Sunday, January 30, 2011

Pray for Help, but Swim for Home!

There is a Midrash that one of my student’s once proudly repeated for me. It went something like this: There is a man in a small rowboat and big wave comes tips it over and it sinks. The man begins to pray. Shortly, a man in a fishing boat comes by an offers to help the man aboard.

“No, no,” says the man, “I’m praying for G-d to save me and I am sure he will.”

So the fisherman shrugs his shoulders and the boat goes away. The man has been treading water for quite some time and he is beginning to tire, when a sailboat comes by. The party on the sailboat offers to take the man aboard and sail him to the safety of the shore.

“No, no,” the man says, “I have faith that G-d will save me…” and he continues to tread water.

As he is treading water and the waves start to rise. A dingy comes by flinging and dipping in the waves of the impending storm. When the dingy stops a man on board offers him a ride to shore. Predictably the man declines. As the storm rages the man goes under and drowns. When the man appears before G-d he says, “I had faith. I believed in you. And I prayed and prayed. Why didn’t you save me?”

And G-d replies, “Well, I sent you three boats!”

I had an acquaintance as an undergrad in college. She was a born again Christian and was in recovery from drug use. She told the story over and over about how “the J man” had saved her and changed her life. (I think the story was designed and repeated to encourage us all to join her in this newfound faith.) Till finally in exasperation, a mutual friend said, “Yeah, I think stopping smoking crack and hanging around with drug dealers didn’t hurt anything either.”

This sounds like a harsh indictment and truly I was glad for and impressed at my classmates ability to not only stay off drugs, and to completely change her life around, including attending college. (“Who is strong? He who subdues his passions.”) And I have to say that I do believe in G-d’s hand in all things and the power of prayer, but sometimes we also have to be responsible for our choices, our free will, another gift from G-d. It is an ongoing paradox; we have free will and we have Divine determinism. We have to help ourselves in our development, in our lifestyle, and take on some personal responsibility. Not everyone starts out on an even playing field; this is understood. But as adults, young and old, we face challenges and we choose how to respond to them. G-d allows us opportunities. And we decide what to make of them.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

Number nine of the BIG ten, the most universally known of the commandments, or statements, since there are, after all, 613 commandments. And number nine sounds simple enough doesn’t it? A command that you wont “lie on” someone, as we used to say as kids.

While teaching, one of my friends gave an example of bearing false witness that went something like this:

“What if the window as broken and the Rabbi came and asked ‘Who broke the window?’”

“Assume Josh was standing near and window. And the window was broken, but you didn’t see Josh break the window. Then you cannot say, ‘Josh broke the window.’ Understand?”

One of the other students, a young girl, piped up, “What if we THINK Josh broke the window?”

“If you didn’t see it, then you can’t tell the Rabbi that it was him,” the teacher answered.

“What if I saw Josh and he was really mad that morning?” the young girl persisted.

“If you tell that it was him and you didn’t see it, no. That would be bearing false witness.” And so on.

Toward the end of the discussion, the girl cocked her head in thought for a moment. She recalled that the kitchen window in the synagogue had been broken some months ago. It was found to be an act of vandalism. The police had been involved. Having put together this teaching example and an actual occurance she asked, “Was Josh the one that broke the kitchen window?”

We laughed a little bit about it afterward. “Why is she so interested in believing that Josh broke a window?” The teacher asked aloud. I think the answer and the incident goes a long, long way toward a deeper understanding of the commandment not to bear false witness. The experience says something on a larger scale about our make up, our human nature, that makes us SO inclind to want to blame; even when presented with information that the story was not true-from the original source-the little girl wanted to find her friend guilty. Or at least press hard enough and give enough unfavorable information, for someone else to…

Pehaps that is why we are also reminded to “judge everyone favorably”. Because we so NEED to be reminded.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

What is a Rebbetzin?

Someone recently asked me. She is a friend of a woman who friended me. A quick look at her profile confirmed what I already knew. She is not Jewish. I have to admit my radar went up. How often is a question not really a question? I didn’t know whether to brace myself for an argument. A religious one. Again.

But first I tried a sensible and levelheaded response: I answered. As best I could anyway. I typed, “A Rebbetzin means literally the wife of a Rabbi. It is a Yiddish word. Generally speaking, a Rebbetzin is very involved in the community and helps her husband serve.” That seemed to sum it up I thought. Although it seems to be a definition of ‘Rebbetzin Light’.

I admit I half expected my questioner to remark that it is not a real position-much like being a mother is discounted as not being a real job. (Yet how many of us would chose this one over another?) And I guess to some degree it is not. There is no pay as a Rebbetzin. I have never seen a help wanted advertisement looking for Rebbetzins. And there is no hard and fast job description, only expectation.

Generally speaking one is always equated with her husband’s job. But besides that our life and by extension our definition of ourselves becomes very much connected to the synagogue, the Hebrew school, and spiritual life. People ask us questions: about Kashrut, about holidays, about weddings, about just about anything that comes up whether in daily living or in Torah study. (Not to suggest that these are mutually exclusive). And we answer them when it is appropriate and other times we call in the big guns-we suggest the person speak to the Rabbi. We visit the sick, we teach, we cook at the Shul and at home, we have guests for holidays, we participate in the sisterhood and other organizations much like other people.

We help the Rabbi remember things…”This Thursday begins a new month,” we might say, in case he might need reminding to bench Rosh Hodesh. We might keep extra kipas in our purse. We might recommend stores or write letters of complaint to companies on questionable kosher or make suggestions to larger chains to carry products we can actually use or write letters to the editor about stupid, anti-Semitic remarks. Some Rebbetzins write advice columns; some have public speaking engagements; some, like me, just keep the occasional blog and live a relatively less public life.

There is a story, a modern Midrash if you will, that one of my acquaintances told me long before I was a Rebbetzin. In a woman’s class someone asks the Rabbi about making egg salad. The woman asks if they put in an egg with a blood spot could they still use the salad. The Rabbi recalling some of the laws about involuntarily mixing meat and milk says a hesitant “yes,” if it is only certain percentage. A woman from the back of the room disagrees. Who is the woman? You guessed. The Rebbetzin.

In conclusion, I have to say it is difficult to define oneself in such concrete terms. I guess the result is that we, like anyone else, are defined by our actions.