Wednesday, March 24, 2010

What will fawning flattery get you? / Sotah 41-42

“Flattery is like cologne water, to be smelt of, not swallowed.” So wrote humorist Josh Billings (AKA Henry Wheeler Shaw, 1818-1885). Perhaps this is because flattery seems to confirm what we wish to believe about ourselves, but would be wise not to believe without reserve. Edith Sitwell is quoted in a memoir as saying, “The aim of flattery is to soothe and encourage us by assuring us of the truth of an opinion we have already formed of ourselves” (Elizabeth Salter, The Last Years of Rebel: A Memoir of Edith Sitwell, 1967). Both Billings and Sitwell suggest that flattery is largely a matter of self-deception; better to abstain than to quaff.

In Mishnah Sotah 7:8 the Rabbis take up the topic of flattery in the larger political and national realm. Amidst a description of how the precept of Deuteronomy 31:10 – requiring a public reading of ha-Torah hazot (“this Torah”) every seven years at the close of the sabbatical year (shemittah) – was carried out in the late Second Temple period, Mishnah Sotah 7:8 contains a fascinating description of the participation of Agrippa I, who ruled Judea and Samaria from 41-44 C.E., and the fawning flattery of the Rabbis in response. Descended from the Herodian line (Agrippa I was the grandson of King Herod, and the son of Aristobulus and Berenice) Agrippa I was of technical Jewish ancestry, but questionable Jewish identity. Following the assassination of emperor Caligula in 41 C.E., Agrippa I was appointed king of Judea and Samaria by Caligula’s successor, Claudius, in gratitude for Agrippa’s assistance in securing the throne.

Deuteronomy 31:10 tells us that, Moses instructed [the people] as follows: Every seventh year, the year set for remission, at the Feast of Booths [Sukkot], when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God in the place that God will choose, you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel. (Deuteronomy 31:10-11)

Mishnah Sotah describes how this happened in the late Second Temple period, during the reign of King Agrippa I:
How was the passage [read] by the king?... they made a wooden platform in the Courtyard and he sits upon it… The attendant of the gathering takes the Torah scroll and hands it to the head of the gathering, and the head of the gathering hands it to the deputy (of the High Priest), and the deputy [of the High Priest] hands it to the king. The king rises and receives [the scroll], but he reads sitting.
Then we are treated to this historical anecdote:
King Agrippa rose and received [the scroll] and read standing and the Sages praised him. When he reached, “You may not place over you [as your king] a foreigner [who is not your brethren] his eyes flowed with tears. They said to him, “Do not fear, Agrippa. You are our brother! You are our brother!”
Agrippa’s behavior was pure spectacle and the Sages’ response was fawning flattery. Agrippa’s theatrical tears were rewarded with undeserved adulation. Surprisingly, Mishnah presents the incident without comment.

Gemara, however, has plenty to say. Gemara first questions the propriety of what we might call Agrippa’s standup routine. Perhaps he had no right to sit, that right being accorded to descendants of King David alone. But R. Chisda tells us that even Agrippa could sit. Perhaps, R. Ashi suggests, the king ought not forego the honor of sitting because doing so reflects poorly on the people as a whole. But this, too, is overturned on the grounds that while one may not forego that which is purely an honor, this is a matter of the fulfillment of a commandment, and hence the honor associated with it may be set aside. Unable to fault Agrippa on technical grounds, the Gemara turns to the real problem: the fawning flattery of the Sages.
When he reached, “You may not place…” A Tanna taught in the name of R. Natan: At that moment [when the Rabbis said, “You are our brother!”] the enemies of Israel [here, the gemara uses a euphemism for the people Israel] made themselves liable to extermination, because they flattered Agrippa. R. Shimon b. Chalafta said: From the day the fist of flattery prevailed, justice became perverted, conduct deteriorated, and nobody could say to his neighbor, “My conduct is better than yours.” R. Yehudah the Palestinian, or another version, R. Shimon b. Pazzi, expounded: It is permitted to flatter the wicked in this world, as it is said: The vile person shall be no more called liberal, nor the churl said to be bountiful (Isaiah 32:5); consequently it is allowed in this world. R. Shimon b. Lakish said: [We learn it] from this text: For seeing your face is like seeing the face of God (Genesis 33:10). On this point he is at variance with R. Levi; for R. Levi said: A parable of Jacob and Esau: To what is the matter like? To a man who invited his neighbor to a meal, and the guest perceived that his host wished to kill him. So he said to him, “The taste of this dish I am eating is like the dish I tasted in the king’s palace.” The other said [to himself], “He is acquainted with the king!” So he became afraid and did not kill him. R. Eleazar said: Every man in who engages in flattery brings anger upon the world: as it is said: But they that are flatterers at heart lay up anger (Job 36:13). Not only that, but their prayer remains unheard; as [the verse] continues, They do not cry for help when God afflicts them… (Sotah 41b)
The Sages’ purpose is clearly to excoriate flatterers. “The enemies of Israel” is none other than Israel herself, who weaken their nation by groveling before rulers such as Agrippa I. R. Shimon b. Chalafta boldly claims that flattering powerful leaders leads directly to perversion of justice, as people stumble over one another and themselves seeking to curry favor with whomever is in power. His claim is both brazen and idealistic. By contrast, R. Shimon b. Pazzi provides what we might term a pragmatic political response: this is not an ideal world, and in this very real and imperfect world of power politics, flattery is a valid political tool. Resh Lakish offers a Biblical example. When Jacob reunites with his brother Esau after a 22-year separation, he fears that Esau may still harbor a lethal resentment, so he offers words of flattery: For seeing your face is like seeing the face of God. R. Levi explains further that this is like one who fears his host seeks his death and therefore says, “The taste of this dish I am eating is like the dish I tasted in the king’s palace” therefore letting his host know that he enjoys the protection of the king. Yet R. Eleazar concludes that flattery does not affect anything good and serves only to increase the anger in the world.

This inspires R. Yirmiyahu b. Abba’s teaching:
…R. Yermiyahu b. Abba said: Four classes will not receive the presence of the Shechinah: the class of scoffers, the class of flatterers, the class of liars, and, the class of slanderers. The class of scoffers, as it is written: He stretched out His hand against scorners (Hosea 7:6). The class of flatterers, as it is written: For a flatterer shall not come before Him (Job 13:16). The class of liars, as it is written: He that speaks falsehood shall not be established before Mine eyes (Psalm 101:7). The class of slanderers, as it is written: For You are not a God that takes pleasure in wickedness; evil shall not sojourn with You (Psalm 5:5); i.e., You are righteous, O Lord, evil may not sojourn in Your habitation. (Sotah 42a)
Flatterers are in the same category as scoffers, liars, and slanderers: they are insincere, dishonest, and manipulative, and thereby separate themselves from the Shechinah. The king of political cunning and deceit, Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) wrote in his seminal political treatise, The Prince, “There is no other way of guarding oneself against flattery than by letting men understand that they will not offend you by speaking the truth; but when everyone can tell you the truth, you lose their respect.” Machiavelli was warning the very one he wished to flatter, not to fall for flattery. Gemara addresses the leaders of the Jewish people who engage in flattery that their behavior is detrimental to the people’s political security and spiritual welfare.

We all engage in flattery. Do we shower others with praise and kind words to boost their morale? to curry favor? because we believe the praise to be genuine? to encourage them to view us favorably? The gemara advises us to stop and examine our motives and the possible consequences of flattery.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


The Priestly benediction, “May the Lord bless and keep you; May the Lord look upon you with kindness; May the Lord’s face be turned toward you and give you peace” (Numbers 6:22-27), may be among the most familiar of biblical prayers. It is used for many kinds of occasions within both the Jewish and Christian communities. It comes out of the Torah text as one compact whole, including stage directions (Aaron and his sons say… God blesses). Seemingly one needs to do very little to transfer this prayer from its first invocation at the foot of Mt. Sinai to the synagogue.

The sages, however, debate in detail how this prayer should be recited. The extended discussion, from Sotah 38a-40a, considers many aspects relating to how one recites this short prayer. In doing so they recreate the prayer, recognizing the changes it undergoes as it moves into the new setting of the synagogue. They also teach us to listen carefully to the prayer so we may respond appropriately.

Among the many topics discussed are: the contrast between reciting this prayer in the Mishkan (the Jerusalem temple) versus the countryside; whether the priests should be standing or sitting, facing the people or not; with raised hands or not; in a loud voice or a whisper, invoking the Divine Name or using a substitute. Joshua ben Levi teaches that the Holy One desires this blessing and reminds the priests what a privilege it is to be the one doing the recitation. Another section focuses on the particulars of how the priest holds himself; questions of posture and presence.

All of this underscores the power and importance of this moment. The Torah asserts that Aaron and his sons will intone these words but that God will bless the people. While one might have assumed that the power of the prayer was diminished when the Temple was destroyed, the attention the sages give to this prayer suggests that its power remains.

The sages suggest a communal response to the recitation of the priestly prayer which is considerably different than our contemporary practice. We have a standard response to each line of the prayer – ken yehi ratzon (So may it be). Sotah 39b offers a longer response. While alternate responses are noted for certain special occasions: Shabbat musaf, Fast day afternoons, and Ne’ilah at the end of Yom Kippur; I am going to focus only on this one set or responses.

“What do the people say at the time the priests are blessing the people.
Rabbi Zira said Rabbi Hisda said: (Psalm 103:20 – 22)
“Bless the Lord, O his angels, mighty ones who do God’s will, responsive to the call of God’s word;
Bless the Lord, all God’s hosts, God’s messengers, doing God’s will;
Bless the Lord, all God’s works, in every place of God’s rule;
Bless the Lord, O my soul.”

These responses move me. They transform the moment from one in which the people stand passively to receive a blessing to one in which they are active participants and this section seems a perfect verse for verse match.

As the priests ask God to bless and guard us, we call on the angels, God’s messengers, to respond to God’s word.
As God is asked to extend kindness toward us, we call on God’s host to carry out the Divine will.
As the priestly prayer asks for peace, our call is for the workings of the Holy One to reach into every corner of God’s rule.
Finally, in response to the blessing received, we ask our own soul to bless God.

The Hebrew of this psalm maintains the cadence of the priestly prayer. Each verse opens with the words, borchu HaShem, Blessed be God, indicating our acknowledgement of the One who gives Blessing. Our response calls for action appropriate to the words of the prayer. The closing verse, addressing the soul, draws the blessing deep into one’s own being. I can imagine saying those words with full, focused attention and feeling it reverberate through my entire body.

The sages, for their part, seem ambivalent about using these verses. They ask whether these verses should be interspersed with the priestly recitation or recited as one block after the priests complete their prayer. Some suggest that these responses apply only when the prayer is recited in the temple and may not be appropriate elsewhere.

In the end we know that this option is not adopted; our current custom never involves the recitation of psalms in response to the priestly benediction. The various objections of the sages prevail. The gemara (Sotah 40a) however preserves one anonymous voice which advocates for the inclusion of this response. This anonymous sage simply asks: “Have you ever heard of a slave who is blessed and pays no attention?” Or “Have you ever heard of a slave who receives a blessing whose face does not brighten?” The question is uncomplicated, how can you not respond if you feel this blessing resting upon you? For me, this sage captures the essence of the debate. The invocation of the priestly blessing evokes a response.

I read this passage as one of creation and transition. The sages are moving this key prayer, first invoked at Mt. Sinai, from the Temple to the synagogue. They rightly recognize that the move will change the prayer in various ways and we are privileged to eavesdrop on their debate. It reminds us, in turn, to be alert to the power of the prayer and to respond from the depth of our soul.

© 2010 Rabbi Louis Rieser

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A good eye vs. tunnel vision / Sotah 38b

We all want to think of ourselves as good people. But what does it mean to be truly good? Does it mean to perform the minimum prescribed, or to look beyond the minimum? The Talmud uses two graphic terms to describe a person with a kind and generous spirit, and one who is greedy and selfish. One who possesses an ayin tov (“a good eye”) is generous. One who is tzarei ayin quite literally has a “narrow vision” or tunnel vision: he sees only what’s in it for himself.

The Talmud introduces this discussion with a teaching concerning who may lead Birkat haMazon (grace after meals):
R. Yehoshua b. Levi also said: We give the cup of blessing for the recital of Birkat haMazon (the grace after meals) only to one who is of a good eye (i.e. generous disposition), as it is said: The generous man (tov ayin) is blessed (yevorach), for he gives of his bread to the poor (Proverbs 22:9). Do not read yevorach (“shall be blessed”) but rather yevareich (“he will bless”).
Only a person of generous spirit is suitable to lead Birkat haMazon, R. Yehoshua b. Levi claims, because yevorach (blessed) in Proverbs 22:9 can be read yevareich (he will bless): “The generous man will bless.” But is the extent of his meaning? Or is R. Yehoshua b. Levi suggesting more? Perhaps he is teaching us that when we approach others with a generous, giving, and loving spirit, the ultimate reward is not that we will be blessed by God, but rather than we, in our generosity, will bless others. And if we consider that a greater reward, then surely we will continue to be generous and bless one another more and more. What a marvelous self-sustaining system of generosity and blessing!

The Rabbis then explore what it means to have an ayin tov (a generous spirit). First they warn us about selfish people, who may at times appear generous, are merely spreading their net for personal gain:
R. Yehoshua b. Levi also said: Whence do we know that even birds recognize those who have a narrow eye (i.e. selfish spirit)? As it is said: For in vain is the net spread in the eyes of any bird (Proverbs 1:17). R. Yehoshua b. Levi also said: Whoever accepts the hospitality of greedy people of selfish spirit transgresses a prohibition, as it is said, Do not eat the bread of one that has an evil eye, [neither desire his dainties]. For as he reckons within himself; so is he; eat and drink, he says to you, [but his heart is not with you] (Proverbs 23:6, 7). R. Nachman b. Yitzhak said: He transgresses two prohibitions, “Do not eat” and “Do not desire.”
We should avoid such people, because we will be used by them.

What, then, constitutes genuine generosity of spirit? The Rabbis choose what at first seems a most surprising case to explore:
R. Yehoshua b. Levi also said: [The necessity for] the heifer whose neck is to be broken [see Deuteronomy 21:1-9] only arises on account of those of greedy spirit, as it is said: Our hands have not shed this blood (Deuteronomy 21:7). But can it enter our minds that the elders of a court of justice are shedders of blood?! The meaning is, [it was] not [the case that the man found dead] came to us for help and we dismissed him, nor did we did see him and leave him be; [it was] not [the case that] he came to us for help and we let him go without supplying him with food, nor did we see him and let him go without escort.
The Rabbis present the case of the egla arufah, the heifer whose neck is broken as expiation for an unsolved murder. If the victim’s body is found between two cities and it is not known who committed the murder, the elders of the two nearest cities gather around and stage an unusual ceremony in which they disavow knowledge of, and responsibility for the murder, and then break the neck of the heifer as expiation for the life that was taken. Yet is this sufficient? Does this ceremony – after the fact of the murder – suffice to consider them people of ayin tov (generous spirit)?

For the Rabbis, simply disavowing responsibility is far from exhibiting a generous spirit. In fact, the formulaic disavowal provided by Torah inspires the question: could we possibly think that the elders themselves murdered this poor man? Of course not! Rather, they must have done far more than merely not have been involved in the commission of murder. They must mean by their recitation that they did not fail to be generous, accommodating, and hospitable to the man before this terrible murder occurred. Their disavowal must mean that they did not deny him help, they did not fail to provide him food, and even that they did not knowingly allow him to go off without an escort. Their avowal must mean that did everything in their power to help and protect him and prevent the murder that nonetheless ensued.

How often do we do the bare minimum and then pat ourselves on the back because we’ve done what was required?

We are left with the clear message that to possess a tzarei ayin (selfish spirit) is as the Hebrew term implies: to have a narrow vision, or tunnel vision, concerning what we owe one another. Those who have a tzarei ayin limit their vision to the bare minimum requirements of what they must do for others. But those who possess an ayin tov (a generous spirit) reach well beyond the minimum and think not only of what they are obligated to do, but what others truly need. They are more than blessed by God; they bless others, which our Rabbis want us to understand is even greater.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman