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Talmudic Treasures by Rabbi Ziona Zelazo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Prayers at end-of life and advanced directives – Ketubot 104a

It is often that I am invited or asked to offer a prayer for healing for people who are sick. Even those who claim that they do not believe in prayer per se are willing to listen to a prayer when they are ill. And those who claim that they do not believe in praying for someone, are found to express verbally in some way or another encouragement and hopes for their loved one. The difficulty arises when there is so much pain involved, when there is no quality of life anymore, and no hope left for recovery or survival. Not always we feel that we have the permission or feel free to pray for a speedy death. Some tell me that they feel phony by giving ‘false hope’ and they also feel guilty when they wish that suffering should end with death.

In the Gemara in Ketubot 104a we read of a case, where prayers for healing could make the difference between life and death;

     On the day when Rabbi [R. Judah haNasi (135-220 C.E.) compiled the Mishnah] died the Rabbis decreed a public fast and [before that] they offered prayers for heavenly mercy [that he would not die].

     Rabbi's handmaid ascended the roof and prayed: 'The immortals [the angels] desire Rabbi [to join them] and the mortals [humans] desire Rabbi [to remain with them]; may it be the will [of God] that the mortals may overpower the immortals'. When, however, she saw how often he resorted to the privy [He was suffering from acute and painful diarrhea] painfully taking off his tefillin [These must not be worn when the body is not in a state of perfect cleanliness] and putting them on again, she prayed: 'May it be the will [of God] that the immortals may overpower the mortals'. As the Rabbis incessantly continued their prayers for [heavenly] mercy she took up a jar and threw it down from the roof to the ground. [For a moment] they ceased praying and the soul of Rabbi departed.

While Rabbi Judah’s handmaid, but not the rabbi's. students, is praised in the Gemara for her actions, as she understood when enough is enough, the Jewish law sanctions passive euthanasia -- at least in those cases in which the dying individual is incurable and/or is in great pain. Take this Talmudic story and parallel it with what is going on in our society. If prayer could be paralleled with our advanced medical technology to prolong life (many times at all costs), there is an awareness that actions such as termination of life support create potential moral and medical conflicts between health care providers, family members and patients. The ongoing discussion whether it is or it is not ethical to disconnect the machine causes terrible tension to arise. It is especially very sad when family members or health care providers insist on providing care where there is no hope for recovery.
In the USA, the term ‘euthanasia’ has a negative connotation and implies helping death even when there IS hope. This is not what I am talking about. I am clearly advocating for assisting death with Comfort Caring Care when the time is right.   
Similarly, Reform Rabbi Solomon Freehof of the 20th century claims that just the way a man and woman have the right to live; they also have the right to die with dignity. He concludes that if one may pray for the death of the hopeless ill, one may take other measures which will promote the inevitable end.
In light of my experience as a chaplain, I know that there are some ways to bypass some of the ethical questions and dilemmas that family members and health care providers are faced with and deal with. I refer to the Advance Directives form that everyone can complete even way before sickness strikes -- and this can be achieved even without any attorney. This advanced medical decision allows our given autonomy to instruct family and physicians in advance, what kind of treatment should be given when End of Life knocks at the door. Some patients choose the DNR, some want no heroic measures and others want all to be done. I have to admit that Advanced Directives are not always followed… or patients change their mind during crisis, but at least for the most part, it gives family members a peace of mind (ideally, but not always) and dignity could be achieved.
Today's concepts of Advance Directives presume an individual autonomy that was not presumed in Talmudic times. But the account in Ketubot 104a of the anonymous maid of Rabbi Yehudah haNasi, and how she changed her prayer as Rabbi was dying, remains a powerful primary resource for Jewish end-of-life decision-making. 

I have presented a very complicated topic in a rather simplistic way. But, I still would like to send out my encouragement that we keep praying for our loved ones when they need the extra energy to go on. Together with my suggestion to let the conversations of Advanced Directives start with family members as we exercise the ability to listen to one another with love, understanding and – prayers.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

About the One Who is Not Forgiven

Quiet often we are instructed to feel obligated to forgive our loved ones and other relations. As I wrote in the previous post, it is important to act in a Godly manner and bypass anger with forgiveness and mercy. Rarely do I hear discussions about the severe negative impact that non-forgiveness has on the person who is not granted forgiveness.
  It is important to focus on what goes on with a person who was not forgiven. Recently I met with Sara (not her real name) who shared a very painful story about not being forgiven by  (what was) her best friend -- a story full of anger, sadness and toxic energy.  
In Sara’s description, the mere thought of this person gives her pain. She said: “I feel like a knife is stubbing my heart every time I am around this individual.” I tried to re-direct her attention from painful feeling of “not being forgiven” to a more positive understanding of it, but Sara kept expressing her anger and sadness. I also sensed her deep mourning for the loss of this friendship by holding onto grievance. In a way, she has been forced to keep this individual in her life, while in fact - he is no longer a part of it.
Sara claims that in order to obtain forgiveness, she acted according to the Jewish ethical law. She sincerely apologized three times for the wrong she committed against this friend. Still, her friend refused to grant forgiveness. This law is described in the Gemara, Yoma 87a;
R. Jose b. Hanina said: One who asks pardon of his neighbor need do so no more than three times, as it is said: Forgive. I pray thee now . . . and now we pray thee (in Gen. 50:17 the brothers, in their appeal to Joseph to forgive the wrong they had done to him, use the term ‘na’ [O, pray] three times).
The Gemara in Baba Kamma 92a also teaches;
Our Rabbis taught: ….For regarding the hurt done to the feelings of the plaintiff, even if the offender should bring all the 'rams of Nebaioth' in the world, the offence would not be forgiven until he asks him for pardon…
Sara believes that if one truly asks for forgiveness there is no option but to forgive this person as an obligation; Maimonides writes in Mishneh Torah, Teshuvah 2:10
It is forbidden to be obdurate and not allow yourself to be appeased. On the contrary, one should be easily pacified and find it difficult to become angry. When asked by an offender for forgiveness, one should forgive with a sincere mind and a willing spirit... forgiveness is natural to the seed of Israel."
            Unfortunately, Sara’s ex-friend cannot get over the hurt. But, there is nothing more that Sara can do in order to un-do her hurtful deeds. Perhaps the only thing that was and is left – is to seek redemption and repentance by apologizing. Thus, anyone who denies forgiveness after being begged for it is cruel!  The Mishnah in Baba Kamma 92a also believes it is so;  
 Mishna; even though the offender pays him [compensation], the offence is not forgiven until he asks him for pardon… whence can we not learn that should the injured person not forgive him he would be [stigmatized as] cruel?

            I hope that all of us would have the ability to forgive because forgiveness is a great gift that could be given to others. It helps release pain and relieves emotional turmoil - for both parties involved. Let us show this high moral and divine quality in us that could repair and build, not destroy and tear down. As the Gemara in Ta’anit 25a informs us that the prayers of the great sage, Rabbi Akiba were answered because he was forbearing and forgiving, I pray that we could be like Rabbi Akiba and spare the pain that Sara shared with me;
R. Eliezer long prayed for rain but was not answered. R. Akiba came up to the Bima, offered a prayer of a few verses, and rain descended. A voice from heaven was heard to say, “It's not that R. Akiba is the greater man, but R. Eliezer remembers his wrongs and those who wronged him, and R. Akiba forgets”.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

May My mercy suppress My anger; Berakhot 7a

     Often when we feel angry with someone who hurt us in any way, we seem to forget all the positive qualities that still exist in that person. We may feel that revenge is essential and that the relationship is doomed. As the Jewish nation is approaching the High Holiday season, aka Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jewish people are encouraged to forgive those who hurt them, to love and be kind to those who are not exactly “loveable” and worthy. There are many who are faced with the serious dilemma how to forgive with kindness and compassion. People do not know how to take a complete primary, natural, and mature emotion such as anger and transform it to love and forgiveness. And worse is the fact that many feel guilty about not being able to bypass their anger.
            There is a lot to say about the ways to manage anger. I am sure you are aware of the many workshops and life coaching sessions that are offered worldwide. I personally know people who have been going to psychotherapy for years and years, yet, not being able to forgive an abusive father or attend lovingly to a friend who betrayed their trust. So, how about a new way to look at anger management?
           Actually, I do not have the perfect solution to offer you. But instead, I would like to share a very special text from the Gemara that is dear to me and gives me the chill everytime I read it. It might give us an important insight of what it means to manage anger. It is a text that teaches us that anger management is required not only of us, but also of God. The rabbis in the Talmud have no hesitations to claim that God has the need to pray, just like us; that God needs human’s blessings just the way human need God’s blessings; and that God needs to meditate on controlling anger with mercy, just like the way we are told to do.
The text of interest is in Berakhot 7a and starts with the following;

What does God pray? R. Zutra b. Tobi said in the name of Rab: “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 through the attribute of mercy and, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice.”
            The rabbis teach us that God may lack full control over God’s own actions and emotions, but God does not give up the wish to repair anger with mercy. It is an amazing thought that from all prayers, God needs to pray this particular prayer about repairing anger with mercy.
And the Gemara continues:
            It was taught: R. Ishmael b. Elisha* says: I once entered into the innermost part [of the Sanctuary] to offer incense** and saw Akathriel, the Lord of Hosts, seated upon a high and exalted throne. God said to me: Ishmael, My son, bless Me! I replied: ”May it be Your will that Your mercy may suppress Your anger and Your mercy may prevail over Your other attributes, so that You may deal with Your children according to the attribute of mercy and may, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice!” And God nodded to me with his head. From this we learn that the blessing of an ordinary person must not be considered lightly in your eyes.
* One of the lasts High Priests of the Second Temple, around the first century of the Common Era.
** Once a year, on Yom Kippur, only the High Priest would enter into the Holy of Holies.
            We see that God is asking a human for a blessing. Rabbi Ishmael blesses God with the same words that God uses in God’s own prayer. Mainly, that God should let the attribute for mercy win over the attribute for anger. Rabbi Ishmael wishes for God that God should conquer the inner psychological struggle, just the way we are encouraged to do over and over again. God is struggling along with us. Then, God nods to affirm the blessing with silence and acceptance. Rashi says that it means that God is saying Amen to Rabbi Ishmael’s prayer.
            God and Rabbi Ishmael are mirrors of each other and a there is a sense of intimacy between them. If we believe that we are created in the image of God, I would suggest that this scenario should be taken as a model of how to form our understanding of feeling of anger, mercy and forgiveness.  Perhaps we could be inspired and comforted by this image of God that is struggling to keep the balance between anger, mercy and judgment.  Perhaps we could take it upon ourselves to remember that it is OK for us to struggle with the same issues with no guilt as well.  

            Furthermore, I would suggest that when we keep meditate and remind ourselves that the goal is mercy, not anger, we might be able to shift things around subconsciously and gain the strength to easily forgive. And this way of thinking should be done not only before the High Holidays, but all year around. And then we may ask God to help us to forgive those who have hurt us.

            What are your issues with anger and forgiveness? Is this Gemara helpful to you at all?

© Rabbi Ziona Zelazo

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Spirituality of Na’aseh Ve’nishmah; Shabbat 88a

        Preparing for this week’s festival of Shavuot, I wonder about the real meaning of the unconditional commitment that the Israelites proposed. As they stood at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, they said to Moses; Na’aseh Ve’Nishmah --  “We will DO [observe the Laws] and then we will listen/understand ” [study these laws]. An outsider would think that we have a nation that is unrealistic and quick to make decisions. Personally, I could see how strange it could be to get involved in something without knowing what the rules of game are. Just like being used to have a User Guide Manuel for new items that I buy. First comes the understanding, and then comes the action. Indeed, the Gemara in Shabbat 88a relates that;

 A foreigner (Nochri) said to Rava, "You are a hasty nation, who put its mouth before its ears [when you said 'Na'aseh v'Nishma' and accepted to do the commandments even before you heard what those commandments are]."

         On the other hand, there seem to be some merit to the Israelite statement. The Gemara in Shabbat 88a reflects the idea that the People of Israel have taken upon themselves a special task that deserves an award. For the rabbis, the words na'aseh v'nishmah indicates the worthiness of the Jewish people for divine revelation.

R. Simai lectured: When the Israelites gave precedence to 'we will do' over 'we will hear ,' six hundred thousand ministering angels came and set two crowns upon each man of Israel, one as a reward for  'we will do,' and the other as a reward for 'we will hear'.

      But, what exactly made the People of Israel worthy of the divine revelation? Why do they get the reward? The rabbis felt that the Israelite must have been special as they were able to tap into a divine secret and managed to imitate what the angles do. Just as the angels know first to obey and then to understand God's word, so too the People;

R. Eleazar said: When the Israelites gave precedence to 'we will do' over 'we will hear,' a Heavenly Voice went forth and exclaimed to them; “Who revealed to My children this secret, which is employed by the Ministering Angels?

Another way the rabbis show that the People of Israel were unique is by comparing them to an apple tree. The Gemara cites the verse, "[He is] like an apple tree ("Tapu'ach") among the trees of the forest..." (Shir ha'Shirim 2:3). … just as an apple tree reverses the natural order and produces its fruit before its leaves, so, too, the Jews reversed the natural order at Mount Sinai when they said "we will do" before "we will hear." The implication of the Gemara is that the apple tree is different from all other trees, and so are the Israelite. While other trees produce leaves before fruit, the apple tree produces apples before it sprouts its leaves.

R. Hama son of R. Hanina said: What is it that was said: “As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons; in his shadow I like to sit and its fruit is a delight to my palate” (Song of Songs 2:3).  The two lovers in this poem were regarded as God and Israel.  Why were the Israelites compared to an apple tree? Why were Israel compared to an apple? To teach you that; just as the fruit of the apple tree precedes its leaves, so did the Israelites give precedence to 'we will do' over 'we will hearken' [my translation].*

          Perhaps Israel is unique, but I think that each one of us has the same merit. I speculate that the People of Israel could have not reached this point of the “unrealistic” decision if they were not at a high state of a consciousness shift. And so do we, need to reach a special spiritual level to be able to be a doer before a thinker. The People of Israel must have been in a highly meditative state. They were at the moment where they completely trusted the process, mainly – God, and let go of control. They prepared for this time by getting themselves pure. They already established the intention to be there and obey no matter what. This was their time to BE-Come. They were ready to create an identity for themselves, so by challenging themselves, they went beyond the ordinary. They trusted! Perhaps they were able to inject a balance between actions and their intentions, so that their well being could remain intact? Perhaps they found the balance between their relationship to the divine and their own inner sense of well being and trustfulness?

          If I were standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, I too, would have chosen to first commit to Doing and then to Understanding. I believe that when we allow ourselves to be spontaneous, putting the intellect away, we may find ourselves in a place of growth and reward. The art of meditation is teaching that indeed, when we depend too much on the intellect it could interfere with our own growth. The intellect does not let us surrender, be fully present in the moment, and Letting Go.  More than that, when we set aside the intellect we create an opening for the divine connection.

          If I were standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, surrounded by smoke, fire, light and thunder, I too, would have chosen to first commit to Doing and then to Understanding.  To me, there is nothing unusual to embark on unknown journeys because there is something special by taking risks in life and get onto waters that are challenging. How many times did we take risks by just taking a deep breath and go for the scary, but challenging step? I have been there many times…

          So, now, take a moment, pause and ask yourself – are there new visions for your future that may need a risk? Will you be willing to just act before calculating too much, so that it will prevent you from going ahead?
      *Tosafot observes this is untrue of the apple tree, which grows like all other trees; consequently refer this to the citron tree. As the citron remains on the tree from one year to the next, at which time the tree sheds its' leaves of the previous year, the fruit may be said to precede the leaves.

© Rabbi Ziona Zelazo

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

“So long as a person still has life, they should never abandon faith.”

              All of us find ourselves in difficult and challenging situations in life. The way we view our challenges is personal, but it is recommended by social workers and spiritual leaders not to feel hopeless. Hope is the belief that from every crisis some good will emerge, and that crisis could be a device to make us stronger – if hope is the basis.

             How does hope work in the political arena...? Listening to our president on Sunday, addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, I felt uncomfortable.  I am not sure what exactly was on his mind when he chose to quote a Talmudic passage;

“So long as a person still has life, they should never abandon faith.” 
            Surely, he is sending a message of hope. But if he was trying to talk to the Jewish audience and impress them, he probably did not realize that for Jews, the power of hope is what kept them alive for centuries. For Jews hope is not just a word – it is part of their daily life. So what and where is his amazing so-called message?
            I agree with Obama that we should not give up the vision of peace in the Middle East. But the use of this Talmudic passage is out of context and irrelevant. First he offers a plan that endorses a Jewish state with its 1967 borders with agreed land swaps as the basis for a Palestinian state. Secondly, he sees an urgent need for a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians. This is not very hopeful. This is urging Israel to be unsafe and in danger.
            I wish that Obama would focus on a peace process that is the work of the Israelis and the Palestinians together. Peace of the land does not solely depend on Israel. The retreat to the 1967’s borders alone will not bring peace. The Palestinians need to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state in the Arab Middle East first. They have to recognize the fact that Israel is rooted in ancient history. Without this, painful sacrifices and security guarantees will not, and cannot bring peace.
            Perhaps, it would have been helpful if Obama would have used a phrase of hope taken from the Quran, to balance his speech a little? I am sure that the Arab world sees challenges and difficulties as well. How is this phrase;
"And never give up hope of Allah's soothing Mercy: Truly no one despairs of Allah's soothing Mercy except those who have no faith." (12:87)
Do you see hope for a brighter future in the Middle East?

© Rabbi Ziona Zelazo

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

"Death and life are in the power of the tongue" (Proverbs 18:21) - Arakhin 15b

       Who amongst you has not been negatively affected by gossip and evil speech? I bet you that there will be no one out there. Not only that, but I think you will agree with me that somehow, sometime in your lifetime, you were the one to “bad mouth” another person behind his/her back. Personally, I have been a victim of slander, which left me wounded up to this day. Some of you will be there for me to share the feeling of helplessness.  What a terrible feeling it is to “be” a topic of a conversation when you are not present, when you cannot defend yourself. I know for a fact that it is impossible to undo the harm.
          Ethnographic accounts and social research show that gossip is actually a good thing. It serves as a mechanism to keep a society in control, in unity and solidarity. When people gossip, they seem to make ethical judgments about behavior and maintain their group’s social values (Max Gluckman). Gossip, anthropologists claim, is  good for you because it provides the individual with an emotional or psychological comfort that creates a feeling of well-being and belonging to a community (Robert Paine).
       As much as I can get what anthropologists are trying to convey, I am not so convinced that gossip, tale bearing and spreading malicious lies about someone are healthy, not for society and not for individuals. They all cause emotional damage and compromise the integrity of many. Thus, Judaism is totally against any speech as such as we are constantly reminded of the biblical commandment, "Thou shalt not go up and down as a tale-bearer among thy people" (Lev. 19:16). The term that is often used in the Talmud speaks for itself –– lashon harah -- which literary means Evil tongue. In tractate Arakhin 15b we find a number of condemnations of this kind of speech;
     a. It has been considered to be a greater sin than killing someone;
 The School of R. Ishmael taught: Whoever speaks slander increases his sins even up to [the degree of] the three [cardinal] sins: idolatry, incest, and the shedding of blood.
b. It is considered to have a ‘deadly’ implication;
In the West [Palestine] they say: The talk about third [persons] kills three persons: him who tells [the slander], him who accepts it, and him about whom it is told.

          While it is obvious that the one who is spoken about is harmed, the one who speaks lashon Harah is also harmed by lowering himself spiritually. The reputation and dignity of self is compromised and makes this person unworthy. And as we know we shouldn’t talk about others, we do not think that by listening to gossip and being part of an audience, we make lashon harah possible. Thus, the one who listens to lashon Harah is as guilty and also harmed.  

R. Hama b. Hanina said: What is the meaning of: Death and life are in the hand [power] of the tongue? Has the tongue ‘a hand’? It tells you that just as the hand can kill, so can the tongue. One might say that just as the hand can kill only one near it, thus also the tongue can kill only one near it, therefore the text states: ‘Their tongue is a sharpened arrow’. Then one might assume that just as an arrow kills only within forty or fifty cubits, thus also the tongue kills only up to forty or fifty cubits, therefore the text states: ‘They have set their mouth against the heavens, and their tongue walketh through the earth’. But since it is written already: ‘They set their mouth against the heavens’, why was it necessary to state also: ‘Their tongue is a sharpened arrow’? — This is what we are informed: That [the tongue] kills as an arrow. But once it is written: ‘Their tongue is a sharpened arrow’, why was it necessary to state: Death and life are in the hand of the tongue’? — It is in accord with Raba; for Raba said: He who wants to live [can find life] through the tongue; he who wants to die [can find death] through the tongue.

     c. It is socially and spiritually unacceptable;
R. Hisda said in the name of Mar ‘Ukba: One who slanders deserves to be stoned.
Hisda says in the name of Mar ‘Ukba: Of him who slanders, the Holy One, blessed be He, says: He and I cannot live together in the world.
In tractate Makkot 23a and in Pesakhim 118a;
…and Rav Sheshet for Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria; Anybody who tells the evil tongue, and anybody who accepts the evil tongue, and anybody who bears false witnessing on his friend – deserves to be thrown to the dogs…
       And if you wonder what is considered evil speech, you will find that anytime you say anything about a person that is not present in the room (good or bad), you are guilty of it.

What constitutes evil speech? — Rabbah said: For example [to say] there is fire in the house of So-and-so. [The fire of the oven. The suggestion: they are wealthy and eating all the time.] Said Abaye: What did he do? He just gave information? — Rather, when he utters that in slanderous fashion: ‘Where else should there be fire if not in the house of So-and-so? There is always meat and fish’ [Behind that apparently innocent phrase lurks the slanderer's purpose.]

          Rabbah said: Whatsoever is said in the presence of the person       concerned is not considered evil speech. Said Abaye to him: But then it is the more impudence and evil speech! — He answered: I hold with R. Jose, for R. Jose said: I have never said a word and looked behind my back. [To see whether the man concerned was near. I would say it to his face, which proves that in such a case it is not accounted slander (Rashi).]

          So, now, let me ask; what would motivate us to engaging in evil speech?

- Are we trying to avoid aggressive confrontations with friends?
- Is it possible that instead of telling our friend we are angry with him/her, we want to    take the revenge by gossip?
-Perhaps we all suffer with poor self esteem that we want to gain control and win friendship by slander?
-Are we trying to protect self-interest by this kind of communication?

          Let’s face it -- There is no benefit gained from gossip. Let us all remember what the Psalm 34:13 reminds us "to guard our tongue from evil and our lips from deceitful speech." Let us keep our good intention by talking to each other, not by hiding from one another.

© Rabbi Ziona Zelazo

Monday, March 7, 2011

Suffering and perceptual theology - Berakhot 5a-b

     The topic dealt with in this section of the Talmud is suffering. The rabbis try to understand why people suffer, and in that way, they mean to provide some “therapeutic” tools (if you may) that could make it easier to deal with the difficulties. Indeed, it is very painful to observe our loved ones bearing pain with helplessness and despair. It is difficult when we face health challenges that take us beyond the limits of endurance.
          Many times, patients during my pastoral visits ask for my explanation why they have to face medical challenges. They lose hope, express anger at God, and basically ask me: “Why me? Have I not done good things in life? Have I sinned without even being aware of it, or, why am I punished by God? The truth is that there are different ways to explain suffering, even if only on the theological level. Interesting, there are those who take a distance from God while others find God in their painful experience and grow closer to spiritual life.
          Pain and suffering are universal experiences and part of the human condition whether in small, undeveloped and primitive societies or in large, developed and industrialized ones. However, anthropological studies show that the perception, the understanding and the meaning assigned to pain and suffering are not universal and vary from culture to culture. I would say, each with its own theology.
          Take for example how other societies perceive suffering and pain; some attribute sufferings to the wrong doing of members of the tribe, who provoke bad spirits to react back as punishment. The Paracas of the Southern Coast of Peru release these evil spirits by perforating the skull to relieve internal pressure of a possessed person. The Nuer tribe in Africa believes that pain is a result of collective societal transgressions. And Buddhism always explores the origin of suffering of oneself and believes that it is a product of self invoking mind activities, a constant universal human condition.
          The monotheistic faiths consider suffering within the context of God's power. In Islam, with resemblance to Judaism and Christianity, there are two views of suffering; it is either the result of personal sin and is a way to cleanse the self of imperfection and sins, or, it is a test of faith that will be rewarded by God. 
          While the Jewish way of looking at suffering is equally embracing joyful moments to be  integral in life, there was a search to find meaning in suffering.  There is the understanding that one can be in pain but not necessarily suffer. Suffering seems to be a state of mind, an attitude, a spiritual dimension of pain. The anthropologist Cifford Geertz (The Interpretation Of Cultures, p.105) puts it perfectly:
 “As a religious problem, the problem of suffering is, paradoxically, not how to avoid suffering but how to suffer, how to make of physical pain, personal loss, worldly defeat, or the helpless contemplation of others’ agony something bearable, supportable- something as we say, sufferable”.

          Going back to Berakhot 5a-b we learn that the rabbis struggle with the question of why we suffer. Their logic raises some tough questions for me[1]. First they suggest that if one is inflicted with pain, one needs to search for the reason;
          Raba (some say, R. Hisda) says: If a man sees that painful sufferings visit him,let him examine his conduct. For it is said: Let us search and try our ways, and return unto the Lord (Lamentation 3:40). 
          If he examines and finds nothing [objectionable], let him attribute it to the neglect of the study of the Torah. For it is said: Happy is the man whom Thou chastenest, O Lord, and teachest out of Thy law (Psalm 94:12).
           If he did attribute it [thus], and still did not find [this to be the cause], let him be sure that these are chastenings of love. For it is said: For whom the Lord loveth He correcteth (Proverbs 3:12).
          I do not think that many of you will assume that we deserve suffering because we are loved by God. This is difficult to digest. How could a loving God inflict such suffering on a righteous person? Why would anyone accept this? How can suffering be a token of love…?
          Raba, in the name of R. Sahorah, in the name of R. Huna, says: If the Holy One, blessed be God, is pleased with a man, he crushes him with painful sufferings. For it is said: And the Lord was pleased with [him, hence] he crushed him by disease (Isaiah 53:10). …….
          And if he did accept them, what is his reward? He will see his seed, prolong his days.  And more than that, his knowledge [of the Torah] will endure with him. For it is said: The purpose of the Lord will prosper in his hand (Isaiah 53:10).
          OK. So one can suffer because God loves him so, and there will even be a reward in the next world. But, if I to continue to worship God with Torah study and prayer, how could I possibly do so when I suffer?

          For R. Simeon b. Lakish said: The word 'covenant' is mentioned in connection with salt, and the word 'covenant' is mentioned in connection with sufferings… Even as in the covenant mentioned in connection with salt, the salt lends a sweet taste to the meat, so also in the covenant mentioned in connection with sufferings, the sufferings wash away all the sins of a man.

          The tool that is supposed to help deal with this problem is to vision how suffering is supposed to erase, or to repent for sins. I cannot accept the idea that sick people are sinners. I know plenty of righteous people who suffer, and bad people who flourish. Interesting enough, there are three stories following this long Gemara discussion. The cases of 3 sages who were sick and simply could not accept the suffering or the rewards. Here is only one story in 5b;

            R. Johanan once fell ill and R. Hanina went in to visit him. He said to him: Are your sufferings welcome to you? He replied: Neither they nor their reward. He  said to him: Give me your hand. He gave him his hand and he raised him. Why  could not R. Johanan raise himself? They replied: The prisoner cannot free himself from jail.

          There is a certain level of consciousness that promotes healing and endurance of suffering. It is very personal, and each one of us needs to tap into this well of theology. In many ways, if we re-examine what the rabbis teach us, we can see that a certain kind of acceptance, a Letting Go, could give some comfort.

What do you think of this kind of theology of suffering? What is yours?

© Rabbi Ziona Zelazo

[1] The following is inspired by a teaching of Rabbi Amy Scheinerman last weekend in NJ;

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Baba Batra 99a - Facing each other - the cherubim and us

          Most common discussions between people today are conducted through the internet. Skype, Facebook or simple email modalities replace the intimate face-to-face interactions. Our life today also requires us to run, run, run, from one place to the other. We over task and thus, hardly take the time to listen to our colleagues, our peers, or our beloved relations, let alone, spend quantity and quality of time sharing. I ask where can we find the authentic commitment to each other? I wonder whether we understand the meaning of face-to-face interaction. I worry that the intimacy between us is losing its intensity and being diluted.
          Lets us look at a very important symbol that was commanded by God for us to embrace. In Exodus 25:18 God commanded the Israelites to make the Cheruvim – the cherubs with the Ark covering. In Exodus 25:20 we read that the specific positioning of the cherubs is designated to face each other;
          And the cherubs would spread out their wings in an upward  direction as they cover up the ark-covering with their wings. And their faces face each other ; towards the ark-covering  their faces should be [my translation].
In II Divrei Ha-Yamim 3:13 we read that Solomon the king built the ark with its cherubs facing the Temple, not each other;
          The wings of the cherubs are spread for twenty amot (measure), and they stand on their feet and their faces are towards the Temple.
Why do we have such a difference in the cherubs placement? What does it mean?
This question is addressed in Bava Batra 99a;

            And how they {the cherubs} stand? Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Eliezer [debate]: One taught that the two keruvim faced one another; the other taught that they faced the Temple. And to the one who said that they are facing one another - the verse in Exodus 25:20 says that they faced each other, while for the one who said that they face the Temple, In II Divrei Ha-Yamim 3:13 it says that they faced the Temple. This [difference in text] does not pose a problem; Here {Rabbi Yochanan} it refers to the time when the people of Israel were doing the will of God. Here {Rabbi Eliezer} it refers to the time that the people of Israel were not doing the will of God [My translation].

          According to this approach in the gemara, the keruvim represented the relationship between God and the Jewish People. When the Israelites behaved properly and the relationship was good, the keruvim looked at each other, but when there were difficulties with the relationship, they looked away from one another. It is as if the deeds brought about the presence of God right between the cherubs, not anywhere else.

          When we are in a relationship we commit to act in such a way that it would open the space for holiness. More we look at each other, more we engage in this creation of sacredness. When we avoid facing each other we neglect the mission of creating the spirit that fills the space to do well. When we loom away, we destroy a relationship. As Martin Buber wrote that “Spirit is not in the I, but between I and Thou. It is not like the blood that circulates in you, but like the air in which you breathe". Buber tells us that we live 'in' the spirit, not the spirit in us, but this - only when we enter into this relation with the whole being.
          Let us remember that the whole being is the way the cherubim faced each other. So take it in to your life as a Face to Face interaction, which would affirm the key to a good and meaningful life.    


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Incense during Prayer?

             One of the things I love about meditation is the ambiance. The light of the candle which is lit in front of me is enhanced by the fine unique and pleasing aroma of the burnt incense. The room is filled with the smell of nature that makes it totally possible to get into the moment. When I enter a room that is full of this fragrance, I immediately shift gears from the daily routine to a tranquil time. It allows me to pray and reflect with ease. It opens the space to welcome the divine and the sacred.
            Incense is used in many religions, but in Judaism we only reminisce of this practice. We do not use the aromatic incense during worship in the synagogues. All we have left is the Havdalah service as the Shabbat exits, when we smell the sweet-smelling spices. Simultaneously, we praise God for making the distinction between the holy and the mundane. From this week’s portion, Exodus 30:7-10 we learn that the High Priest used to burn incense twice a day in the Temple, right after the sacrifice ritual;

On it [the altar] Aaron shall burn aromatic incense; he shall burn it every morning when he tends the lamps, and Aaron shall burn it at twilight when he lights the lamps – a regular incense offering before the Lord throughout  the ages.
            Perhaps there should be no wonder that Judaism does not incorporate incense during services. After all, we have no Temple and we do not sacrifice animals. But, should we not keep at least something...? I wish we could consider walking into a synagogue, filled with the sweet aroma of incense. I would not, however, want the aroma to be as strong as the Talmud describes to us in Yoma 39b;
            The goats in Jericho [which is far from Jerusalem] used to  sneeze          because of the odor of  the incense. The women in Jericho did not have to perfume themselves, because of the odor of the incense. The bride in Jerusalem did not have to perfume herself because of  the odor of the incense. R. Jose b. Diglai said: My father had goats on the mountains of Mikwar and they used to sneeze because of the odor of the incense. R. Hiyya b. Abin  said in the name of R. Joshua b. Karhah: An old man told me: Once I walked towards Shiloh and I could smell the odor of the incense [coming] from its walls.
            Interesting enough, the use of incense (or ketoret in Hebrew) according to Exodus 30: 34-38 was a sacred act, which belongs only to the High Priest. No one but Moses got the formula for the mixture of the three precious spices combined with frankincense; 
            And the LORD said unto Moses, Take unto yourself sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense: of each shall there be a like weight: And you shall make it a perfume, a confection after the art of the apothecary, tempered together [salted], pure and holy: And you shall beat some of it very small, and put of it before the testimony in the tabernacle of the congregation, where I will meet with you: it shall be unto you most holy. And as for the perfume which you shall make, you shall not make to yourselves according to the composition thereof: it shall be unto you holy for the LORD.
            The fascination of the ketoret in the Talmud extends to more than fifty different discussions in various tractates. There is an attempt to find meaning in the use of incense. I will list only a few examples.
            One addresses the social and the religious framework of the People of Israel. While the Hebrew Bible tells us about four spices used for the ketoret, the Talmud in Kritoth 6b lists eleven ingredients; some fragrant spices as well as the foul-smelling galbanum, which itself acquired a pleasant aroma when combined with the other spices of the ketoret. So were the mixed spices as the symbol of the different kinds of people who join together, positively impacting upon one another;

            Said R. Johanan: Eleven kinds of spices were named to Moses at Sinai. The verse says: "Take for yourself spices ­- balsam, onycha, galbanum, spices, and pure frankincense." If  the Torah only meant that the four main substances should be taken and nothing else, it should simply have said, "Take for yourself balsam, onycha, galbanum and pure frankincense." The Torah uses the word spices (samim), repeated twice. This indicates that there were other spices. Said R. Huna: ‘Where is the text? Take unto thee  sweet spices, at least two; balsam, and onycha, and galbanum, that makes together five; ‘sweet spices’ means another five, that makes together ten; ‘with pure frankincense’, which is one, that is together eleven.
In Berachoth 6b incense symbolizes prayer;
       R. Johanan says: [Special care should be taken] also about the evening-prayer. For it is said: Let my prayer be set forth as incense before Thee, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.
            Lastly, according to Arachin 16a and Zevachim 88b the incense was used in the Tabernacle to atone for lashon hara – slander, when the speaker hides his true feelings from the subject of his criticism and the 'victim' has no awareness that someone is criticizing him.
            The rabbis have given lots of thinking on the way worship works. They took the few verses from the Hebrew Bible and tried to add understanding to the hidden meaning of the practice. I wonder why we do not continue to explore. I am looking for more ways in which I can connect to the divine. I would like to connect to my ancestors and the way their spiritual means showed devotion to God through smoke and aroma. I would want my lungs to be filled with aroma during prayer. I wish I could rediscover the mystery of the ketoret as I get into the moment. But may I add that all of this without animal sacrifice, as I am not voting for this.