Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Web We Weave

A quick thought for this week from the recent pages of the daf yomi study.  The rabbis were arguing and one commented regarding a decision of a colleague he thought the others too ready to accept without question, "must we all weave from the same web?"  I was struck by the image as well as the meaning.  In this period of elections upcoming in America, in our lives in general, it is worthwhile to remember that the tapestry of life is strongest and most beautiful when many patterns are a part of it.   Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Benson 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Parshat Shoftim - It Takes Two (or Three)

See how well this goes from the Mets game... This week's portion focuses on how to build a community and the difficulties inherent to any group composed of, well, any more than one person! One striking passage deals with the rules of testimony in a court case. We are told that a person cannot be convicted but on the testimony of two or even three witnesses. Today, this speaks to us as advice for whenever we encounter a difficult or delicate social interaction. Very often two heads are better than one. In that instance in which we might not appreciate all points of view or issues, a second or third person may very well help us to keep to the right track. So we see in this one rule a microcosm for all activities in a community and how the Torah helps us guard against our own potential for being human when it comes to how we interact with other human beings. Shabbat Shalom from Flushing! Rabbi Benson

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Dine Out on That - Thoughts from Parshat Re'eh

What happens to you when you get the check for a meal out?  Or finish getting your hair cut, or at any of those other times when a tip is customary?  Back in high school or college, meals with my friends were paid for by everyone putting money into a crumpled pile on the table.  In those situations, I'm not so sure that leaving a generous tip was foremost in our minds (just covering the bill was often challenging enough).  But life has shown me that the negative effects on all involved when an expected, deserved, gratuity is omitted or short-changed are no small matter. 

We learn about just how serious an issue this should be to us in our Torah portion, Re'eh, this Shabbat.  In it we learn of the rules for setting free a Jewish indentured servant.  It says (Dt. 15:13-14), " shall not send him away empty-handed; adorn him generously..."     

The Torah commentary, Sefer Ha-Chinuch counts two mitzvot here, #481 - not to send away the Hebrew servant empty-handed and #482 - to give a bonus to him when he goes, explaining the second one:

“...It is our splendor and glory that we should have compassion on a person who served us, and we should give him of what we own as an act of loving-kindness, apart from what we stipulated with him to give him as his wages. It is something understandable by intelligence and there is no need to continue at length about it...”
When I first encountered this I was really struck.  Applying the words, "splendor and glory" to what I'm doing when I leave a tip was transformative for me.  Me, a person who can often feel, not so much cheap, but just always worried about expenses, this broke open for me a new way of relating to the person who had helped me out.  I don't say that anyone who gets my table is going to find a gold coin waiting for them, but they are way more likely now to get that 20% from me than I would have been as likely to give before.

And this is a lesson with broader application, too.  It's not just that leaving a tip is, kind of literally, a mitzvah, but that through the language of mitzvah the notion of leaving a tip was transformed into something really meaningful for me.  And that should be the goal of religious life generally.  It's not to become worried over crazy details, its to recognize in the mundane, in the simple, the potential for holiness.

Go dine out on that!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Benson

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Love & Hate - Parshat Ekev

Less than a week and I am still current with the Daf Yomi, daily Talmud study.  Only about 2705 pages left to go!  It has been a wonderful experience as every page offers sparks of wisdom and inspiration.  

Take for example the recent story about roosters.  Roosters, we're told, can give away through their behavior (by standing on one leg when their crests seem to lose their color), the times when God is angry with the world.  Rabbi Joshua ben Levi was constantly assaulted by a certain heretic who constantly questioned and insulted him.  Finally, to get even, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi thought he'd get a rooster, watch it for when it showed that God was angry, and at that moment pronounce a curse on his enemy, which would surely doom him.  But - he fell asleep.  The rabbi concluded from this, "it is not proper conduct to curse people, even if they are wicked, for 'God's mercy (chesed) is over all his creations.'" 

Would that our world understood what Rabbi Joshua ben Levi understood, that even that person who just bothers you to know end, let along the person who is truly bad, is still one of God's creations.  And that if God extends His mercy to such people, then we should, too.  

In fact, as we learn in this week's Torah Portion, remembering what it means for us that we enjoy God's love, and that we should emulate it - that's pretty much what it's all about.  Our portion puts it like this, "If you observe these laws and are careful to follow them, then the Lord your God will keep His covenant of loving-mercy (et ha-brit ve-et ha-chesed) with you, as He swore to your ancestors. He will love you and bless you and increase your numbers."

Sadly this week, we live in a world that has yet one more example of what happens when this fundamental teaching is not understood.  Our prayers should be with Sikh community of Oak Creek, Wisconsin who suffered great loss at the hands of an evil man who let his fears and hatred of the unknown other lead him to such terrible actions.  That crime should remind us just how much work we have to do to make God's covenant of love, of mercy, alive in this world.

This week, when we wish each other a Shabbat Shalom, let it be a prayer that all God's Creations can enjoy God's Loving Mercy, and God's Peace.

Shabbat Shalom,

Aaron Benson

Thursday, August 2, 2012

It Can All Count - Parshat Va'etchanan

It has been an exciting week in the world of Jewish learning.  The first volume of the new edition of the Talmud by Koren Publications with commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is on bookshelves now (and if you don't know what those are, an iPad app is soon to be released,  And this is just in time, because this week is also the start of a new seven year cycle of the study of one page of Talmud a day called the Daf Yomi.  

The first volume of the Talmud is Berachot, Blessings.  It begins with a discussion of the rules for reciting the Shema prayer.  In yet another convenient coming together of things on the Jewish calendar, this week's Torah Portion, Va'etchanan includes the Shema.

The Shema, in which we declare our belief in the unity of God, and in its following paragraphs we speak of how we will make our actions reflect our belief in God, is the quintessential Jewish prayer, precisely because it sets up that connection - that what we feel in our hearts must guide our hands.  That the spirit as well as the body equally serve God.

And what is even more compelling is something we learn in a comment about one line of this prayer.  We famously pray that we will love God with "all our heart".  One understanding of this (which Daf Yomi students should get to in about two months as it is on Berachot page 61b) is that we must serve God with both our evil or selfish inclination (yetzer ha-ra) as well as with our good or giving inclination (yetzer ha-tov).

I take this to mean that for us as Jews, what is more important, what is most important, is not so much judging if something is bad or something is good, or judging if everything about me is so great or not, but whether or not we can put it to use in the service of God.  If we can find in it some spark of the Holy.  

Bad things happen to you?  They may not, as I hate to hear people say, have happened "for a reason" but that doesn't mean you still can't find meaning or inspiration in them.  Are there bad things about you?  Turn those traits towards God's ends.  Feel stressed out and anxious all the time?  Let that be what motivates you to say your daily prayers.  It can be meditative, and it's what God wants of you.  And the list of course goes on.

So take some of the pressure off yourself.  Don't worry that not everything in your life is great.  And don't worry if everything about you is great - worry about how you can take all of it, and put to God's uses.

Shabbat Shalom,

Aaron Benson