As we approach Tisha b’Av, I feel compelled to share a few thoughts from an early June trip to Italy. It’s a magical place by all accounts, but the hours we spent at the Coliseum and Forum were unexpectedly hard. Suddenly, the Three Weeks of mourning over the Temple’s destruction, and the loss of Jerusalem and our ancient political autonomy jumped off the pages of Lamentations. To see the Arch of Titus up close, with its chiseled menorah and Jewish exiles frozen in stone, was painful. To see public signage explaining that the Coliseum was paid for in part by the sacred vessels of our Temple brought anguish. We were forced to contribute to the brutality of 50,00-70,000 spectators watching humans and animals ripped apart for public entertainment, an anathema to our own tradition and values.
We’ve spoken before about Jewish conversational style: the fast pace, the interruptive jumps that hold enthusiasm but are often perceived as rude, the stubborn holding-on to topics despite lack of interest or the quick move from subject to subject. But we haven’t talked about what we say or don’t say, only how. Indulge me for a few minutes on the content of our speech.
We are approaching summer. Anyone remember last summer, the Jewish summer of scandal in New York? The heat returns, but we hope this time that light comes with it. We hope that these will be good months ahead, months where those in power feel the immense weight of personal responsibility weighing on their shoulders.
Breathe deeply and relax. Passover is behind us. But its leave-taking leaves us with a challenge. Ready?
We just finished the Maggid, the story of our exodus in the Haggadah. The infinitive “le-hagid” in Hebrew is to tell a story in expository style. Delve into it and speak it from one generation to the next. Three times in Exodus and one time in Deuteronomy do we find the command to tell the story to our children. The sages of the Talmud contrived from this repetition the notion of the “four sons” of our Haggadah. The unnecessary repetition signals the obligation to engage in differentiated learning. Tell it so that no matter whom you are telling it to, the story will feel fresh and relevant. This, of course, demands that we become master storytellers.
You know the biblical saying, “There is no prophet in his own town?” It means that people never listen to experts in their own area. Sometimes it refers to geography, sometimes to philosophy. People don’t trust local experts because we know them already. Answers lie elsewhere. Outsiders can get an aerial view of a situation — the balcony perspective — because they are not dragged down by local politics or the invisible limitations that organizations and individuals put on themselves. There is wisdom in this view, of course, but our use of outside experts can also be an excuse for not doing enough to utilize the people around us.
I went to the bakery to place an order for my bubbe’s birthday cake. The baker scribbled the date on his pad, “Whadya want on the cake?” “Something simple would be fine, like ‘Happy 100th Birthday.’” He looked up to see if I was serious. “We’ll make her something really nice.”
Editor’s Note: A version of this essay appeared in The Jewish Week Gala Journal in December.
Rabbi Judah, a Talmud scholar and scribe was once asked by Rabbi Yishmael to name his profession. Rabbi Judah told him that he was a scribe. Rabbi Yishmael responded: “Son, be careful in your work for it is the work of Heaven. If you omit a single letter or add a letter, you destroy the whole world.”
Pay for services the day they are rendered, as it says in the Bible, urges columnist Erica Brown.
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A few weeks ago, my housekeeper forgot to take her check on the kitchen counter. I called her frantically; perhaps she thought we forgot to pay her. She simply forgot. It was her problem. No, I said, it was our problem. “Justine, it says in the Bible that you have to pay someone on the day.”
Mid-point in 5774, we are about to close 2013, so it’s a great time to look back on major and not-so major Jewish events and notables of the year past. Take a deep breath and sigh, and we will begin with Israeli elections in January of 2013. Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu surfaced as the largest coalition, and we welcomed some new faces to the 19th Knesset.
Today’s airline industry has suspended reality as we know it. Some months ago, I was told that my wooden garden ornament was a weapon when it was actually a large wooden tulip with a stem. TSA would not let me through. I have to speak to the NRA about this.