Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Forty years ago I sat in the lobby of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem talking with a man we had met while walking on the street. Ezra was from Philadelphia, had made aliyah, and now lived and taught in the Holy City. We had encountered him a few times and he had acquired a special aura for us because he seemed to appear when least expected. That day the conversation turned to terrorist bombings and questions of responsibility. Ezra pointed toward the entry and commented, “See the doorman. If a bomb were secreted in those bags by the door and exploded, he would get all the blame for not being more attentive. But we are sitting here; we see the bags; we are observing everyone as they come and go. Why would we escape blame? We see as much as he does.”

I had never considered that I bore responsibility in that way. If it were my job, of course. But Ezra was correct; responsibility is not limited to those tasks or times for which we are payed. We are responsible for all that we see and encounter. That day Ezra became my teacher.

Who are your teachers? How did they earn that title? I do not grant that title easily. Not everyone who stands at the head of a classroom achieves that status. They are instructors or facilitators, but a teacher is something more. While we may find our teachers in the classroom, we are as likely to find them on the street, among our friends, or in random encounters.

Henry Adams wrote that a teacher “affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” His insight helps us understand why we are privileged to find only a few teachers in our lifetime. Teachers do more than inform us, they change us. The change may not be obvious. It may not actually occur when we are at that key moment of teaching, but may lie dormant for years. Nonetheless some piece of wisdom passes between us and moves us in powerful ways.

The Mishnah (B. Baba Metzia 33a) gets to a discussion of who qualifies as a teacher through a seemingly odd discussion. “If you should happen to have the opportunity to retrieve an object lost by your father at the same time that you could reclaim one lost by your teacher, whose property should you recover first.” The question strikes at a basic principle. After all, Torah clearly and repeatedly instructs us to honor both father and mother; a command that sits at the center of the Ten Commandments. The Torah does not speak of teachers or rabbis, and certainly does not present them in contrast to parents. So how does the Mishnah come to weigh the relative honor due to parents and teachers?

The mishnah's response contrasts the role played by father and teacher: his father (and mother!) brought him into this world, but his teacher, who taught him wisdom, brings him into the world to come. Our biological birth, they imply, is not the only birth we experience. We enter into worlds within worlds and may, therefore, be birthed multiple times in our life. Our biological genealogy describes only one aspect of our lives. In my book, The Hillel Narratives, I detail Hillel's spiritual genealogy, which includes Moses and Ezra and leads to Akiva and Judah HaNasi. While we know his spiritual genealogy in detail, we know little of his biological background. His teachers and spiritual descendants take precedence over his biological kin.

But what qualifies a person as a teacher? The Gemara offers this range of possibilities:
“His teacher means the one who taught him wisdom, but not the teacher who taught him Bible or Mishnah; these are the words of Rabbi Meir. Rabbi Yehudah says, it means the one from whom he has learned most of his wisdom. Rabbi Yose says, Even if he enlightened his eyes about only one Mishnah, this is his teacher.”

The differences between these three sages offers some interesting reflection on what it means to be a teacher.

Rabbi Meir focuses on the quality of the learning, regardless of the amount. Why are Bible and Mishnah teachers excluded? I suspect because they were recitation type disciplines. You chanted the Bible or repeated the Mishnah to memorize the chapters and verses, but these are not analytical tasks. They do not prepare you for the unpredictable experience of daily life. Wisdom, by contrast, lays a strong foundation on which one can build an holy and honorable life which withstand the unexpected.

Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Yose do not focus on the quality of the material taught, perhaps they have no disagreement with Rabbi Meir. They disagree on whether one can have more than one teacher at a time. Rabbi Yose argues that every person who teaches you even one Mishnah becomes your teacher. You may have one or dozens of teachers. Each may have brought you one step closer to the World to Come, without any one of them having brought you the entire distance. In my own experience I count among my teachers at least one who taught me the meaning of a single letter.

Rabbi Yehudah reserves the title teacher for that one individual who has taught you the majority of your wisdom. This is the position endorsed by the halakhah; that one teacher is known by the title of “Rav Muvhak.” But there is no assurance that you will have only one such rav in your lifetime. The teacher of your youth may be surpassed as you grow older by one who teaches you even greater insights and wisdom. At any given time you will, however, have only one rav, teacher.

Pirke Avot twice counsels one to make (Hebrew, aseh) a teacher for yourself (M. Avot 1:5 and 16). It is an odd choice of words. We are assigned teachers in classrooms, we hire teachers as tutors. We encounter wise people in a variety of settings. But how do we make a teacher for ourself? I believe that the sages of our passage offer possible answers to that puzzle. Rabbi Meir looks to the quality of the teaching, those life skills that give us wisdom and allow us to navigate a confusing world. Rabbi Yose urges us to acknowledge every person who has touched our soul and taught us in a way that impacted our life. And Rabbi Judah bids us to recognize that person who is our guiding light.

Consider those who have affected your life. Who are the people who have been your teachers? In what way have they taught you the intricacies of life? Have you let them know that their teaching, formal or not, has made a difference in your life and that you consider them a teacher? The Sages taught that our teachers deserve high honor. And your teachers deserve your thanks.

© Rabbi Louis Rieser 2010

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A hard heart vs. an open hand / Baba Metzia 31b (and Ketubot 67b)

Human dignity is a tricky thing. Respecting and preserving the human dignity of another soul requires us to assess someone else’s sensibilities and sensitivities. We can start with some universal truths (people like to be independent, self-sufficient, and enjoy the respect of others) but precisely what that independence, self-sufficiency, and respect “look like” and “feel like” can range widely from individual to individual. Talmud, in its far-reaching meanderings, often comes back to the sine qua non of human dignity that undergirds all of Jewish thinking and value-making. How far do our obligations extend? Where are the limits drawn?

Baba Metzia jumps into this moving river. I share with you a long passage, Deuteronomy 14:4-11, from which Talmud quotes only verse 8 (bolded below). It is curious that this passage begins with the idea vision of world devoid of poverty, and ends in the reality that poverty will never be entirely expunged from our world. While we hold aloft a vision of the ideal, we must nonetheless live and labor in the world of the real.

In Deuteronomy 15:4-11 we read about the shemittah (sabbatical year). Every seventh year, the land lies unplanted and fallow to renew itself. Debts are forgiven to permit those who have fallen into debt-driven poverty to start anew. Torah expresses the concern that in the waning years of the sabbatical cycle, people might refrain from providing loans to needy people because all loans are canceled in the sabbatical year, and provides this stern warning and exhortation:
There shall be no needy among you – since the Lord your God will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion – if only you heed the Lord your God and take care to keep all this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day. For the Lord your God will bless you as He has promised you: you will extend loans to many nations, but require none yourself; you will dominate many nations, but they will not dominate you. 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. Rather, you must open your hand and you shall surely lend him sufficient for whatever he needs. 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. 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. 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. (Deuteronomy 15:4-11)
Talmud understands verse 8 as the case of a needy person who is loath to accept a handout. Need engendered by poverty can be alleviated by a loan. But what about a more complex case? What if a person is in need, but the need arises because he refuses to expend his own resources on his own care? (The image of Lyzer the Miser in I. B. Singer’s short story, “Lyzer the Miser and Shrewd Todie” comes to mind here. It’s a marvelous story: treat yourself and read it.) Here, the Gemara offers two viewpoints: (1) We are obligated to provide a loan to insure that the individuals basic needs are met; (2) R. Shimon says we have no such obligation; Torah speaks of precisely the case we would expect: someone without financial means to see to his basic needs.
Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs (Deuteronomy 15:8). I know this only of one [a poor man] who has nothing and does not wish to maintain himself [at your expense; i.e. he does not want to accept charity]. [Concerning this situation] Scripture says, you shall surely lend him sufficient for whatever he needs. Whence do I know it [that I should provide him a loan] if he possesses his own [financial resources] but does not want to maintain himself [at his own cost]? Torah teaches, you shall surely lend him. But according to R. Shimon, who maintained: If he has his own [financial resources] but refuses to maintain himself [with his own resources], we are under no obligation to him, so do we need ta’avitenu [a doubling of the verb]? Torah spoke in the language of human beings. (Baba Metzia 31b)
A far more extensive version of this discussion is found elsewhere in the Talmud, in Ketubot 67b, where the question of how to deal with someone who exhibits “need” but not “poverty” is addressed head-on. The passage is long (though well worth studying!) so I will provide part, and summarize part.
Our Rabbis taught: Sufficient for whatever he needs (Deuteronomy 15:8) [implies] you are commanded to maintain him, but you are not commanded to make him rich; for whatever he needs [includes] even a horse to ride upon and a slave to run before him. It was related about Hillel the Elder that he bought for a certain poor man who was of a good family a horse to ride upon and a slave to run before him. On one occasion he could not find a slave to run before him, so he himself ran before him for three miles.
Goodness! Are they serious? Do the words “for whatever he needs” means that each person defines his own needs and the community must meet them? What if I say I need a swimming pool, or minimally a hot tub in my backyard? Hillel was so sensitive to human dignity that he recognized that one whose fortunes had been severely diminished experienced a diminution of dignity as well, and he felt obligated to compensate, even to the extent of playing the part of a slave. Hyperbole, to be sure, but let us now lose sight of his point: poverty and affluence are, to some extent, relative; what is fixed is the notion of human dignity.

Ketubot 67b continues with a series of examples of Sages who acted on the model of Hillel until we meet Raba, who questions whether we are obligated to provide “fat chicken and aged wine” at the expense of community tzedakah funds. What seems an extravagance is justified by quoting Psalm 145:15, The eyes of all wait for you, and you give them their food in its (his) time, suggesting that God intends for everyone’s needs to be met on a case by case, individual basis. Then we arrive at a discussion of our same verse Deuteronomy 15:8, echoing Baba Metzia 31b:
Our Rabbis taught: You shall surely lend him (Deuteronomy 15:8) refers to a man who has no means and is unwilling to receive his maintenance [from the poor funds] to whom [the allowance] must be given as a loan and then presented to him as a gift. You shall surely lend him refers to a man who has the means and does not wish to maintain himself [at his own expense] to whom [the allowance] is given as a gift and repayment is claimed from his [estate] after his death, according to R. Yehudah. The Sages, however, said: If he has the means and does not wish to maintain himself [at his own expense] no one need feel any concern about him. To what, however, is the text You shall surely lend him to be applied? The Torah speaks in the language of people.
What follows are several anecdotes about Mar ‘Ukba who sought to deliver tzedakah unobtrusively, not always with great success. And then this:
Mar 'Ukba had a poor man in his neighborhood to whom he regularly sent four hundred zuz on the Eve of every Day of Atonement. On one occasion he sent them through his son who came back and said to him, “He does not need [your help].” “What have you seen?” [his father] asked. “I saw that they were spraying old wine before him.” “Is he so delicate?” [the father] said, and, doubling the amount, he sent it back to him.
Perhaps this is the resolution of the dilemma. Surely, the extreme response of Hillel – enslaving himself to meet the needs of an affluent person who fell on hard times – is more than we would expect of anyone, and surely not what the community is obliged to provide. The conversation between Mar ‘Ukba and his son, however, provides another avenue of consideration: those who seem to need more are perhaps more needy in a way we have not considered. Rather than judging, perhaps we can consider them with compassion and mercy, and thereby find the right balance. In all such cases, delicate and difficult decisions must be rendered, but if we approach people from the side of compassion, not only will our decisions be better, but we will feel better about them. And isn’t that what our passage in Deuteronomy was telling us: do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman