11th Elul – Yossele the miser and Yomtov Lipman Heller

Elul 11 19th August 2021

On 19th August 1654 the Yom Tov Lipman Heller, a student of the Maharal of Prague and the author of a commentary on the Mishnah (Tosefot Yom Tov) died.  He was a deep scholar of Talmud, but also a keen student of bible, Hebrew grammar, philosophy, geometry, natural science mathematics and astronomy.  He was also known for his integrity and became a communal leader at a very early age.

Besides his great talmudic knowledge, he engaged in the study of Kabbalah, religious philosophy, and Hebrew grammar and also acquired an extensive general knowledge, particularly of mathematics, astronomy, and natural sciences. In 1597, when only 18 years of age, he was appointed dayyan in Prague, and served in this office for 28 years, during which period he became renowned for his knowledge and for his integrity. As well as Talmudic commentary, he wrote commentary to that of Asher ben Yechiel, (The Rosh) focussing on prayer and on kashrut and developing the local Prague halachic traditions. He also translated the Rosh’s ethical work “Orchot Chayim” written originally for the author’s sons and embodying teachings to live an ethical Jewish life. Heller introduced the reading of parts of this work into the liturgy of his community and the work is an important part of mussar literature to this day.

His life was not easy – his integrity and his straightforwardness meant that he was not a successful political being nor always a revered community leader, but his character shines through his work and through stories that are told about him. So, for example, we see his response to the persecutions of 1648 being to try to help agunot lose that awful status. And we have the testimony on his death that “he did not leave the wherewithal to purchase shrouds, even though he was the Av Beit Din of Cracow… all this because he never took dishonest money” (testimony of Z Margulies, intro Hibburei likkutim 1715)

The story I find most fascinating is that of Yossele, the Miser of Cracow.  When Yossele, a wealthy man but one who was never seen to give tzedakah or to help the community died, YomTov Heller was asked where to bury him. He decreed that as this man had not supported the community in any way, he should be buried in a far corner of the cemetery away from the places where the most honoured people would be buried. Shortly after the burial however it became apparent that far from being a miser Yossele had practised the highest level of tzedakah – he had given anonymously via third parties so that no-one knew the level of his charitable giving, nor did he know to whom this support were going.  Far from being a miser, he was now understood to be a lamed vavnik. Yom Tov Heller repented his harsh decision and left instruction that he be buried in the same section as Yossele as an act of teshuvah.

His grave is indeed in a remote part of the cemetery in Cracow.

Image of grave by Talmidavi – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48824514

7th Elul the triumph of hope over experience – the second marriage of Amram and Jocheved

7th Elul 15th August 2021

We read in the Book of Exodus that when the new Pharaoh became anxious about the “foreign” Israelites in Egypt becoming “too strong” for the native people, he commanded that all the baby boys must be killed at birth.

Midrash tells us that as a response to this Amram divorced his wife Yocheved, and because of his perceived status in the community, the rest of the Jewish men separated from their wives rather than bring children into this harsh and violent world. But Miriam, the daughter of Amram and Yocheved challenged him  “Father, your decree is harsher than that of Pharaoh. Pharaoh only decreed against the males, but you have decreed against both the males and the females [neither sons nor daughters would now be born]. Pharaoh decreed only for this world, but you decreed both for this world and the next. It is doubtful whether the decree of the wicked Pharaoh will be fulfilled, but you are righteous, and your decree will undoubtedly be fulfilled.” Amram understood what she was saying and returned to his wife, whom he remarried in a public celebration. The other Israelites saw and also returned to their wives (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai; Pesikta Rabbati 43).

According to tradition, the date of this remarriage of Amram and Yocheved was the 7th of Elul and as a consequence of their reunion, Moses was born.

The midrash fills a lacuna in the text, but it does so much more than that. The story of Miriam, a young female child who spoke up against the actions of the elders of the community, who saw not just the present situation of depression and fear but also the possible future. She saw greater unfairness heaped upon her sex. She is a voice for optimism and – amazingly – her voice is heeded.

If a young female child in such a patriarchal structure can have her voice heard and her words acted upon, then how much more so can we, in our modern structures, be heard? If the voice of what appears to be completely unfounded optimism can lead to action which will ultimately lead to the Israelites leaving slavery behind and building an eternal covenant with God, then how much more so should our small optimism be nurtured? Who knows what the future might be if we speak up for justice and for hope?

6th Elul

Elul 6 14th August 2021

Gary Larsen, the quirky cartoonist, was born on this day in 1950. His drawings challenge us to see the world differently, wondering what else might be happening just on the edge of consciousness. One of my early favourites was a triptych showing three cows standing on their hind legs in a field near a road. A cow a little further from us calls out “car!” and in the second frame a car drives past the cows grazing happily. The third frame shows the road empty once more and the three cows back on their hind legs chatting.

That sense that there is another possibility just out of view – but not out of reach – is one that we take with us into Elul. We just need the imagination to bring it forth.

Elul 6 14th August 2021

Gary Larsen, the quirky cartoonist, was born on this day in 1950. His drawings challenge us to see the world differently, wondering what else might be happening just on the edge of consciousness. One of my early favourites was a triptych showing three cows standing on their hind legs in a field near a road. A cow a little further from us calls out “car!” and in the second frame a car drives past the cows grazing happily. The third frame shows the road empty once more and the three cows back on their hind legs chatting.

That sense that there is another possibility just out of view – but not out of reach – is one that we take with us into Elul. We just need the imagination to bring it forth.

5th Elul – auditing the ethical accounts

Elul 5 13th August 2021

Elul is the time for us to do cheshbon nefesh, the accounting of our soul. The language is curious – it feels more like the language of commerce than that of spirituality.  Yet the tradition is replete with such language and metaphor for our spiritual cleansing.

In Pirkei Avot we read “Rabbi (Judah haNasi) said: which is the straight path that a person should choose for themself? One which is an honour to the person adopting it, and [on account of which] honour [accrues] to him from others. And be careful with a light commandment as with a grave one, for you do know not the reward for the fulfilment of the commandments. Also, reckon the loss [that may be sustained through the fulfilment] of a commandment against the reward [accruing] thereby, and the gain [that may be obtained through the committing] of a transgression against the loss [entailed] thereby. Apply your mind to three things and you will not come into the clutches of sin: Know what there is above you: an eye that sees, an ear that hears, and all your deeds are written in a book.” (2:1)

There is a clear sense that our lives become balance sheets, with credit and debit columns that can be examined and checked against us.  Spiritually we can both make profits and losses.

So with this metaphor in mind, Elul is the time for us to look at the balance sheets and make a plan so that next year we will look more spiritually solvent.

What will bring us honour and what will only bring us satisfaction? When we choose our path through the next year, tradition reminds us that there are bigger needs than our own immediate gratification. At some point there will be a reckoning – better to have the annual audit and make our adjustments gradually towards a more honourable life.

For after all, as we also find in Avot (2:15) “The day is short and the work is great, the workers are lazy and the reward is great and the Ruler of the House is insistent”

4th Elul – holy texts holy people

Elul 4 12th August

On this day in 1553 Pope Julius the third ordered the confiscation and burning of the Talmud.

‘Once these books are removed,’ an advisor to the Roman Inquisition had written, ‘it will soon be that the more that they are without the wisdom of their rabbis, so much more will they be prepared and disposed to receive the Christian faith and,’ what he calls, ‘the wisdom of the word of God.’

The Inquisitors confiscated every copy of the Talmud in Italy; On Rosh Hashanah 5314 (9 September 1553), that the Talmud and many other Jewish books were burnt in the Campo dei Fiori in Rome.

On 12 September 1553 another papal decree was issued, demanding that all copies of the Talmud throughout the Catholic world be gathered and destroyed. In Venice – then the world centre of Hebrew printing  – the order was interpreted to include other Jewish books as well. On Saturday, 21 October 1553 , 3rd Cheshvan 5314 all  the books gathered were burned in Piazza San Marco.

Other Hebrew books were burned in 1568 in Venice.

Throughout the remainder of the sixteenth-century, a complete edition of the Talmud could not be found anywhere in the region.

Later, the printing of Hebrew books was permitted once more, but under censorship. They were checked and licenced by the authorities (licenza dei Superiori)  whose imprimatur can be found in all Hebrew texts printed in Venice from the second half of the 16th century onwards.

The Talmud is the central text of Rabbinic Judaism and studying it has shaped Jewish thinking. Those of us who have read a page a day (daf yomi) for the seven and a half years it takes to complete the books  will attest to a change in how the world is perceived. Yet the ideas of a people do not only reside on the printed page, and the burning of their books did not destroy the Jewish people.

Judaism resides in the spirit of the Jewish people. Ideas may be suppressed, people may be martyred, but as Leo Baeck wrote centuries later “A people only dies when its spirit dies”.

On the plaque recording the great burning in Rome there are two quotations. One from the Talmudic story of the martyrdom of Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradion, who, wrapped in a burning torah scroll called out “The parchment is burning but the letters fly up to heaven”, the second from the lamentation Sha’ali Serufah ba-Esh, a kinah by Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg, written in the 13th century after the Disputation of Paris led to the destruction of almost every copy of the Talmud in Europe. The question is directed at the Torah, how can the text given in holy fire be destroyed in worldly fire?  “My question, burned in the fire, about the welfare of mourners” (Sha’ali Serufah ba’Esh, leshalom avelai’ich”

For all that study of our texts has sustained and nourished us, informed and shaped our thinking, allowed us to express our reality and pursue ideas to their sometimes extraordinary conclusions, the texts themselves repeatedly tell us that it is the ideas they embody rather then the physical artefacts that matter. What is given in holy fire cannot be destroyed in worldly fire. It is our interaction and engagement with the ideas of Judaism that keeps our spirit alive, and keeps our people alive.

This coming week, month, year find some texts and engage with them. It can be bible or siddur, Talmud or commentary. Let yourself be touched and changed, discover for yourselves the holy fire.

3rd Elul: invention and reinvention

Elul 3  11th August

On 11th August 1942, Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr (called “the most beautiful woman in Hollywood”) received a patent with composer George Antheil for a “frequency hopping, spread-spectrum communication system” designed to make radio-guided torpedoes harder to detect or jam. Lamarr and Antheil made an interesting pair of collaborators. She was an Austrian-born beauty and American film star who practiced electrical engineering when off the movie lot; he was an avant-garde composer, notably of Ballet Mécanique, a score that included synchronized player pianos. The two devised a method whereby a controlling radio and its receiver would jump from one frequency to another, like simultaneous player pianos, so that the radio waves could not be blocked.

The two submitted their patent to the US Navy, which officially opined that Lamarr could do more for the war effort by selling kisses to support war bonds. On one occasion, she raised $7 million. She and Antheil donated their patent to the US Navy and never realized any money from their invention, which would eventually become the basis for wireless phones, Global Positioning Systems, and WiFi, among other cutting-edge technologies.  (from JWA.org)

Hedy Lamarr was born to a comfortable Viennese Jewish family, and in later life she often spoke of her childhood as a kind of paradise, with forest walks and piano lessons, attending the theatre and later herself becoming an actress in theatre and film. She had an extraordinary life, with six husbands and other lovers, a Hollywood career where she was called the most beautiful woman in film and was generally cast as a kind of mysterious temptress, sexually alluring and always somewhat on the outside of normal life. Life followed art, she lived in America and was a film star, but was not of America, and the role-playing of her professional life seems to have been mirrored in her private life.

Hedy Lamarr never told her family that she was born a Jew, that she grew up with Jewish parents. Her own children did not know of that part of her identity even though Hedy’s mother came to live in the United States and they grew up knowing her. Both Lamarr and her mother had converted to Catholicism – Lamarr for marriage in 1933 her mother some five years later. The children found out their maternal background only as adults, when a documentary maker told them of it.

In the month of Elul we  think about our own lives and how we invent and reinvent ourselves, how we try to hide what is inconvenient to our preferred narratives and what we prioritise and why.  While we may not be living a life as complicated and as cryptic as that of Lamarr, each of us have questions to ask ourselves about our choices, and about whether we are living our lives as our best selves.

2nd Elul 5781 We can each do our share in making the world a better place.

2nd Elul 2021 10 August 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg sworn in United States Supreme Court

On this day in 1993 RBG was sworn in as the second woman – and the first Jewish woman – to serve on the US Supreme Court.

At the time she said “I am a judge born, raised, and proud of being a Jew. The demand for justice runs through the entirety of the Jewish tradition. I hope, in my years on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States, I will have the strength and the courage to remain constant in the service of that demand.”

Throughout her life and career, Justice Ginsburg fought against oppression and inequality. She is credited with transforming opportunities and livelihoods previously dictated by gender inequalities. She was influential on Civil Rights Law, and dismantled a network of laws which supported sex discrimination. Perhaps surprisingly, many of her landmark legal successes came while she was representing men. Ultimately, Justice Ginsberg was clear: gender inequality is harmful to everyone. 

She also said “Promoting active liberty does not mean allowing the majority to run roughshod over minorities. It calls for taking special care that all groups have a chance to fully participate in society and the political process.”

We can’t be RBG, but she was carrying on a legacy of justice that is our inheritance and obligation too. We may not be able to change or to create legislation, but in our own ways and our own worlds we can have the strength and courage to serve that command.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, asked to give advice to young people about how to fulfil that obligation said “Let them be sure that every deed counts, that every word has power, and that we can do our share to redeem the world despite all absurdities and all the frustration and all the disappointment.”

We can each do our share. Indeed, it is all that we can do. The only question is how we plan to do it.

Rosh Chodesh Elul

1st Elul  2021 Rosh Hashanah Le’ma’aseir Behema    9th August

Mishnah tells us there are four New Years, and the 1st of Elul is the New Year for the accounting purposes of tithing domestic animals.

While this is a date for a Temple practise and therefore has no practical significance today, the date has been glossed in order to publicise the Jewish value of Tza‘ar Ba’alei Hayim  – of preventing the suffering of animals.

The phrase originates in a Talmudic discussion about the treatment of domestic beasts, their loading and the conditions they must work under (BT Bava Metzia 32b).

Hebrew uses a number of words for animals – in Genesis animals, like humans are “Nefesh Chaya” – living souls. Biblically we see behema/ot are domesticated animals, Chaya (literally “alive” the word for wild animals (in modern Hebrew the generic word for animals, while wild animals are chayat bar, animals of the wild). But this  Talmudic  phrase Ba’alei Hayim not only recognises that animals are living, but that they are quite literally the masters or owners of life.

What does it mean to be an owner of life? And how does seeing our domestic animals as such figures influence how we think of them and treat them?

Judaism generally treats God as the Owner of Life – the One who gives and takes away life. We read in Talmud (Berachot 60b) the prayer familiar to all who read the morning service, the Elohai Neshama…:

When one awakens, one recites:
My God, the soul You have placed within me is pure.
You formed it within me,
You breathed it into me,
and You guard it while it is within me.
One day You will take it from me and restore it within me in the time to come.
As long as the soul is within me, I thank You,
O Eternal my God and God of my ancestors, Master of all worlds, Possessor of all souls.
Blessed are You, O Eternal who restores souls to lifeless bodies.

While it is clear that the Talmudic phrase “Ba’alei Chayim” is referencing animals that are in the service of human activity, it uses a lens we frequently ignore or even deny. Animals, even those who work for us or are farmed and herded in order to provide food for us, have a level of existence and meaning that also reflects the Creator of Life. We humans may have accorded ourselves the highest level in the creation story, the ones who name the animals and who will use them for our own benefit, but animal life too is important and has a spark of divine force, and it is not enough simply to avoid unnecessary cruelty.

Talmud tells us (BTBava Metzia 85a) “Once a calf being led to slaughter thrust its head into the skirts of Rabbi [Yehudah HaNasi]’s robe and began to bleat plaintively. “Go,” he said, “for this is why you were created.” Because he spoke without compassion, he was afflicted [at the hand of Heaven].(the midrash tells us he suffered toothache for 13 years)

Then one day, his maidservant was cleaning his house and came upon some young weasels. She was about to chase them away with a broom, when Rabbi Yehudah said to her, “Let them be, for it is written: ‘God’s tender mercies are upon all God’s works'” (Psalms 145:9). They said [in Heaven], “Since he is merciful, let him be treated with mercy.” [Thereafter, his pain ceased.]

This day, Rosh Chodesh Elul, is the day to consider the value of Tza’ar Ba’alei Hayim and ask ourselves, how do we value Creation in our daily lives.

29th Elul: Leaving Elul, with joy, with forgetting, with God.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav wrote that while people generally thought that forgetfulness was a disadvantage, he felt it could be helpful, because knowing how to forget means we can loosen ourselves from the traumas and bonds of the past

נהוג לחשוב שהשכחה הינה חסרון. אני סבור שהיא יתרון. לדעת לשכוח, פירושו להשתחרר מכל תלאות העבר

During the days of Ellul we have been thinking, bringing to mind, remembering and sometimes cringing about our past behaviours, what we did, what we failed to do. We have been trying to mend our relationships, apologise where necessary, and repair where we can. Forgetting has been the last thing on our minds.

Nachman also said that

אם אתה מאמין שיכולים לקלקל, תאמין שיכולים לתקן

If you believe it is possible to break things, then you must also believe that it is possible to repair.

On the last day of Ellul, when some will feel despair, some will feel inadequacy, a few may feel proud that they have moved, others may still insist there is no work of change to be done, it is helpful to enter the world of Rabbi Nachman, whose style of relationship with God – hitbodedut  – was unstructured, meditative and  conversational prayer, and whose world view was that joy was far better than grief, despite the difficulties that life brings us.

If we tell ourselves that we have enabled brokenness in the world, then we must acknowledge our power to mend that brokenness. If we have dealt with our painful experiences as far as we can, acknowledged them and recognised the hurt, then we must be able to allow ourselves to try to forget, rather than carry the burden of historic and unmitigable pain with us through life.

Kapparah, the action of yom kippur, does not mean to erase but to cover over. Whatever happened in our lives happened. We can only find ways to engage with and deal with the realities of that historic reality, not to pretend it is over, or it never happened.

I am a huge believer in the skill of forgetting. Whether it be as a communal rabbi being privy to other people’s secrets at difficult times in their lives, or to let go of the pain and anger caused by the behaviour of others, kapparah, covering it from view and not allowing it to direct us or affect us is a skill we all need if we are to continue our lives with some form of equanimity, not held back by past trauma or unfinished business.

Joyfulness is another skill – according to Rabbi Nachman it is a mitzvah – Mitzva gedola lihyot be-simcha tamid,” “It is a great mitzvah to be happy always, and to make every effort to determinedly keep depression and gloom at bay (Likkutei Moharan II:24)  Many synagogues have the motto above their Ark “Ivdu et Adonai b’simcha – serve God with joy” (Psalm 100:2)

Maimonides reminds us One should not be overly elated and laugh, nor be sad and depressed in spirit; rather one should be same’ach (happy) at all times, with a friendly countenance. The same applies with regard to one’s other traits… (Hilchot Deot 1:4)

Traditionally joy is seen as a by-product of doing a mitzvah.

In recent years the idea of learning joy – and the benefits of it – have entered the mainstream. Be it “laughter yoga” or the habit of mindfulness and of cultivating gratitude – focussing on one good event in the day.  Joy and gratitude are embedded in our tradition – indeed the end of the Yamim Noraim will take us to Sukkot and “zeman simchateinu” – the season of our rejoicing. Every morning with the modeh/modah ani prayer we give thanks for our continuing existence, knowing that each day brings with it new possibilities, a new creation.

So I commend Rabbi Nachman with his exhortations to forgetting past pain and cultivating joy. And I would add to those his most famous (probably) saying – that the world is a narrow bridge, and the important thing is –not ‘not to be afraid’ as the song would have it, but not to make ourselves afraid.

If we cultivate joy in our lives, if we allow ourselves to forget the pain of our past once we have done all we can to ameliorate and mitigate it; If we remind ourselves that we make ourselves afraid much more than are made afraid, and so we have control over our responses – then we can go into the coming months and years with a tool kit that will sustain and nourish us until our soul departs.   It is not too far from us to do this. It is not over the sea that we have to ask someone to help us achieve it; it is in our hearts and minds if only we make the first step on the journey, transform the “oy” and create joy.

As Rabbi Nachman also taught

זכור תמיד: השמחה איננה עניין שולי במסעך הרוחני – היא חיונית

Always remember: happiness is not a side matter in your spiritual journey – it is essential.

Shanah Tovah u’metukah – have a sweet and a good new year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

28th Ellul: The soul is Yours and the body is Yours. A reminder to God that we are as God made us; a reminder to ourselves that we are as God made us.

28th Ellul

הַנְשָמָה לָך וְהַגוּף פְעֳלָך חוּסָה עַל עָמָלָך

The soul is Yours and the body is Your work, Have mercy on the fruits of your labour”

This pizmon (extra-liturgical prayer) is part of the Sephardi rite on the evening of Yom Kippur (Kol Nidrei) and is a favourite in selichot prayers in Elul.

Referencing the verse in Genesis “Then the Holy One formed the human from the dust of the ground, and breathed into its nostrils the breath of life; and the human became a living soul”the writer of the prayer is reminding both us and God that essentially we are formed by God and belong to God, we rely on God and will return to God.

The prayers for mercy and for forgiveness, for an end to suffering and the dawn of a better time, are integral to this period – known collectively as “selichot” and designed to ask forgiveness for the people Israel, and to remind us and God that we are in relationship.

The selichot are a literature that developed between the 7thand the 16th century –, and are found in every strand of Jewish tradition, though how and when they are used varies according to different minhagim. On Rosh Hashanah they tend to focus on themes such as the Akeidah (the binding of Isaac) on Creation, and on the Judgement of Yom HaDin, whereas on Yom Kippur they are more often themed around human frailty, on confession, on the forgiveness of God, and on the suffering of the people.

I’m particularly fond of this pizmon – the reminder that our bodies and our souls belong to God is echoed in the Adon Olam and used in night prayers – “In Your hand I lay my soul, and with my soul my body also, God is with me, I shall not fear”. I like how it reminds God that we are created as reflections of God’s being, that God has some responsibility for how we turn out; And how it reminds us that we are created as reflections of God’s being, that, in the forming of human beings the verb used vayitzer has the letter yod  twice.

וַיִּ֩יצֶר֩ יְהֹוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֗ם עָפָר֙ מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה וַיִּפַּ֥ח בְּאַפָּ֖יו נִשְׁמַ֣ת חַיִּ֑ים וַיְהִ֥י הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּֽה:

The Eternal God formed the human as dust from the earth, and blew into its nose the breath of life, and the human became a living soul.

The midrash tells us that that two yods refer to the two “inclinations” in humanity – the inclination to be selfish and the inclination to be selfless, the yetzer ra and yetzer tov. Both of them are valid and necessary impulses, but must be kept in balance for us to be our best selves. They reflect us in so many ways – selfish/selfless; individual being/communal being; thoughtful/needy; driven/reflective – all the aspects that make us up as human beings including of course body/soul.

A reminder of the divine creation of human beings with all the possibilities to build the world, is helpful for those of us who feel ourselves to be simply dust and ashes. A reminder that God is responsible for us, that the words for work are used twice in this short pizmon reminding God that we are God’s created work – that helps us to remember we are, in the words of the rabbis, the children of the sovereign.

As Ellul nears its end, and we face the more intense days ahead, to be reminded that we were created for a good purpose and that God has a stake in us achieving such a good purpose, is a useful and salutary thing.