Thursday, January 20, 2011

Pirkei Avot and Evil Speak

In Pirkei Avot (1.15) Rabbi Shammai enjoins us: “Say little, but do much.” Is this ever an enjoinder we need! The air around us is dense with words. While some words do inspire and goad us to good deeds, most of the words we hear do not. So many of the words we hear are not words of inspiration or instruction, but words designed to denigrate and de-legitimize. We are not careful with our words, and the world around us is worse of for it.

Our tradition lays out very specific and detailed laws for controlling our tongues. For example, we are forbidden to speak negatively of others; this is called lashon hara (evil speak). And this even applies (in most cases) to information that is true! But isn’t it important to inform others about negative truths regarding others? In a word, no. If we’re honest, most of the time when we make negative statements about others, we do so with no particularly good end in mind. We do so in order to show ourselves as having some exclusive knowledge, to cast aspersions, or to make someone else look better, truer, cleverer.

We’re permitted to give negative information about others only in specific circumstances. For example, in order to save a life, or to prevent serious harm to somebody. For example, if a friend is about to hire a babysitter, where you have absolutely true information that he has a history of making bad decisions that would endanger a child, or even (G-d forbid) child molestation. Or when giving testimony in a criminal trial.

Therefore, unless the negative information you have meets one of these limited criteria, hold your tongue and keep it to yourself. This prevents the besmirching of someone’s good reputation. This is tantamount to stealing, but worse; a person’s property can be reinstated, but their good reputation cannot be given back once taken away.

And the corollary of holding your tongue, is doing much. If the energy that we waste in speaking negatively of others were channeled into good deeds, imagine how much better this world would be.

One can’t change the world single-handedly, but one can bring significant goodness into the world by changing one’s own behavior. If all of us practiced these simple words of Shammai, imagine the good result possible!

All the best…

Rabbi Don Levy

Monday, January 17, 2011

Sisterhood Shabbat Sermon

I'm posting this a few days later; it is my sermon from Friday, when my congregation celebrated 'Sisterhood Shabbat,' honoring the contributions to our local temple life by our congregation's women's club known as 'Temple Beit Torah Sisterhood.' Since my remarks were well-received on Friday, I thought I'd share them here.
A famous person once said: “If you want something done, your best bet is to ask a Jewish woman to do it.”

Of course many of you here tonight know that the person I just quoted is Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman. She was shockingly cut down by the bullet of a disturbed assassin last Saturday. But she is, thank G-d, in the midst of a breathtakingly-swift recovery that has her doctors – and the entire nation – optimistic for her future prospects.

Giffords made her quip about the power of a Jewish woman during her first campaign for congress in 2006. She further said: “Jewish women — by our tradition and by the way we were raised — have an ability to cut through all the reasons why something should, shouldn’t or can’t be done and pull people together to be successful.”

It is interesting and heartening that Giffords’ words resonated with the voters in a district where Jews are relatively thin on the ground. It makes her words ring true that she was reelected three times and is extremely popular with her constituents, whatever their party affiliation. It is of course, extremely distressing that Jared Lee Loughner, who lists 'Mein Kampf' on his list of favorite books, has been obsessed with Representative Giffords since at least 2007. It is even more distressing that a chorus of voices including the Sheriff of Pima County, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, members of congress and of the Commentariat, have spent most of this week blaming Loughner’s actions on the likes of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, both of whom had been virtual unknowns in 2007. But I digress…

Gabrielle Giffords’ claim about the power of a Jewish woman is, of course well-known to us here at Temple Beit Torah. After all, this temple has long been the beneficiary of the initiative and energy of its women’s auxiliary, the Temple Beit Torah Sisterhood which we honor this evening. Our Sisterhood has so much energy, they were not content to sit back and bask in our admiration this evening…they even insisted on leading this evening’s service as a group.

Most members of our congregation cannot begin to appreciate just how much the TBT Sisterhood has blessed us all. Yes, they undertake projects that raise significant financial support for the temple. But perhaps even more important is the function implicit in their very name – Sisterhood. Not just a quaint designator, a holdover from previous generations, the name ‘Sisterhood’ accurately describes the feeling of sisterly solidarity that our Sisterhood fosters among its members.

Men, we do well when we look at our women and see how they band together in mutual uplift. They teach us that the relationships we form and nurture, define the people we are. They provide us with an eminently emulate-able example of what is most important in life. But our women provide more than this all-important glimpse into the Good Life.

Our women provide the music that brings beauty to our lives. Yes, men can make music also. Some of us have been known to sing a bit, or to strum a ukulele. But without women in our lives, the music of life is muted – our lives are colorless and dull. Our women dance. That’s why the Torah gives us the example of Miriam and the women taking up the timbrel and dancing.

Last weekend was a difficult one for Jewish women, and for all Jews by extension. It was not only the attack on Gabrielle Giffords that created a void in our world. Last weekend saw the taking of Debbie Friedman from this world. Debbie Friedman, as I mentioned last week was an inspiration to Jews everywhere. She brought us a new era of sacred music; she revived the idea of singing out joyfully to G-d. Anyone who has attended a Union camp since the 1970’s, or who has attended a Reform congregation, has seen and heard the influence of Debbie Friedman’s music. One of Debbie’s most inspirational songs was Miriam’s Song, about the wonder that Miriam experienced at the shore of the sea, and how she led the women in dancing through the parted waters. In just a moment we shall sing this song.

Men, we must learn to fully appreciate the song, the dance that our women bring to our lives. In identifying this, I’m not trivializing women and their contributions to a caricature of a harem dancing and entertaining us. No, I’m literally talking about the music by which we dance through life, by which our lives are made joyous and worthwhile.

In honor of this music and dance, we expect that a few of the women here may feel led to spontaneously stand up and dance around our sanctuary in just a moment. Men, let’s see if we have the courage to stand up and dance with them.