Posted on August 1st, 2012 No comments
דאמר רבי ישמעאל בר רב נחמן
עשרים וששה דורות קדמה דרך ארץ את התורה
מדרש רבה ויקרא פרשה ט פסקה ג
Rabbi Yishmael Bar Nachman said: Derekh Eretz preceded the Torah by 26 generations
-Midrash Rabbah Vayikra
Summer camps and beach holidays, ice cream and blockbusters; even as we relax and indulge the march towards the High Holy Days has begun. The practical components not withstanding, the spiritual journey is complex. Elul is still weeks away, but Tisha B’Av has just passed and opened the doors of contemplation.
Baseless hatred was the cause of the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and even if we are not inclined to rebuild we cannot fail to recognize the corrosive power of negative speech and mean spirits. How tenuous the life of a community when we all do our best, kal va’khomer, all the more so when malice and negativity invade.
Before there was a Temple, before there was Torah, there was derekh eretz- the way of the land, the natural path, simple wisdom. It was straying off that natural path, into the briar patch of pettiness and small mindedness that got us stuck and created destruction. If we want to do teshuvah, really repair the wrongs, then we need to return to the way of the land, to the simple wisdom that would have us make right and thoughtful moral choices in the world.
This is the drum that psychologist Barry Schwartz beats loudly. Known for his work on choices, he has recently turned his attention to common place wisdom. Schwartz traces the origins of practical wisdom to Aristotle, who saw it as a combination of moral will and moral skill. As he explained in a recent TED talk, “A wise person knows when and how to make an exception to every rule. A wise person knows how to use these [moral] skills in pursuit of the right aims.” Someone who is wise, knows how to improvise and does so in a way that helps not hurts others. This kind of wisdom can, for example, turn a hospital janitor into an essential element not just of hospital maintenance but of patient care and wellness, for the janitor who goes against her supervisor’s directive and does not vacuum the waiting room, allows the family sitting vigil to catch vital moments of sleep.
Critically, Schwartz, contends that practical wisdom can and should be taught. From where he stands that learning comes through experience and through being allowed to try and fail. But there is also a need for mentoring. Or in the words of our tradition,
“רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲזַרְיָה אוֹמֵר: אִם אֵין תּוֹרָה, אֵין דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ. אִם אֵין דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ, אֵין תּוֹרָה.” (משנה אבות ג יז
Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said: without Torah there is no derekh eretz, without derekh eretz there is no Torah. –Pirkei Avot 3:17
Derekh Eretz may have predated the Torah, as practical wisdom which knows no religious or tribal boundaries ought to, but it is the specific precepts of Torah that shape our understanding of what is right.
When he was setting down the foundation for modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch took the phrase, תּוֹרָה עִם דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ Torah with derekh eretz, (also from Pirkei Avot) as the basis for his vision. He focused less on the element of derekh eretz as practical wisdom but on the element in our tradition that sees it as engaging in the world, earning a living and abiding by the customs of the general community. As he explained in his commentary on Avot, “Derech Eretz includes everything …this term especially describes ways of earning a livelihood and maintaining the social order. It also includes the customs and considerations of etiquette, that the social order generates as well as everything concerning humanistic civil education.” His main concern was making sure that observance of Torah did not eclipse the practical elements of modern life.
For modern Reform Jews, Hirsch’s understanding of derekh eretz in well within our grasp. On the whole, we are successful in the boarder world, we participate in the social and communal fabric of modern society with ease and achievement. But it is possible, that if we focus exclusively on that understanding of derekh eretz alone, we will miss out on the other fundamental meaning of the term, its link to Torah and the power that comes from the combination of the two.
Tisha B’Av opens up a conversation about what pulls apart that which is most precious to us, it reminds us of what hangs in the balance with our simple actions, like speech. Derekh eretz is the beginning of the redemption, the use of the common wisdom that keeps our tongue from speaking evil our lips from telling lies. But as essential as derekh eretz –in both its practical wisdom and engage with the secular world meanings- is, it is only a starting point. We step from this general wisdom in Av into the rituals of Elul, the blowing of the shofar, the singing of slichot, culminating in the very particularistic rituals of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur that define for us clearly the blueprint that is Torah and Jewish practice.
Derekh eretz is essential to creating community and success but it does not happen in a vacuum. As Schwartz reminds us, it must be learned and reinforced. His worry about lack of leadership, overlooks the resources we have at hand. The means to moral wisdom is available to all of us if we remember that ein Torah, ein derekh eretz. Leadership that is rooted in the precepts of our tradition, in the teachings of Torah, in the rituals and rhythms of Jewish life will not only inspire but guide and instill. As modern Reform Jews, we would do well to reinterpret and reembrace Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s charge. We already know how to navigate the practical elements of modern life, but if we want to ensure continued moral and communal success, we need to reaffirm talmud Torah with derekh eretz.
Posted on December 7th, 2010 No comments
During the Aseret Yimai Teshuva, I noticed some thought provoking visuals making their way around the web. Like the secrets project, which encourage people to send in post cards detailing secrets that they keep, these cards revealed things often left unspoken. But instead of being anonymous, these were signed by biblical characters. This edging and engaging presentation was, as I was to find out later, the product of Temple Israel of Ohmaha’s decision to create an alternative service for mincha on Yom Kippur. Tzeh U’llimad caught up with Rabbi Eric Lindner to talk about the innovations at Temple Israel. The process, including the planning, the virtual post cards and the service itself are a testament to how technology and creativity can greatly enhance our Jewish experience.
TU: What made you decide to do an alternative service?
EL: Temple Israel used to have a specific youth group service in the afternoon of Yom Kippur. We had children’s service at 9:00 am, the “regular” service at 10:15, the youth group service (OTYG) at 2:30, and then afternoon/yizkor and ne’ilah beginning at 4:30. Attendance for the OTYG service was usually 75-100, most congregants being family members of the youth group.
The decision to create an alternative service was also made with the youth group in mind; we wanted the service to have the same gravitas as the main sanctuary service.
TU: How did you go about planning the service?
EL: Once the decision was made to do an “alternative” service, I knew I wanted to do something that would make it “alternative” in OTHER ways than changing the music, which seems to be the current measurement as to what makes for an alternative service. In clergy and staff meetings, we had been strategizing about how to help our congregants achieve a deepened sense of meaning during the High Holidays, rather than Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur be “one shot deals.” A colleague, Stefanie Kolin, sent me something she did in Boston, which was a journal that congregants wrote in during the ten days. I really liked the idea of our congregants doing something (learning) during the course of the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
TU: Where did the post cards come in?
EL: In my brainstorming about the service, I had a few things in a file. Many of those were postcards from postecret.com. I found them to be inspirational, thought-provoking, and totally cool. Many of them revolve around themes of the high holidays (forgiveness, regrets, relationships), and I knew I wanted to do something with them. One of our youth groupers sent me about a dozen or so post-secrets that she found that she thought we could incorporate.
In talking with her, I had the idea of sending a post-secret a day during the ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. The idea was that the postcards would be “from” our biblical ancestors (Adam, Cain, God, Noah, etc), and that the secrets of our ancestors could help us in our modern struggles. Each of the secrets included some follow-up questions and thoughts to ponder (they are included in this email as senttocongregation.zip)
TU: How did the post cards fit into the service? Did they just stand on their own?
EL: Once that idea was in place, the program director and I worked to make that as the framework for our service. We titled the service: “Ancient Secrets, Modern Freedom.” We used some of the post-secrets that I had gathered as entry points into specific prayers. For my d’var torah, I went through the ten biblical secrets that we sent the congregation, in addition to some others.
TU: How else did you use technology to engage the community?
EL: In addition to post-secrets, the service included a youtube clip on violence and hatred, videos of two congregants speaking about forgiveness, and other multi-media presentations (such as words to songs projected on the wall).
We also made the decision to be interactive. At various points in the service, I showed a post-secret that was related to an upcoming prayer, posed a few thoughts, and then asked for comments from the congregation. Each of these lasted about 5 minutes, and were received very well.
TU: Do you feel that the effort paid off?
EL: Interestingly, over 25 high-schoolers participated in the service, with five of them crafting their own writings, and one song-leading. This is more participation than we ever got at the youth group service. Over 250 people came to the alternative service.
Posted on June 29th, 2010 No comments
This week we have the second in our occasional summer series on Saying Sorry. This week Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder PhD. the editor of this blog shares some of her reflections of the shape of forgiveness.
Person one: Ani Mevakesh S’licha U’michila
Person two: Ani Noten S’licha U’michila
I ask for forgiveness and absolution
I grant forgiveness and absolution
A few years ago, just before Rosh Hashana, I sat with a friend and reviewed the past year. It was clear that there was tension in our friendship. As we discussed what had happened, I apologized for the hurt that I had caused. She accepted my apology. In the next breath she explained that despite this, she no longer wanted to maintain a connection.
Our tradition tells us a great deal about righting a wrong that we commit. Doing teshuvah means following up on apologies with changes in behavior. As Maimonides teaches, we are obligated to forgive. But while we can measure changes in bad behavior, can we measure forgiveness? In other words what does forgiveness look like?
Recently another friend was confronted with this question. A woman who had hurt her badly in the past moved into her community. At the time of the betrayal, which had involved a sexual impropriety, forgiveness has been sought and my friend had been unwilling and unable to grant it. Five years later, the woman had written my friend a letter of apology, which my friend judged as sincere, but still my friend was unable to forgive. She had thought the man involved would one day be her husband and the woman her maid of honor. A few months ago, when a mutual friend re-introduced them at Temple, the old friend acknowledged their past by saying that she they had known each other when the old friend was “younger and very, very foolish.” As my friend reported, forgiveness had been actively sought three times.
In many ways my friend had moved on from the old place of hurt and anger. In the intervening decades, my friend married a wonderful man with whom she has built a family. She is happy with her life and freely admits that had she married her then boyfriend it would not have been nearly as happy. Until this woman moved into her community she had not thought of her in years.
My friend has assumed that the distance from the events and the lessening of feelings constituted a form of forgiveness. But when the old friend reappeared, my friend was not so sure. With another newcomer to the community, my friend would have opened the doors to her home for Shabbat, offered advice on schools and camps but in this case she did not.
When repentance is sincere we obliged to forgive, but how do we know when that obligation is fulfilled?
In counseling my friend, I pointed out that in many ways she was acting on her forgiveness. She had not brought up the sins of the past. She was not shunning this woman or besmirching her name in the community. For all intents and purposes, she was allowing this woman to live the teshuvah that she claimed to seek. As Solomon Schimmel has explained in his book Wounds Not Healed by Time: The Power of Repentance and Forgiveness there are levels of forgiveness. IWe do not have an obligation to re-embrace an individual with no memory of their transgression or the hurt it caused but we are obligated to allow them to act the fullness of their teshuvah. We do not have an obligation to return to a world that existed before the rupture occurred.
This concept is echoed in our tradition which distinguishes between mechilah –the letting go of a grudge- and slicha –the letting go that happens deep in the heart – and kapparah – the complete wiping clean of the slate.
When we ask for and are granted forgiveness it does not lead to earthly kapparah. We have to realize that in transgressing, we can never go back to the way the world was before we acted. Our actions have consequences and while we may be able to do a full teshuvah we cannot expect that the forgiveness will mean a full embrace by those we have wronged in the past. When we agree to grant mechilah we take the first step in a process with the hope that we will arrive at some day at a state of full slicha. But the final forgiveness, the full letting go is not ours to give, that level of forgiveness belongs only to God.
 רמב”ם הלכות חובל ומזיק פרק ה הלכה י
ואסור לנחבל להיות אכזרי ולא ימחול לו ואין זו דרך זרע ישראל אלא כיון שבקש ממנו החובל ונתחנן לו פעם ראשונה ושניה וידע שהוא שב מחטאו וניחם על רעתו ימחול לו, וכל הממהר למחול הרי הוא משובח ג ורוח חכמים נוחה הימנו.