Friday, August 31, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Ki Teitzei 5772–The Torah, The Gold Watch, and Another Retelling

It’s time to share it again. Perhaps a little cleaning, polishing, and editing this time around. This is, after all, from the book of “second time around” (i.e. Deuteronomy.)

In 1997, I first wrote the musing for parashat Ki Teitzei entitled “The Torah, The Gold Watch, and Everything.” The title is a play on John MacDonald's 1960 fantasy fiction novel "The Girl, the Gold Watch and Everything" which was made into a (really bad) movie in 1980. It’s the story of a schlemiel who inherits a gold watch from his uncle, a mathematician who suddenly developed an uncanny ability to bilk casinos, amassing great wealth. He left nothing to his nephew except a gold watch. Turns out the watch has the ability to stop time for all but the holder of the watch, so Kirby, along with a loving female companion he meets in a most awkward way, use the watch to defeat a criminal couple who were often thwarted by his uncle, and sought the watch for their own nefarious purposes. None of which is relevant, but interesting nonetheless.

For many years, it was my tradition to annually resend this musing. I’ve edited and rewritten the original story just a little bit this year.

There it sits. Each day, at some point, I open the pencil drawer in my desk at work, and laying among the hundreds of other miscellaneous items, it shines and stares at me. That gold ladies watch. It's been a month, I think. Six months. A year. Two years. Why not finally just take it home?

I had tried all the usual means to locate the owner, who had apparently lost it at a symphony concert held in the venue I managed almost two years ago. The usher who first found it and brought it to me in my office thought this find was important enough to bring to my attention right away.

"It's a gold watch, after all," she said

I asked, "Have you ever not brought something you found to my attention right away?"

"Oh yes," she said. "We find little unimportant things all the time. We just put them in our pockets and then leave them in the lost and found box."

"So no one knows you put them there, except you?" I asked. Never one to waste a teachable moment, I hastened to tell the well meaning usher that we should treat every lost object as if it were priceless to its owner - whether it's a cracker-jack box ring, an umbrella, or a gold watch. I later took the opportunity to address the entire staff, both backstage and front-to-house, on the importance of treating all apparent “lost/found” objects as important. I've been teaching that to all the staff at that venue and everywhere else I have worked ever since then.

But I digress. I called the symphony office, and tried to find out who was sitting in seats in the area the watch was found, since many attendees were regulars with subscriptions and regular seats. We called all those we could identify and none of them were the owner of the watch. We kept this up for several weeks. No one ever called to report a lost gold watch or to claim it. At other symphony concerts that season and next I asked people if the watch was theirs or if they knew who might own it. We even had the watch opened by a jeweler and checked for serial numbers, engravings, etc. Still no luck.

Now it is two years later. All last week, I kept saying to myself, "Adrian, it's time. Just take it home, or donate it to a charity that could resell it (or use it.)"

Each day, I had the same conversation. Shabbat Shofetim came and went. Then it was time to read Ki Teitze. And there it was, in verses 22:1-3.

1. If you see your fellow's ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow. 2 If your fellow does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him. 3 You shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent. [JPS]

I was doing the right thing, in diligently trying to return the watch to its owner. Something had always told me that this was a Jewish value that had been instilled in me by my parents. And that I should keep following this principle.

Torah teaches us that we must seek out the owner of the lost item, but it doesn't tell us what to do when we can't find them, so the tradition has always been to hold on to things until the owner is finally found. There is a Talmudic story about Rabbi Chanina who watched over some wandering chickens so fastidiously that what started out as a few chickens wound up as a herd of goats which were ultimately returned to the original owner of the chickens. This story has been further enhanced in many fanciful retellings by Jewish storytellers over the centuries.

It was so fortuitous, the timing of reading these words of Torah. That gold watch staring back at me every day from the drawer was calling to me. My life continues to be a series of little epiphanies like that. It's a joy.

Well, wouldn't it be nice if I could say that this story had a perfect ending - and the owner of the watch finally was found and I returned it. No such luck. I think it is finally time to take the watch to some charity that can use it. The watch has already served its purpose sitting in my drawer - that constant reminder to me of the ethic by which I, as a Jew, must live. And a reminder to teach those ethics to those who work with me, to especially to those I teach. It's as though that little watch was a verse of Torah come to life. Now it's time to let it bring its magic to others. I only hope that it was to its original owner of as great a value as it has been to me, and will now be to others.

My your drawers contain that little piece of Torah as well...

...And here the original tale ended in 1997.

Every year, people would write and ask me "so what happened to the watch?" In subsequent annual re-postings of the musing, I had hinted that there was a postscript to the story which someday I would tell. In 2005 the time had finally come to tell the rest of the tale. Then, I wrote these words:

"It's all so apropos that I have always felt people would find it unbelievable, and I feared being accused of boasting about my own righteous behavior. I can only tell you that the story is a true one. You'll have to judge for yourself, for I am including the story's postscript this year."

So what did happen to the watch? I'll tell you, though I fear you might think I'm making it up. I'm not.

The true story is better than fiction. I have only told a few close friends, and I never wrote it up before, as I thought no one would believe it.

One very cold winter's day, and remember this took place while I was living in Fargo, North Dakota,where cold days can be really cold, I took the watch with me on a trip to the Goodwill store, where I routinely used to shop for props for shows (and where I had learned to shop for clothes, because somewhat used and shrunken men's small and medium sizes might fit my small but broad shaped body better than newer clothes. It was a lesson my wife at the time, Linda, taught me.) I was going to donate the watch to them.

On my way from the parking lot into the store, a bag lady, who hung around there periodically, accosted me and asked if I had the time. I looked at my watch and told her the time. She thanked me and I started to walk off into the store but she shouted at me to wait. She rummaged through her bags a minute. Eventually, she brought out an old, battered pocket watch--a real old railroad watch or conductor's watch--I think it had the Burlington-Northern Railway logo on it. She said it doesn't work anymore, but that it had been her father's watch-she said he had been a railroad conductor on the BN line. She offered to sell it to me for $5.

The irony of it all was quite thick. I took the gold watch out of my pocket, and gave it to her, saying "how about an exchange?" I knew the gold watch was worth far more than $5. The jeweler we had taken the watch to had confirmed it was quite a valuable object. Worth hundreds. She asked if it worked and I said yes. She quickly and insistently handed me the pocket watch. She said "G”d bless you" and shuffled off as I walked into the store.

I’ve never been entirely sure if she was more excited to have a working watch again, or she knew she had a valuable object she could now sell or pawn. At the time, I had the feeling she was more excited to have a working watch.

In retrospect, I suppose I could have just given her the watch, and let her keep the old timepiece, which seemed to have sentimental value. For that matter, I could have just given her $5, or even more, in cash, and told her to keep the watch. So even I learn ways to improve myself when I retell these stories. Yet as I look back on it, I do think there is honor in honoring the woman’s desire to not take plain charity, and insist on an exchange.

The story doesn't end here. I figured that this old pocket watch was probably worth something, and I had an idea, so that same day I showed it to a friend in Fargo who dealt in antiques. He offered me $100 on the spot for it! Apparently, they were in demand. Later that day, I cashed the check. I wrote a note explaining what I had done, put it and $100 cash in an envelope and took it back to the Goodwill store. The bag lady wasn't there, but the nice people in the store said they would give it to her, as she comes around every so often. (Living in Fargo at the time I had grown more used to being trusting of people and was quite sure the folks in the  Goodwill store would sincerely make sure the bag lady got the money. Now that I have spent many years once again living in more urban settings, I wish I could recapture more of that trusting nature.)

I think it was about 6 months later that I happened to return to the Goodwill store, and guess who was working there? It took me a minute to recognize her-but it was, without a doubt, the bag lady. Her name was Eunice, as her name tag proudly displayed. Clean, dressed in decent clothes, with a little weight on her bones, entirely affable. She never showed any hint of knowing me, which I guess, in the end, was actually better, making it a "better mitzvah" according to the Rambam's ladder of tzedakah. (Anonymous donations are considered of a higher order.) Of course, I don't know that it was that gold watch, and what she may have gotten for selling or exchanging it somewhere else,  or the $100 for which I sold her watch that I tried to get back to her through the folks at the Goodwill store, that might have set her on the path that led her to wind up working there, and apparently in a much better place in life,  but that doesn't really matter now, does it? I was just happy to see this woman in a better place.

I won’t deny I felt good inside. I was proud of myself. I realized, though, that it was only through her own efforts that she could have risen from her destitute state and recaptured control of her life.

Now can you see why I think no one would ever believe it. It’s almost too good to be true. Perhaps you, dear reader, can see why I think it might appear to be boasting about my myself, and that wouldn't be right, and why I was always reluctant to tell that part of the story.

We never did find the watch’s original owner. So in some ways, the original mitzvah wasn't fulfilled. Yet, in attempting to fulfill one mitzvah, other mitzvot were fulfilled. Mitzvah goreret mitzvah. One mitzvah leads to another.

I've had other lost items turn up over the years that I've held on to while seeking the owner. Yet none of those stories is as amazing as the story of the gold watch left at the symphony concert. To this day, I think of that watch that sat in my desk drawer for two years. And I'm always on the lookout for more little pieces of Torah sitting in my drawers.

In 2005 I wrote:

And now you all know the end of the story. Which means that next year, I'll have to write an entirely new musing for Ki Tetze. Mitzvah goreret mitzvah.

I kept that promise and wrote on new and different things, but this year, it was as if I opened a drawer and saw that little gold watch staring back at me, and I felt I had to tell the story once more.

I as was musing on all of this, I kept thinking about times in the past years when I have found myself starting to be a bit lazy when it came to doing the right thing, and catching myself, and going ahead and doing the right thing. It could be something as simple as walking by a piece of trash figuring someone else would pick it up, and then stopping myself and picking it up. It could be something as simple as finding a forgotten and unidentified art project from camp on the ground, being tempted to just dump it in the trash, and instead taking it to some counselors or an art specialist and asking of they knew who made it, and asking them to make sure they got it.

It’s easy to say “why bother?” If they child discarded it, it probably wasn’t important to them anyway. They might have just taken it home and thrown it out themselves. However, we just can’t assume that.

    וְכֵ֧ן תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה לַחֲמֹר֗וֹ וְכֵ֣ן תַּעֲשֶׂה֮ לְשִׂמְלָתוֹ֒ וְכֵ֣ן תַּעֲשֶׂ֜ה לְכָל־אֲבֵדַ֥ת אָחִ֛יךָ אֲשֶׁר־תֹּאבַ֥ד מִמֶּ֖נּוּ וּמְצָאתָ֑הּ לֹ֥א תוּכַ֖ל לְהִתְעַלֵּֽם׃  

3 You shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent. [JPS]

Talmudic exegesis makes it clear that this teaches us that the obligation to return lost items to our neighbors (and by extension, perhaps, anyone) cannot be ignored. I’d like to go a step further.

Sometimes, things that are lost are not tangible things. Love, honor, trust, respect, dignity. Those are all things that can be lost. I believe it is as much our obligation to try and return those intangibles to those who have lost them as it is to return a lost gold watch.

Look around. You might find some metaphorical lost gold watches in your life. what can you do to help return them?

Shabbat Shalom,


©2012. Portions ©1997, 2001, 2004 and 2005 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Ki Teitzei 5771 -  Metaphorical Parapets
Ki Tetzei 5769 - The Choice of Memory
Ki Tetzei 5767 - Honoring Inconsistency
Ki Teitzei 5766 - B'Shetzef Ketzef
Ki Tetze 5758 - Exclude Me
Ki Tetze 5762 - One Standard

Friday, August 24, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Shof’tim 5772 - Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Parashat Shof’tim speaks of the responsibilities and obligations of community leaders – religious and civic. Its verses cover this as it pertains to magistrates, rulers, priests, and prophets.

The parasha helps more to delineate the limitations of these various authorities than it does to define their roles. Kings are exhorted to study and know Torah, to not amass too much wealth or too many wives. (Well, that one seemed to go by the wayside, didn’t it?) Interestingly, the establishment of a monarchy is an entirely optional choice for the people.  We could spend a whole musing on just that, but let’s save that for another time. (However, I’ll give you this to think about – if, as so many of us believe, the Torah, and particular Sefer D’varim/Deuteronomy was a later addition, and, as in other parts of the Torah, it contains text meant to justify the existence of the monarchy with the foresight of hindsight – or is that hindsight of foresight? – why then include text that says the monarchy is optional? I can think of lots of answers, but I’ll allow you to the chance to play around with that on your own.)

The verses referring to the priests are almost wholly about how, being non-landholders, they are to be supported by the community. There is, of course, an underlying assumption that those chosen for service to G”d are to be held to a standard of behavior and ethics simply by virtue of having been chosen for this honor/obligation. Which is probably why it is left unsaid. Or is it? More for you to ponder on your own!

Finally, we are given the (rather simplistic) test of whether a prophet is a true prophet.  If what they prophesy comes true, they are a true prophet. Again, another subject that could occupy an entire musing, if not an entire book, but we’ll press over it today.

The opening verses of Shof’tim (18-19) themselves present a bit of a puzzle. They direct the people to appoint judges in their settlements (v 18.) However, in the following verse, 19, it does not use the pronoun “they,” instructing “them” (i.e. the judges) to  judge fairly and not take bribes, as one might expect after the exhortation to appoint judges (and as we read elsewhere in Torah.) Instead, it uses the pronoun “you” in its second person masculine singular form.)

לֹא־תַטֶּ֣ה מִשְׁפָּ֔ט לֹ֥א תַכִּ֖יר פָּנִ֑ים וְלֹא־תִקַּ֣ח שֹׁ֔חַד כִּ֣י הַשֹּׁ֗חַד יְעַוֵּר֙ עֵינֵ֣י חֲכָמִ֔ים וִֽיסַלֵּ֖ף דִּבְרֵ֥י צַדִּיקִֽם׃

You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. (JPS)

What are we to glean from this? Perhaps it is teaching us that any of us, at any given time, could be in a position in which we have to judge, and we must all, as the Torah tells us, pursue justice. Perhaps it also teaches us that we all have an obligation to insure that anyone judging (or ruling, or priestifying, or prophesying) is following those same principles of pursuing justice.

Thus the answer to the question Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? – Who watches the watchers? – is, to begin with, us – each of us individually, and all of us collectively. We cannot simply appoint judges (or even Kings)  and allow them to proceed unmonitored. Though we do not appoint prophets or priests, they, too, are subject to the watchful eyes of the people. Prophets, the parasha teaches, are provided as needed by G”d. Priests are also G”d-provided (or G”d-ordained, or, as the cynic in me would say, presented as a gift to the family/tribe of Moshe.)  Provided/ordained by G”d or not, they are human, and need to be held to account.

צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙ וְיָרַשְׁתָּ֣ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ׃

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (JPS)

That is our obligation, our duty, our responsibility. We must watch over those whom we appoint to dispense justice in our name. Do we even need to ask who watches us?

Shabbat Shalom,

©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Shoftim 5771 -  Hassagat G'vul Revisited
Shoftim 5767 (Redux and Updated 5760/61) From Defective to Greatest
Shof'tim 5766-Hassagut G'vul
Shoftim 5765/5759-Whose Justice?
Shoftim 5763—Pursuit

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Friday, August 17, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Re’eh 5772–Think Marx, Act Rashi? Think Rashi, Act Marx?

When we reach this parasha, not a year goes by  when I do not recall the words and music of a song written by someone who has been part of my life journey, Karen Daniel. I have quoted it before in musings on Re’eh, only both times I placed it at the end. This year, I’m going to start with it. Based on the text of Deut. 15:11, it reads:

Open your hand to your brother
The poor and the needy in the land
Open your hand to your sister
I command: Open your hand.

We all have enough
More than we will ever need
And all around is jealousy and greed
Just remember it could be us
The wolf is knocking at the door
We give thanks for G”d's abundance
By giving to the poor, so

Open your hand to your brother
The poor and the needy in the land
Open your hand to your sister
I command: Open your hand.

You can read my thoughts from 1999 (and updated in 2005) in the musing entitled “Open Your Hand” In 2005, we had just experienced hurricane Katrina and her after-effects, and my added thoughts that year were strongly affected by that. I had considered, as I often do, simply including the text of that previous musing in this one, and I do hope you’ll go and read it because many of the same thoughts and ideas there are part of what I also wish to say this year. You can think of many, if not all the comments I make in this musing, to be additions and supplements to those earlier ones.

כִּי־יִֽהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן מֵֽאַחַד אַחֶיךָ בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ בְּאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר־יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ לֹא תְאַמֵּץ אֶת־לְבָֽבְךָ וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת־יָדְךָ מֵֽאָחִיךָ הָֽאֶבְיֽוֹן: ח כִּֽי־פָתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת־יָֽדְךָ לוֹ וְהַֽעֲבֵט תַּֽעֲבִיטֶנּוּ דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לֽוֹ: ט הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ פֶּן־יִֽהְיֶה דָבָר עִם־לְבָבְךָ בְלִיַּעַל לֵאמֹר קָֽרְבָה שְׁנַת־הַשֶּׁבַע שְׁנַת הַשְּׁמִטָּה וְרָעָה עֵֽינְךָ בְּאָחִיךָ הָֽאֶבְיוֹן וְלֹא תִתֵּן לוֹ וְקָרָא עָלֶיךָ אֶל־יְהֹוָה וְהָיָה בְךָ חֵֽטְא: י נָתוֹן תִּתֵּן לוֹ וְלֹֽא־יֵרַע לְבָֽבְךָ בְּתִתְּךָ לוֹ כִּי בִּגְלַל ׀ הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה יְבָֽרֶכְךָ יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכָֽל־מַֽעֲשֶׂךָ וּבְכֹל מִשְׁלַח יָדֶֽךָ: יא כִּי לֹֽא־יֶחְדַּל אֶבְיוֹן מִקֶּרֶב הָאָרֶץ עַל־כֵּן אָֽנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ לֵאמֹר פָּתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת־יָֽדְךָ לְאָחִיךָ לַּֽעֲנִיֶּךָ וּֽלְאֶבְיֹֽנְךָ בְּאַרְצֶֽךָ

7 If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. 8 Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs. 9 Beware lest you harbor the base thought, "The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching," so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing. He will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will incur guilt. 10 Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the Lord your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings. 11 For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.

Rashi has a bit to say on these verses. He, along with other sages, tell us that verse 7 serves to spell out an order of priority for charity – first to the truly destitute, then to your family/kin, then to your community, and then to the whole of the land.

I’ll admit that, at first, there was a part of me that wanted to turn that upside-down and reject that interpretation – to say that we have as much, if not more obligation to the needy in the rest of the world, and should not confine most of our giving to local cases. Then the wheels started turning in my head and I began to have my doubts. After all, isn’t the way we handle charity these days pretty much and reversal of Rashi’s order? With a click of a mouse, the press of a send key on a phone, or even the old fashioned writing of a check, we send off our donations to organizations. Yes, some of them are local, but in many cases, we actually seek out organizations that have regional, national, even global impact in order to make our donations go further and have wider impact. I believe that this is certainly well-motivated, but we may be missing something in the process. While I completely agree that we can and should give globally, we do have to remember to act locally.

I see the struggle in the Jewish community all the time. It goes beyond just charity, but encompasses the whole debate about Jews and Judaism being particularistic or universalistic. Having served as an Education Director, I know I have at times tried to steer my congregations, teachers, students, parents to give to Jewish charities. At other times, feeling guilty about this inward focus, I have tried to encourage broader giving and thinking.

However, more than anything else, I have always tried to encourage acting locally. Rather than drop money into blue boxes, or send checks or electronic donations to large organized charities, I’ve tried to set an example for others by instead taking that money and using it to buy socks and food which I keep in my car or on my person to give to those in need.

More and more people are carrying less and less cash. That’s unfortunate for the needy. Maybe we should all remember to carry around some cash simply to have on hand to give out to those in need when we encounter them.

Aye, and there’s the rub. We often go out of our way to avoid encountering the needy, the homeless, the panhandlers, the bag ladies. It won’t do any good to carry around extra cash (or socks, or food) to give to the needy unless we actually make an effort to go places where we know we will encounter them. There are times when I adjust my driving route specifically because I know I’ll pass by some needy folks. I should do it more often, I’m sure.

A close friend of mine, who has become part of my life journey, has been talking a lot of late about the need to not just stand at a threshold, but the need to go through and take action. Judaism is not a passive religion. The verses from our parasha certainly make that clear.

They don’t say “open your heart.” They say “open your hand.” It’s not just philosophical, it’s practical. Action is demanded. Of course, the phrase is metaphorical is some sense, yet at the same time it may be quite plain in its meaning.

Another piece of this text that caught my eye this year was verse 8, and Rashi’s thoughts on that. Rashi teaches us that this verse teaches us that a formerly wealthy person, now poor, may not be able to survive on the same amount as someone who has always been poor.

Again, at first, I wanted to reject what Rashi had to say outright. In our current political and socio-economic situation, these words just don’t feel right. I’m not sure they’d ever feel right, but particularly amidst all the debate between the Obama/Biden and Romney/Ryan camps (and my sympathies clearly lying with the former) I just don’t want to accept the idea that the formerly rich beggar may be entitled to a bigger handout than a lifelong beggar. Then, again, from each according to his ability to each according to his need, said Marx. Certainly not the ideology of Romney/Ryan (though I’m not entirely sure how much Obama/Biden buy into it either.)

Perhaps what Rashi is teaching us is that determining need has to include factors other than just raw need. My understanding of what may be motivating Rashi here is the desire to give every person dignity. The Torah teaches us that we must treat rich and poor alike. Somehow, it seems to me that Rashi is pushing some borders here. So I’m still struggling with what Rashi says. After all, we all enjoy a good comeuppance story, like the movie “Trading Places.” (In part that’s what’s so frustrating about the fact that other than Bernie Madoff, who stole from the rich, none of the other bankers and CEOs and CFOs responsible for the Wall St. meltdown have truly been punished for what they caused.)

This idea that Rashi gave us, that wealthy people gone broke may need more support than lifelong poor people as a matter of practicality and dignity seems to pervade our society – country-club minimum-security prisons, for example. RFID-equipped ankle bracelets for wealthy or well-known offenders. While some replaced monarchs or leaders are killed when deposed, many are simply put under house arrest in their own mansions.

Yet the ferocity of the French in their war against the aristocracy need not be our standard, either. Somewhere there has to be a middle ground.

And while I make not like Rashi’s interpretation, I may have to begrudgingly admit he is somewhat correct. The text does say “lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.” It doesn’t tell us that we are the ones to judge what is sufficient for another’s needs. It tells us to give gladly and willingly.

Here’s an interesting dilemma: you encounter a homeless person or beggar on the street. You offer to take them to get some food.  They respectfully request you take them to a bookstore instead and let them buy something to read. Do you do as they ask? Do you just give them money and let them make the choice (and is doing that eschewing some of your obligation?) Do you decide you know what is best for them and take them to get a meal anyway?

וְהַֽעֲבֵט תַּֽעֲבִיטֶנּוּ דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לֽוֹ

The JPS translation may not do it full justice, so I offer this translation instead:

Lend to him what he needs to borrow, enough of that which is needed, which is needed by him

That’s the second half of what Marx wrote – sort of. Clearly, from what I’ve written here, even that simple statement is not so simple and easy to understand and put into practice. Like so many things in Judaism, we need to take the time to figure out what it means. Thoughtfully, intentionally.(Similarly, for things like “You should not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”) Now we need to examine for ourselves how we define the first part – according to our ability. That seems to be where we fall down the most. At least when it comes to translating it into action – direct action.

Think locally, act globally. Think globally, act locally. Somehow, I believe, Judaism teaches us that both are the way to go.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Re'eh 5771 - Revisiting B'lo L'sav'a
Re'eh 5770 Meating Urges
Re'eh 5766-Lo Toseif V'lo Tigra
Re'eh 5765--Revised 5759-Open Your Hand
Re'eh 5761--Our Own Gifts
Re'eh 5760/5763--B'lo l'sav'a
Re'eh 5759--Open Your Hand
Re'eh 5757/5758--How To Tell Prophet From Profit


Friday, August 10, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Eikev 5772–Is El Al Really Doing the Right Thing?

“You have to have a consistent ethical principle, whether you will benefit or lose by asking”

Randy Cohen, former writer of The Ethicist column for the NY Times, as quoted in an article by on the Moment Magazine In The Moment blog by Sarah Bregger.

It was a feeding frenzy. It was also wrong. No matter how you slice it, we should not profit from the mistakes of others – even if that other is a large corporation.

If you’ve not heard about it, this past week one of El Al’s contractors mad e a small mistake and for a short time, ridiculously low round-trip fares to Israel (some as low as $330 it was claimed) from the US could be purchased online through 3rd-party vendors. Word spread like wildfire and within a short time (3 hours say reports) over 5,000 tickets had been sold at these unbelievable prices.

That’s precisely the point. The prices were unbelievable. Yet thousands allowed their greed and selfishness to overcome their common sense. Thousands ignored the teachings of our own traditions about ethics in business and the concept of not unfairly benefitting from the mistake of another. They had to know it was a mistake, a glitch of some sort. Not that I have the ability to look into the hearts of others, but I am fairly confident in stating that anyone who claims otherwise (that they thought this was a bona-fide offer and price) is either lying to themselves or to others.

Yes, that’s harsh. Yes, I have been guilty of similar types of selfishness and greed in my own life – though I am quite certain I would not have purchased a ticket at these prices, had I learned about them in time before the mistake was corrected) without some serious and thorough investigation, and grave misgivings. That’s why I would follow the advice solicited by a Moment Magazine reporter from Randy Cohen, formerly “The Ethicist” writer for the NY Times.

Randy Cohen’s analysis is on the mark. His advice is that El Al should honor the tickets (which they have announced they will do) but that everyone who bought one should then decline to accept El Al’s gesture (and, I suppose, return the tickets for a full refund.) To bolster his case, he uses the example of incorrectly priced meat in a supermarket.

For example, if you are in a supermarket and a steak was marked at 12 cents a pound, you know it is a mistake and you have a duty to at least inquire from the merchant if that is the correct price. You have to show tolerance for others people’s errors or else we would be walking around always looking over our shoulders, scared that if we make a mistake the hyenas would swarm.

[I interjected to say my mother would most likely hold the merchant to his advertised steak price- SB] Most places would honor the mismark as a kind of customer relations, but if she saw the steak marked $85, wouldn’t she inquire about it? If you do it one way you have to do it the other way.

There are other concerns as well. The feeding frenzy did little to counter the sadly still pervasive negative stereotype that some folks have about Jews and money. The feeding frenzy just confirms the worst anti-Semitic jokes about Jews and money. Really-5,000 tickets sold just through word-of-mouth/Facebook/Twitter in a matter of three hours? Gives conspiracy theorists a lot of fodder.

El Al’s agreement to honor the low prices is a honorable thing, and a smart business/PR move. El Al also went a little further – many of the tickets involved code-share partners with people changing planes/carriers in Europe. El Al has agreed to convert any of these tickets into El Al only direct flights for an additional $75. Nevertheless,  I do have to question the long-term implications of rewarding people for their avarice and for disregarding basic principles of Jewish ethics.

On the other hand, there are probably some deserving people who will get the opportunity to go to Israel, something they might never have been able to afford to do without this lucky mistake. I’m less thrilled for the many who grabbed these cheap tickets who can well and easily afford to pay regular fares and have little financial hardships preventing them from doing so. Or for those who, as some have joked, purchased tickets for as yet unborn children or grandchildren!

As we read in the haftarah for Eikev, from Isaiah:

      גֵּוִי֙ נָתַ֣תִּי לְמַכִּ֔ים וּלְחָיַ֖י לְמֹֽרְטִ֑ים פָּנַי֙ לֹ֣א הִסְתַּ֔רְתִּי מִכְּלִמּ֖וֹת וָרֹֽק׃

I offered my back to the floggers,
And my cheeks to those who tore out my hair.
I did not hide my face
From insult and spittle. (50:6, JPS)

I’m not comparing myself to Isaiah, yet I recognize that my position on this matter may be unpopular, but that has never stopped me. (I also note a number of pos’kim have posted opinions similar to mine – though, as is typical in the Jewish world, just as many pos’kim have taken the opposite stance.

I was saddened to see the discussion degenerate, on some sites, into a dialog about whether Jews have the same obligations in such a situation to goyim as they do to other Jews. El Al is, I suppose, essentially a Jewish entity. If this had been a “goyish” airline, are we permitted to behave differently? This further devolved into a discussion about returning a lost wallet and whether one has the same obligation to a Jew and a non-Jew. From my perspective, at least, a nonsensical question. You find a lost wallet, you are obligated to try and return it to its owner. With all its contents. Jew or non-Jew matters not. Yet the vitriol I saw being spewn by Jews of all stripes (and, sadly, between differing expressions of traditional/orthodox/hassidic Judaism) was unbelievable. Just as unbelievable as a $330 round-trip fare to Israel, by the way.

I stand by Randy, the former “The Ethicist” columnist’s advice: if you are a lucky ticket holder, thank El Al for their commitment to honoring them despite the obvious mistake, and then refuse their largesse and either pay the fare required, or return your ticket for a full refund with no fees (as El Al has promised.) There are some very Willy Wonka overtones here. This helps me make my tenuous connection to the parasha, Eikev. In it we read:

לְמַ֨עַן עַנֹּֽתְךָ֜ לְנַסֹּֽתְךָ֗ לָדַ֜עַת אֶת־אֲשֶׁ֧ר בִּֽלְבָבְךָ֛

In order to test you by hardships to know what is in your hearts (D’varim 8:2, JPS)

This incident could be thought of as a test (just like Willy Wonka’s contest) though perhaps not a hardship. A test by G”d to know what is in our hearts. Will we follow what our tradition teaches us regarding ethics and taking advantage of the mistake of a business person, or will we continue to feed the anti-Semites with ammunition?

Yes, indeed, some blessings will come from this test, this mistake, this glitch, this whatever-it-was. We should rejoice over those blessings – though perhaps the blessing we should rejoice most of all is that, as a result of all this, we will think, we will study, we will learn, and we will gain the wisdom and discernment to know what is morally and ethically correct.

As I said, I can’t know what is in the heart of anyone else. I’m not even sure G”d knows. It does appear that G”d wants to try and find out. So if you got one of those tickets, and can honestly say to yourself you bought it in good faith and the absolute certainty that it wasn’t a glitch/error/mistake but an honest-to-G”d legitimate offer from El Al and its contractors, zei gezunt, have a nice trip. However, before you do, I’d recommend spending this Shabbat (and perhaps some time beyond) searching Torah, Tanakh, Talmud, and the many discourses by our sages. Maybe some books on Jewish ethics/business ethics. If this is G”d testing you/us with temptations and/or hardships, wouldn’t you/we want to do our best to actually try and pass the test?

      וְהָיָ֣ה׀ עֵ֣קֶב תִּשְׁמְע֗וּן אֵ֤ת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים֙ הָאֵ֔לֶּה וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֥ם וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם וְשָׁמַר֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֶ֜יךָ לְךָ֗ אֶֽת־הַבְּרִית֙ וְאֶת־הַחֶ֔סֶד אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּ֖ע לַאֲבֹתֶֽיךָ׃

And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, the Lord your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers. (D’varim 7:12)

Shabbat Shalom,

©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Eikev 5771-Lining Up Alphabetically By Height
Ekev 5770 - For the Good Planet
Ekev 5769-Not Like Egypt
Ekev 5766 - Kod'khei Eish-Kindlers of Fire
Eikev 5765-Are We Forgotten?
Ekev 5764-KaYom HaZeh
Ekev 5760 (from 5759)-Not Holier Than Thou

Friday, August 3, 2012

Random Musings Before Shabbat- Va'etkhanan 5772 Redux 5759ff: The Promise

It has become a tradition (well, for many of the last 12 years) to annually share with you this Random Musing for parashat Va'etchanan. As always, a few alterations to keep it timely.

The Promise. What a stunning prediction. If we don't keep G”d's commandments we shall be scattered among the nations, there to serve man-mad gods of wood and stone. (Silica isn't exactly stone, but I wonder if the computer gods we are serving kind of fit that description?) D'varim 4:26-28

And here we are. We didn't keep the commandments. Now we are scattered among the nations. And we serve man made G"ds of wood and stone. Oh yes, we keep the ancient faith alive as best we can, but I sometimes wonder if even the most pious among us are meeting the ethical and moral standards set forth in G”d's commandments?

What a depressing scenario-what a depressing situation for us. But the answer is right there in the following verses (29-31.) Even if we search for G”d in the midst of our scattered lives, we can find G”d. For G”d will keep the promises, G"d is compassionate and will not fail us.

I don't know about you, but when I look about the world today, and consider all the horrible mess we have created, keeping these verses in mind is almost a pre-requisite to being able to cope. Now, some will claim that G"d has abandoned us, that God no longer responds to our searching. To them I would remind them of the second half of v. 29, which tells us that G"d can be found even in the midst of our diaspora, but only if we seek with all our heart and soul.

I am reminded of a discussion we had one night on Erev Tisha b'Av. The question was raised, as it often is, why we modern liberal Jews would mourn the loss of the Beit haMikdash when indeed it was that very event that precipitated the formation of portable Judaism, rabbinic Judaism, that has enabled us to survive all these years in galut. Before the Beit haMikdash was destroyed (both times) G"d sent us prophets to warn us that if we didn't get our act together, we'd lose out. Both times we ignored the warning and suffered the consequences. And here we are, almost two millennia later, and we're still not getting it. And so we rail that G"d has abandoned us, when it reality it may be we who have abandoned G"d. Despite all the tragic events, the persecutions, we're still around. If we're not finding G"d amidst all this, we're just not looking hard enough.

We mourn the loss of the Beit haMikdash to remind ourselves of the folly of our still failing to heed the message. Ands to remind us to look for G"d, even among the ruins of what once was. This anamnetical connection with our history keeps the message ever fresh in our minds.

I am also reminded of mass e-mail that was forwarded to me some years back, entitled "Letter of Intent," a whimsical piece in which the Jews explain why they are not planning to renew the covenant with G"d. It goes into a whole litany of complaints. I wrote the following response to those who forwarded the piece on to me:

"You know what's wrong with this whimsical piece? It completely ignores the fact that, despite our perceptions that G"d has not kept up one end of the bargain, that we have done far worse at keeping ours, and that despite that--we're still here!!! If that's not G"d watching over us, I don't know what is, and renouncing our covenant is sheer folly, and certain to lead to the end of even the remnant that remains of the Jewish people. We didn't listen to the prophets, and we're still not listening. Yet, somehow, mir zenen doh. When, if ever, we actually try to do the things that G"d wants us to do, at least most of the time, and we're still put upon, tortured, killed, etc., then maybe we have a right to complain. But I don't think we've earned that quite yet.

Torah tells us that G"d is always there for us to find--if we search in the right way-with all our heart and soul.

This Shabbat, seek with all your heart and soul. G"d is there waiting to be found. Even if you have already found G"d in your life, seek deeper.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2007 by Adrian A. Durlester Portions ©1999 2001, 2002 & 2012 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Va'etkhanan/Shabbat Nakhanu 5771 - Comfort
Va'etkhanan 5769-This Man's Art, That Man's Scope
Va'etchanan 5764--Sometimes A Cigar...