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Books Social Justice

What Can Jonah Teach Us About #BlackLivesMatter?

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the author of The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary (CCAR Press, 2020). In this post, he reflects on what Jonah can teach us about the current moment. 


As we read numerous times throughout his eponymous book, Jonah flees from his moral responsibility, his sacred calling. When God calls Jonah to bring righteousness to Nineveh, and to save countless lives, he shirks his prophetic duties. When pressed to stand and represent the ideals of faith and repentance, Jonah flees. Why should we continue studying this man and his book? How can he, in his capricious self-centeredness, inspire us to be representatives of peace and understanding? 

I’ve thought a lot about Jonah lately amid the tumult that has affected our nation. We, as a country, are suffering greatly. Extreme partisanship, racial divides, and lackadaisical, apathetic leadership have led America down a dark path. The death of George Floyd at the hands of police was a symptom of a greater problem we face—the lack of interest in introspection and the unwillingness to look at the meta-issues our nation struggles with. Intellectual stagnation has taken hold; the race to find consensus in the lowest common denominator has replaced the active search for reconciliation. 

As I worked on writing my commentary on the Book of Jonah, I wrestled deeply with its ethical lessons. On the surface, Jonah is the antithesis of what we want in our leaders. His earthly cowardliness seems to stand at odds with his heavenly mission, and his constant deviation from his task shows that, perhaps, he is not up for the job. But this is precisely the brilliance of the Book of Jonah. Out of all the prophets featured in the Hebrew Bible, Jonah is the only one who seems to be like a regular human being. He has limits, he has scars, he has foibles. 

And through his failure, we see ourselves. His life is a mirror to our soul. 

But also, through Jonah’s failures—and there were many—we see the potential for spiritual growth and healing. During the prophet’s sojourn in the great fish, he reflects in quarantine, in complete darkness, on what must be the lowest moment in his life. The walls are closing in around him (literally, the gills of the fish move in and out at a steady pace, marching against the pressures of the sea), and Jonah seemingly has no options for escape. He has but one tool in his arsenal: he prays. And he prays. And he prays some more. And then he is released to complete his mission. Jonah proclaims God’s message to Nineveh, saving the city and its inhabitants. 

As I write in my book: “We have the capacity to improve the world while striving for spiritual fulfillment and further attachment to justice” (page 118). Jonah sought to escape his obligations; we shall embrace them.

At this current, challenging moment, we should pray as Jonah prayed. Our prayer should strengthen our deepest moral resolve to serve as listeners, humble allies, and bold mobilizers. At times of great import, much like what we are witnessing today, we must remove ourselves from the negative forces that bring us down so that we may elevate others. In other words, it seems as if we are to ruminate in great, dark quarantine inside fishes of our own making. Now more than ever, we need to engage and embrace those who are truly hurting. Unlike Jonah, we can charge ahead with empathy and passion. The #BlackLivesMatter movement should rouse us from our spiritual lethargy, galvanizing us to push society forward to end inequality and bigotry.

Let us hear the call and be leaders for positive change. 

The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary Official Book Trailer from CCAR on Vimeo.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President and Dean of Valley Beit Midrash in Phoenix, Arizona. He is the author of  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary and The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentaryboth published by CCAR Press

Categories
Books Ethics General CCAR Holiday lifelong learning omer Rituals Social Justice

The Custom to Learn Pirkei Avot during the Omer

Rabbi Yanklowitz is the author of Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice CommentaryIn this post, he reflects on the custom of studying Pirkei Avot during the Omer.

There is a traditional Jewish custom during the Omer—the seven-week period between the holiday of Passover and the holiday of Shavuot—to study Pirkei Avot on Shabbat afternoons. Some have the custom of studying Pirkei Avot past Shavuot, all the way until Rosh HaShanah.[1] This custom first appears in the period of the Geonim, dating roughly between the sixth and eleventh centuries CE. The practice is opportune because there are enough chapters of Pirkei Avot (six) to study just one chapter each Shabbat of the Omer (also six) and complete the teachings. This custom is also quite fitting since the Omer is traditionally a time when we focus on the refinement of our character traits (middot), which is the primary ethical purpose of Pirkei Avot

The Sages of the Talmud knew that Shabbat days were longer in the summer months and therefore wanted to utilize that time for further Torah study.[2] While some Sages of the time suggested that we should avoid studying Torah on Shabbat afternoon in mourning for the death of Moses, who died on a Shabbat afternoon,[3] the Geonim, due to the length of summer Shabbat afternoons, overrode that prohibition.[4] A different suggestion[5] on the timing posits that we should study Torah on steamy Shabbat afternoons to wake ourselves up, both physically and spiritually. 

Another possibility for why we study Pirkei Avot on Shabbat might be that Pirkei Avot reminds us of the power of the oral tradition, which is how we learned to celebrate Shabbat. The Karaites, on the other hand, rejected the oral tradition and thus rejected Shabbat as developed in Rabbinic Judaism. Reinforcing the living, evolving Rabbinic tradition could best be achieved on Shabbat itself, a living manifestation of the nonliteral Rabbinic interpretive enterprise. 

Yet the idea of studying Pirkei Avot on Shabbat seems more practical. At Passover, we look out at the external world with messages of freedom and liberation, but then we transition back to the inner world with Shavuot and Rosh HaShanah focusing on introspection and reflection. Pirkei Avot does the opposite, focusing on society and fostering justice in the world but starting with our character and personal behavior. Shabbat afternoon, historically, presented the easiest opportunity to bring ethics to the masses, as it is a time to gather, pause, reflect on the past week, and recharge for the upcoming week. Just as we re-enter the toil of a week of hard work, we come together to reflect on our ethical lives. 

Many of the mishnayot, the early Rabbinic literature in the Talmud, deal with rituals, sacrifices, and points of nuanced theology. Pirkei Avot, however, is unique in that it draws upon the Jewish ethical tradition and expands these teachings in simple and clear ways. The Sages credited with the teachings emphasized how important it is to study continuously and to work to fulfill the lessons found within Pirkei Avot.[6]

It is remarkable that Pirkei Avot is free of discussions of religious procedures, as most Jewish texts from the era are primarily concerned with ritual and legal practices. The text’s objective is not to focus on studying religious rules. Instead, this is a work consisting purely of timeless life wisdom. Each of the Talmudic Sages had multiple points of wisdom to share, but only one or a handful of their teachings were recorded in Pirkei Avot. It is humbling to think that after a life of teaching profound wisdom, one’s existence may be remembered through only one sentence. 

Pirkei Avot Cover

Studying and writing my commentary on Pirkei Avot, which was published by CCAR Press in 2018, helped me realign my thoughts toward the relationship between humanity and the Divine as well as interpersonal relationships between individuals. I realized that internal character development is significantly more important to me than acquiring new things and skills, freeing me from the futile rat race of success in contemporary society. I wanted to be more reflective about my moral and spiritual choices and to strive to live wisely. I wanted to feel the burning challenge every day to strive for intellectual, spiritual, relational, religious, and moral growth. 

Pirkei Avot is the work that continues to keep me focused on this journey. I hope that my commentary inspires you to find that place within yourself to propel the world toward reconciliation and spiritual enlightenment. The ability to study the words of our sages during the Omer is a reminder that wisdom is ageless, applicable, and available to anyone who seeks it. It’s a beautiful flower that continues to bloom for the Jewish people and, indeed, all those in need of inspiration. 

Interested in counting the Omer? Omer: A Counting by Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar, published by CCAR Press, is available in print, ebook, as an app and in daily Omer cards.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President and Dean of Valley Beit Midrash in Phoenix, Arizona. He is the author of Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary and the forthcoming The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentaryboth published by CCAR Press.


[1] There are other customs as well. Rabbi David Golinkin records sixteen different customs on when to study Pirkei Avot throughout the year: https://schechter.edu/when-should-we-study-pirkei-avot-and-when-should-we-recite-barekhi-nafshi-and-shirei-hamaalot-on-shabbat-afternoon/

[2] BT Bava Kama 82a

[3] See the Zohar (Parashat T’rumah 548): “Moses passed from this world at the hour of Sabbath minchah prayers, which is a time of grace.” The Zohar says there that it was not only Moses but also Joseph and King David who died on Shabbat. It should be noted, however, that there is a dissenting view that Moshe did not die on Shabbat but on Friday afternoon. See, for example, the Tosafot on Tractate M’nachot 30a. Rabbenu Mordechai bar Hillel Ashkenazi also wrote in Sefer Mordekhai on Tractate P’sachim 37: “Moreover, as it is said in Sifre, on the day that Moses died he wrote thirteen scrolls of the Law, one for each of the tribes and one that was placed in the Ark; if it had been the Sabbath, how could he have written them?”

[4] T’shuvot Rav Sar Shalom Gaon #14; T’shuvot Rav Natronai Gaon OH #15; 46

[5] The Midrash Shmuel

[6] BT Bava Kama 30a

Categories
Books CCAR Press Healing Social Justice Torah

Lessons from Jonah in a Time of Pandemic

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the author of  The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary, available for pre-order from the CCAR Press. In this post, he reflects on this enigmatic prophet in light of today’s crisis. 


These are strange times. Certainly, if ever there were a time for a prophetic voice to call out to the heavens for redemption, it seems like the present. And even though pandemic is on everyone’s mind, the world still turns. Every day allows us another opportunity to make the world a better place and a chance to run towards challenge rather than away from it. For the past several years, before “social distancing” became part of the contemporary vernacular, I have been studying a figure who modeled the term millennia ago. That figure was the Prophet Jonah. It seems more appropriate than ever to study his eponymous book and take away essential lessons of how to weather any storm—metaphorical or literal. 

What is the Book of Jonah? And who is Jonah, anyway? Many of us are familiar with the famous story of “Jonah and the Whale” (actually, a fish, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves). Yet there is so much more to Jonah than spending three days and three nights in the belly of a great sea beast. In totality, Jonah is one of the most intriguing, frustrating, and ethically ambiguous of the ancient Hebrew prophets. But he’s also the most empathetic, the most like you and me. He is a coward and a saint, a hypocrite and a hero: a walking conundrum. Still, despite any of his shortcomings as witnessed in the text, Jonah’s legacy is one of hope and forgiveness. 

The Book of Jonah is located within the Twelve Minor Prophets of the Hebrew Bible. Among the shortest books of the Bible, it seems to take place over the course of only several days: three days in the cavernous isolation of the great leviathan, three days on a journey to Nineveh, and not much else. The story takes place in the large Mesopotamian city of Nineveh, roughly in the eighth or seventh century BCE. 

Like the Homeric works of antiquity, the Book of Jonah explores what happens when people fail to live up to their potential. God instructs Jonah to call upon the population of Nineveh to repent. Rather than charge forward, Jonah flees from his mission, escaping on a ship. While Jonah is aboard, God brings on a mighty storm, shaking the ship’s passengers both physically and spiritually. The sailors, fearing that the divine wrath will take them to their deaths, toss Jonah overboard after he admits that he is the impetus of the storm. God performs a miracle, however, saving Jonah inside the belly of a great fish. For three days and three nights, Jonah prays until he is released. After his sojourn in the fish, Jonah reluctantly fulfills his mission, calling upon the citizens of Nineveh to repent. They do. In the end, God spares the city from destruction. 

Seems like a happy ending. But not so. 

Jonah’s story ends with him in isolation, far from Nineveh. He cries out to God, expressing frustration with God for sending him on an unwanted mission. In order to teach Jonah the meaning of loving-kindness, God grows a plant that provides Jonah with shade from the sun, which God then allows to whither. God explains to Jonah that God cares about the people of Nineveh just as Jonah had cared about the plant, confronting him with the fact that the universal nature of divine love and concern for a large city might well exceed Jonah’s depression over the death of a plant. The book concludes there.  

It seems confusing that this book was included in the historical canon of the Jewish holy scriptures. And maybe that is the case on the surface. But Jonah is such a rich character to study, which, indeed, Jews do every Yom Kippur. Every one of us relates to the need for second chances, both in our daily lives and in our moral and spiritual lives. Jonah is the embodiment of this need. 

The Book of Jonah is written for us, regular people, who live each day and wonder if we can make it through unharmed. We battle everyday leviathans simply to make our lives worthwhile and the world safe for our families and friends. Jonah is no perfect angel, but a perfect representation of humanity’s quest for spiritual excellence. While we may not have to emulate Jonah with every action, we should let his book guide us to spiritual vistas of untapped potential. 


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President and Dean of Valley Beit Midrash in Phoenix, Arizona. He is the author of the upcoming book, The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary, and  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentaryboth published by CCAR Press.

Categories
Social Justice

Gracias

“Gracias.”

Thank you.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of those words when they are uttered by a child whose innocent eyes betray a sense of desperation, pain, loneliness, and confusion. It’s difficult to convey in writing the absolute sense of shame and indignation one feels when seeing the effects that careless policies have on the lives of families, of children, of babies.

This week, I found spiritual fire in a church, which I know may be a rare statement to make as a rabbi. But I knew that my path had to end up there this week after I learned that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials were dropping off scores of asylum-seeking families who had exceeded the maximum amount of time in detention. For whatever reason, ICE was dropping these families off at local churches. Of course, ICE was only concerned with dropping the families off and not caring for their immediate needs; out of sight, out of mind. Yet, here were families, many with young children, dropped at a strange location in a city—no less, a country—they are unfamiliar with.

A call came out for community members to help. Quick action was needed, and it was needed yesterday. The Jewish community needed to get involved. To this end, I set up a fundraiser on Facebook with an initially modest goal that would be used to cover some basic supplies and other materials. But, within minutes, everything began to change. People in the local community and beyond began to donate. The amount donated kept rising. In less than twenty-four hours, the fundraiser raised more than $10,000 with no sign of letting up. People were stopping by my office to drop off donated tampons, diapers, clothes, and other goods. It was—simply—remarkable. My team and I used the funds to purchase hygienic products: toothbrushes, socks, toys, and more, all to be donated.

On the first day of the fundraiser, a colleague and I drove out to one of the local churches doing intake. It was there that we saw these families face to face for the first time. It’s an experience I will never forget. For all the media attention and the endless coverage, it can’t be conveyed indirectly. The magnitude of the situation and the utter turmoil these families face as they struggle to survive are unfathomable. But despite everything, these families were happy to be there, sitting in a community church and having a place to stay. Every time the pastor invoked his gratitude that these families were at his church, they all uttered back “Gracias.”

This is a not a time to stand idly by, to invoke a phrase. There is so much that can be done and so much that needs to be done. It is amazing that with almost no formal preparation and limited technical know-how, a small group of people can create a mighty movement to raise funds and awareness that can tangibly improve the life of someone at their hour of greatest anguish. The Jewish community can be a beacon in this regard, as our tradition has shown us time and time again the power of faithful protest against inequity and bigotry. I certainly felt these feelings standing in this church, watching families survive against all odds. It is a humbling feeling. An empowering one.

Thank you.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President and Dean of Valley Beit Midrash and the author of Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary (CCAR, 2018).

Categories
High Holy Days

A Lifelong Process of Becoming

The High Holy Days are that special time in the Jewish calendar for us to take a step back and reflect on who we are as people. We are given the opportunity to look back on the previous spin around the sun to ponder where we were in our lives and where we are going in the coming year. One of the most effective means by which to consider our holistic growth as fully-rounded human beings is to engaging in t’shuvah, the act of returning to our core state of authentic righteousness. And as we approach these most auspicious of days, the question that should be on our lips and inscribed in our heart is: what does t’shuvah mean for me?

On a spiritual level, the process of t’shuvah is akin to finding our innermost point, a phrase we call nekuda ha’penimit. Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter—known as the Sefat Emet—taught, “For everything there is a point of essence (nekudah chayut)… and the world is pulled by this single point.” Once we find this constantly evolving place of inner Godliness, we can nurture it and expand it from smallness to its inherent, infinite potential. This is, perhaps, the most important task of our lives. T’shuvah, the literal translation usually rendered as returning, is a process where constantly returning to a deep inner point of being is the objective; allowing these encounters to transform all that we do and all that we are.

On that same thought, Maimonides taught that: “The Jewish People will only be redeemed through teshuvah (Hilchot Teshuvah 7:5). None of us can hold off a moment of growth as no one has reached perfection. “There is no righteous individual on earth who does [only] good and never does wrong” (Ecclesiastes 7:20).

In the trenches of Kabbalistic thought, coming to know one’s inner deepest self—one’s id and one’s angelic self—means coming to know something much deeper. Shem Tov Ibn Falaquera explains it in this way:

They said that whoever knows his soul knows his Creator, and whoever is ignorant of knowing his soul is ignorant of the knowledge of his Creator. How can one believe that a person is wise concerning something else when he is ignorant concerning himself? … Therefore, they said that the knowledge of the soul is prior to the knowledge of God (Sefer ha-Nefesh, translation by R. Jospe).

Similarly, Yosef Ibn Tzadik taught:

By man knowing his own soul, he will know the spiritual world from which he can attain some knowledge of the Creator, as it is written, “From my flesh I shall perceive God” [Job 19:26] (Ha-Olam ha-Katan, translation by S. Horovitz).

While religions across the world maintain their own systems of ritual and symbolism, each with their differing perspectives of human-divine interaction, it is our goal nonetheless that we keep our eyes focused on the main role of organized spirituality: to transform and elevate our core being to actualize our mission in this world. To do so, we must be engaged in a daily process of t’shuvah.

There are no set instructions for performing t’shuvah; it’s not an endeavor that one does carelessly. For example, there is the t’shuvat of refraining from doing the same action we repented for in the past (t’shuvat ha’ba’ah); removing pleasure in one’s life equal to the pleasure gained from the wrong done (T’shuvat Ha’mishkol); realizing the need to correct missed spiritual opportunities; and realizing that we need to t’shuvah for the self and t’shuvah for a collective purpose as that of family, community, or the world.

And these are only the beginning!

As in any major pursuit, too many people focus on the macro effect of their efforts rather than the incremental steps. We need game plans. We need dedication. We need the foresight to wake up every morning and ask: How are we going to make every day count? Each of us has the opportunity develop our plan of reflection and action so that we can actualize our greatest potentials. That is what this time of the year reinforces most strongly.

In this life, we are charged with a seemingly unconquerable moral task: to balance striving (hishtadlut) with trusting (bitachon). These two qualities bifurcate our ethical and empirical selves. How far do we go to cultivate radical empathy for the vulnerable and downtrodden, but at the same time, develop a sense to know that our efforts may not be enough to help everyone? Indeed, these challenges of understanding the limits of our potential require intentional effort; they require us to release a deeply imperfect human need for total control. In that way, t’shuvat reflects our desire for holiness. It’s about ensuring that humanity becomes a force for healing rather than a force for hurting; for building rather than destroying; for contributing rather than diminishing. And when we return (shuv) to our Divine essence (tzelem Elokim), our souls reflect their heavenly origin and reveal the beauty of our human aspirations.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President and Dean of Valley Beit Midrash and the author of Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary (CCAR, 2018).

Categories
Books Social Justice

Pirkei Avot 6:11: On Character

Each Friday leading up to Shavuot, RavBlog will be posting a series of excerpts from Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary by Rabbi Dr. Schmuly Yanklowitz.  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary is available for pre-order now from CCAR Press.  

After six chapters of Jewish ethics, epistemology, anecdotes, homilies, and philosophical inquiry, the mishnah concludes with the reminder that although focus has been placed on interpersonal relations and growth of the inner self, Judaism is ultimately centered around God.

All that the Holy One of Blessing created in this world was created solely for God’s own glory, as it is said: “All that is called by My name, indeed, it is for My glory that I have created it, formed it, and made it” (Isaiah 43:7). And it says: “The Eternal will reign for ever and ever” (Exodus 15:18).

At the end of the mishnah, we reflect on what we have witnessed over the course of Pirkei Avot. Here, collected for the ages, are the words that guided countless people on their spiritual journeys. These words of ethics, philosophy, and love give us strength, hope, and a sense of obligation to our fellow. Because God is completely benevolent, we should emulate God’s divine ways. All that we have read, ruminated on, and reacted to has been about achieving the highest good. With this conclusion, we are reminded to grow and be humble, because we are under God’s loving authority.

Learning the art of compromise is arduous. So much must happen on global, national, and interpersonal fronts. But first we must consider our own egos, not letting our tribal tendencies take hold of our better nature. We must be willing to retreat from absolutes for the sake of peace on earth.

One’s character is measured not solely by one’s ideals, but also by willingness to compromise for the sake of human dignity. There are, of course, values that should not be compromised. But for the sake of peace, we often compromise, even when certain of the truth. Rashi taught that doing “‘the right and the good’ [Deuteronomy 6:18] refers to a compromise, within the letter of the law.” The Talmud teaches that God prays to control the limits of divine power that could destroy the universe with but a single thought:

May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger, and that My mercy may prevail over My [other] attributes, so that I may deal with My children in the attribute of mercy and, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice. (BT B’rachot 7a)

If God is to pray for God’s own kindness to prevail over justice, then certainly we should do the same. In all we do, we must focus on building a world imbued with compassion, healing, and peace rather, than on unswerving truth, strict judgment, and punishment. Being right is not always the same thing as doing right. Pirkei Avot compels us to ask ourselves: How can we take the high road today? How can we take the challenge of pursuing justice beyond the personal and into our civic and business interactions? It is our duty to work toward compromise, no matter the circumstance, so that the world will become more just, equitable, and peaceful. These questions may be difficult, but responding to them is our sacred imperative.

This is an excerpt from Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary, by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz.  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary is now available for pre-order from CCAR Press.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, a pluralistic Jewish learning and leadership center; the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice movement; the founder and CEO of the Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, a Jewish vegan, animal welfare movement; and the author of ten books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top fifty rabbis in America, and the Forward named him one of the fifty most influential Jews. He studied at the University of Texas as an undergraduate and at Harvard University for a master’s in leadership and psychology, completed a second master’s degree in Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University, and completed his doctorate at Columbia University in moral development and epistemology. He was ordained as a rabbi by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (the YCT Rabbinical School) in New York, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, and he received two additional private rabbinic ordinations. As a global social justice educator, he has volunteered, taught, and staffed missions in about a dozen countries around the world. A film crew followed him for over a year to produce a PBS documentary (The Calling) about the training of religious leadership, which was released in the winter of 2010. He was born in Canada, was raised in New Jersey and Chicago, and now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, with his wife, Shoshana, and three children.

Categories
Books Social Justice

Pirkei Avot 5:15: On Wisdom

Each Friday leading up to Shavuot, RavBlog will be posting a series of excerpts from Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary by Rabbi Dr. Schmuly Yanklowitz.  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary is available for pre-order now from CCAR Press.  

What is the purpose of learning? Is the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next a deep philosophical exercise? Is it a bureaucratic activity meant to reinforce a top-down understanding of history? Learning is many things at once: personal improvement, developing discipline, and learning to discern reality from fiction. There are many opinions about what constitutes the model student, but learning requires analytical skill and training the memory. Learning requires that students and teachers see life anew, with openness, but that we also return to restudy what’s familiar to strengthen our values.

There are four types of learners: (a) One who grasps quickly and forgets quickly, their gain is offset by their loss; (b) one who grasps slowly and forgets slowly, their loss is offset by their gain; (c) one who grasps quickly and forgets slowly, is wise; (d) one who grasps slowly and forgets quickly, this is a bad portion.

Enlightenment thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau writes in The Social Contract, “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.” He says that l’homme sauvage—natural humanity, the species in its freest and least inhibited state—was replaced by l’homme civilise—enlightened and civilized humanity, which is concerned with ethics and morality. Over time, as humanity became more self-aware and controlled, we also became alienated from our natural selves and became stuck in a web of complex social conventions and conformist behavioral patterns. This has harmed human-human and human-Divine relationships. In addition, societal demands and distractions have become so great that it has become more difficult to do the work that we are here in the world to do—to actualize our unique gifts to bring light into the world wherever possible. We need to question the best allocation of our time. Should we spend an hour on social media or volunteer at a food bank? Do we take in a movie with friends or advocate for the rights of the vulnerable? While our obligations don’t have to be zero sum in nature, we should always be aware that we aren’t meant to be idle, especially in times of societal tumult. We have to act and be active. That is our obligation during troubled times.

But if our society is guided by comfortable, conflict-averse decision- making, how can we engage in the hard work to improve society? How can we even discover our own personal cause? We can view this process on both the physical and spiritual planes. Physically, we have unique talents and passions. Spiritually, we have unique callings toward our actualization.

Modernity led to the caging of the soul and some part of human potential. We cannot go back in time, but we must still find avenues to deepen insight, discovery, and freedom. To assist us properly on our path, we must seek the greatest wisdom in the world, which means that we should find teachers who understand and guide us. By finding the right balance of righteousness and wisdom, we grow intellectually into ourselves and develop love of learning and humanity, equally.

This is an excerpt from Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary, by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz.  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary is now available for pre-order from CCAR Press.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, a pluralistic Jewish learning and leadership center; the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice movement; the founder and CEO of the Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, a Jewish vegan, animal welfare movement; and the author of ten books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top fifty rabbis in America, and the Forward named him one of the fifty most influential Jews. He studied at the University of Texas as an undergraduate and at Harvard University for a master’s in leadership and psychology, completed a second master’s degree in Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University, and completed his doctorate at Columbia University in moral development and epistemology. He was ordained as a rabbi by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (the YCT Rabbinical School) in New York, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, and he received two additional private rabbinic ordinations. As a global social justice educator, he has volunteered, taught, and staffed missions in about a dozen countries around the world. A film crew followed him for over a year to produce a PBS documentary (The Calling) about the training of religious leadership, which was released in the winter of 2010. He was born in Canada, was raised in New Jersey and Chicago, and now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, with his wife, Shoshana, and three children.

Categories
Books Social Justice

Pirkei Avot 4:27: On the Soul

Each Friday leading up to Shavuot, RavBlog will be posting a series of excerpts from Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary by Rabbi Dr. Schmuly Yanklowitz.  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary is available for pre-order now from CCAR Press.  

Youth without guidance from older generations is a waste of potential. Here, Rabbi Meir is in dialogue with his teacher, Rabbi Elisha ben Avuyah. Rabbi Meir, now a wise spiritual leader, was disappointed that his teacher Elisha (Acher) did not return to studying Torah and Jewish philosophy.

Rabbi Meir says: Do not look at the vessel, but what is in it; there is a new vessel filled with old wine, and an old vessel that does not even contain new wine.

Rabbi Meir experienced inner agony as he tried to convince Acher, with whom he had been so intimate, to return to the ways of a Jewish life. This mishnah is a powerful Jewish literary and spiritual example: Rabbi Meir lamented that Acher would never take another look at his inner world and return to the task for which his soul was sent to earth. In some ways, Acher, or “Other,” is called this precisely because he turned away from his mission.

What do the vessels in this mishnah really symbolize? Why would Rabbi Meir be cryptic, rather than straightforward, with his thoughts? This metaphor is about giving our souls over to our higher purpose. “Submission” is not a celebrated word among spiritual or social progressives, and for good reason. Submission to an external authority is not the way we think to shake up societal order. But, internally, we might consider acts of submission in which we give ourselves over to our Creator, who made us for a unique purpose. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook explains:

Submission to God, which is something natural to every creature, to every being in which individuality reveals itself . . . does not entail sorrow and oppression, but rather, pleasure and uprightness, sovereignty, and inner courage crowned with total beauty. . . . [This is achieved] through contraction of the soul before its Creator.

This mishnah also deals with the legacy of the human soul (what is in the vessel). A good portion of Jewish thought on the soul is found in the Kabbalah, but we see some interesting analogues to Jewish thought in gentile culture. Plato said that humans have three souls: the appetitive, spirited, and intellectual. In Judaism, these are nefesh, ruach, and n’shamah. In Platonic thought, as in Judaism, all three matter. How we show up within ourselves determines how we show up outside of ourselves. If we are not fulfilled inside, we won’t be fulfilled on the outside.

Likewise, there is a midrash about the soul’s continuous need to grow and evolve:

“And the soul is not sated” (Ecclesiastes 6:7). This is analogous to a provincial who married a princess. Even though he brings her everything in the world, he does not satisfy her. Why? Because she is a princess. Similarly, even if a person brings his soul all the delicacies of the world, they are nothing to her [i.e. she is not satisfied]. Why? Because she comes from Above.

So then, what is the ethical lesson in this mishnah? When we neglect our purpose, we neglect the reason we have been temporarily placed in this world. It is our obligation to overcome disappointment and pride and to achieve what we can in the limited time we’re allowed. Just as Rabbi Meir taught not to be unfairly judgmental of ourselves (or, at least, our superficial outer selves), so too is he teaching here not to miss opportunities to engage with others’ true selves. If we see others only in a transactional way (what can they give to me?), we miss potential for connection and meaningful relationship. Further, from a social change perspective, someone may be our opposition in one campaign but an ally in another. We should not simply label others as inside or outside our camp, but allow ourselves to see them more deeply.

This is an excerpt from Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary, by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz.  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary is now available for pre-order from CCAR Press.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, a pluralistic Jewish learning and leadership center; the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice movement; the founder and CEO of the Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, a Jewish vegan, animal welfare movement; and the author of ten books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top fifty rabbis in America, and the Forward named him one of the fifty most influential Jews. He studied at the University of Texas as an undergraduate and at Harvard University for a master’s in leadership and psychology, completed a second master’s degree in Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University, and completed his doctorate at Columbia University in moral development and epistemology. He was ordained as a rabbi by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (the YCT Rabbinical School) in New York, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, and he received two additional private rabbinic ordinations. As a global social justice educator, he has volunteered, taught, and staffed missions in about a dozen countries around the world. A film crew followed him for over a year to produce a PBS documentary (The Calling) about the training of religious leadership, which was released in the winter of 2010. He was born in Canada, was raised in New Jersey and Chicago, and now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, with his wife, Shoshana, and three children.

Categories
Books Social Justice

Pirkei Avot 3:19: On Freedom

Each Friday leading up to Shavuot, RavBlog will be posting a series of excerpts from Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary by Rabbi Dr. Schmuly Yanklowitz.  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary is available for pre-order now from CCAR Press.  

One of the oldest existential questions that have vexed the minds of rational beings is the dialectic between free will and fate. Is humanity bound by a supernal force that dictates every action, or is the consciousness of the human mind the ultimate captain of moral decisions? It is a query that philosophers and theologians dedicate their lives to unraveling. The ancient Jewish Sages, too, pondered this.

Everything is foreseen, yet the freedom of choice is given. The world is judged with goodness, and everything depends on the majority of one’s actions.

In a turn toward age-old theological questions, this mishnah touches two divine characteristics: omniscience, the supposed all-knowing force, and benevolence, the force of pure and inherent good. One characteristic might contradict the other or counter a normative interpretation of the Divine.

So, two distinct problems are addressed in this passage. First, if God is all-knowing, how are humans truly free? The mishnah says that though God knows what humans will choose, humans are nevertheless free to make individual decisions. Jewish tradition is adamant about this spiritual paradox: humans are absolutely free, and God knows in advance what we will choose.

Second, God-as-judge and God-as-protector are in tension here; here, justice and mercy are presented as dual ends of the spectrum, though there is more substance present here on second glance. If God is a judge of truth and justice, how can God also be merciful, compassionate, and all-loving? Here, too, this paradox is true: God is both the God of truth and justice and the God of mercy, compassion, and love. That such paradoxes are unlikely to be satisfactorily resolved may be beside the point. The questions themselves are to drive us to strive toward the impossible peak of unambiguous truth about the ways of God and the universe. Our goal is to acquire as much knowledge, and as much hope, as we can and then to apply the values we discover to our ethical selves. When we speak of all people of the world “serving God,” we may, in a universalistic sense, mean that we’re all striving toward moral goodness, to emulate moral perfection.

We have an ethical imperative not just to realize our freedom but to expand it and actualize it. Abraham was told to depart from “your land, your birthplace, your father’s house” (Genesis 12:1)—that is, to liberate himself from the various pressures to conform. Each of us must be prepared to depart from our upbringing, break from conformity, and depart from the familiar. Warren Bennis, a twentieth-century thinker on leadership, writes, “By the time we reach puberty, the world has reached us and shaped us to greater extent than we realize. Our family, friends, and society in general have told us—by word and example—how to be. But people begin to become leaders at that moment when they decide for themselves how to be.” Embracing our freedom is an ethical imperative that requires us to regularly rethink all of our commitments.

Our negative emotions constitute another form of enslavement. Holding resentment is like holding on to a hot coal; waiting to throw it at your enemy, you burn yourself. Negative emotions, like hatred or bigotry, can be crippling. Our spiritual work, all the more imperative for activists who are often responding to forces of evil, tyranny, injustice, and oppression, is to transform those negative emotions to positive ends, while harnessing the energy and releasing the negativity.

The knowledge that we are free, while also realizing that God knows what we will choose, should inspire humility. This sense of humility doesn’t have to be paralyzing, nor should it impede us on our spiritual journeys. Rather, this is an empowering humility, which inspires courage. Our freedom is a gift to be actualized. In this mishnah, right after we are reminded that we are free, we are told that God will judge us compassionately. God will be gentle with us because we will strive to do our best with our freedom.

This is an excerpt from Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary, by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz.  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary is now available for pre-order from CCAR Press.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, a pluralistic Jewish learning and leadership center; the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice movement; the founder and CEO of the Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, a Jewish vegan, animal welfare movement; and the author of ten books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top fifty rabbis in America, and the Forward named him one of the fifty most influential Jews. He studied at the University of Texas as an undergraduate and at Harvard University for a master’s in leadership and psychology, completed a second master’s degree in Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University, and completed his doctorate at Columbia University in moral development and epistemology. He was ordained as a rabbi by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (the YCT Rabbinical School) in New York, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, and he received two additional private rabbinic ordinations. As a global social justice educator, he has volunteered, taught, and staffed missions in about a dozen countries around the world. A film crew followed him for over a year to produce a PBS documentary (The Calling) about the training of religious leadership, which was released in the winter of 2010. He was born in Canada, was raised in New Jersey and Chicago, and now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, with his wife, Shoshana, and three children.

Categories
Books Social Justice

Pirkei Avot 2:20: On Time

Each Friday leading up to Shavuot, RavBlog will be posting a series of excerpts from Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary by Rabbi Dr. Schmuly Yanklowitz.  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary is available for pre-order now from CCAR Press.  

This mishnah is remarkable in the Jewish philosophical canon. In the economy of a single sentence, Rabbi Tarfon lays out a Jewish apothegm of a life dedicated to hard work in a hard world.

Rabbi Tarfon says: The day is short, the task is abundant, the laborers are lazy, the wage is great, and the Master of the house is insistent.

A critical Jewish task is to become a person who values the remarkable nature of time. Every day, people rush from urgency to urgency because of feelings of deep responsibility. But it is a spiritual art to be in a state of rush, accomplishing as much as possible as effectively as possible, while also remaining focused and calm. We are divided, consumed by an overabundance of commitments, and yet we are to be present, focused, and attentive. We are to sprint, while remaining aware of every footfall. While we continue to act and lead, we also must reflect deeply about the nature of our leadership and our purpose in the world.

Our days are short. Our lives are busy. We have obligations to meet: work, family, health, recreation, and attending to our spiritual needs. Balancing these disparate aspects of life is difficult. But we must find balance; it is commanded of us. Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzatto, in his eighteenth-century magnum opus on the cultivation of Jewish virtues, The Path of the Just, teaches:

Alacrity consists of two elements: one that relates to the period prior to the commencement of a deed, and the other that relates to the period that follows the commencement of a deed. The former means that prior to the commencement of a mitzvah a person must not delay [its performance]. Rather, when its time arrives, or when the opportunity [for its fulfillment] presents itself, or when it enters his mind, he must react speedily, without delay, to seize the mitzvah and to do it. He must not procrastinate at this time, for no danger is graver than this. Every new moment can bring with it some new hindrance to the fulfillment of the good deed.

Dionne Brand, a Canadian poet and essayist from Trinidad and Tobago, explains:

Revolutions do not happen outside of you, they happen in the vein, they change you and you change yourself, you wake up in the morning changing. You say this is the human being I want to be. You are making yourself for the future, and you do not even know the extent of it when you begin but you have a hint, a taste in your throat of the warm elixir of the possible.

While not every person is meant to be a revolutionary, taking on the mantle of leadership and creating local change are within reach for those who choose. Embracing this mission while “the day is short” means that we must “taste . . . the warm elixir of the possible.” Social change can happen quickly when a president signs a new law or when a new nation declares independence. Events can spiral in unintended directions at the behest of a small but vocal group. But spiritual and cultural changes take a long time to shift. Slavery was prohibited in America, but more than a century and a half later, we’re still dealing with the racial injustice that the practice of slavery set in motion.

To be sure, the fact that injustice continues to fester shows that the work to improve the world can never cease. We must engage deeply in the issues that affect countless people and propel the world toward justice.

This is an excerpt from Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary, by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz.  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary is now available for pre-order from CCAR Press.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, a pluralistic Jewish learning and leadership center; the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice movement; the founder and CEO of the Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, a Jewish vegan, animal welfare movement; and the author of ten books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top fifty rabbis in America, and the Forward named him one of the fifty most influential Jews. He studied at the University of Texas as an undergraduate and at Harvard University for a master’s in leadership and psychology, completed a second master’s degree in Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University, and completed his doctorate at Columbia University in moral development and epistemology. He was ordained as a rabbi by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (the YCT Rabbinical School) in New York, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, and he received two additional private rabbinic ordinations. As a global social justice educator, he has volunteered, taught, and staffed missions in about a dozen countries around the world. A film crew followed him for over a year to produce a PBS documentary (The Calling) about the training of religious leadership, which was released in the winter of 2010. He was born in Canada, was raised in New Jersey and Chicago, and now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, with his wife, Shoshana, and three children.