I heard from a rabbi in our community that there was once a man who wrote down the Baal Shem Tov's torah - all that he had heard him teach. One day, the Baal Shem saw the man walking along, clutching a book in his hand. He said to him, "What is this book you are carrying?" The man answered, "This is the book that you wrote," and he disappeared. Later the Baal Shem gathered all of his disciples and asked them, "Which one of you is writing down my torah?" The same man stepped forward and handed over the book. The Baal Shem took a moment, glanced at the pages, and said, "There is not even one word here that is mine."
WHAT IS "TORAH"?
My child, heed your father's musar, and do not forsake your mother's torah.
Eugene B. Borowitz and Frances Weinman Schwartz begin their book, The Jewish Moral Virtues, with this teaching from the Tanakh. The words "musar" and "torah" are placed parallel to one another in the verse.Musar, the Hebrew term usually translated as "ethics" or "morals," comes from the root meaning "to transmit" or "to send." And how are we to define "Torah?" The Five Books of Moses? A collection of laws? A story? A scroll? The answer is all of the above, and more. Torah is a way of life, and words of Torah are those ideas which guide us in our living. This becomes more clear when we understand that the word "torah" itself comes from the same Hebrew root that produces the words "morah" or "moreh" - the feminine and masculine words for "teacher."
"Musar" and "Torah" are often referred to as separate from one another. Yet the parallel construction in the verse from Proverbs (musar = torah) asks us to explore the connection between the two. A passage from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma 86a, helps us frame the question:
What constitutes the profanation of [God's] Name (hillul Hashem)? - Rav said: If, for instance, I take meat from the butcher and do not pay him at once? R. Yohanan said: In my case [it is ahillul Hashem] if I walk four cubits without [uttering words of] Torah or [wearing] tefillin. Isaac, of the School of R. Yannai. said: If one's colleagues are ashamed of his reputation, that constitutes a hillul Hashem?
We tend to make sharp distinctions between halachah/Torah (law), and musar (ethics). Yet where would we draw the line in this text. Ultimately, it is all Torah. And notably, we can see how the Torah finds expression in the individual torah (interpretation and action) of Rav, Rabbi Yohanan, and Isaac respectively. For instance, according to Rav's torah, the way you demonstrate disrespect for God is by neglecting to pay the butcher on time. In this sense, we could say that musar is a expression of torah, sent from generation to generation in both new forms and in old packages. As we read in the Introduction to The Jewish Moral Virtues, "Musar? is dynamic, changing, yet somehow the same (p. 5).
THE LANGUAGE OF VALUES
While Borowitz and Schwartz use the word "virtues" in their title, Joseph Telushkin has written The Book of Jewish Values. "Virtues" and "values," however, are not biblical or rabbinic words. They are part of our vernacular and they carry their own valences, which we, in turn, read back into our inherited texts. The word "values," for instance, in modern Hebrew would be "arakhin." This word happens to exist in the language of the Torah and the Talmud, however it refers not to the core beliefs or standards that guide our actions, but rather to monetary valuations and assessments. In Temple times, it was customary for an individual to literally donate his or her value, to symbolically pledge the equivalent of one's own life, to the service of the Temple. This system of valuation was determined by the priesthood, and paid in the currency of the time - the silver shekel. The precedent for this practice is documented in the 27th chapter of the Book of Leviticus.
The Temple in Jerusalem was believed to be God's House and the place to perform avodah - sacred service. Today, in the absence of the Temple, the whole world is God's dwelling place, and every place and space in our lives - from our homes to subway cars to mountaintops - is an altar. The avodah of our time is the way we dedicate ourselves to living Torah and to making our lives count.
We learned above that there is a tractate in the Talmud called Arakhin, yet no tractate yet exists for our modern understanding of the word "values." With this in mind, consider this study guide an experiment in creating your own Values Tractate - a 21st century version of Tractate Arakhin, based on our current conception of values as core beliefs that guide our actions. What would such a tractate include. Building on the verse from Proverbs, begin reflecting on "your father's musar and your mother's torah" - things you have heard and seen your parents and grandparents say and do, the ethical teachings that live with you and guide your actions to this very day.
Before you begin the guided readings, make a list. The items on your list will comprise the torah that you have inherited from your family. In what ways do you live that torah today. How is your expression of your parents' and grandparents' torah the same. How is it different. What have you learned in your own life that adds to the torah of your ancestors and affects the way you act in the world.
As you work through each section, try arranging your reflections on the subjects according to the layout of a page of Talmud. Place the torah of your family members in the center of the page. Around the outer margins-top, bottom, and both sides-place your own experiences and insights as you move through the guide. If you are studying with your children, add their comments in the margins as well. If you are studying with a group, it might be interesting to create similar pages that reflect the group's inherited wisdom and their ongoing commentary throughout this process.
The guided readings and related questions that follow are arranged to extend over the course of four weeks. Each week will be an opportunity to study and reflect upon different mitzvot (commandments) and to discover how they find expression in your own life. The four-week approach builds on the tradition of Rosh Hodesh (celebrating the New Month), which is a smaller version of Rosh Hashanah in the sense that it calls for reflection and is a celebration of a new beginning. Therefore, before you begin the readings, read the Blessing for the New Month (usually read on the Shabbat preceding Rosh Hodesh) as a kavannah - a way of focusing your intention - in anticipation of the work you are about to do:
May it be Your will, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors, to renew our purpose this month for good and for blessing. Grant us long life, a life of peace, a life of goodness, a life of blessing, a life of sustenance, a life of physical health, a life of commitment, a life free from shame, a life of wealth and honor, a life marked by love of Torah and a sense of awe, a life of happiness and contentment. Amen.
At the end of each section, add commentary to the values tractate that you are composing. In addition, assign a title to each discreet section. If you are working in a chevruta (with a study partner) or with a group, discuss the choices you are making about what section titles you are using, as well as which responses get recorded on each page and why. Like any good page of Talmud, make sure to include differences of opinion and varying traditions!
You will notice that each of the sections that follow contains a selection of the material found in both books. Selections from The Jewish Moral Virtues (which will heretofore be referred to as Virtues) are used for background and to give context to various concepts, while those from The Book of Jewish Values (referred to as Values) are used to translate the concepts into action. They should inspire your own thinking about the multiple expressions that these concepts might take in your own life.
WEEK ONE: TURN, TURN, TURN
As we begin our month-long odyssey into the torah of our lives - how the values, traditions, and practices we inherit find expression in how we act in the world - we start with the general sense of awareness calledteshuvah. The process of teshuvah, of turning within and returning to our best selves, is an ongoing one. Although the High Holy Day season is a time of heightened awareness and intensified attention to teshuvah, we take time every day in our prayers to ask for forgiveness and the strength to change our lives so that we can change the world. Judaism takes seriously the notion that we have the power to transform ourselves, but doing so takes practice.
- Read pp. 264-265 in Virtues and pp. 149-150 in Values. Both texts include versions of the same story involving Rabbi Eliezer. Telushkin suggests a nightly ritual that is a variation on the theme of the larger heshbon nefesh (soul inventory) we are called upon to do in preparation for the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur holidays. If you were to create your own inventory list, what would it look like? What categories would you consider on a daily basis? Would the categories remain consistent or would they change according to circumstances or seasons. For further discussion, read Psalm 90 and pp. 154-155 in Values. How do we remain actively aware of time and its value.
- Read pp. 265-273 in Virtues and pp. 151-153 in Values. What are the obstacles, both internal and external, that keep us from teshuvah. Both texts offer David as an example. What qualities did David possess that enabled him to do the work of teshuvah. Recall some moments when you have felt most like David, or like Adam or Cain. What are the most difficult things for us to acknowledge and for which to take responsibility? Nathan was a catalyst for change in David's life. What or whom do you find have been the most effective catalysts for change in your life?
- On p. 273 in Virtues, we are reminded of how distraught Jonah becomes when the Ninevites repent. Although this is, in fact, the goal that God had in mind in sending Jonah to the people to admonish them to repent, Jonah cannot stand the fact that the Ninevites actually listen. The midrash (rabbinic tale) at the bottom of p. 274, however, demonstrates that God, in acknowledging even a genuine step towards teshuvah with acceptance and favor, is far more forgiving than Jonah. Turn to pp. 448-449 inValues. When do we play Jonah in our own attempts at teshuvah. When is our dissatisfaction with our own efforts helpful? When is it harmful. What are the parameters for determining when we have "successfully" done teshuvah. The twelfth century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides outlines three criteria: becoming aware of wrongdoing, resolving to do things differently, and then enacting the new behavior when in a similar situation. Do these steps resonate with you. What are your criteria for effective acts of teshuvah that are empowering, rather than inducing a state of emotional/spiritual paralysis?
WEEK TWO: MAY THE WORDS OF MY MOUTH BE ACCEPTABLE
Oftentimes we speed through our days asking others, "How are you?" without even waiting for a response. And if a person dares to respond with something other than, "Fine," we are almost startled.
We live in a world where we are inundated with words - on billboards and computer screens, in newspapers and magazines, on the radio and on T.V. Words are everywhere, yet real communication is scarce. While the mechanisms are in place, only we can make our words count.
The story of creation depicts God bringing the world into being by speaking. The Talmud imagines God sitting and painstakingly attaching crowns to each letter of the Torah, turning every word into a work of art. What if we were to take even a fraction as much care with our own words.
- Read p. 46 in Virtues and pp. 113-114 in Values. What do we learn from Rabbi Salanter's teaching about the important combination of timing and instinct when choosing words that heal.
- Read pp. 45-46 in Virtues with pp. 495-496 in Values. Telushkin suggests the use of the telephone as one approach to fulfilling the mitzvah of visiting the sick (bikkur holim), explained by Borowitz and Schwartz. In what other ways might technology be used to perform mitzvot? What new opportunities arise? What new challenges arise? If, for instance, we are using the phone as a "mitzvah instrument" for bikkurcholim calls, what is the "halachah" for doing so? Can such calls be made with any kind of phone, including a cellular phone? Or might we consider excluding cellular phone use, given the fact that cell phones can be undependable in certain areas and, therefore, inappropriate for this sort of call? What are the circumstances under which bikkur cholim calls are permitted in place of an in-person visit? See also pp. 44-47 and 250-251 in Values to further inform the discussion.
- Read "Comforting the Mourner" on p. 50 in Virtues, and pp. 193-195 and 373-374 in Values.There are times when silence is the greatest gift of all. The authors suggest certain circumstances in which this is the case. What situations would you add?
- Read the paragraph on p. 242 in Virtues that begins with the words "The most common cause of strife among acquaintances is cruel gossip?," coupled with pp. 64-65, 361-362, 435-436 inValues. How do we determine when to speak and when to remain silent? Study the account in Numbers 13:1-14:10, referred to on p.242 in Virtues at the end of the paragraph you just read. When does even the truth become slander? See also pp. 42-43 in Values. The Baal Shem Tov, a Hasidicrebbe, urges us to incline our ears to hear what our very own mouths are saying, but how do we attempt to hear the words before they leave our mouths? How responsible are we for anticipating the impact of our words?
- Read "The Golden Meaning of Humility" on pp. 138-139 in Virtues and pp. 441-442 in Values.Examine the teachings of Bahya ben Asher and Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan (the Chaffetz Chayyim). When do we mistake self-deprecation for humility? When do we allow humility to turn into another form of self-aggrandizement? (see p. 137 in Virtues - "Look who wants to be a nothing now!")? What is the possible range of responses to Hillel's challenge (Virtues, p. 139)?
WEEK THREE: IS HONESTY ALWAYS THE BEST POLICY?
We have begun to assess the power of words and to examine how we use them. More often than not, however, no one principle holds in every situation, making the boundaries harder to discern and the questions far more difficult to answer. As children we are told not to lie. We are told unequivocally that honesty is the best policy, and yet on that fateful day when we innocently tell Aunt Harriet exactly what we thought of the plaid beret she sent as a birthday gift, our parents quickly introduce the concept of "the white lie." The waters begin to get murky, definitions change, and our appreciation for the nuances and complexities of truth-telling can leave us treading in the deep end.
- Read pp. 205-210 in Virtues and pp. 100-105 in Values. Examine the difference between the teachings of Kant and St. Augustine and the biblical accounts of Shifra and Puah, God's request of Samuel, and Mordecai and Esther's rise to power in the court of King Ahashuerus. What, if any, questions do these examples raise for you? Are these models that frame or illuminate your own experiences?
- Discuss the principle of pikuach nefesh (saving a life), and its primacy in inherited Jewish texts and traditions. How do you define pikuach nefesh? Need one only be in physical danger in order to tell a lie? Does emotional abuse also constitute a pikuach nefesh situation? What other scenarios can you imagine in which matters of life and death depend on a choice between being truthful and telling a lie?
- Focus on the mishnah quoted on p. 102 in Values.What does this text tell us about the importance of context and perspective? Is there such a thing as objective truth, or are certain truths wholly subjective? What happens when being truthful and safeguarding the feelings of another human being come into conflict? According to Hillel's teaching, who is he trying the protect? The bride? The groom? Both? Describe a "dancing before the bride" conflict that you have encountered, when you found yourself choosing between two conflicting, and equally important, principles. How did you resolve it?
- On p. 208 in Virtues, the question is asked: Is there any public figure who has mastered the precarious tightrope walk between unstinting truth-telling and insincere ingratiation? We find one example of a "responsible balance" between the two on p. 105 in Values in the Talmudic teaching from Tractate Bava Metzia: In the following three matters, learned men do conceal the truth: In matters of tractate, bed, and hospitality. Does this strike you as an acceptable balance, or at least as a compelling set of guidelines for the unavoidable ambiguities in the realm of the truth? What would you add? What would you remove? What guidelines for striking a "responsible balance" have you learned from your parents, your peers, your children, and/or your own experiences that could serve as an expansion or illumination of this particular text?
WEEK FOUR: DEFINING "ENOUGH"
As Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg says, "We live in a world of unlimited needs and limited resources." This is our struggle. Every day we balance our needs, those of our family, of our community, of our country, of the earth, and the world - an exercise that, more often than not, leaves things out of balance. The challenge is to develop a sense of what is enough on the one hand, yet not to accept limitations on the other. These are the choices we make every day, oftentimes without even noticing. But to be "observant" is to be aware. Use these questions to heighten your awareness of what constitutes enough, and when and how you draw the lines.
- Read pp. 161-162 in Virtues, as well as pp. 95-96 and 243-246 in Values.How do we create an ethic of eating that reflects the importance of enjoyment, our responsibility to care for our bodies, our obligation to prevent undue suffering, and the awareness that many are not privileged to sit down to meals with either the freedom or the frequency that we do?
Telushkin raises a challenge with regard to veal. Regardless of what our feelings might be about veal in particular, the challenge inspires us to ask what really lies at the foundation of the laws of kashrut. If you were designing a system of kashrut for yourself and your family, what items - according to yourunderstanding of that system - would you consider kosher? What items would you consider to beunkosher? Would it stop simply with the food itself? Or would it, perhaps, extend to where you do your shopping, to what kind of bags you use to carry the groceries, or to how you treat the salespeople who work in the store?
- Read pp. 166-168 in Virtues and pp. 94-95 in Values. How do we prevent ourselves from falling victim to the "gift shop syndrome" (Values, p. 167), so that we can construct a sense of wealth that is not dictated by external definitions but by internal sensibilities? Even if we can afford something, what are the other criteria we should consider when making purchases? How do we balance the real dignity that emerges not only from having nice things, but from knowing that we can successfully provide homes and education and other privileges for our children, without staking the whole of our dignity on those things? What are your guidelines and standards for what constitutes "enough?"
- Read pp. 168-170 in Virtues, as well as pp. 139-140 and 248-249 in Values. When is an insistence on "more" a positive value? What limitations do you think should never be tolerated? Reflecting upon the words of Rabbi Hanokh of Alexandrow (Values, p. 169), whom do we allow to remain in exile within our own society? What types of things have we accepted as a given that cry out for our attention, our passion, and our belief in the possibilities of humanity? What is the difference between being content and just settling? What are the prayers that are not being uttered that we must begin to say? Building on Telushkin's suggestion, consider creating a collection of prayers for those without voices-the prayers that need your voice in order to be heard.
DANCING WITH TORAH
On the evening of Simchat Torah, the Baal Shem Tov danced with his congregation. He hugged the Torah to his chest and whirled round and round, spinning with delight. After a while, he stopped. He set the Torah scrolls down and began to dance without them. In that moment, one of his closest disciples shouted above the singing and clapping, "Now our master has laid aside the teachings we can see and is dancing with the teachings he has taken inside of himself."
As one month ends and a new one begins, review the Tractate Arakhin that you have begun creating, and reflect upon the experiences of the past four weeks. What torah have you taken inside yourself. How is it finding expression in your every day life? What new expressions have you learned from others?
Now you can make your own topic selections and begin again-a new month, a new set of challenges, and a world of Torah waiting to be born.