Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Archive for August, 2009|Monthly archive page

Elul, Teshuva, & Teddy Kennedy

In Elul, Redemption, Teddy Kennedy, Teshuva on August 28, 2009 at 12:34 pm

If you look at my mother’s library, you can’t help but notice the many shelves of Kennedy memorablilia. JFK’s assassination kept my mother in bed for days. Teddy’s death marked an end of an era not only for them, but for her.

I haven’t had much interest in the Kennedys over the years, but the stories I’ve been reading over the past few days belie the feigned disinterest I have managed to cultivate. I, too, more than I care to admit, am a loyal subject of Camelot.
He was the most layered of individuals. His appetites and his flaws were fodder for the mainstream media and the tabloids, but few would define him only by his sins. Moreover, his last seventeen years of devoted public service illustrated that people can change, grow, and bring honor and respect after a tawdry, and somewhat dengenerate past. His, was an almost wasted life, but ultimately redeemed by the best parts of him.
Over and over again, the papers recount stories of his concern for individuals, their families, and the loyalty that inspired. One such instance was recalled on NPR by Boris Katz, an MIT professor. Boris was a refusenik in Soviet Russia over thirty years ago. His daughter, Jessica, was a toddler with a serious disease that was beyond the expertise of the Soviet medical system. Dr. Katz demonstrated in front of Red Square to bring international attention to his plight.
One night at 1 o’clock in the morning, he was alerted to expect a visitor. Teddy Kennedy was at his door accompanied by KGB agents and Soviet officials. Once inside, Kennedy told his “escorts” that they could leave now, which–, to the astonishment of Boris–they did! Days after that Kennedy visit, Boris was granted permission to emigrate to the United States, and the first person to greet him on the tarmac, was Teddy Kennedy.
Daughter Jessica was recently married and works for the city of New York, helping find housing for the disabled. Boris attributes her interest in public service to the events that brought her to the United States. The interviewer wondered whether he had the opportunity to ask the Senator why he had taken such a personal interest in his plight. He said he never did, but he knew the answer.
“He was one of those rare individuals who truly cared about others.”
He understood deeply that during times of trial is when people feel, not only to be vulnerable, but invisible. Not to personally acknowledge their suffering and offer comfort exacerbates the loneliness of afflictions. His acute awareness of this made him seize every opportunity to bring comfort to others. The caring for individuals suffering, whatever their ailments, were as important to him as any major policy issue in congress, and the personal testimony of scores of people attest to that.
It is these stories that illustrate where I often fall short, and has led me to resolve to do better. This was Teddy’s Elul legacy to me for which I am chastened and grateful.
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What physicians once were and what they may not be now.

In Uncategorized on August 25, 2009 at 12:48 pm

I am old enough to remember house calls from my pediatrician, Dr. Pakula who called me “Johnson”, and for some reason, I, as a small child thought this was hysterical. Dr. Pakula was part of our family. He entered rooms that were reserved for those with whom we were most intimate. He was privy to information that was not readily given to many who might be considered good friends. He knew us, he cared about us, and he was considered family. It would have been the most reasonable thing in the world to discuss end of life options with Dr. Pakula, because we trusted him.

Nowadays, avuncular images of the family doctor have been replaced with demonic apparitions of “death panels”, and an innocuous piece of health care legislation that allows reimbursement for counseling becomes an ominous foreshadowing of bureaucrats cajoling the vulnerable and defenseless into dying “early”.
It is too easy to only dismiss this hysteria of “death panels” as ignorant people being stirred up by demagogues, but the deeper fear, I feel is a true one. Anyone over fifty remembers a more personalized medicine that has eroded considerably over the years. Even though the statistics would tell us that we live longer and better than we did fifty years ago, our experience tells us that doctors cared about themselves a bit less and us a bit more. There was a time when they knew us better.
This impression will not show up in statistics, but our quality of life is ascertained by our quality of community. Now, nobody has a “family doctor”, but a “general practitioner”, the practice of which has become the most unattractive option for those entering the medical profession. It doesn’t pay, and there is no time allocated by the insurance companies to develop relationships with patients.
The following Talmudic passage emphasizes the power and the limitation of healing, but more importantly, it underscores the profound impact of genuine concern and empathy.

Rabbi Elazar fell ill, and Rabbi Yochanan went up to him but he was obscured because the house was dark. When Yochanan revealed his arm, light fell from it. When Rabbi Elazar saw this he broke down and cried.

Rabbi Yochanan asked: Why are you crying? If it is because of the Torah you have not learned, isn’t it taught: One will learn much, one will learn littler, but most important is that one direct his heart toward heaven? If it is because of your income, not every individual merits both tables (the table of plenty and the table of Torah). If it is because of children that you have lost, here is the tooth of my tenth son.

He answered: I am crying for this beauty that will be ravaged by dust.

Yochanan responded: This is truly worth your tears.

Both of them then cried together!

After awhile Yochanan asked him: Are these afflictions dear to you?

He answered: Not them, nor their reward.

Then give me your hand. He gave him his hand and helped him stand.

The fear expressed by many is a veiled yearning for the days when the Dr. Pakulas were considered part of the family.
For the complete translation of this piece of Talmud click here.

Now Quentin Tarantino Gives His "Jewish Fantasy"

In Uncategorized on August 23, 2009 at 9:56 pm

I can’t see his movies. Once my brother took me to see Reservoir Dogs, and I spent too much time avoiding eye contact with the screen. I guess it was only a matter of time until, he reckoned with the ultimate horror of the twentieth century, and, of course, Jews are weighing in on whether he should or shouldn’t have.

Tom Segev, in his history, 1949, The First Israelis, speculated that whatever Tarantino had in mind, there were Jews who would have and tried to do much worse. According to Segev, the well regarded Hebrew writer and poet, Abba Kovner had plotted to poison the water supply of Germany in 1945 to avenge the murder of the six million. Other accounts say that his plot was only directed at German POW’s. Either way, the British were on to him and deported him to Egypt.
Kovner was unrepentant, and held the entire German people accountable for the murder of his people. In 1945, he wouldn’t have shed a tear over the death of a German child. This was a visceral response rooted in a particular time under what were extaordinary circumstances. To revisit the moral implications of these actions from the comfort of our air conditioned homes would be obscene if it weren’t so damn silly. The question isn’t who are we to judge, but rather, who are we to have an opinion in the first place? And if we deign to have an opinion, who cares?
The Sages when offering triumphant Jewish stories under Roman occupation rarely speak in terms of physical triumphs, but moral triumphalism is the preferred medium for exacting vengeance. Hanina Ben Tradyon’s executioner jumps in the fire with him, convinced of Rabbi Hanina’s spiritual superiority. The materialists rejected this view as hollow and mourned the fact that Jews had become so passive thereby making Jewish blood such a cheap commodity.
Neither the spiritualists, nor the materialists had the whole story. While it is true, “That not with valor nor with might, but rather with My spirit…” (Zecharia 4:6) will we ultimately triumph. It is also true that when “someone actively pursues another to kill him, he should get up early and kill him first.” (Sanhedrin 72a) For Kovner, the question was what to do if you failed to pre-empt the tragic consequence.
It’s a question of balance.

Blame It On the iPhone

In Uncategorized on August 21, 2009 at 5:56 pm

Some may have noticed that I have been posting less recently. There are three possible explanations:

  • I had a break from teaching for the last three weeks, and if I’m not teaching, I’m not learning.
  • I simply have nothing to say, but hope to have more to say soon.
  • I have recently purchased an iPhone which has me mesmerized with its apps, its packaging, and its ability to keep me in touch will all my email accounts, at all times.
I think the iPhone is making me stupider. My colleagues marvel at the promptness of my responses these days, but what they may not know, is that I’m using them as a pretext for perfecting the two thumb two step (touch?) of typing and texting. I know the day will come when I will resent this virtual ball and chain, just as the celebrity resents not being able to get a cup of coffee without being accosted, but for now, I have been ensorceled by the allure of this miniature marvel. It is a doomed relationship, but even brief passion is better than the numbness one now gets from one of those not so smart cell phones.
Oh, have to go, I heard a ding!

The Jewish and Academic Calendar

In Uncategorized on August 19, 2009 at 5:01 pm

One of the great frustrations of anyone who observes the Jewish calendar are the conflicts that emerge when dealing with the secular rhythms of American life. The audible sigh of relief that the Chagim fall on weekends can be heard in many quarters.

It is curious that Jewish holidays are never on time. They are always early, or late. I’ve never heard it said that Rosh Hashanah is on time this year. Nevertheless, the Jewish new year is in sync with the academic calendar. Both begin the year at around the same time.

School starts usually in Elul, just when we are preparing ourselves for the New Year. It is the only time the academic and Jewish calendars coincide. I don’t count Chanukah and xmas only because it was xmas that enhanced the importance of Chanukah. Certainly, there was nothing inherent in Chanukah that would make one take a break from school.

A major theme of Rosh Hashanah is that not only our community, but the entire world is being judged at this time. It is a season of new beginnings for the entire world community. Elul is a time to change patterns of behavior that have proven to be destructive just as the school year affords those opportunities. This type of personal work is much easier when the general culture is also beginning a new term. Let everyone see themselves as preparing for the first day of a brand new term.

It’s a new semester folks, and change is possible.

Butter, the metaphorical toxin, with apologies to Julia Child

In Uncategorized on August 16, 2009 at 3:34 pm

I have always been a firm believer in my own kind of alternative medicine. For sedation, when sleep may evade, my drug of choice is a mystery novel. Mostly, they are mediocre and have me asleep within a half an hour. On occasion, these “whodunits” will have the opposite effect, but at least I was entertained.

Often novels open up with a famous quotation meant to foreshadow the essence of the book. This time, the quotation alone was enough to get me out of bed and send me on a two hour odyssey of discovery. The verse in question was the twenty second verse from the fifty-fifth Psalm:

The words of his mouth were smoother than butter, but war was in his heart.

Midrash Tehilim assumes that the author King David is referring to the threat posed to his Kingdom by his son Absalom, and the treachery of their mutual advisor Achitophal whose words were “smoother than butter”.
The Hebrew word for butter in this context is מחמאות and, to my knowledge, it is the only time it appears in Tanakh. In modern Hebrew, Machma’ah means a “compliment” without the pejorative connotation indicated in the verse. Compliments are suspect in Jewish tradition because they provide openings for negative comments.
For instance, I would say that Reuben is a wonderful dancer which allows someone to say, but his breath could knock a buzzard off a manure pile. Had I not offered the compliment, there would have been no opportunity to speak of Reuben’s unfortunate halitosis.
Much of what passes for debate on health care is based on the suspicion that our silver tongued President has nefarious designs that are the opposite of what he is saying. We are being “buttered up”–a phrase which may very well come from this very verse–only to be consumed by death panels, interminable lines for urgent care under Dickensian conditions, and rationing. These complaints, however, seem to emerge from an agenda that has little in common with these fears. Certainly, duplicity is familiar territory for every politician. Even the President rations truth in the doses he deigns appropriate for we, the rabble.
More interesting is the understanding that the Biblical origin of מחמאות indicates that compliments are never seen as being free from ulterior motives and are intrinsically tainted with the disingenuous stain of hypocrisy. The fact that we crave them nonetheless says that we all want others to believe the lie about ourselves, especially when being praised by others.
As Rosh Chodesh Elul approaches, this is not the time to indulge in flattery, but in the painstaking scrutiny that can lead to change and possibly transformation. For more reasons than one, it is time to remove the “butter” from our spiritual recipes and see ourselves as clearly as we can.

The Gates of Wounded Feelings

In Uncategorized on August 4, 2009 at 1:28 pm

The saga of the cop and the Harvard professor created an opportunity for yet another referendum on race in America. Widely regarded as a tempest in a teapot, why did it captivate the attention of so many? The Talmud has an answer.


One of the most well know Talmudic Aggadot, is the showdown between R. Eliezer Ben Hurcanus and the Sages, where in spite of all evidence to the contrary Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion is thwarted and the sages prevail, even though a heavenly voice supported the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer. The epilogue for most readers occurs when Elijah the Prophet is found wandering around the marketplace and when asked what God was doing when the sages rejected His opinion with a prooftext from the Torah, He answered with a smile, “My children have defeated me, they beat me!”

This, however, is not the end of the story, nor is it the primary purpose of the editor of this chapter. Later on, Rabbi Eliezer, who was punished with a ban for being so defiant, took it so personally that a third of the wheat in the world was destroyed by the pain expressed from Rabbi Eliezer. Furthermore, it was Rabbi Eliezer’s pain that brought on the demise of Rabban Gamliel.

What is learned from this?

“All the gates to God have been locked except for the gates of wounded feelings.” (Bava Metziaya 59b)

The grievances of a working class Cambridge cop and a black, public intellectual, once again, opened the gates of wounded feelings, closing temporarily, the gates of the health care debate, the unemployment crisis and the billions of bonuses enjoyed by bloated deadbeat bankers. Instead, the nation’s attention is preoccupied with the drinking habits of our nation’s leaders as the media plumbs the socio-economic subtext of an arrest that shouldn’t have happened.


The Mishnah in Perek Hazahav in Bava Metziya reminds us how devastating hurt feelings can be. The myth of “sticks and stones” is not something that ever made sense in Jewish tradition. Hurting someone with language is as tangible as cheating them financially. As the Mishnah states:

“Just as one can cheat a person in financial transactions, so too, one can cheat him with language alone.”

For a look at some of the relevant verses, and the Mishnah that unpacks the potential destructive nature of language, click here.