Sep. 16th, 2010

estherhugenholtz: Me (Default)

The Politics of Being Nice

 

It was a blistering summer day in Jerusalem and the sweat was pouring from our faces. My friend and I had just visited the Kotel Ma’aravi, the Western Wall, to say our prayers. It was Friday afternoon and we wanted to walk home and prepare for Shabbat. We crossed through the Arab section of old Jerusalem and weaved our way through the masses of Muslim Arabs who left their mosques after Friday prayers. Even though the old quarters were crowded, people graciously let us pass. My friend wanted to buy a refreshing limonana drink from a Palestinian vendor. The vendor asked if I wanted one too but I declined because I still had a bottle of water. Even though we were clearly identifiable as Jewish women in our modest skirts, headscarf and Star-of-David necklaces, the kindly Muslim vendor offered me a limonana drink for free. Gratefully, I accepted and knowing that he himself would be fasting due to Ramadan, wished him a blessed Ramadan. It was a small act of random kindness but it meant a lot to me. Between the politics of land, power and money, this stranger practiced the politics of kindness.

 

This is what I want to talk about today: the politics of being nice. ‘Nice’ appears to be the plainest word in the English language. Being kind is an underrated value. It is deemed a small thing. Being ‘kind’ in and of itself will not solve the environmental crisis, world hunger or usher in world peace. It may not even be a guarantee for personal happiness. There are plenty of kind and good people in the world who suffer nonetheless. Our collective voice of cynicism may even ask what good small random acts of kindness do. They seem fleeting, like a drop in the ocean.

And yet, the politics of being nice is one of the pillars on which our tradition stands. The Rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud really valued kindness, chesed, and the power of acts of kindness, which they called gemilut chasadim. In fact, our Rabbinic Tradition values kindness so much that it, according to Pirkei Avot 1:2, is one of the three pillars on which the world stands, together with Torah and the service of God itself – ‘al shlosha devarim haolam omed – al haTorah, al haAvodah v’al Gemilut Chasadim’.

After the destruction of the Temple, it was prayer and kindness that replaced the sacrifices and that became the heart of our Jewish spirituality.

Of course, the cardinal importance attached to kindness didn’t merely begin with the Rabbis. Our entire tradition—from the earliest Bible stories to the Chassidic tales of the 18th century—brims with a love of kindness. Avraham Avinu himself was praised for his kindness and exceptional generosity towards strangers and wayfarers. His exemplary kindness towards the citizens of Sodom is something I spoke about on Rosh haShanah.

But Abraham Avinu isn’t the only Biblical hero who displayed kindness, of course. Shifra and Puah, the midwives of ambivalent status (some hold that they were Jews, others hold that they were righteous Gentiles) displayed great courage and kindness when they tried to save Hebrew babies from Pharaoh’s evil decree. They gently took care of baby Moses. According to Rashi, the kindness is even reflected in the etymologies of their names. Shifra is related to the root shin-peh-reish, ‘to beautify’ and Puah is related to the Hebrew word signifying cooing. In other words, not only did Shifra and Puah save babies, they also displayed extra chesed by beautifying and comforting them.

Of course, there is the story of Pharaoh’s daughter, Batya, who rescued Moses from the gaping mouth of the Nile. There are the stories of Job and Noah, two Gentile heroes our Tanakh accords great respect on account of their kindness. Moses was praised for his humility and his kindness to even animals. The Midrash states that the Eternal chose Moses for his mission because God saw the great mercy Moses displayed towards retrieving a straying lamb. David, as a young man, showed compassion for the troubled Saul by playing his harp to sooth Saul’s spirit.

Moreover, the Midrash recounts another act of supreme kindness: in the time of King David, there were two brothers. Both had an equal share of land. One, however, was single but prosperous. The other, destitute but rich in children. The single brother thought, ‘I have more than enough crops to sustain me, let me go give wheat to my brother who has so many mouths to feed’. While the brother with wife and children thought, ‘Through my children, I will have support in my old age and so I do not need all this crop, let me go to my single brother who has no such guarantees and share my wheat with him. ‘ Unbeknownst to each other, they secretly filled each other’s silo with wheat, out of the goodness of their heart. Because of this, God merited that the Holy Temple itself would be built on the very land that prompted them to act with great mercy.

                Furthermore, it is the Prophets themselves who enjoined acts of kindness upon us. As the Prophet Isaiah states in the Haftarah for Yom Kippur: “Is not this the fast I look for: to release the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58:1-14)

Finally, in the Midrashic imagination of the Rabbis, even God Himself graced us with His kindness. It was God Who adorned Eve as a beautiful bride and escorted her to the chuppah in Gan Eden. And it was God Himself who made sure that Moses was buried when he died at 120 years of age. Unsurprisingly, core rabbinic values of kindness are accompanying the bride and burying the dead.

 

When we are reflecting upon our shortcomings during Yom Kippur, it’s easy to dwell on the spectacular transgressions. After all, our liturgy focuses—thankfully addressing us in the collective—on committing adultery, slandering, hatemongering and theft. In a way this may cause a disconnection. Do all of us really commit adultery and acts of violence? Of course not. But this sense of disconnection from the liturgy makes it easier for us to fall into the trap of putting this criticism aside and believing that we have less inner work to do. What if we choose to focus on our relationship with our ability to be nice? Let us think about what it means to be kind—both from the vantage point of our tradition (as I have already discussed) and from the vantage point of our personal experience. I am not proposing that we should ignore the negative injunctions of the liturgy but instead I propose that we add positives as well. In what ways could we have been kinder? In what ways could little acts of chesed have brightened the days of our fellow human beings?  Perhaps added to our solemn list of ashamnu’s and al chet’s, we could chant to the rhythm of our heart:

We can smile at a stranger on the bus. We can open the door for an elderly person. We can extend a hand to a lonely refugee. We can treat a single mother with dignity. We can give a little more charity. We can write a Get-Well card for a sick co-worker. We can give an extra hug to a grandchild. We can listen to a lonely friend. We can make that extra phone call to an ailing parent. We can spend those few extra minutes recycling our trash. We can volunteer an extra hour at the local shelter. We can help our neighbour carry her groceries. We can, as the Prophet Micah commands us, not only walk humbly but also do justly and love mercy.’

 

Kindness begins as a reflection in the face of our fellow human being, but it certainly doesn’t end there. Traditionally, the introspective period before the Yemei Teshuvah—the Days of Repentance—is divided up between contemplating two categories of relationship: bein adam l’makom and bein adam l’chavero. The first refers to the relationship between the individual and the Divine. The second refers to the relationship of the individual and his or her fellow human beings. Modern Jewish thought, however, has proposed a third category: bein adam l’atzmo: between an individual and his or herself. We don’t only reflect upon our so-called horizontal and vertical relationships but also on our internal relationship—with ourselves.

This logic can be extended to practicing the transformative politics of kindness. Not only should we be kind to others, and to the Omnipresent and all that God encompasses (such as our sacred, physical Universe) but also to ourselves. Perhaps this is the hardest kindness of all.

V’ahavta larecha kamocha’, our holy Torah commands us (Leviticus 19:18), ‘Love your neighbour as yourself – I am the Lord’. Rabbi Hillel taught this verse to the convert who asked him to explain the essence of Judaism on one foot: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself. This is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary. Now go and learn it’ (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 31a). Rabbi Akiva expounded this verse as being a ‘great principle of the Torah’ (Midrash Torat Kohanim).

Usually we look at thsis verse one-dimensionally. It seems obvious. Love your neighbour as yourself. We read it with the emphasis on neighbour. ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. But what if we shift the emphasis and read it as, ‘love your neighbour as yourself’? We can only truly be kind to others if we can first be kind to ourselves. If we judge ourselves too harshly, this will provide fertile ground for harsh judgments of others. But if we are gentle with our own souls, then we create the spaciousness of heart and the fortitude of spirit to be gentle with our fellow human beings. One cannot exist without the other.

 

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”, thus spoke Philo of Alexandria, the ancient Hellenist Jewish philosopher.  This truth echoes across the millennia. Life is hard, and in varying degrees, we have all experienced its hardships. Being kind is gratifying. Although it is not easy, it is simple. It is a task from which we are not free to desist and it is an investment that yields immediate returns. In a cynical world where it is easy to feel disempowered in the face of great evil and suffering, it is random acts of kindness that can empower us: both as givers and as receivers. Be kind to our world, to others and last but not least, to yourself. When saying the ashamnu’s and al chet’s, don’t literally ‘beat yourself up’ but rather gently knock at the gates of your heart. ‘Pitchu li sha’arei tzedek, avo vam odeh Yah’—‘Open for me the gates of righteousness and I will come there and thank God’ (Psalm  118:19).

 

Open yourself up to the rhythms of compassion and attune to the music of your heart. Then perhaps we may one day discover that there is more love to go round than we had expected. That we can build up our world through this grace, this abundant love, stone by stone, brick by brick, layer by layer. And then we might find that acts of loving kindness are indeed the pillars of Creation after all.

You might be surprised yet.

estherhugenholtz: Writing (Writing)

Be Here Now

 

Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Adonai eloheichem…’ – ‘Today, you all stand before the Eternal your God’. These are the momentous opening words of our Torah reading. This apparently simple verse encapsulates this entire, spectacular Yom Kippur reading. In fact, the first word—hayom, today—is a fractal, a miniature, of this Parashah and perhaps even of Judaism. Let us look at four possible ways of approaching this seemingly ordinary sentence and examining the function this one remarkable word, ‘today’.

 

Firstly Today can speak to us plainly and simply refer to the time of the narrative. In that case, ‘today’ is a finite point in history, over three thousand years ago, when Moses addressed the people just before they crossed the Jordan and entered the land of Israel. The focus is on ‘nitzavim’—to stand firmly as the Jewish people, rooted in history.

If we read it like this, ‘today’ is an ancient Declaration of Independence which determined the fate of an entire people. ‘Today’ recounts the girdling of loins and the unsheathing of swords. The people are gathered, from the lowest water bearer to the highest chief. They stand united: before God, their leader and the vision that binds them all. Empires may rise and fall. The ancient Egyptians will only leave us their pyramids and the ancient Greeks only their philosophy. But Judaism stands as strong today as it did then. Today is history.

 

Today can also speak to us metaphorically. According to the Baal Shem Tov, the first Chassidic Rebbe, the ‘Today’ in Parashat Nitzavim refers to the judgment on Rosh haShanah. The key word is ‘Adonai eloheichem’—the Eternal your God. Today is Yom Kippur, the day on we enter into profound relationship with God, the day on which the Judgment is sealed. We stand before our Creator to contemplate our shortcomings, analyse our deeds and accept consequence. Today, we are purified through prayer, repentance and fasting. Today we travel through the most sacred time of our Jewish calendar. We wear white and deny ourselves food and drink so that way may inherit the quality of angels. We brush up against death and embrace life. Today is timeless.

 

In our third approach of hayom, Today is tomorrow. Today is Redemption. ‘You all stand before the Eternal your God’ is prophecy. Only when our hearts are truly united in purpose, as illustrated by the important word ‘kulchem’—all of us, then the lion shall down with the lamb and the wood hewer can stand on equal footing with the elder, the parent and child, husband and wife. This is the day where ‘lo yisa goy el goy cherev, v’lo yilmedu od milchamanation shall not lift up sword against nation and neither shall they learn war anymore’ (Micah 4:3, Isaiah 2:4). It is the sheathing of swords and the drying of tears. It is the time of the Great Aleinu, when we stretch our imaginations to imagine a redeemed world where the specters of hunger and war plague us no longer. Or as the British band Queen sang, ‘if every leaf on every tree could tell a story that would be a miracle, if every child on every street, had clothes to wear and food to eat, that’s a miracle, if all God’s people could be free to live in perfect harmony, it’s a miracle.’ Today is the future.

 

And yet, out of all these readings, the one I find most compelling is my final and fourth reading. Today—hayom—refers to exactly what it is: the present. If we are gathered here now, before the Eternal our God…

It is not only a description of the past, nor only a vision of the future. It is not only an encounter with eternity, rather it is Now.

The traditional commentators, who analysed each word of the Torah, conclude that ‘there is no beginning or end to the Torah’. What they mean by this is not that the stories are out of sequence but rather, that there is an eternal quality to these stories. The cadence of Biblical Hebrew, with its mixture of present, past and future tenses, forces us to take the Torah on her own terms—she speaks to us still today. We can relate to the characters and their stories, their blessings and travails. In each of our communities, there is a Sarah struggling with infertility, there is an Isaac who suffers in silence, there is a Jacob who experiences personal growth. There is a Moses who rises to leadership, despite apparent handicaps, there is a Miriam who gets unjustly punished for delivering legitimate criticism, there is a Rivka who struggles with the meaning of life.

 

But the Torah is not only relevant because her stories still compel us but also because Judaism offers us a methodology of the present. Judaism forces us into the reality of Now. As our Parashah states, ‘ki hamitzvah hazot asher anochi metzavecha hayom lo niflet hi mimcha v’lo rechokah hi: lo bashamayim hi’—for this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, or to remote. It is not in heaven…’ God doesn’t want to set us up for failure or taunt us with what isn’t. Rather, God wants us to reach and touch and experience and live. In the words of Psalms 34:8, ‘taste and see that God is Good’. Life is to be lived in the full and sanctified in our midst. Our lives are not in Heaven, or beyond the sea so that we may be disempowered and feel small. No, today is tangible and real, close to us, in our mouths and our hearts, so that we may live it and be fully present.

 

Not only does Judaism want us to be fully present, Judaism forces us to be fully present. We make blessings over the rainbow and the sea, over freshly baked bread hot from the oven and a juicy, blushing apple. We make blessings upon seeing long-lost friends and upon hearing good news. So many of our traditions, rituals and laws are geared towards sensitizing us to the sanctity of life. We do not dwell on death or hypothesize about the Hereafter. What matters is the work of our hands and the path before our feet. When we enshroud ourselves in our tallit, we feel soft wool brush against our skin. When we light Shabbat candles with our loved ones, we feel the weight of a week lift from our shoulders as we celebrate rest with loved ones. When we make a conscious decision about what we do and do not eat, we empathise with the farmers who grow our food and the animals which are slaughtered for our nourishment.

To be present is to be engaged. It means that we can open our Bibles and prayer books and let the words invite us into an ancient conversation. It means that we can engage in lively discussion with our friends and fellow congregants. We can be angry and hurt and disappointed by our Judaism, just as we can fall in love with it and cherish it and feel moved to tears by it. Either way, it means that we care. Caring means we have the courage and strength to make our Judaism fully our own. It means that we are committed to studying and learning and doing. Or as the Children of Israel answered upon receiving the Torah: ‘na’aseh v’nishmah: we will do and we will listen’.

To be engaged is to be responsible. It means that we embrace our heritage and that we wrestle with it, warts and all. We are anguished over injustices and cruelties perpetrated by our texts and our communities. We vow to change and renew and open up when Judaism shuts the doors on so many of us, when it locks out women or homosexuals or minorities. To be responsible is to be covenanted. ‘L’av’r’cha bivrit Adonai eloheicha uvalato asher Adonai eloheicha koret imcha HAYOM.’—‘…to enter into the sworn covenant which the Eternal One your God makes with you this day.’

 

Our covenant is based on choice. Free will is a cardinal value and undeniable reality in our religion. ‘Hachayim v’hamavet natati lefaneicha, habracha v’hak’lalah u’bacharta bachayim l’ma’an ticheyeh ata v’zarecha’—‘I have set before you life or death, blessing or curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live.’

The famous Jewish philosopher Maimonides reminds us of this unshakable truth in his Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentence 5:1-3: “Freedom of choice has been granted to every man: if he desires to turn toward a good path and be righteous, the ability to do so is in his hands; and if he desires to turn toward an evil path and be wicked, the ability to do so is in his hands...".

 

It is the right and the responsibility to choose that makes us distinctly human and that makes our Judaism real, modern and genuine. We all have to choose, just as we all stood at the foot of the mountain to hear the lightning and see the thunder. Being in the moment, fully present, awake, covenanted and committed—is what gives our lives value. Cherish every moment, savour every breath. Sit here on this day, this holy and awesome day. Do not only think, but breathe, feel, touch. Make yourself aware of your surroundings and of your community, of the chair that you sit in, the melodies that ring in your eyes and the love that envelops you. Hold the experience of loved ones in your life and the bittersweet memories of those who are no longer with you. Let the sun warm your skin and the breeze stroke your hair.

Let this Yom Kippur wash over you, the songs and words, the tunes and silences, the standing and the sitting, the hunger and thirst, the love and the awe. It is all real and all holy. This day is a mosaic of past, present and future. Judaism speaks to our history and our Redemption, it speaks to our sense of eternity. But most of all, let it speak to us today.

 

Our Parashah ends with an injunction to love God. How can we be forced to love God? In fact, can we know how we love Something that most of us find hard to define, to grasp or to understand? And yet, Torah provides us with the answer. Love is never abstract, it is always real. Be present in this awe-inspiring world and cast off the sin of indifference. Love will come from a tactile appreciation of life as it is. Let us set this day before our eyes. Be. Here. Now.

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Esther Hugenholtz

January 2011

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