligently examine the witnesses. And may you be cautious in your words lest from them they learn to lie.

As with yesterday's Mishnah
, the advice of this Mishnah seems to be addressed to court judges in particular.

It is an unusual Mishnah in that Shimon ben Shetah only offers two sayings; all of our previous Mishnahs have had three.

The Mishnah is very concerned with the issue of lying. For the Rabbis, truthful testimony was the basis for their entire legal system.

Unfortunately, in our modern culture lying is so often treated like a fun part of a game. In particular, reality TV game shows -- starting with Survivor and moving way beyond it -- seem to put a premium on people's ability to lie and to deceived others. They glorify it. It is a terrible message to be sending to our young people.

May your day take you into contact with only people who endeavor to tell the truth.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Keeping an open mind and heart (Avot 1:8)

יהודה בן טבאי ושמעון בן שטח קיבלו מהם. יהודה בן טבאי אומר, אל תעש עצמך כעורכי הדיינים. וכשיהיו בעלי הדין עומדין לפניך, יהיו בעיניך כרשעים; וכשנפטרים מלפניך, יהיו בעיניך כזכאים, שקיבלו עליהן את הדין.

Yehuda ben Tabai and Shimon ben Shetah received it [the Torah] from them. Yehuda ben Tabai says, do not make yourself like the lawyers. And when the litigants stand before you, let them be like the guilty in your eyes. And when they leave [the court] -- having accepted the judgment upon themselves -- let the litigants be like the innocent in your eyes.

Today's Mishnah makes more clear something that has been true of nearly every Mishnah we have seen so far -- their intended audience (the ones to which all the advice is directed) -- is/are judges of courts. That is, it is directed to other Rabbis (who,
as I have already pointed out, were judges in addition to being teachers).

But the basic lessons -- and wisdom -- of these Mishnahs apply whatever our profession may be. Yehudah ben Tabai is instructing us about how we should deal with a people bringing disputes before us. This is a situation we all commonly face. We could even understand the recent elections this way -- two sides (or candidates) came before us asking us to judge between them and choose one of their positions as the right one.

Thus, Yehuda ben Tabai instructs us that we should not act as lawyers. That is, we should not act as advocates for either side when we are judging between the two. In an election then, we are instructed to keep our minds open. To listen to both sides. To not enter in the campaign with our mind made up to advocate for either side.

Yehuda ben Tabai also instructs us to view the litigants as both being guilty. The commentators understand this as meaning that you should carefully examine -- and evaluate -- their positions as if they were guilty. So, in an election, you should carefully examine the positions of the candidates.

Finally, Yehuda ben Tabai instructs us that we should view the litigants as innocent when they leave the court. The commentators understand this as meaning we should view the litigants -- whether the winner or the loser -- as righteous and proper individuals when the leave the court. So, in an election, we are instructed to not view the losing party as "bums" or anything like that. We should treat them with the respect that any person is due.

Whether your side won or lost in the recent elections, I hope you will find respect from the other side. And that you should be able to give the same to them.

Reinventing the wheel -- the power of story

Right before Shabbat on Friday, I put up a post where I mentioned an excellent lecture I attended on Friday.

The lecturer there wonderfully expressed something that has been of a burning concern for me for some time now. He was talking about the issue of spirituality in medicine and about the explosion in recent years of writings and conversation about it. He noted that almost all of this writing and conversation has been by medical personnel -- doctors and nurses -- and _not_ by chaplains. Further, in making their definitions of spirituality, these doctors and nurses almost _never_ cite the works of theologians. Rather, they make up their definitions simply out of their own experience or by citing the works of other doctors writing about spirituality.

"We need to be intentional about being part of this conversation if we want to be part of it," the lecturer said.

I couldn't agree more. We, in the Clinical Pastoral Education movement, in particular, are not doing enough to let people know about the work we are doing. I believe that it is we who are the great experts on Spirituality in Healthcare and on how to bring Spiritual Care to people (and, especially, in how to
train people to properly bring Spiritual Care). But, it seems to me that -- in fact -- we are only rarely seen that way by people outside our discipline. . . . . And, ultimately, I think this is our fault. We are not getting the word out about what we know and have learned. . . . Especially about the (excellent) training techniques we have devised to help people develop the ability to be present for a suffering person. . . . Especially about the training techniques we have developed to help people develop excellent listening skills and the ability to use those to help patients to tell their stories and to thus both feel heard and find profound healing. . . . And so, others are reinventing the proverbial wheel that we could have instead been helping them with.

I first wrote about this in a posting I put on the National Assocation of Jewish Chaplains mailing list in June.
I was at a conference in New York on Illness and Loss that was put on by the Shira Ruskay Center (among other Jewish organizations). The keynote speaker, a physician by the name of Joan Borysenko, gave a presentation on "Spirituality and Healing". At the end, she gave a plug for a Spiritual Direction program she is helping set up . A key question in trying to formulate that program, she said, is trying to find out if there are ways you can "teach presence."

I felt like jumping out of my chair and shouting: "Teaching people how to be _present_ for ill people? That's what we've been doing in CPE for decades!!! Of course, you can teach presence!"

I did not, in fact, jump out of my chair. But I went up and spoke to her afterward, and asked her, What about Clinical Pastoral Education? Do you think we in CPE are not succeeding in teaching people how to develop the ability to be present?"

Her response: "Clinical Pastoral Education? What's that?"


I thought again about some of these issues last Tuesday when I was at the Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg for a "CPE Day" that was being held there.
I participated in a round table discussion led by Leonard Hummel, the associate professor in Pastoral Theology and Pastoral Care at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, PA. I learned there for the first time about Dr. Rita Charon and the Narrative Medicine program she has developed at Columbia University (check out this NPR report for a great intro to this).

The keystone of her approach is to ask medical students to keep "Parallel Charts" on their patients. These are in addition to the normal medical chart that is normally kept on each hospital patient. In the parallel chart, the students write a "narrative" describing their experiences with the patients and their understanding of the story the patient tells them. By writing reflectively there, Charon writes in one
article , the physician learns to "more accurately understand what their patients go through and also what they themselves endure in the care of the sick."

Sound familiar? If you have had any experience in CPE it should. It sounds like the whole process of verbatim writing and presentation that we developed nearly 100 years ago now.

In the same article, Charon also writes:

What narrative medicine offers that the others may not be in a position to offer is a disciplined and deep set of conceptual frameworks -- mostly from literary studies, and especially from narratology -- that give us theoretical means to understand whyhow
acts of doctoring are not unlike acts of reading, interpreting, and writing and such things as reading fiction and writing ordinary narrative prose about our patients help to make us better doctors.
Wow, studying a patient's story with the same tools you would study a text. If that doesn't sound like the Anton Boisen's "living human document" I don't know what does! [Boisen was the founder of CPE. He introduced the concept of viewing each patient as a 'living human document,' who could be respected, valued and learned from. Essentially, he asked that the chaplain view each person as a source of the Holy and the source of learning, just as we might view a biblical verse as a source of the Holy and a source of wisdom. This concept of a living human document sits at the core of Clinical Pastoral Education.]

At the seminary in Gettysburg, Professor
Hummel talked about a "five minute protocol" for doctors to interview patients about their lives and that this commitment of such a short period of time had yielded great gains for patients. . . . Looking at my notes, I can't recall whether that protocol is Charon's or if it is in a book I'm excited about seeing (we ordered it at the hospital). It's called Spiritual Transformation and Healing: Anthropological, Theological, Neuroscientific, and Clinical Perspectives. Professor Hummel co-wrote a chapter in there.

Here is part of what the publisher's blurb says about it:

Joan D. Koss-Chioino and Philip Hefner's new volume is unique in exploring the meaning of spiritual transformation and healing with new research from a scientific perspective. An intedisciplinary group of contributors-anthropological, psychological, medical, theological, and biological scientists-investigate the role of religious communities and healing practitioners, with spiritual transformation as their medium of healing. Individual authors evaluate the meaning of spiritual transformations and the consequences for those who experience it . . . .


In reading about Narrative Medicine, I was reminded also of a great lecture I heard at the hospital here late last month by Dr. Ira Byock, an expert on Palliative Care who heads up the palliative care program at the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. Residents and other doctors at the hospital were extremely interested in talking with him at a small group session after the lecture. One doctor described to him a case about a young woman with a serious cancer who was very concerned about trying to maintain her physical appearance.

After the doctor described the case along with an extensive description of the patient's symptoms and the treatments offered, Byock responded, "you haven't told me very much about her as a person." He added that her suffering was likely not only from the afflicted body parts, but was from something broader.

He also talked about the importance of someone listening to the patient and hearing her story. He said that the problem that blocks this process is that patients are visited by members of the medical care team who "make people uncomfortable because they have their own
agenda . . . and checklists that can block the forming of relationship. . . It is ultimately about being fully present."

All I can say is, "Amen, brother." This is what I believe CPE has always been about. About advocating for the medical care team to treat a patient as a
person. About learning how to put our agendas aside when we enter a room so we can be fully present and open to forming a relationship with the patient. These are very hard things to learn how to do. We spend a great deal of time and energy in CPE helping people to build these important skills.

The questions is, as one of the doctors asked Byock at the session, why have
doctors become the ones who are in charge of this? Why are doctors becoming the experts on spirituality with patients, and with issues relating to how patients can best deal with their own deaths? Haven't people had cultural ways of dealing with this through the ages? Why are doctors getting so involved in this now?


Of course, I have to admit that I very much like the work of some of these doctors! One book I bought not long ago that I really liked was Communication Skills That Heal: A Practical Approach to a New Professionalism in Medicine
by Dr. Barry Bub. He makes a very compelling case that a commitment of only five minutes or so by a physician to learn about a patient can make a world of difference.

What I especially like about Bub is how seriously he takes the issue of listening. Most people think listening is the easiest thing you could do -- you just sit there and listen!

But, as Bub points out, psychotherapists and chaplains go through extensive training to develop their listening skills. This is for a reason. Listening well is actually quite difficult. But, it can also be learned.

Bub -- and I really admire him for this -- went and got himself training both in the therapy field and in the chaplaincy field. I believe he did a unit of CPE at the
Healthcare Chaplaincy in New York.

Another doctor who has written on these issues (and done quite well selling her books!) is
Rachel Remen. Besides spending a few minutes with one of her books in a bookstore once, I haven't had a chance to read her stuff. But, she writes in the form of stories -- very short narratives -- in her Kitchen Table Wisdom -- Stories that Heal.


I've only started to think about these issues. I'm not sure where it's leading me. . . . . But it seems important!! :)

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The parapet

A good friend told me that my posting on dangers of Tylenol didn't seem to fit in with what this blog is all about.

That, of course, raises the important question of just what this blog is about. When I started it , I said that I expected the exact shape of it to arise as a work in progress as it went on. Clearly, Torah (along with chaplaincy and chaplaincy education) has become a central concern of the blog as it has developed over (just the) last few weeks. That reminds me of what one of my teachers in rabbinical school , Rabbi Ed Feinstein, taught us: everything that comes out of your mouth [or into a blog!!] as a rabbi is rabbinic speech. And you thus need to judge everything you say to others by the standards of rabbinic speech.

What then is rabbinic speech? Well, one of Rabbi Feinstein's requirements is that it "has a text." Specifically, a Holy text from the Jewish tradition.

Now, I have to admit that hardly everything that comes out of my mouth has a holy text in it!! . . . But Rabbi's Feintein's point has much validity. I probably need to consider everything I post on this blog to be rabbinic speech. And that, therefore, everything should have a text -- or some other kind of Torah -- associated with it.

So, I think my friend was very right. The Tylenol posting didn't fit on this blog. Not that the subject didn't fit -- in the spirit of אף עד כאן , I would say that a concern about something that causes people hurt and pain (a concern raised by my Tylenol post, for example) certainly is Torah and belongs on this blog. But there needs to be something that marks it more specifically as Torah.

So, the most obvious text that fits with my concern about Tylenol is definitely the parapet (Deut. 22:8):

כִּי תִבְנֶה בַּיִת חָדָשׁ, וְעָשִׂיתָ מַעֲקֶה לְגַגֶּךָ; וְלֹא-תָשִׂים דָּמִים בְּבֵיתֶךָ, כִּי-יִפֹּל הַנֹּפֵל מִמֶּנּוּ.

When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof. So that you will not bring down blood upon your house when someone fell from it.
A parapet is a low wall that would keep someone from falling from the roof.

I need to take a little aside here to say something about the nature of Judaism . . . and why I love it so much. And how it is truly fundamentally different than (our sibling faith) Christianity. . . . . because this very text is just the kind of text that Christianty turned its back on (when it made it's New Testament, or new covenant/ברית with God) . . . and it's just the kind of text that makes me love my faith tradition so much. . . It's just the kind of text that is in the spirit of the words of Rabbi Akiva's students -- even this far? Even this far, our master? Does Torah -- and its daily and sometimes mundane laws and commandments -- extend even this far?

The answer, both I and Akiva say, is "yes". Yes, even this far . Torah goes everywhere. Even into how you build your roof. We Jews have kept the law. We are proud to remain a faith of law and not one that is belief and love-centered like Christianity is. Like (our other sibling faith) Islam, we value law and obedience as well. Proudly.

The parapet verse comes from one of the weekly Torah readings -- parshat Ki Teitzei (Deut. 21:10-25:19). While Christians seem to hold that the 10 Commandments is the main lawgiving in the bible, we Jews stick with the much more detailed lawgivings of this parsha and the one other great lawgiving in the Torah -- and the one that comes _after_ the 10 Commandments -- parshat Mishpatim (Ex. 21:1-24:18).

These two parshas contain laws on some of the most mundane things, especially about business dealings. Chapter 22 -- in which our verse is found -- starts out with the seemingly mundane commands to return to your fellow things that they have lost and even to go out of your way to go after their livestock should you see them wandering away.

American law -- with its obsession with individual rights -- almost never requires one to go out of one's way to prevent another's economic loss; if you see someone's barn burning down, you have zero obligation under American law to even call the fire department.

We Americans, however, do seem to be slowly, yet surely, starting to see the wisdom of an obligation to go out of one's way to prevent another's physical injury as Jewish law has since the time of our verse about the parapet. Our ancestors knew that we had to be required to do things to prevent physical injury -- the spilling of blood -- of others. Thus, the requirement to build the parapet.

We in America, however, don't seem to have fully understood this ancient wisdom. We are still -- again with our obsession with individual rights -- reluctant to legally require anything of anybody. We prefer to use the threat of lawsuits to encourage people to take steps to prevent physical injury on their property. It's an ugly and expensive system that fails to distribute justice equally. Some injured people receive nothing to compensate them, while others receive windfall amounts. Some property owners are influenced by this to create adequate safety conditions on their property. Others do nothing. Nobody wins.

One of those property owners who do not seem to see the wisdom of the ancients are the manufacturers of Tylenol. They have a drug that needs a parapet. It's not that Tylenol should be taken off the market -- anymore than people should be banned from building roofs. It's that it's too easy with Tylenol for someone to slip off and accidentally injure -- or kill -- themselves. The articles I cited show that between 20 and 25% of all liver failure cases in America are from accidental overdoses of Tylenol. Accidental.

This is a drug that hardly anyone is aware is dangerous at all. People think it's as safe as aspirin. It's not. It's incredibly easy to accidentally overdose. The manufacturers of Tylenol need to finally admit that and -- in partnership with government -- come up with a way of preventing these deaths.

The Torah says they have to.

When the evil prosper (Avot 1:7)

נתאי הארבלי אומר הרחק משכן רע. ואל תתחבר לרשע. ואל תתיאש מן הפורענות

Natai of Arbeil says, distance yourself from an evil neighbor. And don’t ally yourself with an evil person. And don’t despair of punishment.
One of the greatest challenges to our faith in God is to see the evil prosper. Our Mishnah instructs us to be patient: Don’t despair if you don’t see the evil punished. Have faith that their time will come.

The Mishnah also instructs us to focus on the things that we can control. We cannot make justice for the entire world. But we can fight evil in our own corner of it. We can refuse to ally ourselves with evil people. We can distance ourselves from them.

If all of us were to find the strength not to despair in the face of the evil prospering, and the strength to distance ourselves from evil people – even when we think that being in alliance with them might be to our gain – then the world, corner-by-corner, would become a place where evil could find no purchase.

May your corner of the world be a place of peace and justice, today.

A hero's day

יום ראשון כ''א בחשון תשס''ז

Today is the yahrtzeit of Hannah Senesh, who was an inspirtation to Jews the world over for her heroic efforts to save her fellow Jews from the Nazi geonocide.

Here is some of what the wikipedia article had to say about her:

Hannah Szenes (or Chana Senesh) (July 17, 1921 — November 7, 1944) was a Hungarian Jew, one of 17 Jews living in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine, now Israel, who were trained by the British army to parachute into Yugoslavia during the Second World War in order to help save the Jews of Hungary, who were about to be deported to the German death camp at Auschwitz. Szenes was arrested at the Hungarian border, imprisoned and tortured, but she refused to reveal details of her mission, and was eventually tried and executed by firing squad. She is regarded as a national heroine in Israel, where streets are named after her and her poetry is widely known.
May we all be privileged enough to know a small piece of the courage Hannah showed in defending her people.

Friday, November 10, 2006

What makes a chaplain?

That is, what makes a chaplain _different_ from a psychotherapist? We both mostly work with people by _talking_ with them and one of our main skill sets is listening (not as simple or easy as it sounds!!).

These questions are often on our minds as chaplains. One answer I heard from a colleague this week was that the difference is that a chaplain also acts as a representative of God while offering support to the patient (or family).

This raised an interesting question, however – does the person have to know the chaplain is a chaplain from the beginning of the encounter for this to be in effect? This is a very live question for us here at my hospital as we often work with families coming into our Emergency Department _without_ identifying ourselves as chaplains. Often, only after we work with them for a while do family members find out we are chaplains (we don’t identify ourselves as chaplains right away because we don’t want to unnecessarily frighten them; they might think a chaplain was called only because their loved one was dying).

I had another idea, today, about what makes the distinction. I was at an excellent lecture today on Theological Reflection. The teacher listed on the board the “Big Questions” that people might ask themselves. We listed things like: What is death? Where do I go after I die? Why does there have to be suffering? Why is God letting it hurt? What is the place of Evil in the world? Can we trust God? Does God exist? What is the meaning of my life?

While these questions might come up in a psychotherapy session, I think they are only rarely the focus of the discussion. For us chaplains, however, talking with people about these kind of _ultimate_ questions is the bread and butter of what we do.

You’ll notice that some of above questions have “God” in them, but certainly not all. You can have “Big Questions” about life and the universe and existence without any belief in God.

It strikes me then that we sometimes _overuse_ the word “Theological”. Why do we call it Theological Reflection when we look for questions of ultimate meaning in experiences we have with patients and others? The “Theo” part of the word means “God”. But God doesn’t have to be part of the conversation that comes from a Theological Reflection. Shouldn’t we call it something else then? Spiritual Reflection?

Today’s lecture was only the first of five on the topic of Theological Reflection so I’ll have plenty of opportunity to continue to reflect on these questions in the coming days and months.

Shabbat Shalom!!!

End of fall

Last Friday when I drove from Reading to the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, the leaves were spectacular along the PA turnpike. Today, most of the leaves were down as I made the same drive.

Still, it's quite a beautiful day. . . The beauty of winter is right around the corner. :)

Thursday, November 09, 2006

More dangerous than metal fragments

יום שישי י''ט בחשון תשס''ז

Tylenol (or, more accurately, acetaminophen, which is the generic name for the drug most commonly known as Tylenol) is back in the news.

The AP reports that a massive recall is underway because of possible metal fragments in pills sold under store brands by Wal-Mart, CVS, Safeway and many other major retailers.

No deaths or injuries have been reported (at least not yet) due to this contaminant. But you can't say the same about what's supposed to be in the pills -- acetaminophen, itself. The dirty little secret about acetaminophen is that thousands of people are injured or killed every year from accidentally overdosing on this over-the-counter medicine that can be found in everything from cough syrup to prescription pain killers (anything, like Percocet, that has -cet at the end, has acetaminophen in it).

The problem with acetaminophen is that, unlike aspirin for example, the amount that can seriously harm you is not all that much greater than the recommended dosage. This article says that 42% of the new cases at liver centers are due to acetaminophen overdoses. About half those cases were accidental overdoses, not suicide attempts.

Here is the conclusion of an academic article cited on the wikipedia acetaminophen article:

[Acetaminophen] is a commonly used, moderately effective analgesic and antipyretic. In overdose it causes significant morbidity and mortality. The burden to health care services is considerable, with a high financial cost and many hospital admissions. According to the Medicines Control Agency Medicines Act Leaflet (MAL 82, March 1996), which gives guidance on changing the legal classification of a medicine to the General Sale List, a criterion for inclusion on the General Sale List is: ‘where the hazard to health, the risk of misuse, ... is small and where wider sale would be a convenience to the purchaser’. It is surprising that [acetaminophen] is available on the General Sale List, as it appears to fail this criterion for an OTC medication. [Emphasis mine]
Bottom line -- there is very real public health threat here, and something needs to be done. I hope the metal fragments stories will raise people's consciousness about the real risks of this medicine.

Teaching the judging (Avot 1:6)

I want to comment a bit more on yesterday’s Mishnah. Like almost all of the Mishnahs in Avot, yesterday’s Mishnah has three sayings within it:

  1. <>Make for yourself a Rav.
  2. <>And acquire for yourself a colleague.
  3. <>And judge everyone towards the positive.

We generally understand this Mishnah as being about Torah study. It is interesting then, that the last part of it is about something that we do not usually associate with teaching or learning – it talks about judging.

There’s nothing accidental about this. In the world of the ancient Rabbis, their greatest leaders were great for being great teachers and for being great judges. People, including their students, came before them looking for answers to their questions. To find out what the law instructed them to do. Even for settling disputes between parties.

The Rabbis believed that – in making themselves teachers and judges – they were following in the footsteps of God. That is, when they thought of God, they also thought of a teacher and they also thought of a judge.

For the Rabbis, then, God was the ultimate Rav – the ultimate teacher. The Torah was the gerat Instruction that this ultimate teacher had given them. In associating themselves – and the the Jewish people with God, the Rabbis had made for themselves the Rav that the Mishnah instructs us to find.

The way of studying the great Instruction that their teacher had give them is found in the second part of the Mishnah – to study with a haver, with a colleague.

For me, this blog – and anybody reading it – functions as a kind of haver, a partner to help me in my encounter with our Holy Torah. The blog makes for me a place to offer my Torah in partnership with others. It's been a great help to me.

May you find a haver in your life, and may that haver strengthen your link to the Holy Instruction that God has given us.

Walking with God III (Parshat VaYeirah)

This week’s parsha begins with the most central of all texts in the Torah for pastoral care – the appearance of God to Avraham at the Oaks of Mamre.

And HaShem appeared to him by the Oaks of Mamre. And he was sitting in the tent door during the heat of the day. (Gen. 18:1)

The Talmud asks, why does it say the heat of the day? It answers, that “the heat of the day” informs us that this was the third day after Avraham’s circumcision and that God came to visit with the suffering Avraham and ask after his health. (Bava Metzia 86b)

Elsewhere (Sotah 14a), the Talmud adds that this text teaches us that we should visit the sick, just as God visited Avraham in his illness at the Oaks of Mamre. We need to follow God's example, the Talmud says.

The verse also teaches us something important about how we should carry out this command to visit the sick. As the Hezkoni points out, this is the only place in the Torah where the word וירא/VaYeirah (and [God] appeared) occurs where God doesn’t say anything afterwards (like with Moses at the Burning Bush). There is a great lesson for us here – just as God comforted the ill without saying anything, so too we can comfort the ill in silence, with our mere presence.

That is not to say that we should not talk with an ill person when we visit them. But, too often we feel crippled – sometimes so much so that we are afraid to visit the sick person at all – by feeling an obligation to speak. We think if only we had the right words we can help or heal a person. The silence of God in this verse frees us from feeling this crippling obligation. It lets us know that our mere presence is more than enough.


The Midrash (which Rashi cites) further connects our verse to the need to not only visit the sick, but to care for all the needy and unfortunate.

What does it mean that Avraham was “sitting”, asks the Midrash? It answers, God told Avraham to sit, while God remained standing, as a sign to Avraham that one day God would stand in judgment over the world while Avraham's descendents had the privilege of sitting.

The Midrash finds this image of God standing in judgment in Psalm 82, which begins, "God stands in God's congregation; among the judges, God judges."

The Psalm continues:

Save the poor and the needy; from the hands of the wicked, rescue them. (Psalm 82:2)
But the Psalmist is not addressing these words to us. They are part of a plea to God to act as judge, to – as the final line of the Psalm says – rise (kuma/
קומה) and judge the Earth. Bring justice. Let not the evil prosper.

In my work in the hospital, in the prayers I offer to the ill and to their families, a central piece of my plea is indeed kuma – a plea for God to rise. To rise and be with us as in the days of old. To bring comfort and peace and justice. Be with us as you were for Avraham. As you were for Yitzhak and Yaakov. Be with us as you were for King David. Do not forget us.

What can give such a prayer such power for me is that it is not just for me. It is not just for the patient. . . . In those incredible moments when true intention rises in my heart and tears come to my eyes, the cry for God to rise is indeed for me. And it is indeed for the patient. And it is also very much for the world as a whole. For all people. In that moment, a link happens. We are not alone. We are all linked together. And to what is eternal.

This is what the pastoral care we are commanded to do in this first verse of our parsha is all about. When we visit the sick – when we follow the commandment of bikur holim/ביקור חולים – we are not merely serving the ill person in the room. We are affecting the whole world. We are pleading with God for justice and for peace, for the dream we are promised of a world of wholeness and peace. And we are doing much more than just pleading for it. We are making it true. We are walking in the ways of God.

May your week be one of peace. And one of justice.


One element of the Jewish calendar is the weekly Torah reading, or parsha. This coming Shabbat's reading is Va-Yeirah, Gen. 18:1-22:24. The parsha begins with God’s promise of a son – Yitzhak – to the aging Sarah and Avraham, and ends with the birth of Rebecca, the woman who would become their son’s wife and whose progeny would continue the line of the Jewish people. The parsha also contains two of the most dramatic and challenging accounts of God’s judgment – the story of Soddom and Gomorrah and of the story of the Akeidah, or binding of Yitzhak. And it is here in this parsha that the story of the Jewish and the story of the Arabic people diverge when Yishmael is expelled from Avraham’s house at Sarah’s demand.

Finding a Rav (Avot 1:6)

יהושע בן פרחיה ונתאי הארבלי קבלו מהם. יהושע בן פרחיה אומר עשה לך רב. וקנה לך חבר. והוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות

Yehoshua ben P-rahya and Natai of Arbeil received it [the Torah] from them. Yehoshua ben P-rahya says, make for yourself a Rav. And acquire for yourself a colleague. And judge everyone towards the positive.

One thing that distinguishes Judaism from the other great monotheistic faiths, is its emphasis on learning. In the synagogue in which I was raised, we only seldom had the kind of discussions about God that were happening in the Churches around us. We talked about Torah. About what Torah meant to us. About what it instructed us about how to live our lives. About the ethics and values it instructed us to follow.

Today’s Mishnah includes one of the most famous sayings in Judaism about Torah study. It says that you should find a Rav, or Master, to teach you.

It then goes on to say you should also find a haver/חבר, which I have translated here as colleague. Many people choose instead to translate it as ‘friend’. Some also translate this statement as a continuation of the first, in effect saying it means, “If you find for yourself a teacher you will also find for yourself a friend.”

Surely, that way of translating the passage expresses a very beautiful sentiment. But I think it also can give us a false impression about why we should seek to have teachers of Torah in our lives. It makes it sound like we study Torah for our own personal gain -- that we study Torah so that we will have more and better friends.

But the truest reason to study Torah is for its own sake. We call this kind of Torah study, Torah lishma/תורה לשמה (Torah in its own name). What we ultimately mean by this is that we study Torah primarily as a means or worship. It is not about gaining things for us or even about gaining knowledge. It is for God. It is a way of building a relationship with God, of inviting God’s presence – God’s glory – into our lives.

May you experience a piece of God’s glory, today.

A long wait

יום חמישי י''ח בחשון תשס''ז

It's been so long . . . I've been disappointed so many times. I didn't even dare to dream it could really happen. But, I think I'm ready to stop holding my breath -- it looks like it's really true. The Democrats have taken Congress.

The list is so long of all the things that have made these long days of Bush control so dark for me. . . . . But none is bigger than the pain of all the American lives lost in this ill-conceived Iraq war. It's not that I think that American lives are more important than Iraqi ones. But, I think, just by being American citizens, we make an especially solemn pledge to our people in uniform -- to never send them to risk their lives unless it is absolutely necessary. . . . . And this war just didn't meet that test. I deeply fear that it was largely carried out because of one man's psychological desire to out-achieve his father . . . . and "finish the job" his father couldn't do. . . . . But, yet, I don't believe we can blame it all on Bush. We were all complicit in some way. We all -- including the Democrats who were then in Congress and voted to give Bush the power to go to war -- let ourselves be fooled -- and intimidated and bullied -- by Bush's lies. We are to blame, too.

Dear, Lord, please be with us now. Guide us. Give us strength. Let us not squander this opportunity. Help us to make your Holy Creation a world of peace and justice. . . . Thank You for this opportunity, Lord. I pray we do not let You down.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Wet day . . .

יום רביעי יז בחשון תשס''ז

. . . . it is here in PA.

Hope it's dry where you are!!

True hospitality (Avot 1:5)

יוסי בן יוחנן איש ירושלים אומר, יהי ביתך פתוח לרווחה, ויהיו עניים בני ביתך. ואל תרבה שיחה עם האישה--באשתו אמרו, קל וחומר באשת חברו; מכאן אמרו חכמים, כל המרבה שיחה עם האישה--גורם רעה לעצמו, ובטיל מדברי תורה, וסופו יירש גיהינם

Yose ben Yohanon from Jerusalem said, may your house be wide open [to visitors]. And may the poor be among the people of your house. And do not make too much conversation with your wife.

This is the first Mishnah in Avot that I would call troubling. The last clause I translated – to not make too much conversation with your wife [literally, “the woman”] – would strike many as sexist.

A traditional way of trying to explain this away is to say that the Mishnah refers to “idle chatter” and that it is actually saying that one should show respect for his wife by not overburdening her with idle chatter.

I am not convinced by this kind of apologetic explanation. Our Holy literature is full of troubling – or “problem” – texts. And one of the most pervasive troubling aspects comes from the fact that our Sages – for all their great wisdom – lived in a time when society held very different ideas about the role of women than we do now.

But, on the other hand, I would never say we should “throw away” or disregard a troubling text like this. It is part of our Holy literature. We should follow in the best tradition of our Sages by inquiring into it and trying to understand it . . . . and find the kernel of wisdom that truly does reside there amid the troubling material.

One way of doing that kind of inquiry is to notice the context in which the troubling text arises. In our Mishnah – as in most – there are three clauses (of which our troubling material is only the third). What is the subject implied by the first two clauses?

The first clause appears to clearly be about the importance of welcoming guests into your home. The second is about having a place for the poor in your home. That is, from the first two clauses, the Mishnah appears to be about hospitality in a profound way – the kind of hospitality that Avraham shows at the beginning of this coming Shabbat’s Parsha when he welcomes the three guests who appeared by the door of his tent in the heat of the day (Gen. 18:2). Avraham’s hospitality is one that extends far beyond merely being friendly all the way into tzedukah/צדקה (what Christians call charity). It’s the hospitality that a person of means shows to the unfortunate and the needy who are around that person.

The relevance of the troubling clause of our Mishnah may then have to do with helping us to understand the full dimension of what this profound hospitality is – what a truly open door means. It is not just about providing food or drink. It is also – as Avraham did – providing yourself. You should talk to the guests as well and not just spend your time talking to the existing members of your household (like, for example, your wife).

May you find a place in your day to provide a few minutes of conversation to one who really needs that bit of hospitality at this time.

[I did not, by the way, translate the whole Mishnah. You can find that here in Mishnah 5.]

Monday, November 06, 2006

The first of the zugot and the proper way to debate (Avot 1:4)

וסי בן יועזר איש צרידה ויוסף בן יוחנן איש ירושלים קיבלו ממנו. יוסי בן יועזר איש צרידה אומר, יהי ביתך בית ועד לחכמים; והוי מתאבק בעפר רגליהם, ושותה בצמא את דבריהם

Yosi ben Yoezer of Tzreidah and Yosi ben Yohanon of Jerusalem accepted it [the Torah] from him. Yosi ben Yoezer of Tzreidah says, may your home be a gathering place for the Sages. And may you cover yourself with the dust about their feet and drink with thirst their words.
As the opening few Mishnahs of Avot record the chain of transmission of the (Oral) Torah from Moshe down through the ages, we arrive at a unique aspect of the Jewish tradition – the zugot. Literally, zugot means pairs. And a pair of great Sages – each one advocating for their own conflicting understandings of Jewish law – characterize each age of the Mishnah and Talmud. The genius of Judaism has been to – even when one of the understandings of those two Sages has come to be viewed as almost always the correct one – preserve both understandings.

That preservation of both begins here. Our Mishnah gives us the sayings of the first of the two, Yosi ben Yoezer. Tomorrow’s gives us the sayings of the other member of the pair.

It is no accident that the first sayings of the first of the pairs concentrates on showing respect for the Sages. Even when we disagree,we are to show our partners in Torah respect. We must treat them like great Sages and imagine that we are mere dust before them. And we must drink their words in fully, making sure we completely understand them. Only then have we earned the right to express our own opinions.

May a day come when our political discourse in this great nation – where we head to the polls tomorrow – will come to the show the ways of our Sages. May disagreements be expressed with respect and love. And with knowledge of the other’s position.

I missed it

[יום שני ט''ו בחשון תשס''ז]

יום שלישי ט''ז בחשון תשס''ז

Well, today was the first time I forgot to enter the Hebrew date in this blog since I committed to doing so every day (and, thus, you find above the Hebrew dates for the last _two_ days).. . . . . In my defense, I was on-call last night (was woken up from my nighttime slumber twice by the pager).

But the real _headline_ is that (mostly) I’ve been following my plan(s) to have regular Torah/Hebrew elements of the blog. . . . And, _more_ significantly, the plan seems to be achieving its goal – to increase the role of Torah learning in my life and to increase my awareness of the flow of the Jewish time.

Torah study, of course, is supposed to be an important part of every Jew’s life. We place an especially high value on what we call Torah Lishma (תורה לשמה), or Torah study for its own sake (literally, in its own name). . . . I think I need a little _help_, though, to make Torah Lishma more effective in my life. Specifically, I am the kind of person who needs to be teaching in order to be learning.

That’s the beauty of the blog for me (and what makes it perhaps even a spiritual practice): just the fact that someone might be reading what I write here turns everything that I write into a potential teaching. . . . . Being a teacher/blogger of Torah makes me a better learner of Torah.

I don’t yet know what the shape of this blog will be down the line. Perhaps it will become something that people will want to read. . .. Perhaps it will become more personal. Or, perhaps it will focus more on professional issues. . . . But for now I think this blog is really meant mostly for one person -- myself. It is blogging by me, for me. . . And I guess what I’m trying to say is that that is working out just fine for now. I’m really happy with it.

Anyway, it was when I was riding my bicycle, this afternoon that I realized that I had forgotten to write the Hebrew date in my blog. . . . I guess I could have turned around and made it back home before sundown . .. . But I really needed the ride. It was the first time I’d been out in about a week and a half. Went about 25 kilometers roundtrip down my usual route. Good weather. Temps around 10C. Fall is still near its height around here. Stopped at the supermarket on the way back and bought some groceries that I hauled home in the single pannier I had with me. . . . I was proud of myself for getting out on the road; I was pretty tired from being on call the night before and it took a lot of self-cajoling to talk myself into it. (1:49/13.3/24.38/45)