Shabbat Zakhor: When a Lie is Right

The word Zakhor, which is the special name attached to this Shabbat before Purim, means “remember.” We are commanded to remember to blot out the name of Amalek, a historical enemy of our people who is seen recurring in those who have tried to eradicate the Jewish people from the earth: from Haman in the Purim story, to more recent villains, we see them as the personification of the evil we do to each other in human history.
The historian Hayim Yosef Yerushalmi wrote that it is a curious thing, to be commanded to remember to forget, for that is what we’re being told to do: forget hate, and work for the day when no one in the whole world with remember what that word means.
The battle against hate takes interesting forms. One of them is the use of a human stratagem which is all to often misused: the lie.
Consider if you will the following story from our ancient tradition, focusing upon Rabbi Meir, who lived in the Galilee during the Roman occupation (the time of the development of the Mishnah, the first code of Jewish law).
Rabbi Meir used to teach Torah every Erev Shabbat. One evening his teaching went longer than usual, and a woman who came regularly to hear him came home late to find her husband waiting for her. He was angry and refused to hear her explanation, that she had been at Torah study, and her apology, having not wanted to miss the end of the lesson and, perhaps, to have seemed to be disrespectful to the teacher.
“I will not accept your explanation nor your apology,” he said to her, “unless you go back to that Rabbi and spit in his face.”
The woman refused, and the two of them did not speak for one week, then two, then three.
Her friends came to her and asked her to take them to hear the Rabbi’s Torah teaching. Rabbi Meir had heard the story, and when he saw her, he immediately said to her,
“I am suffering from an eye condition, and have been told that someone must spit in my eye to cure it. Would you mind doing so for me?”
The woman spit in his eye.
“Seven times,” he said. She did so.
“Now go to your husband,” said Rabbi Meir, “and tell him this: you told me to spit at him once, but I did so seven times.” (VaYikra Rabbah 9.9)
This is how great the obligation is to make peace, our Jewish tradition insists: sometimes you may have to work around people’s emotions by allowing them to believe they’ve won the argument even when they’re wrong. In other words, sometimes it’s right to lie. Jewish ethical tradition insists that lying is sometimes the only way to peace.
This kind of lying is employed, Hillel taught, when we praise all brides as beautiful, or that the thing you just bought is wonderful (even though I don’t really like it or think you got a good deal). This is lying for the sake of someone’s feelings – which is the first, foundational building block of a caring community. It is not even really lying as much as it is insisting that there is more than one standard for beauty, or for appreciation of a belonging.
Notice that Rabbi Meir isn’t getting anything out of this lie which he creates. If anything, he is retreating from the insistence on the truth of the situation, for there is something greater here, and that is the well-being of a human relationship.
Something greater than truth? Yes. According to a midrash, the truth is that human beings should never have been created, and G*d chose to ignore that truth in order to create us, despite all our capacity to destroy, for the sake of all our capacity to love.
Ethical Jewish lying may thus be defined by the following parameters:
1. it is not a lie for personal gain or avoidance of consequences
2. it respects that some situations are beyond the reach of cool, calm, considered logical truth
3. it therefore allows a meta truth to triumph over a situational challenge
Meir’s lie allows the truth of the relationship to continue. Not everything has to be said, and not every point has to be forced.
Another story in the Talmud attached to Rabbi Meir has him making peace between two friends who have argued. He goes to the first and tells him that the other misses her terribly and realizes that she is right. Then he goes to the other, who hears the same thing. While the friends might have said that this was a lie, it was a momentary lie, for the larger truth is that they were friends, and they did miss the friendship.
There is a final, humbling reality key to this kind of compassionate, loving lying if it is to work, which is found in the realization that we don’t know truth anyway. We only know the perspective we have, and there are, we are taught, 70 ways to understand every verse and every word of Torah – and, how much more so, the situations of our lives.
On this Shabbat, give someone the benefit of the doubt. Realize that the truth you believe you know is only your truth, not the truth. And consider whether you might be using a truth you think you know as a weapon, where we are commanded, above all, to love peace, and pursue it.
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Shabbat Terumah: The Gift of Your Life

What are you supposed to be doing with your one, wild, precious life? After all, it will all end, and too soon.
The parashat hashavua this week is Terumah, “gift”, a word that speaks of a free-will offering that comes from the heart, chosen by the giver out of the joy of the chance to share of oneself. Our Israelite ancestors this week are invited to participate in the process of creating the first Jewish sacred space, the mishkan, by bringing any gift that they are moved to bring, from their hearts, of themselves. The gifts range across the entire spectrum of building materials, from the structural to the decorative.
“From everyone whose heart moves them, let them bring gifts….to make a sacred space.” (Exodus 25.2,8)
The most touching part of this story is the eagerness with which the Israelites accept the invitation, bringing so much that Moshe has to call an end to the giving when they have brought more than can possibly be needed. This is the nature of giving from the heart: it overflows boundaries, flows without stint, without calculation, without fear that there somehow won’t be enough to go around.
Every day you give the gift of yourself to the world, and to the people around you. But it can be difficult to give from the heart; the walls we build around ourselves out of fear of being hurt – or fear of the world – can make it hard for the heart’s small chirp of longing to get through. Here I am, it says, here is what I give – please accept this gift from me, of me. And alas, sometimes the fear of our gift’s rejection is well-founded; we can be misunderstood, we can be mis-timed, we can be disappointed.
Yet our parashah conveys the underlying lesson for Jewish community – for all community – here most clearly demonstrated by the fact that the gifts of all Israelites were equally necessary and equally acceptable. No one was told that they were of the wrong gender, age, color, social status, or physical ability to give. All gifts from the heart, expressing the essence of the giver, were equally needed and equally precious.
It is not a holy space unless all give of themselves, from the heart. It is not a holy space until each who gives from the heart is equally celebrated for that gift.
And the promise, if we truly learn to value each other’s gifts of the heart as equally precious? “[G*d] will dwell among them.” (Exodus 25.8) Nothing less than this: the holiness we are capable of creating in our community when we are able to bring, each of us, the true expression of the heart to our community. No holds barred, no walls behind which we can hide, no assuming we will get hurt so that we never really open up….in other words, trust.
Trust is a big word these days, because trust is not a guarantee, and we see that so clearly on a day in which we are mourning another instance of senseless, murderous violence grown out of the dysfunction of our society. Trust is not in outcomes – this is the hard part – but in the glory of trusting in the good that still exists, each day, even on the terrible days when we are left speechless, our arms empty.
It’s almost a form of defiance, to nevertheless, in spite of everything, believe, as Anne Frank famously wrote, that “people are really good at heart,” and to continue to uphold the first rule of Jewish community ethics, which is to assume the best of others, and to give each person the benefit of the doubt. Without that trust, the heart stays closed tight out of fear. Somewhere in the wilderness in which we spend our lives, each of us searches for the holy space that will finally accept us. It is not some other community you have not yet found, where the human beings are somehow more perfect: it is this one in front of you, this one of which you are a part, this one that can love you. This one, in which you can truly live the life you are meant to live.

Shabbat Mishpatim/Shabbat Shekalim: True Judgement

A Jewish congregation is formally known as a kehillah kedoshah, a “holy community.” Such a community lives up to its name when all of us within it find ourselves off balance.
That seems a strange statement at first glance. Yet it is true: as the Israelites begin to define their lives at the foot of Mt Sinai as a covenanted community, and as we continue that process in every place where Jews come together, the mystics teach that we are called upon to give way to Something that pulls at us, unbalancing us off our center, and toward each other.
It’s striking that while every creature and every thing seems to seek stasis and balance, we are taught that judgment is true only if the stasis we seek is constantly tested and retested. A well-known Talmudic image of justice, citing the Tanakh (Amos 7.8), is the plumb line: a weighted string that demonstrates a clear true line as long as it hangs freely. The line is knocked off its center, even as are we, by that which gets in the way – all the little details of life that make it so complicated.
We live in anxious times, and out of our own sense of embattled insecurity can be quick to accuse each other of causing pain. How can we hope to see clearly if the plumb line of our convictions is true? On this Shabbat Mishpatim, the Shabbat of Judgements, this is an urgent question.
 A famous teaching offers these requirements for true judging and judgements:
1. A true decision stands on its own merits against the will of the disputants
2. Good judges cause the Torah to be beloved
3. Four things bring clemency from the Heavenly tribunal: tzedakah, prayer, change of conduct, and change of reputation
4. Stubborn refusal to repent causes disease
(Sefer haMiddot, “The Book of Ethics”, p. 47-54)
We can clearly see from these four aspects of true judgement that justice is not a matter of simple demonstrable right and wrong. All these things can push the plumb line off from clear truth: emotional attachment to one side manipulating a dispute; the effect of judges who are not able to thoughtfully balance context and history; bad behavior on anybody’s part; and the desire to avoid blame at all costs.
On this Shabbat Mishpatim, think about who you blame, and then look for the plumb line of your connection to the kehillah kedoshah, the sacred community, that helps hold us all up. Does it hang true, or are you off-balance, too much hunkered down in yourself and how you are right, pulling that line toward you and away from another? The Jewish plumb line can never hang true until each of us is equally off-balance, leaning as much toward each other as toward our own center. It’s not comfortable, but it is, in the end, the only safe place.
May we be Judged in merit always,
Shabbat shalom

Shabbat Yitro: Jewish Revelation – It’s Not What You Think

Long before either the People of Israel and G*d are ready, they meet at Sinai in this week’s parashah, called Yitro. This parashat hashavua recounts the ultimate Jewish moment of Revelation. This a moment that will be foreverafter enshrined in song and story and liturgy. Yet in our people’s cultural memory we find that there is no clear sense of what really happened. A close reading reveals that much is uncertain.
* Did only Moshe meet G*d, or did all the Israelites see or hear or sense Some Thing?
The Torah itself has a quality of confusion to it here; we read that the Israelites “saw the sounds” of the great crashing boom when G*d appeared at Sinai. Looking at the textual evidence, some Rabbis deduce that all the Israelites heard the actual Voice of G*d, and it blew them many miles away from Sinai. Others suggest that hearing the Voice caused our ancestors to die on the spot, so that they had to be revived by angels. Still other midrashim assert that even Moshe did not encounter G*d’s presence directly, since our holy texts declare that no person can behold G*d and live – and Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our Rabbi, was described as a great leader, but was still only a human being.
* What was the artifact of that meeting – the Aseret haDibrot (the Ten Words), the entire Torah, or something else?
Some midrashim describe Moshe sitting and transcribing Torah, others say G*d wrote it; some seem to indicate the entire Torah, yet the Torah itself describes the two tablets of stone that Moshe brought down from the mountain. How, after all, could the narrative of Moshe’s life – and death – be included in the Torah, not to mention the forty years of wandering, before they even happened? One answer is that Moshe wrote the whole Torah except for that last part – his death – which was written by Joshua, his attendant – but another midrash insists that Moshe himself wrote it, through tears. And what do we do with the midrash that asserts that the entirety of the Torah is only the Name of G*d?
* Finally: what, if one may even ask, was the Revelatory moment like?
One way in which the Rabbis consider this question is by looking at the content of the Aseret haDibrot, the Ten Words that, if not the only content of the Revelation, was certainly central to it. Some of the mitzvot commanded to us, they point out, don’t really need a Revelation from the Supreme Holy Source of All. Any human community left to work it out will certainly learn that in a functional community all must abide by laws such as you shall not murder and you shall not steal. (You can see the full list according to Jewish tradition here – and yes, different religious traditions number them differently!)
  • So our ancestors didn’t need to hear all Ten Words; really, all they needed to hear were the first five, from I Am Your G*d through the fifth, honoring parents, and all the rest could be understood from them.
  • No, says another teacher, you don’t really even need the first five: all you need is to hear I Am Your G*d, conveyed in the first two, to become aware that there is a G*d, a Source and Grounding of life and its meaning, and we could work the other eight out for ourselves.
  • Ah, but did they really need even the first? Maybe, one Rabbi finally suggests, all they – and we – really need to hear is the first word of the first command…no, actually, really only the first letter of that first word.
Which is the letter alef. A letter that makes no sound at all, but is only the awareness that a sound is about to be made. The Jewish approach to revelation does not focus upon establishing the inarguably true content of the Revelation, but upon the key to being able to see that it continues everywhere, in every place. And upon this all depends: the awareness of what is, and what may yet be.