By Rabbi Reisner
A] Rabbi Yehudah haNasi (the Patriarch),the head of the academy which officially promulgated the Mishnah in the Galilee in the year 210 -- (Jews were banned by the Romans from Jerusalem in those years after the destruction in 70 and the Bar Kochba rebellion in 135) -- Rabbi Yehudah had restored the stature of the Jewish community and was recognized as its spokesman by the Roman authorities. He had become a wealthy man, and engaged in correspondence with heads of state.
That much is true.
It also allowed the flourishing of countless stories of how he bested the greatest philosophers in argument (based on the Torah and Tanakh, of course), and showed the grandeur of his faith before Roman emperors and sundry area kings.
The story is told that Artaban, the last King of Parthia, sent Rabbi Yehudah the gift of a priceless pearl [BR 35:3]. It is not clearly told why he might have done this -- and unlike with Governor McDonnell of Virginia, there was no taxing authority to prevent such a gift or demand its disclosure.
But the gift, so goes the story, came with a caveat -- that it should be part of a gift exchange, and the Rabbi Yehudah should send Artaban a similarly valuable gift. A form of cultural exchange, I guess. The establishment of mutual relations. Heads of state do things like that even now.
So Rabbi Yehudah sent Artaban a Mezuzah.
Artaban, we are told, was not pleased. “I sent you a priceless object, and you send me this?”
But Rabbi Yehudah was ready with his biblical response. Speaking of the Torah, Proverbs (8:11) says, “All your possessions cannot equal it.” So he wrote back to Artaban, “All my possessions and all of yours do not equal it in value. Not only that -- You have to protect your treasures, but this, even while you sleep, it is protecting you!”
This same notion, that the Mezuzah is a talisman, that it wards off evil, is found elsewhere in the Talmud’s assertion that you should place a mezuzah at your front door such that it is the first thing you encounter when coming home, so that it should protect you.
“Come and hear,” says Rabbi Chanina, “God’s character differs from that of an earthly king. An earthly king, when he sits inside has guards surrounding him -- but with God, you sit in your home and it is God who stands guard at the entrance.”
We know that in ancient Mesopotamia it was the practice to have magic incantation bowls with texts warding off various demons planted at the threshold.
Even among the Jews, though the rabbis probably looked down on the practice.
One such reads, in part,
You are bound and sealed,
all you demons and devils and liliths…
by the talisman of Metatron,
the great prince…
who vanquishes demons and devils,
black arts and mighty spells
and keeps them away from the house
and threshold of Bahram-Gushnasp, son of Ishtar-Nahid.
Amen, Amen, Selah.
Vanquished are the black arts and mighty spells…
vanquished on earth and vanquished in heaven.
Vanquished are their constellations and stars.
Bound are the works of their hands.
Amen, Amen, Selah.
So it is no surprise, in that culture, that the Mezuzah came to be seen that way.
A wonderful, traditional way to ward off, all the evils that might be lurking “our there”.
But the Mezuzah was a much more ancient practice, and it was not about some superstition -- as kids we called these stupid-stitions -- but about the preeminence of God’s word / God’s Torah in our lives.
Everyone of you knows the Shema -- and it speaks never / not at all about demons or witchcraft -- but only about loving God and teaching Torah to your children / about paying attention to it always -- as you sit at home and go out on the way, by day and by night.
One method, then, of surrounding yourself with Torah, was the posting of part of it on your door [Mezuzah] and even, though we do it only part-time and symbolically today, by wearing it on your person in what has become Tefillin.
Tzitzit, of course, was another such attention grabber -- and though its place in the Torah is elsewhere -- that too was put together with the first paragraph into the Kriat Shma / the Reading of the Shma that is so familiar to all of us. So that in one reading we might mention the three most prominent daily physical symbols of Torah and mitzvot and speak of them day and night, as we are instructed. And see them prominently before us.
So when Proverbs talked about Torah protecting you, the idea was not that it should act as a talisman to ward off evil that exists on the outside. It was addressed to the training of those inside to godliness, so that they would be directed by it aright. Not a shield or a force field but a discipline. That was the Torah and that was the Mezuzah.
B] I tell you these things because of an encounter I had recently with a very pious woman who was pained that she was unable to halt the cancer that took her loved one, though she diligently said Tehillim on his behalf every day.
Yes, certainly she knew that there is no guarantee that our prayers will be answered.
Certainly she knew that his cancer was not a judgment on the life that he had lived and that his cancer would ultimately be receptive -- or not -- to the chemotherapy he received based on the nature of the cancer and factors that medicine is still struggling to understand.
She understood that -- and yet her heart told her that she should invest time in Tehillim.
Rather than fearing the hold of superstition, here, might I not argue that the Tehillim were, for her, like a mezuzah -- an inwardly directed demonstration of her faith. That may be. Indeed, it probably was.
But the genius of our tradition is that it understood that the inwardly directed faith is only as valuable as the outwardly directed actions that it brings in its wake. That is where we differ from a faith that focuses almost exclusively on one’s personal belief and assuring one’s personal road to salvation.
All those who may daven three times a day, insist on glatt kosher everything, use only shmurah matzah and refuse to eat gebrokts, those who buy the most expensive lulav and etrog -- but still manage to manage slum apartments or underpay and overwork their employees have seen the tzitzit and mezuzah yet failed to imbibe their message.
Today’s Haredim in Israel get it so wrong when they insist on studying Torah to the exclusion of building Israel’s society or defending it.
For the rabbis were clear.
For Torah study in the absence of a livelihood, leads to idleness and ultimately to sin.
That is why I was unimpressed by this woman’s Tehillim and much more impressed, indeed, moved and envious, by a creative project in micro-philanthropy by a U of P alumna described in their alumni magazine. This woman, too, Marion Leary, a nursing student, found herself before an apparently insoluble crisis in her job as a clinical assistant, but instead of turning to prayer, she devised a response.
Small, at first, now a bit larger. One that cannot solve the crisis but that at least attempts to help.
Marion Leary kept meeting patients that were uninsured or underinsured, and as such found themselves struggling to raise the funds they needed to be able to undergo the treatments that were being recommended to them.
So she founded “Sink or Swim” -- found on the web at “sinkorswimphiladelhia.org” -- a project she calls “a medical, crowd-funding philanthropy.” She accepts requests for help -- “the idea is not that we are going to pay off all your medical bills, but we’ll be a respite for you -- one month when you don’t have to decide between rent or food in order to pay your medical bills” -- she interviews the patient and verifies their story, then she posts a case on line, one a month, and accepts donations from anyone so moved to help this patient. The average monthly collection is around $2000 -- not much, but something. One month, then she moves on to another patient who is likewise in need.
C] We sit here on Yom Kippur and engage in soul searching and prayer. On Yom Kippur that is a fit thing to do. But that, in itself, is not the thing, unless it leads to tomorrow’s betterment.
That, of course, is precisely Isaiah’s point in the haftarah we just finished reading, as we do at the heart of every Yom Kippur.
“To be sure, they seek me daily,” says Isaiah -- they are saying their Tehillim, fasting their fasts.
But “Is it a fast that I seek, says the Lord,”
What I want is that you “share your bread with the hungry,” that “when you see a naked person you clothe them,” that you “take the poor, the wretched into your care”.
That is precisely what Marion did -- without reference to Isaiah
She did not use rite and ritual to protect her / to shield her from the world, She did not use prayer and Tehilim-zogen to illustrate her pietyBut she went out into the world and did good.
D] The problem, you should be thinking at this point, is that I just do not have the creativity and the facility with computers of a Marion Leary to devise my own organization, I do not have the money to be a major league philanthropist, I do not, frankly, have the energy or time to do even the smaller systemic things that might “feed the hungry and clothe the naked.”
I know. I watch Nina running around founding this environmental project or another and shaking up the world, at least locally, while I sit at my desk writing this sermon, preparing a class, visiting someone in the hospital, helping a Bar Mitzvah compose a dvar Torah.
Pale in comparison.
Did I tell you that I led Shacharit at a shiva minyan the other morning?
Big whoop! (as my son might say).
But Adam Grant, a business professor at the Wharton School, has just published a book that should allow each of us to take heart.
Called “Give and Take,” his research into the environment of the workplace is fully translatable to the various other social niches that all of us occupy.
And he finds that people can be divided into three categories by what he calls their reciprocity style / three different styles of interaction that derive from their character, their upbringing, their surroundings -- and styles that can be changed with enough attention.
He calls us givers / takers / or matchers.
This is not the Romney-Ryan mantra that there are makers and takers, wherein the makers are morally superior and the takers are morally depraved.
Nor does it map well with the standard A personality, driven type versus the B personality, laid-back type for one could be a driven giver or a laid-back one, a driven taker or one less pushy.
The key to the categories was the equation that each person made when deciding whether and how to enter into a social relationship.
A taker was always quietly seeking to take away more in any situation than the capital and energy that they put in. A driven taker might bring enormous energy and success to a project, they might well be the difference between its success and its failure, but they were in it for the reward. A good capitalist concept, this, the return should exceed the investment, otherwise it isn’t worth while. But perversely, since we do not exercise full authority over what social relationships we find ourselves in, takers, when they found themselves in situations that demanded more from them than they imagined getting in return would try to limit their input so as to limit the deficit. Call it -- a living sequester.
Matchers are a type that is intuitively clear, I think. These are the people who are constantly keeping a personal ledger, doing favors for those who have helped them and expecting consideration from those whom they have helped. They are always counting chits. We expect our politicians to be matchers despite the trouble that that causes when money has free reign. It is all too often the meaning we assign to “constituent services”. Grant’s conclusion -- “most people act like matchers most of the time.”
But in your family, he found, that people are more often givers -- that third category of people who get pleasure from helping others, therefore reach for opportunities to do so.
In the workplace, where Grant was focused, people who acted like givers were few. We’ve all heard the clichéd advice -- look out for number one (taker speak) -- or, you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours (matcher speak) -- and, alas, good guys (givers) finish last.
But Grant discovered an astonishing thing. While a certain number of givers did finish at the bottom of the pack in the workplace by various measures -- the matchers and takers bunched in the middle -- and among the most successful, there were another set of givers.
You’ll have to read Grant’s book if you want to find out how he discovered that, and what he believes about why that is, and what he found differentiates between the successful givers and those who do not succeed.
I’m not interested in that here.
But it seems to me that in choosing to be a giver, concerned with the well-being of all those with whom we interface, even above and beyond our own pleasures -- because that is our pleasure -- therein may lie the answer to Isaiah’s demand for all those of us who cannot be Mother Theresa or even Marion Leary.
D] For if you look at Kaddish, Yahrzeit and Yizkor, and if you listen carefully to eulogies at the many funerals you attend, you will find that the attributes of your loved ones that you think of at Yizkor today and that were spoken of at their funerals, were, almost all of them, the side of the giver that was in them.
It is rare that the focus of a eulogy is on the excellent engineering that the deceased had brought to bear on the roads he designed or the accuracy and userfriendliness of a woman’s bookkeeping or the aesthetic harmony of the interiors she decorated. But you will often hear about the quality of their friendship, the tenacity of their love, the profoundness of the influence of their kindness at critical moments.
For the relationships of the taker and the matcher cannot help but feel transactional, as if I am not what ultimately matters to them. But in the relationships of givers there is an affirmation of my importance, and none of us, none of us, are so self-reliant and free of the need of affirmation that we are not nourished by that in a thousand ways.
And yet, kaddish is the quintessential superstitious tool.
Why does one say kaddish, after all; and why are kaddish and Yizkor above all else the rituals that fill our shuls?
Because it has been made known that children saying kaddish for their parents will pave the parent’s way into heaven. That is a story told of Rabbi Akiva -- that he saved a fellow from hell by convincing the man’s son to say kaddish. And we have come to believe it. The magical kaddish.
But it is high time to free ourselves of na’arishkeit and see what is plainly before us.
Kaddish speaks not at all of the deceased -- but only of God’s greatness and the peace of the world.
It is said in community not because we are a megaphone to help that prayer succeed in its effect, but in order that the mourning, grieving, family of the deceased cannot remain alone.
It is, above all, not a matcher’s prayer in which we pay back our parent’s dedication to us by smoothing their way to heaven, but an occasion to honor them, as at Yizkor, and remember their attributes of giving.
By nurturing that attribute in ourselves we can write our own greatest eulogies -- and long before then -- assure that we merit the very kingdom of God of which we speak in kaddish each and every day.
So here is the new Golden Rule that I propose to you.
Don’t say “love your neighbor as yourself” -- that is a matcher’s anthem.
Say, just, “love your neighbor.”