Our Society’s Problems – a Cause and a Cure

“For the transgressions of a land, its princes are many, but through a person of understanding and knowledge, established order shall long endure.” Proverbs 28:2

I believe this very rich proverb can teach us much about the cause of our contemporary problems and offer possible solutions to them. Let’s take a look.

Our review requires an understanding of the Hebrew and a little patience. But it will be quick, I promise.

The root word of transgressions, pesha, can mean both transgressions and rebellious acts. Thus, we’re considering acts in the land, by its people, that are reflected in a culture characterized by wrongdoing, bad faith, and rebelliousness.

What makes the proverb especially interesting is its claim that this unhealthy rebelliousness coincides with a certain sort of anarchy. This woeful condition of pesha is associated with there being many princes, many factions, which, in turn, likely portends grave deterioration ahead.

Do we recognize the process described here? Haven’t we seen it in history? I can think of several examples of societal decline in which wrongfulness and division led to anarchy and finally to breakdown. I don’t believe our modern-day society is far down any such path yet. But shouldn’t we at least be somewhat concerned with our progression to increasing levels of fractiousness?

Don’t we, in social media, culture, and politics, also, have “princes who are many?” I am not thinking about active citizens who speak out and exercise positive leadership. Rather it’s about people who, in service of demagoguery, abuse of power, and other destructive endeavors, add to chaos, muck up consensus-building efforts, and tear down others who are trying to lead in reasonable directions.

Consider this hypothesis and see if you find it to be true: In better times, we have fewer, but truer leaders and good followers; while in troubled times, we have more, but poorer leaders and less constructive followers.

Is it possible that the pesha of our times, the breaches of trust caused by our divisions and factions, has given rise to an abundance of ill-suited people who appear as “leaders.” And isn’t this one of the most serious threats of further decline in our society?

One gets a sense that that this condition is what prompted God’s reaction in Hosea 8:4: “They set up kings, but not by Me. They made princes whom I knew not.”

Yet, happily and typically, Proverbs offers solutions to the problems it identifies. While our proverb is likely speaking more directly about the sort of person who can lead a nation away from pesha, I suggest it has other messages as well.

As individuals, we may not be able to fix our culture or our society all at once or in one stroke. But there are amazing things we can do. We can each determine who we are to be and how we are to act, and we can contribute beneficially through how we choose to live.

The proverb identifies two particular qualities – knowledge and understanding – that are absolutely crucial. The Hebrew words are yada and bin. As to yada (to know), it’s having and exercising more consideration, investigation, awareness, and assured knowledge. As to bin (to understand), it’s more discernment, diligent consideration, and understanding that lead to wise action.

Each and every intelligent ruler who operates with such knowledge and understanding can reduce chaos, promote true stability, heal through greater righteousness and justice, and prolong a sense of community so a people can better endure.

One person can reverse a trend. One person can lead a community forward. And, of course, it’s one such person we individually can decide to become. So, Proverbs seems to be teaching here: you, reader, you, at least you, should be that person of knowledge and understanding. You can change the world!

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Ah, the Beauty of Work

“Know well the appearance of your sheep; give thought to the herds. For wealth is not forever, nor does a crown endure generation after generation When grass disappears and verdure appears, and the grasses of the hills are gathered, there will be sheep for your clothing and goats – the price of a field; and enough goat’s milk for your food, the food of your household, and provisions for your maidservants.” Proverbs 27:23-27

 

I know of no wisdom saying that better describes the nature and value of work than what we find in these verses. Let’s look at them and see if you agree.

I propose we begin by reading the account here of animal husbandry -metaphorically. It could indeed be about managing animals. But it could also be about business, or writing, or medical service, or, really, any other profession or enterprise.

The wisdom says first we should become so deeply engaged in our work that we know its ins and outs. And, further, we should use that knowledge though constructive thought to plan and execute effective action.

At the surface, it may take the form of noticing whether the animals are sick or well, or whether they need further growth or are ready for market.

In business, it may take the form of ascertaining the needs of our customers and giving solid, creative thought about the merchandise that would best meet those needs.

In professional writing, we would want to know the appearance of our words and then give creative, precise thought as to how they best assemble as “healthy herds” in the piece we create.

As doctors, we would want to pay exceedingly close attention to the details of our patients’ condition and summon up our best judgment and wisdom so as to bring healing.

OK, but what’s the meaning of the verse about wealth and the crown? I see two very different possibilities. Perhaps we’re being taught to take great care in the stewardship of our resources because maintaining the wealth they make possible is never assured, nor is success likely beyond the first generation that lacks a strong work ethic.

The next verse could be read to carry the challenge a step further. The grass that the sheep depend upon for food could, and indeed sometimes does, disappear.

The beauty of Proverbs is that so many meanings are frequently possible.

Though there’s truth in seeing this “minor chord in the music” in these verses, I prefer a more uplifting reading.

God blesses us with the wherewithal to sustain our work and its fruit. In the case of our tending sheep, in addition to the close attention and thought we give, there’s the grass that we use to feed the sheep that grows seasonally and is regularly renewed. Certain resources that help all workers be productive are also often renewable. The barber, the dentist, and the newspaper’s reporters are good examples of workers who, in the ecosystems of their endeavors, can typically count on a steady renewal of “feeding.”

With few exceptions, the net proceeds of our work provide what it takes to keep working and meet the needs of our families, those who serve us, and those in the community we should serve.

This is all well and good, but let’s go deeper.

I think these verses also teach us about the nature of leadership. Good leaders tend to their “flocks” as does the shepherd to his sheep. Good leadership is not about attaining wealth and power for oneself, the “crown” for its own sake. Rather it should be about devoting attention to, and effectively meeting, the needs of the people leaders serve. It treasures and values God’s blessings. And it imposes real accountability on leaders to provide for the objective and measurable wellbeing of the whole community.

These verses might also speak about the teacher who tends to students, the parent who tends to children, or the advantaged who can help those in need; or it could very well be about God and all the ways in which the Divine attends to our needs.

Let’s close our analysis by appreciating the deepest point of all. The real discovery here is that we can find and feel moments of sweet eternity in the day-to-day of our lives. It’s not in wealth or crown. Rather it’s abundantly found in the duty of work and the doing of work with care and excellence. There we find sustenance and joy. There we find purpose and wholeness.

What a Godsend.

Let’s Talk Shavuot and Pentecost!

 

Here’s something that I hope will be a treat for you.

In just a few days, Jews will celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, and Christians will celebrate Pentecost.

Mark Charbonneau and I have devoted our podcast this week on A Shared Word to a discussion of these special, holy days.

What are they? Why are they so important? How are they distinctive, and, yet, what do they share that could bring people of both traditions together?

Perhaps, even more important, what great value and meaning do they bring to us in the conduct of our modern-day lives?

Finally, we both believe and discuss our view that it’s unfortunate so many Jews leave off the experience of the sacred in the time after Passover and so many Christians do likewise after Easter. This week offers us all a chance to re-capture and experience the joy and purpose of these remarkable holidays.

If you’re interested in a lively discussion of Shavuot and Pentecost from a Jewish, a Christian, and a shared perspective, download and enjoy our 20-minute dialogue on your laptop or computer. (If you want to listen on your IPhone, do so by searching for A Shared Word on your Podcast app and clicking on the SPECIAL EPISODE.)

You can get to it by clicking on the link below; then, when you’re on the ITunes Preview Page, by clicking on “View in ITunes” next to the SPECIAL EPISODE; and, lastly, once on A Shared Word, by clicking the number 1 next to SPECIAL EPISODE – Pentecost and Shavuot.

(Don’t be put off by the techno-jargon. Follow the steps. If I can get there, I know you can!)

 

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/a-shared-word/id1375838631?mt=2&i=1000411690451

From Face to Face and Heart to Heart

 

“As in water the face is to face, so the heart of man to man.”     Proverbs 27:19

There are so many levels of beauty and meaning in this verse. Let’s begin on its surface and then go deeper to its heart.

When we see our reflection in water, we see our face. And, usually, on that face is “written” much about our attitudes and emotions. Are we joyful?  Are we angry? Are we in love? We can read a lot into the look of a reflected face.

The same is true with the heart. If one loves, despises, or has any sort of emotion or feeling toward another, it likely shows not only in the face but also in the many expressions that come from the heart.

It is also true that emotions can change. This truth is reflected in the ephemeral nature of seeing a face in water. We see it, but then, after departing, we don’t. So, the proverb may also be teaching us about the impermanence of emotions.

But let’s explore the more important question: is it merely the reflection of one’s heart that is at issue here? As we’ve discussed, it may be. At the simplest level, one’s heart reflects certain attitudes, as does one’s face.

Or, is this more about the relationship between one’s heart and that of another? If one person, for example, loves another person, the heart of the first may experience the heart of the other, in returned love.

Let’s explore this possibility a bit further; but, again, in the context of the face.

Recall that when we see the Hebrew word for face, “panim,” it should, if you’ll pardon the pun, bring us face to face with other important verses in the Bible.

Though Moses could not see God’s face, God did speak to Moses “face to face as a person does to a friend.”

When Jacob saw Esau as they approached possible reconciliation, Jacob said, “When I saw your face it was like seeing the face of God.” This is crucial because it was just moments earlier after Jacob was wrestling with God (or an angel or a man) that he named the place, Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and my life was spared.”

Seeing and speaking with another, face to face, connotes relationship. We know truths about another when we see the other face to face. And we’re drawn to support both the other’s interest as well as our own.

It may be to wrestle through to a deeper understanding of who we are. It may be to secure peace. It may be to forge a deeper partnership for the future, or it may be merely to achieve the best sort of reconciliation that is possible.

As to the proverb, here’s my main point: I think that seeing the reflection of our own face in God and the face of others makes possible a knitting together of hearts.

I believe this idea is core to what Martin Buber taught about I-Thou relationships. We look at each other, face to face, trying to create a relationship as we would with Thou. In the case of Jacob and Esau, their positions had previously been uncaring, selfish, and manipulative, I-It, if you will. Now, face to face, if perhaps only for a moment, the brothers struggled to create an experience of mutuality and shared interest.

Here are words of Buber: “When I confront a human being as my Thou and speak the word I-Thou to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things.” “He is no longer…a dot in the world grid of space and time – nor a condition that can be described…(H)e is Thou and fills the firmament.”

Perhaps the proverb may best mean: face to face with others, we can grow heart to heart, in pursuit of Thou.

 

“A Proverbial Treat”

I am very excited to announce in this week’s blog a new podcast that my friend, Mark Charbonneau, and I have just initiated.

Mark is the pastor at a new and vibrant church here in Austin, the Vine. He’s a brilliant, fine person who shares my passion that we all can find great value through a fresh look at, and robust discussion of, our ancient, religious texts.

The first topic we have chosen to tackle, I am happy to report, is Proverbs and Related Wisdom. Since this has been the subject of many of the blogs I’ve been posting here for the past several months, I am very hopeful that these podcasts will be directly enriching to you.

The first three podcasts are up now. Please give them a listen by opening up the link below, viewing them in iTunes, and clicking on to the particular podcast you want to hear. You can subscribe (and like), if you so choose.

The first podcast is mostly about Mark and me, an introduction, if you will. It’s pretty cool. Mark is Christian, and I’m Jewish. Mark is younger, and I’m well…more traveled. Mainly, we’re good friends.

There are other aspects of our backgrounds that we believe will interest listeners. As the title (A Shared Word) suggests, our strongest shared belief is that people of faith and good will can find great benefit from learning and communicating together, and discovering all the remarkable spiritual and ethical treasure we have in common.

In the second podcast, we explore what our faiths teach about wisdom – what it is and why it’s so important.

The third is very rich. We explore two “remarkable women” in Proverbs – Lady Wisdom and the Woman of Valor. You don’t want to miss this one!

The fourth will be about how we garner and sustain wisdom so that it can benefit and strengthen us in our daily lives.

The fifth will be about the wisdom and importance of discipline.

The sixth will be about the wisdom of work – its nature, its beauty, and its limits.

The seventh will be about the wisdom of loving-kindness, respect, and mutuality.

The eighth, and final, podcast of this first series will be about the wisdom of discernment and good judgment.

The wisdom we discuss comes largely from Proverbs. But there will be a significant dose from other Jewish sacred texts as well as, of course, the New Testament.

Mark and I love talking religion. And we hope our conversation will interest you and maybe trigger your own discussions, whether it be in your synagogue, your church, your community, or, perhaps especially, between you and others, Christians and Jews.

Don’t let the cat out of the bag. Shh. (We’re thinking that our next series will cover the remarkable King David!)

If there are topics you’d enjoy our including, please let us know. And help us think as this rolls out further how we can get you involved in a more interactive way in the discussion.

Here’s A Shared Word:

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/a-shared-word/id1375838631?mt=2

What Does God Hope for Us When We Stray?

In the second part of his Aspects of Rabbinic Theology, Solomon Schechter focused on the revelation of God’s will, direction, and promise, an experience through which “earth was wedded to heaven.”

For it was in this act of God’s “grace,” the revelation (Torah, for Jews), that we were first offered “instruments” of “humility and righteousness,” showing us a path forward of “peace, strength… joy, and freedom.”

Our concern today is: what does God hope for us when we stray from that path? We’re imperfect; God knows it. So, while we may seek to live as God desires, it is all but inevitable that we, on occasion, will be wayward. Let’s see what Schechter teaches about the journey to holiness, with its ever-present temptations and falls, as well as their consequences, and the ways of return that God makes available to us.

 

1. “Holiness is the highest achievement of Torah and the deepest experience as well of the realization of righteousness…the holiness of Israel is dependent on their acting in such a way as to become God-like.”

2. For example, “as God is called merciful and gracious, so be thou merciful and gracious; as God is called righteous, so be thou righteous…” Sifre, 85a

3. The opposite of being God-like is defiance and rebellion from God’s ways, which constitute disobedience and sin. “Closely connected with rebellion” is the idea of one who “throws off the yoke of the Omnipresent, or of heaven.”

 4. This rebellion may, among other things, take the form of idolatry, having “a proud heart” that is “arrogant in decision,” leaving “no room for the Divine,” grave wrongdoing with or without “denying God’s knowledge” of our actions, heresy, wickedness of those “puffed up in spirit,” unchaste actions or thoughts, the shedding of blood (literally or figuratively), slander, robbery, the wrong administration of justice, usury, scoffing, lying, being hypocritical, and disrespecting those who deserve to be honored.

 5. “The effects of sin extend even further” to a “blighting influence upon the world, under which even the righteous suffer.”

 6. “The punishment of separation…is extended to sin in general.” That is to say, when one chooses to defy and rebel from God, one’s wish is fulfilled. “Your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid His face from you…” Isaiah 59:2

 7. What causes sin, the rebellion against God? It’s the yezer hara, the evil imagination or desire. “Other names” of this force are “the foolish old king,” “the spoiler who spares none,” “the malady,” and “the strange god.” As R. Simon b Lakish put it, “Satan and Yezer and the Angel of Death are one.”

 8. The main activity of the evil yezer “consists in seducing and tempting.” His ways “are of the insinuating kind, appearing first to the man as a modest traveller, then as a welcome guest, and ending in exacting obedience as the master of the house.”

 9. What are we to do with the yezer hara? We are to temper it, to overcome it. “The Yezer who forms such an obstacle on the path of righteousness was created with the purpose that man should make a strong effort to overcome him, thereby testifying his loyalty to the King God…”

 10. “The difference between the wicked and the righteous is that the wicked are in the power of their hearts, while the righteous have the heart in their power.”

 11. “The weapons used in this war against the Evil Yezer are mainly: occupation with the study of the Torah (God’s words of Instruction) and works of loving-kindness.” It must be seen, though, that “the conquest comes in the end from God.”

 12. “We are thus brought to the necessity of grace forming a prominent factor in the defeat of the Yezer. Hence, the various prayers for the removal or subjugation of the Evil Yezer.”

 13. “They asked the Holy One, blessed be He, ‘What is the punishment of the sinner?’ The Holy One, blessed be He, answered, ‘Let him do repentance and it shall be forgiven unto him…”

 14. It is true, too, that the wrongdoer suffers as part of atonement. “If thou seeks for life, hope for suffering,” as it is said, “And reproof of chastisement is the way of life.” (Sifre and Psalms) “This suffering has to be a sacrifice accompanied by repentance,” which leads to being “dealt with mercifully.”

 15. “Atoning power is also ascribed to” the occupation “with the study of the Torah (God’s Instruction) and acts of loving-kindness.”

 16. “Repentance is so beloved by the Holy One, blessed be He, that He is ready to overrule His own Law for its sake…This suggests that the admittance of repentance is an act of grace on the part of God, as forgiveness in general is.”

 17. “As to the nature of repentance, it is…first of all the returning from evil ways, that is, a strong determination on the part of the sinner to break with sin…Repentance begins in thought, and its effect is instantaneous. But it is followed up by words of confession.”

 18. “Repentance is as wide as the sea, and as the sea has never closed and man can always be cleansed by it, so is repentance, so that whenever man desires to repent, the Holy One, blessed be He, receives him.”

God and the World

In this installment of short blogs that highlight 18 special ideas of great Jewish thinkers, we will turn to the magnificent 19th century scholar/rabbi, Solomon Schechter. His classic Aspects of Rabbinic Theology can be roughly divided into three parts: God and the World; God’s Instruction; and Holiness, Sin, Repentance, and Return.

Here, in less than 850 words, we’ll see how Schechter answers questions (though not in the gender-neutral terms we now prefer) that matter a lot to us with respect to the subject of God and the World. How can the distant God of the heavens also be a God intimate with us in the world? What’s the nature of our relationship with the Divine? What is the Kingdom God seeks to create, and what’s our role in it?

GOD IN THE WORLD

 1. How puzzling and wonderful it is that the God who some say is far off, King of the Universe, Father in heaven, “too high for the mind,” is also “a personal God” who is “a father of the fatherless, and a judge of the widows” (Psalm 78), a God who is “near in every kind of nearness.” Jer. Berachot 13a

 2. “God was at one and the same time above, beyond, and within the world, its soul and its life.”

GOD AND THE PEOPLE

3. “The intimacy of relationship is reciprocal.” “God needs us even as we need Him.”

4. “The recognition of…fatherhood is all that God wants from Israel.” “Israel loves Him and loves His house…and so does the Holy One, blessed be He, love them.” “He wants to hear Israel’s voice…and is anxious for them to listen unto His voice.”

THE KINGDOM OF GOD

5. “God is king and hence claiming authority; the king is God, and therefore the manifestation and assertion of this authority are the subject of people’s prayers and solicitations.”

6. “The invisible kingdom is mainly spiritual, expressive of a certain attitude of mind…” in which one desires “to receive upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven.”

7. Central is the love of God. “It is the man with such a purpose (aiming towards bringing about the perfect unity to the exclusion of self) who is called the lover of God.”

8. Lovers of God “desire only to accomplish the will of God and to lead others to righteousness, to sanctify His name and to deliver up his soul for the sake of His love…”

9. “An anonymous author…says ‘those who believe that works are the main thing are mistaken. The most important matter is the heart. Works and words are only intended as preparatory actions to the devotion of the heart. The essence of all the commandments is to love God with all the heart…’”

10. “The Rabbis often speak of the reward awaiting the righteous after their death of consisting …in reveling in the divine glory…But such a vision…is wisely confined to the next world…In this world, “the world of activity,” the righteous have no such peace; they have to labor and to suffer with their fellow-creatures.”

11. When God teaches that “these words which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart” (Deuteronomy 6:6), the Divine means that we should “place these words upon thy heart, for through them thou wilt learn to know the Holy One, blessed be He, and cleave unto His ways.” Sifre, 74a. “And these ways, as we will see, concern this world.”

12. “The best control is thus to work towards establishing the visible kingdom of God in the present world. This (is) the highest goal religion can strive to reach.”

THE UNIVERSALITY OF GOD’S KINGDOM

13. “God wants to reign over free agents, and it is their obedience he desires to obtain.”

14. Before Abraham, God had only been…king of the heavens, but since Abraham, “he has become also the God and King of the earth.” After the patriarchs, “his kingdom became based on mankind’s knowledge of Him, and their realization of His nearness.”

15. …”the kingdom of God is in this world.” “…nearness of God to man means the knowledge of God’s ways to do righteousness and judgment.”

“In other words, it is the sense of duty and responsibility to the heavenly king who is concerned in and superintends our actions.”

16. “…you are my lovers and friends when you walk in My ways…As the Omnipresent is merciful and gracious, long suffering, and abundant in goodness, so ye be…feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, ransoming the captives, and marrying the orphans.”

17. “If… the essence of their preaching was righteousness and justice, and…if the kingdom does not mean a hierarchy, but any form of government conducted on the principles of righteousness, holiness, justice, and charitableness, then we may safely maintain that the kingdom of God…is universal in its aims.”

18. This is the promise the prophet made for the future: “And all the children of flesh will call upon thy name…” “And the Lord shall be King over all the earth: in that day shall the Lord be One and His name One.”