You Shall Pursue

January 24, 2014

In Honor of Martin Luther King Day

Filed under: D'var Torah — Tags: , — marleyweiner @ 10:51 am

This week, we read the Ten Commandments. These laws are seen as the bedrock of our civilization. But how many of us actually consider their meaning, and how they might impact our everyday behavior?

Today, I want to focus on the sixth commandment, “thou shalt not kill.” At at first glance, it seems pretty obvious how to avoid breaking this one; just don’t murder anyone.

But the rabbis have a very broad interpretation of what it means “to kill.”

They are not only concerned with preserving life, but with preserving life with dignity. In their moral worldview, slander is equivalent to murder. A person with a ruined reputation will face such challenges that for some, life will no longer be worth living, a fact that we see all too often with young people tormented and bullied by their peers.

The rabbis take this concern about reputation and apply it to their maintenance of the poor as well, giving them an opportunity to live with their pride in tact. It is considered a sin to force the poor to beg in public. The great Jewish thinker Maimonides taught that the highest level of charity was to give a poor person a job so that he could support himself rather than asking for support. And traditional community funds designed to provide for dowries and for extra food on holidays meant that the poor could lead lives with some measure of joy and dignity.

The rabbis understand that preserving life is one of the most important things that we can do, but they also understood that preserving life is not only a matter of maintaining physical existence. It is about giving people the tools that they need to build productive, happy lives in which they can feel respected and accomplished.

On Monday, we celebrate the life and work of an American hero who understood all too well that life alone was not enough, and that life without dignity is no life at all. Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. was a man who believed not only in equality, not only ending segregation, but in advocating for an American in which all citizens were free to lead lives of dignity and opportunity. In his “I have a Dream Speech” from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (and how many of us forget that this was a march for economic opportunity as well as to end the scourge of segregation), he said:

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

King keenly understood, as did our rabbis, the true broadness of the statement “thou shalt not kill.” To him, as to our rabbis, it meant “thou shalt not deprive someone of the opportunity for a life well lived.” He understood that, when hope is gone, when the feeling that life is worth living is gone, is when people are transformed in their own minds and the minds of those around them from the authors of their own destiny to merely existing day to day. And merely existing day to day is not living.

And so King worked tirelessly all his life, against a great tide of opposition, through struggles and jailing and eventual assassination, but always with dignity, to hold the American people to the commandment “thou shalt not kill.”

How do we help to move our community towards a culture of life? How do we live up to the teachings of our forefathers, and of Dr. King?

The best way to keep from killing is to affirm the sanctity of life of every human being, and to reach out with profound empathy towards those who are struggling. In his letter from a Birmingham Jail, King references the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, who teaches that the highest form or relationship is “I-Thou,” in which we see one another as full human beings with hopes and joys and, most of all, the desire for a good and comfortable life. If we can look at each human being, and see a person who is struggling toward fulfillment, we will not take actions, either consciously or unconsciously, to cut off their sense of dignity and self respect.

This starts small at home, with friends and family and showing utter respect and caring. Seeking to fulfill the needs of those who love us, to help our children and spouses and siblings and friends grow into the best people they can be by listening to and supporting their dreams, goals, and authentic personalities.

And it broadens, and deepens. In the same way we have empathy to our loved ones, we can have empathy in the broader community, and it can change lives. This past summer, when there was rioting in Egypt, I made it a point to ask every person I saw listening to the news from Egypt what they thought. Usually, I was talking to an Egyptian shopkeeper. I heard stories of families torn apart by tragedy, fervent condemnation of bloodshed, and a desire for peace in their homeland. By keeping my mind open, I was able to learn about the conflict from people who were experiencing it firsthand. And from a small dose of empathy like that, great things can come.

People’s circumstances may be wildly different from our own. We may not always fully understand what it might be like to be in those circumstances. But we can struggle mightily to get there. Reaching out to other people and keeping their dignity utmost in their minds will build a world in which we are all kinder, and more equitable to those around us, because it will allow us to see their true concerns.

And, little by little, by keeping in mind that it is a matter of life and death, and of our most fundamental commandments, we will come to build a world that truly embraces life.

January 9, 2014


Filed under: Choosing Life, Spirituality — Tags: , — marleyweiner @ 11:56 pm

Today I am grateful for my broken places. I am grateful for the reminder that I am not perfect, that perfection is an illusion, and that it is the height of arrogance to pretend that I am anything even approaching perfect. I am grateful for the opportunity to fortify myself in the cracked places, to get stronger, to grow better, and to continue on more humbly that before. I am grateful for the supportive loved ones who hold me in my broken times, and for the people who treat me with compassion even as I am disappointing them. I am grateful for the reminder that I need to treat others with compassion even as they are disappointing me. I am grateful for the opportunity to remember that we are all of us broken, and that it is my duty and privilege to hold all of the people of the world with compassion and love when they are hurting and scared and unsure. Because I have been so blessed to come through the fire, again and again, each time a little stronger, and a little more whole, than the time before.

January 4, 2014

D’var Torah: Parshat Bo

Filed under: D'var Torah, Patrilineal Descent — Tags: , , — marleyweiner @ 12:42 pm

My family is very particular about food. On Thanksgiving, my aunt always brings sweet potatoes, and I always bring pie. On Rosh Hashanah, I make my grandmother’s Jewish apple cake. Dinners with my aunt always involve her brisket, made the same way every time. And on Hanukkah and Passover, my mother makes matzah ball soup with chewwy matzah balls, big pieces of chicken and vegetables, and parsley, not dill. And I’m sure some of you are imagining my mother’s chicken soup and protesting in your heads that the soup should be made with clear broth, or with dill, or with big pillowy matzah balls. But matzah ball soup that is different from my mother’s, or brisket that is different from my aunt’s, or any pumpkin pie that I did not make from the recipe in the Silver Palatte cookbook just feels wrong to me, somehow. Every family has their rituals; a particular way of doing things that, if they were to try something different, the holiday or the time of year would just feel wrong.

And this portion, Parshat Bo, is about that very same issue of ritual. This portion is the first time that the Israelites are given a law to follow. A ritual of sacrifice and strange food, of family togetherness and telling of the story. Everything must be prepared just so; the same type of meat, cooked and eaten the same way.

But why are the Israelites commanded to do it? It is a ritual commemorating gratitude to God. God protected us from judgment and pain, and led us out of Egypt, and in exchange we ritualize and memorialize that protection every year throughout the generations.

How do we demonstrate gratitude? It is not enough, sometimes, to say thank you. Sometimes, the only way to properly express the depth of one’s obligation is through our actions, our rituals, our social habits. A gift does not feel like a proper gift unless it is given wrapped in pretty paper. A holiday does not feel like a holiday without that one particular recipe.

I was an anthropology major in college, and a theorist named Marcel Mauss teaches that gift giving, and the obligation that it brings, is what binds a society together. That when we are given a gift, we feel the need to give in return, and that endless cycle of giving and receiving is what helps to foster strong relationships. And these gifts to not only need to be the gift of a new sweater or an iPad. We are obligated in moments of vulnerability, of love, of compassion. When a parent died, and our friends organized food throughout the Shiva. Or when we were sick in the hospital, and our friends came to visit us every day with silly jokes and flowers. Or even when we were having a hard time, and some person took a moment to listen, to share the burden of our grief and anxiety. Those moments of genuine human connection and love are the gifts we give to one another, which keep our society moving.

So, I ask again, how do we express our gratitude? The first step is realizing that we are truly, deeply blessed. Cultivating thanks for our gifts of strength, and talent, and knowledge, and good health when it exists, and loving family when it exists. And the next step is to make use of those gifts. To show through our actions how much we love our community. To use our talents for making the world a better place. And to use our relationship with God, our Jewish community, our ancient teachings, to make the world a better place.

This is what the Israelites are commanded to do. They are given this ritual, in order to express their thanks for their salvation. The ritual of Passover is our gift to God in exchange for protection, love, and relationship. But it is not only one generation that gives God the gift of the Passover sacrifice. It is every generation thereafter. The most important part of the ritual is that it serves as a teachable moment for the children, and the grandchildren, and the great-grandchildren, to come into relationship with God and all that God has done for the Jewish people.

And, like the gifts we give to the people around us, our gifts to God also help us to construct societies and relationships. Our gifts to God come in our celebration of Shabbat, in the Passover seder, in the kindling of the Hanukkah candles, in fasting at Yom Kippur. Every penny we give in tzedakah, every line we study of Torah, every mitzvah that we perform, is a gift to God in exchange for the blessing and the gift of life. And as we give those gifts, we give to one another. We form bonds with our families, and our friends, and our broader community, and the world, that make our human society a better place to live.

And so my wish for all of us this Shabbat is for gifts. The gift of seeing the blessings that are in our lives. The gift of feeling profound gratitude. And the gift of using all that we have been given to continue to give back in return.

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