Love

Why Teshuvah Preceded the Creation of the World

A brief thought about Teshuvah before the final Shabbat of 5778.

A medieval midrash teaches that there were a variety of things that were created even before the creation of the world, and among them: Teshuvah [turning-to-God-in-repentance]. (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, chapter 3)

It seems anomalous; after all, I might have thought that it was a person’s responsibility to turn or not to turn. Free will and all that. What in heaven does it mean to say that “Teshuvah” was created before the beginning of the world?

I suspect that the answer lies in relationships, and that’s the reason I always share this particular midrash with couples who are getting married. To say that “Teshuvah” is a preexisting condition means that forgiveness is built-in to the fabric of a relationship.

It means: before you even hurt me, I’m already prepared to forgive you. For any relationship to stand the test of time, there are some prerequisites: We know that I’m going to hurt you with occasional careless words; periodic absorption in my own problems when you need my attention; a subconsciously derived aggression or inappropriate silence when a word is needed. These things will happen, and you’re going to do the same to me. Hopefully not often; hopefully our relationship will always grow and deepen.

And to say that Teshuvah preexists our relationship means that because we love each other, forgiveness and wanting to repair damages even before they happen are built-in to the relationship.

This is the nature of a loving partnership. This is what it means to be a real friend, a lover, a parent, a brother or sister, or a son or daughter: I already forgive you.

The midrash goes a giant step further. At this season, it is as if God says these things to each of us, too: I know you're not perfect; the potential to repair and forgive is part of the fabric of our relationship.

Of course, in an era of scandalous abuses and #MeToo, we have to qualify: we’re not talking about abuse or exploitation or vicious lies here; the Teshuvah called for in those situations is much more complicated. But this is about the petty slights and daily slips that cause hurt to the most important people in our lives, the mistakes that each of us makes because we are human and thus, by definition, imperfect.

Every relationship is an interaction between two different worlds (as we learn from Sanhedrin 4:5). But even before each world was created, Teshuvah was there. Otherwise, real relationship would be impossible, and each of us would be an isolated vessel, utterly alone to navigate the void. Teshuvah makes us human.

Borrowed Dresses: A Thought about Tu B'Av, the Festival of Love

Tu B’Av is a return to normalcy: Just six days after the Tisha B’Av fast that marks the destruction that senseless hate can wreak, Tu B’Av (the fifteenth of the month of Av) is a day devoted to love.

According to the Mishnah, Israel in antiquity had a minor summer festival when young women would dance in the fields, inviting young men to court them:

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said:

There were no festivals more joyful for Israel than the 15th of Av and the Day of Atonement, for on [Tu B’Av] the maidens of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white garments – borrowed, so not to shame anyone who didn’t have a garment of her own. Each of the garments required previous ritual immersion. And the maidens of Jerusalem would go out and dance in the vineyards.

 This is what they would say: “Young man! Pay close attention and see whom you are about to choose. Don’t be seduced by beauty, but pay heed to a virtuous family.” After all, “Grace is deceptive and beauty is illusory, but a woman who fears God is to be praised” (Prov. 31:30)…  
                         Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8

אָמַר רַבָּן שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן גַּמְלִיאֵל, לֹא הָיוּ יָמִים טוֹבִים לְיִשְׂרָאֵל כַּחֲמִשָּׁה עָשָׂר בְּאָב וּכְיוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים, שֶׁבָּהֶן בְּנוֹת יְרוּשָׁלַיִם יוֹצְאוֹת בִּכְלֵי לָבָן שְׁאוּלִין, שֶׁלֹּא לְבַיֵּשׁ אֶת מִי שֶׁאֵין לוֹ. כָּל הַכֵּלִים טְעוּנִין טְבִילָה. וּבְנוֹת יְרוּשָׁלַיִם יוֹצְאוֹת וְחוֹלוֹת בַּכְּרָמִים. וּמֶה הָיוּ אוֹמְרוֹת, בָּחוּר, שָׂא נָא עֵינֶיךָ וּרְאֵה, מָה אַתָּה בוֹרֵר לָךְ. אַל תִּתֵּן עֵינֶיךָ בַנּוֹי, תֵּן עֵינֶיךָ בַמִּשְׁפָּחָה. שֶׁקֶר הַחֵן וְהֶבֶל הַיֹּפִי, אִשָּׁה יִרְאַת ה' הִיא תִתְהַלָּל

There’s so much here in this passage—it seems so against-the-grain of what we might imagine ancient Israel was like, including the young women, in this case, controlling their own romantic destinies. I’ve written about Tu B’Av and love in Judaism, and Rabbi Tzvi Sinensky has posted this excellent essay about the festival’s possible biblical roots.

It’s easy to skip over that passage about the “borrowed white garments.” What an astonishing custom that is: on a day of frivolity and frolicking, the young women of Jerusalem were determined that none of their peers would be hurt or humiliated while the celebrations were happening. So none would wear her own dress; instead, they would share with each other, including those from poor families who couldn’t afford a dress at all. This was how Jews celebrated.

I wonder how this principle might apply today. Our celebrations have become disasters of consumption. The more money you have, the more elaborate the celebration seems to have become. Somehow, brisses turned into bar/bat mitzvahs, bar/bat mitzvahs turned into weddings, and weddings turned into… what? Papal ordinations?

Each May in Boston, it seems that every Jewish organization has its “Annual Dinner,” where much-needed funds are raised to finance the crucial work that these non-profits, day schools, and synagogues perform year-round. And yet… I know many Jewish professionals dread that time of the year, when night after night they have to experience this season of conspicuous consumption, when many of the values of modesty, equality, and integrity go out the window in pursuit of the big donors’ money. One (important) organization, for instance, is known for charging substantial dollars for a seat at its annual dinner—and for those who pay less, but are committed to the cause, there are tables in an entirely different room from the rest of the donors and speakers! They get to watch the event videostreamed to them in their "annex."

But enough grumpiness. I’m thinking about the daughters of Jerusalem, and what we might learn from them. They teach us, for instance, why Tzedakah organizations that feed hungry people need to serve dinner on china, and use real utensils, even though plastic utensils are so much easier to clean up. It’s why food programs need fresh baked pies and chocolate chip cookies, not just soup and a green vegetable.

It’s why it’s not enough to donate your old clothes—by definition, clothes that you wouldn’t wear any more—or your old furniture, or old video games, or anything else. Laudable as those gifts may be (they certainly shouldn't be thrown out), we're supposed to reach for a higher standard. Maimonides had this nailed 900 years ago. He said that the definition of “Love your neighbor as yourself” was this: “What I want for myself, I want for other people. And what I don’t want for myself, I don’t want [to happen to] them.” (Sefer HaMitzvot, Positive Mitzvah #206)

Can you imagine a high school prom—where all the students, boys and girls alike, wear “borrowed clothes” from one another, so that no one is trying to outdo their neighbor? No one would show up in a fancier car than anyone else—not only because it’s in extremely bad taste, but also because they wouldn’t want to humiliate anyone whose family couldn’t afford otherwise.

Can you imagine how different synagogue life would be—especially in the notorious “Bar Mitzvah Year”? Rich families would no longer say, “If I’ve got it, why shouldn’t I flaunt it?” Because they would understand that exorbitant spending puts pressure on all the other families in a community, making others think, “I suppose that’s the community standard that is expected of us.”

Of course, every child in the class would be invited to everyone else’s birthday party—because no one would ever want to have someone else be hurt on the occasion of their celebration.

I'd be curious to know other ways in which readers would apply this principle. Can you imagine how different, how sensitive, how empathetic our communities could be?

I can imagine it. Call it a hippie-socialist-Bernie-kibbutz fantasy if you want, but I'll take the Sages and the young women of Jerusalem from long ago, and their definition of what a "Festival of Love" really should be. 

Elegy for… a Character: A Tzedakah Story

Even a poor person—one who is sustained by Tzedakah funds—
is required to give Tzedakah to another person.

Maimonides, Mishneh Torah
Laws of Giving to Poor People 10:5
 

My friend Renee was a character. She was well known in our town; you couldn’t miss her. Her frizzy salt-and-pepper hair was often bound in a pigtail like a schoolgirl’s. She drove an SUV that was constantly breaking down, packed to the roof with the telltale possessions of an inveterate hoarder. She had weary eyes that conveyed years of adventures.

She lived on the precipice of homelessness. For a while she stayed in emergency shelters—scary places that she would recount with stark tales. In recent years, she found more stable housing, finding cheap rooms to rent in residential homes around Natick. And she knew how to work the system, making her rounds to get the food, gas money, and, especially, the money for medications that she needed.

I suppose that’s where I came in. She started dropping in on me years ago at the synagogue where I worked. At first she came for Tzedakah money, knowing that people gave me funds to distribute in emergency situations. But she would linger, telling me stories, asking about my family, and, I think, looking for some human contact that can be the harshest thing people who are very poor lack.

Like many such characters, she tested the nerves of those who didn’t “get” her. When she began to show up at the synagogue—ensconced in one of the wealthiest Zip Codes in America—some people whispered behind her back. Being Jewish herself, she accepted my invitation to come to Friday night services. Sometimes the bar/bat mitzvah families with out-of-town guests would murmur about the woman who looked funny and took too much of the food that was offered before the service began. The staff grumbled when she would sit on the couch outside my office, waiting without an appointment to grab a few minutes of my time. Hebrew school parents and kids kept their distance.

She was funky. She looked funky, she talked funky, and sometimes she smelled funky. Initially our relationship was based on shnorring—she needed money, and she knew that I was usually reliable to help her pay her heating bill during the cold winter, or fill a prescription for her urgently-needed heart medicine.

Sometimes she exasperated me. I know, of course, about the social service agencies in our area that are there to provide a safety net. I begged her—I insisted—that she connect with them. She would reply that her nonconformist hippie soul wouldn’t be part of their “system.” That made me crazy; I threatened to cut her off if she didn’t take their assistance. But she would inevitably show up with a bill for heart medication, and of course I would help pay for it.

After a while, the dynamic of our relationship changed. She knew I was going through some rough times personally, so one day she invited me to lunch. I demurred—where in the world would she get the money from?—but she insisted. So a few days later, she took me out to a local diner. I’m sure we got a few stares. But the gesture meant so much to me: she considered me a friend; she knew I was down, and she treated. She didn’t even let me cover the tip.       

Yes, she was a character. She wasn’t invisible, but she became one of those offbeat folk who populate a suburban town who are tolerated as long as they don’t become too much of a nuisance.

But because she was my friend, I knew things that others didn’t.

I knew that she had a Master’s degree in counseling from the University of Wisconsin. I knew about her daughter at American University, of whom she was very proud. I knew that she had spent time in Israel, and spoke a limited but comprehensible Hebrew. And I knew she still saw herself as a “Sixties Person”—committed to volunteerism and social activism. She once told me stories about working on the Clearwater Project on the Hudson River with Pete and Toshi Seeger.

But now I’ll share something with you that very few people knew (including her daughter, until I told her). She couldn’t stand just being on the receiving end of the cycle of caring. “This isn’t me,” she’d say, insisting that her younger self was alive and well inside her rather emaciated and graying body.

So one day she handed me a large folder. “I know you see a lot of hurting folks throughout the course of the day,” she said. “So when you feel it’s appropriate, please give people one of these.”

Inside the folder were ten envelopes labeled “For You.” In each one was a handwritten personalized note. Each was a gentle message of compassion and tenderness. For instance:

To remind you
How unique and

Wonderful You
Are—
every day,
every hour

—And to wish you
extra energy for the things you’re
currently tackling…

Renees Gift.jpg

Or:

Please accept this
as a symbol

of some
great things
comin’ your way—
for example
Brightness
Fairness
HAPPINESS…
Enjoy your
wonderful
future.

And enclosed in each card was a $2 bill. (A $2 bill!) The instructions were not to keep this money for yourself, but to take it and use it to brighten someone else’s day.

Look at what an extraordinary Mitzvah that is. She did it completely anonymously; she left it to me to identify the adults, teens, or kids who needed cheering-up. I was not to tell the recipients where it came from; it was just from “a friend, someone who cares.” And the cards were designed to trigger a chain reaction of compassion and human kindness. This is Tzedakah—but Tzedakah with the personal touch, rooted in compassion and a desire to make a connection with people who may be desperately lonely.

Renee died last week; her heart finally gave out, surely not helped by the on-the-edge lifestyle she was living. There weren’t obituaries in the paper or online; few people noticed. Many who encountered her over the years may have forgotten her, or figured that she just skipped town. But she deserves a better memorial.

I know many more juicy stories that she shared with me, but I won’t tell them here. Suffice to say that she was a character, and she lived out the Rambam’s principle that everyone’s (everyone’s) task is to bring kindness and caring into the world, not indifference and lies. I just wanted to say that she was my friend, I’ll miss her, and she made a difference.

All You Need is Love

It’s mid-summer and Love Is All Around.

2017 is the 50th anniversary of the “Summer of Love,” and The Beatles spearheaded the moment in July 1967 with “All You Need is Love.” The song was recorded as Great Britain’s contribution to “Our World,” the first live global television transmission: 400 million people in 25 countries watched John, Paul, George, and Ringo sing:

Nothing you can know that isn’t known
Nothing you can see that isn’t shown
Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be

It’s easy

All you need is love
All you need is love
All you need is love

Love is all you need

Love is also in the air because it’s Tu B’Av, the date on the Jewish calendar devoted to love. (And not the rabbis’ kind of love—you know, “God’s love for the people of Israel.” It’s about the good kind.)

Tu B’Av, the 15th day of the month of Av, falls just six days after the bleakest day on the calendar, Tisha B’Av, as if to offer comfort and consolation after that day’s commemoration of tragedy and destruction.

Tu B’Av is unmentioned in the Bible, but appears briefly in the Talmud, Ta’anit 26b and 30b-31a. There we are told:

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said:
There were no days as joyous for the people of Israel as the Fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur, for on those days the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white clothes—borrowed, so as not to embarrass one who did not have [any of her own]. 

…They would go out and dance in the vineyards. And what would they say? “Young man! Raise your eyes and see what you are choosing for yourself. Do not set your eyes on [surface] beauty, but rather on [a good] family.

[As it says in the Bible,]
Grace is deceptive, beauty is illusory
But a woman who fears God is to be praised.
And it further says,
Extol her for the fruit of her hands,
And let her works praise her in the gates. (Proverbs 31:30-31).

So early Israel had a day devoted to frolicking and partnering up, long before your mother’s friend had “someone she wanted you to meet.” Note especially that the Talmud’s description of “a good family” has nothing to do with money or social status. My favorite part of this description is how the young women of Jerusalem would borrow their festive clothes from one another, so that there was no rich or poor on this day, no humiliation or shame for the Cinderella who isn’t invited to the white collar criminals’ ball.

The Talmud goes on to link this day to events that happened in Israel’s past—days when relief from suffering came to a blessed end, and normal life could resume. One Sage says Tu B’Av was the date when it was determined that members of different tribes of Israel could intermarry with one another. Another Rabbi says that it was the day that Israel was permitted to marry members of the tribe of Benjamin, who had been declared off-limits after the intertribal war described in Judges 19-21. And a third opinion says that Tu B’Av was the day when the deaths of the Israelites in the wilderness—the generation that was doomed to die and not enter the Land of Israel—came to an end; a new generation was now established and they could prepare to enter the Land.  (For all five explanations of Tu B’Av, see Ta’anit 30b-31a.)

It is wonderful to simply note that ancient Israel, like so many other cultures, had a day devoted to love. But what is “love” in the Torah, anyway?

Jews have many words for love, just as, so they say, Eskimos have many words for snow. The most common is ahavah, a word that appears frequently as a noun and as a command (“v’ahavta”). But many have wondered: how can the Torah command love?

I think the key is to understand what, exactly, the Bible means by ahavah. We are, after all, commanded to love many things:  God; fellow Israelites; the stranger (= the immigrant, the minority in our society); and most famously, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).  What does it mean?

Biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom explains that “love” in the Torah is not simply an emotion. Love necessarily entails action:

How can love be commanded? The answer simply is that the verb ‘ahav signifies not only an emotion or attitude, but also deeds… The ger [minority] is “loved” by providing him with food and shelter (Deut. 10:18-19). God is “loved” by observing His commandments (Deut. 11:1, 6:5-6,9) and God, in turn, “loves” Israel by subduing its enemies (Deut. 7:8).  (Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22, p.1653).

That is to say: of course love is deeply rooted as an emotional complex of compassion, affection, desire, gratitude, and nurturing. But the Bible’s definition of love demands behavior that stems from those feelings.

All of which makes perfect sense. If someone says they love you, you expect that means something more than simply sending flashes of warmth in your direction; it means you can expect certain kindnesses and acts from that person. When my wife, whom I love, needs something, it is a privilege to put my own will aside and to get her what she lacks. When my children, whom I love, hurt, then I hurt.

Or phrased in the negative—if someone disappears in our time of need, or speaks cruelly behind our back, or simply doesn’t have time for us, we may suspect that person didn’t really love us in the first place.

Of course, we are human beings, and by nature we are imperfect and doomed to disappoint. So we should hasten to add that falling short and forgiveness should be built-in parts of a genuine loving relationship as well. Some of the actions that love demands include what the Torah calls tochecha - critique and correction, in order to help the object of our love be the best that they can be. (This is an important part of what we mean by loving one's country.) We believe in teshuvah, the opportunity to return and repair. The point is, “love” demands both presence and action in addition to deep-seated emotion.

So was Lennon זצ״ל right when he sang, “All You Need is Love”? We need more than that. We need justice. And truth. And the ability to support ourselves in a dignified way. We need a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. And God knows we need more peace.

But if “love” is a multidimensional thing that includes feeling and acting on those feelings, maybe Lennon was on to something. If love spurs us to action, maybe Love Is All You Need.

Happy Tu B’Av!