Yitro: The Half-Empty Glass

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house: you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Shemot 20:14)
Ever chasing
after something
to fill the gap
of lack perceived

yet if we turn,
our true self beckons
to live the life
already ours

replenishing the glass
that seems half-empty
till light-splashed water
overflows.


In a commentary on Parashat Yitro, http://www.rabbisacks.org/to-thank-before-we-think-yitro-5776/, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks notes that the ten commandments are usually portrayed as two sets of five, the first set appertaining to our relationship with God (including honouring our parents since they, like God, brought us into being) and the second appertaining to our relationships with other people.
Rabbi Sacks adds, though, that there is also a certain logic in grouping them in threes: the first trio (one God, no other God, and not taking God’s name in vain) are about God, “the Author and Authority of the laws”. The second trio (keeping Shabbat, honouring parents, not murdering) are about “createdness”. He says, “Shabbat reminds us of the birth of the universe. Our parents brought us into being. Murder is forbidden because we are all created in God’s image (Gen. 9:6).” The third three (refraining from adultery, from stealing and from bearing false witness) are about the foundations of society: “the sanctity of marriage, the integrity of private property, and the administration of justice. Lose any of these and freedom begins to crumble.”
In this configuration of threes, Rabbi Sacks notes, the tenth commandment forbidding envy seems to be the anomaly. He says, “At least on the surface this is different from all the other rules, which involve speech or action. Envy, covetousness, desiring what someone else has, is an emotion, not a thought, a word or a deed. And surely we can’t help our emotions. They used to be called the “passions”, precisely because we are passive in relation to them. So how can envy be forbidden at all? Surely it only makes sense to command or forbid matters that are within our control. In any case, why should the occasional spasm of envy matter if it does not lead to anything harmful to other people?”
Rabbi Sacks believes that the Torah is teaching here of the perils of envy, which we meet first very early on in the Torah in the tragic episode of Cain and Abel. Some generations later, we learn that Abraham lies to the king, claiming that Sarah is his sister, rather than his wife, so that the king will not covet Sarah for her beauty, and kill Abraham in order to possess her. In the next generation, Isaac does the same with regard to Rebecca. And not long after, we read of the fateful repercussions of the envy of Jacob’s sons for their brother Joseph.
Rabbi Sacks says “So the prohibition of envy is not odd at all. It is the most basic force undermining the social harmony and order that are the aim of the Ten Commandments as a whole. Not only though do they forbid it; they also help us rise above it. It is precisely the first three commands, reminding us of God’s presence in history and our lives, and the second three, reminding us of our createdness, that help us rise above envy.
“We are here because God wanted us to be. We have what God wanted us to have. Why then should we seek what others have? If what matters most in our lives is how we appear in the eyes of God, why should we want anything else merely because someone else has it? It is when we stop defining ourselves in relation to God and start defining ourselves in relation to other people that competition, strife, covetousness and envy enter our minds, and they lead only to unhappiness.”

In a note on the last of the Ten Commandments, the Etz Hayim also commentary points out, “Many commentators are troubled by the apparent prohibition of a feeling, when the general pattern of the Torah is to command behavior, not thought. Can we control our feelings or are we responsible only for our actions?” Although some exegetes resolve the issue by interpreting the words literally or implicitly slightly differently, none-the-less most agree that the text does actually prohibit covetous thoughts. So the Etz Hayim adds, “It may be difficult to control our emotions, but we may never excuse our behaviour by claiming that our emotions overcame us so that we could not help doing what we did.”
(The practical Halacha derived from this verse prohibits longing only for what we cannot obtain honestly and legally (Talmud Bava Metziya 5b.))

On the same verse, the K’tav veHaKabbalah* says the following, “Many have wondered about this mitzva, how is it possible for someone not to covet something beautiful, for the heart covets by itself, against the person’s wishes? And as we see, the author of the Sefer HaBrit** wrote on the verse, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,” – what would have been missing from the text, had it been written, “And you shall love the Lord your God with your heart,” – what did it want to say by [adding] the word “all”? So the intention is that your heart shall be filled with the love of God. This means there shall be in your heart the love of God alone. It should not have in it also worldly desire. And if your heart is filled to overflowing with love of God… there will be no room for covetousness, like a full cup which can receive no more.”

Rabbi Yechiel Michel of Zlotshov *** said, “It is a known difficulty [in the text], how is it possible to ordain a negative injunction about something that is not in a person’s hands? Even if the person wants to avoid coveting, the envy will enter his heart in any case. Only that “You shall not covet” is also a promise. A person who is careful with the [other] nine holy commandments and observes them, will surely not covet.”

In a commentary on Parashat Yitro, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/yitro/5775/bite-desire, Rabbi Eliezer Diamond, too, addresses this verse, saying, “Do you covet? I do, and it makes me sad. Perhaps I’m too hard on myself. We all see things that we want, don’t have, and wish we did. There is too much in the world that is bright and shiny — offering pleasure and excitement — not to see it and feel the ache of its absence in my life. And I speak not only of the ephemeral delights that beckon. Even more difficult to contemplate are my fellow human beings whose personal and professional lives leave me despondent when measuring myself against them: scholars who have written books that I haven’t, friends who seem to be better spouses or more successful parents, people who have paid off their mortgages, men who still have all their hair. In short, the list is endless.”
Rabbi Diamond says, however, that what most bothers him is not the craving itself that arises, but the effect it has on him: “What disturbs me most is that I am the victim of my own coveting. For I am robbing myself of the joy and satisfaction I could feel in the life I am actually living.” He cites Pirkei Avot 4:1: “Eizehu ashir? Hasameach bechelko – Who is wealthy? One who is happy with one’s portion.” And he asks how to accomplish that ideal, when he sees around him that certain people seem to be better off in various spheres.
Rabbi Diamond observes that from the dawn of history, discontent epitomises the human condition. Adam and Eve, he says, are placed in a beautiful garden, with every pleasing fruit-bearing tree imaginable and invited to delight in everything there, save the one Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. They lack nothing, but it is the fruit of this one forbidden tree that they end up eating. Rabbi Diamond notes the words used when describing the incident “Vatereh ha’isha ki tov ha’etz lema’achal vechi ta’avah hu la’einayim, venechmad ha’etz lehaskil…- When the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom…” (Bereishit 3:6) The words for “delight” and “desirable” “ta’avah” and “nechmad” are etymologically connected with and anticipate those used to proscribe coveting both in Parashat Yitro and in Parashat Va’Etchanan, respectively (“lo titaveh – you shall not covet,” and “lo tachmod – you shall not crave”).
He continues, “And something terrible and paradoxical occurs. The act of eating and enjoying the forbidden fruit reveals to them that in denying them the fruit of that one tree, God had indeed withheld from them a pleasure otherwise unattainable. Was the fruit sweeter than any other in the garden or did it just seem so because of the thrill surrounding its forbiddenness It does not matter. They now know that prohibition is indeed a form of deprivation. As a consequence, neither they nor their descendants will ever a gain experience true wholeness; they will always feel as if something is missing…”
Rabbi Diamond adds, “We are descendants of Adam and Eve and inheritors of their tragic self-inflicted curse. What shall we do? Let us meditate again on the rabbinic dictum cited above. Let us read hasameaḥ beḥelko in the active rather than the stative sense. Being happy is often no more than a passive state of indifference, resignation, or self-delusion. My challenge is to create a state of happiness for myself. And happiness is not the word we need here; the appropriate word is joy, something richer and more expansive. When I inhabit my life fully, when I learn to savor what I have and use it to full advantage, when I value the strengths that I have and make peace with my weaknesses, when I build connections with those I love rather than nurturing resentment against them — then I have built for myself a joyous life. And when I live in joy, the distractions of desire lose their power over me. And if my head is turned now and then by something tantalizing that is beyond my grasp, so be it. I need only turn back and move forward into the arms of the full and joyous life waiting to embrace me and to be embraced.”

In a commentary on Parashat Yitro, http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/15476#.VqlCS_l97IU, Rabbi Dr Eliyahu Shafran cites Rav Soloveitchik who reminds us that in the morning blessings we praise God as the One “she’asah li kol tzarki – Who has supplied all my needs.” Rabbi Shafran suggests that we learn from this that God provides us with the wherewithal to fulfill our potential. If we see ourselves as reflections of the divine, he suggests, this liberates us from the desire for more.
Rabbi Shafran concludes “There is the story of a boy who dwelled in the mountains. Looking across the valley, he found himself fascinated by a house on the opposite side of the valley. Each evening its windows were sheets of shining gold. Drawn to this seeming treasure, he made his way across the valley toward the house. But the path was difficult. Exhausted, he lay down and slept.
“Early the next morning he hurried to the house. Instead of finding sheets of gold, he discovered that the windows were but ordinary glass. Disappointed and bitter, he turned toward home, but then stopped in surprise. Across the valley, he saw his own home, and it was agleam with windows of gold!”

*Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785 – 1865) was a German Rabbi and scholar of the 19th century, best known as author of the Torah commentary HaKetav VehaKabbalah. Born in Lissa (Leszno), in the province of Posen, Germany, in at a time when was a famous center of Torah studies, and Rabbi Mecklenburg began studying Torah as a student of the local Rabbi, Zechariah Mendel, who was a friend and correspondent of Rabbi Akiva Eger.
Rabbi Mecklenburg initially went into business. In 1831, at the age of 46, following commercial difficulties, he decided to leave the business world and was offered the rabbinical position in the city of Königsberg, East Prussia. At that time, Koenigsburg Jews were under the increasing influence of the Haskalah, a movement, which Rabbi Mecklenburg strongly opposed. Together with the Malbim, he publicly opposed Reform Judaism’s 1844 Braunschweig convention. In the same period, he wrote HaKetav VehaKabbalah, his own commentary to the Torah.
He served as Rabbi in Königsberg, for the rest of his life, for 34 years. Before his death, he ordered that no eulogies be given at his funeral. In his will, he requested that Haketav Vehakabbalah be read after the public Torah reading, during the first 30 days of mourning.
**Sefer HaBrit was authored by Rabbi Pinchas Eliyahu of Vilna. First printed in 1797, it was a compendium of the scientific knowledge of the time (astronomy, geography, physics, chemistry, biology, etc.) together with a presentation of the kabbalistic worldview.
***Rebbe Yechiel Michel of Zlotshov (died 1786) was a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism. Rabbi Yechiel Michel founded the Zlotshov dynasty. (Zlotshov is the Yiddish name of Zolochiv, a town in present-day Ukraine.) His five sons all founded their own branches of the Zlotshov dynasty. Descendant dynasties include the Zvhil, Skolye, Zvhil-Mezhbizh and Shotz dynasties.

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Tu BiShvat: Planting the Tree

The azure vault spans far beyond,
immaculate save a soaring speck –
a solitary bird – while the humming
of a passing bee suspends the sleepy silence.

Squatting on the fertile ground,
engrossed in digging dark soft loam,
she pauses: with her inner eye she sees
the tree, full grown and lush with fruit.

Heavy footsteps break the peace,
a voice calls out, “Messiah’s here!
Come, meet him at the city gate
and speed him on his way!”

Tenderly she plants the sapling,
smoothing down the mounded earth
and sprinkles water-drops like dew
and then she hastens to the gate.


The one-day festival of Tu BiShvat is not mentioned in the Torah, but appears in the Mishnah as one of the four New Years in the Jewish calendar. The discussion of when the New Year occurs was a source of debate among the rabbis, as we read in the Mishnah: “There are four beginnings of the year. The first of Nissan is the beginning of the year for kings and holidays. The first of Elul is the beginning of the year for animal tithes. Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Shimon say [animal tithes start] on the first of Tishrei. The first of Tishrei is the beginning of the year for years, for the Sabbatical years, the Jubilees, for planting, and for vegetables. The first of Shevat is the beginning of the year for trees, so says Beit Shammai. Beit Hillel says it is the 15th of that [month]. ” (BT Rosh Hashana: 2a).
The rabbis of the Talmud ruled in favor of Hillel on this issue. Thus the 15th of Shevat became the date for calculating the beginning of the agricultural cycle for the purpose of biblical tithes. This day is also called “Rosh HaShanah La’Ilanot – New Year of the Trees.”
In the Middle Ages, Tu BiShvat was celebrated with a feast of fruits in keeping with the Mishnaic description of the holiday as a “New Year.” In the 16th century, the kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Luria of Safed and his disciples instituted a Tu BiShvat seder in which the fruits and trees of the Land of Israel were given symbolic meaning. The main idea was that eating ten specific fruits and drinking four cups of wine in a specific order while reciting the appropriate blessings would bring human beings, and the world, closer to spiritual perfection.
On Tu BiShvat 1890, Rabbi Ze’ev Yavetz, one of the founders of the Mizrachi movement, took his students to plant trees in the agricultural colony of Zichron Yaakov. This custom was adopted in 1908 by the Jewish Teachers Union and later by the Jewish National Fund (Keren HaKayemet L’Israel), established in 1901 to oversee land conservation and afforestation in Israel. In the early 20th century, the Jewish National Fund devoted the day to planting eucalyptus trees to stop the plague of malaria in the Hula Valley.
In contemporary Israel, the day is celebrated as an ecological awareness day, and trees are planted in celebration.

In an article from 1982, http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1358, entitled What to Do Until the Messiah Comes: On Jewish Worldliness, Dr Stanley N. Rosenbaum says the following, “In Walter M. Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz, the symbolic Jewish character says, “I was told to wait, and I wait.” With admirable tenacity, Benjamin survives for centuries on the edges of a fast-flowing civilization, contributing little save his own Wandering Jewish presence, a lonely witness to the unredeemed state of the world. His Messiah does not come and he doubts now that he will. Either way, his is the perennial Jewish problem: what to do in the meantime.
“What Jews seem to have done in the past, whenever chance allowed, was to heed Jeremiah’s advice to the Babylonian exiles to plant gardens, build houses and live in them; to seek after the good of those countries on whose shores we are cast.”
Dr Rosenbaum points out that “… not all Jews, now or ever, believed in a Messiah. While modern Orthodox maintain that Messiah is implicit in Torah itself, scholars suggest that the idea, and the hope, grew as a function of Israel’s national powerlessness after the destruction of the First Temple. In the Middle Ages, Joseph Karo, compiler of the authoritative Shulchan Aruch, excluded Messiah from those beliefs required of Jews. No doubt his ruling came partly in response to the new, outdoor sport of disputation, the church-sponsored debates between Christian apologists, usually converts from Judaism, and local Jewish leaders. The latter were constrained to confute Christian claims concerning Jesus without refuting Christianity. If the rabbis lost, they were expected to convert; if they won, they could be exiled, tried for heresy or killed.
“Then again, Karo may have been reacting to the exploits of David Reubeni, the latest in a long line of pseudo-messiahs. Jewish history shows no shortage of claimants.” Dr Rosenbaum suggests that probably more of these have been forgotten than those of whom we have heard. He adds that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, whom he notes was
a contemporary of Jesus, is quoted as saying, “If you are planting a tree and you hear that Messiah has come, finish planting the tree, then go and inquire/receive him.” (Avot deRabi Natan 2:31)
Dr Rosenbaum surmises, though, that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s remark was based not on scepticism but rather on the practical way in which Judaism works in the world. He emphasizes that notwithstanding Jewish philosophers, Judaism is a religion of deeds, and he cites the phrase in Shemot 24:7, “Na’aseh venishma – we will do and we will understand.” The work of redeeming the world, he maintains, is ours, and he cites Franz Kafka who wrote, “The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary.”
Dr Rosenbaum concludes, “… The Jewish job of redeeming the world remained. It still does. Some of us were told to wait, and we are waiting. We will do, and then, perhaps, we will understand.”

Beshalach: Who is like You?

Who is like You, O Lord, among the celestials; who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, working wonders! (Shemot 15:11)

Who is like You among the mute,
Oh God Who is silent
when Your children suffer.

So help us be Your right hand:
give us of Your strength;
to cross the impasse

to forge a path through raging waves,
so those who seek,
might reach, unscathed, 
the farther shore.


In a commentary on Parashat Beshalach from 2005, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/beshallah/5765/accounting-gods-silence, Dr Ismar Schorsch opens by citing from the autobiography of Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness, which was published (in Hebrew) in 2002. “Amos Oz describes the elderly maidservant in the home of his maternal grandparents in Ukraine as being stone deaf. To make the point, he cites in Hebrew, a version of the Yiddish, bon mot deaf as ten walls (in Yiddish actually one wall is enough – toyb vie die vandt). And then he adds in parentheses that sometimes they said of her that “she is even more deaf than God himself in all his glory” (Hebrew edition, 182).”
Dr Schorsch is fascinated by this allusion to God, which he says, …”turns anguish into blasphemy.” He says that one might think that it originated in the Yiddish speaking world of Eastern Europe – “the folk wisdom of a beleaguered society writhing in the rift between theology and reality” but he notes that, actually, surprisingly, it derives from a saying formulated by the early rabbinic sages, “that expresses the candid sentiment of a religious elite. The view that God is all too often deaf to the cries of human suffering, finds its origin in our parashah on a daring word play in a well-known verse.”
After the Children of Israel have safely traversed the sea and seen their enemies submerged in it, Moses starts to sing a song, described by the Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS, as “celebrating the mighty acts of God as He intervenes in human affairs.” Dr Schorsch notes that two thirds of the way through, Moses interrupts his lyrical depiction of Pharaoh and his troops drowning in the turbulence, with a very familiar verse, “Mi chamochah ba-eilim Adonai, mi kamochah ne’edar bakodesh, nora tehillot osei feleh – Who is like You, O Lord, among the celestials; who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, working wonders!” (Shemot 15:11). This verse is extremely familiar because it is recited three times daily, twice in the morning service and once in the evening.
However, Dr Schorsch suggests that familiarity might cover up a difficulty, and wonders “To whom exactly is Moses comparing God? Does the exultation reflect a pre-monotheistic stage in which the world still abounds with gods, though Israel worships only its own?” He contends that “the Jewish Publication Society translation of “celestials” fudges their identity, implying either other gods or the celestial retinue of the one and only God. In truth, the Hebrew word eilim is the plural of the noun for god, eil, though in Psalm 29:1 (sung on Saturday morning as we return the Torah to the ark), the phrase b’nei eilim seems to refer merely to the host of heaven.”
Dr Schorsch surveys the earlier exegeses: he notes that the Targum Onkelos cannot tolerate the idea that there may be other gods to whom Israel’s God could be compared: “There is none other than You. For You are the Lord Adonai. There is no one but You.” He says that Onkelos does not accept that the Torah could be relating to the multiple deities of contemporary polytheists, as divine entities.
However, he detects a different view in the oldest rabbinic commentary on Shemot, the Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, which dates from the same era as the Targum Onkelos. Here, several interpretations are tendered. One suggests that the verse is to be understood as the exultation of the gentile nations who heard of the miracle at the sea. Dr Schorsch explains, “In praising Israel’s God as unique, they naturally refer to their own deities as gods.” A second interpretation is that the word eilim refers to supernatural beings capable of performing miracles, in which case Moses would be depicting God as peerless among these. A further explanation could be an inference to Pharaoh who professed divinity.
However, Dr Schorsch is struck by one interpretation, which, he says, “does more than vitiate the implicit polytheism of the verse. It repunctuates the noun eilim to rebuke God’s intolerable silence in periods of persecution. Remember, the Torah scroll contains only consonants. The vowels are assigned by tradition, but omitted. Hence, without changing a consonant the word eilim could be read as eeleim, i.e., someone who is mute. Making it plural we get ilmim, meaning, “Who is like You, O Lord, among the mute?” The author of this interpretation elaborates – “beholding the humiliation of Your children yet keeping silent.” The barb is palpable. God’s patience is beyond human endurance. How much savagery is God prepared to tolerate? This interpretation changes Moses’s exultation into a lament. God’s past intervention into the course of human events provides no assurance for the future (Horovitz and Rabin eds., 142).”
He notes that in the Mechilta, this radical reading seems theoretical, but several hundred years later, it resurfaces in the Talmud in the midst of a lengthy discourse on the reasons for and the consequences of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. We learn that the Roman general, Titus, who oversees the siege of Jerusalem desecrates the Temple as well as burning it. He enters the Holy of Holies with a prostitute on his arm, removes the Torah scroll from its ark, unrolls it on the floor and has sex with his consort upon it. Dr Schorsch says, “God’s inaction shook faith to the core. Two verses capture the sense of betrayal and outrage. The first from Psalm 89:9, “O Lord, God of hosts, who is mighty like You, O’ Lord?” That is, reading against the grain, who could match Your self-control, to witness such sacrilege without erupting in righteous indignation? The second is our verse from Exodus 15:11, “Who is like You, O Lord, among the celestials?” That is, who is like You among the mute ones? The second proof text is preferable, because derived from the Torah, it bears a higher order of sanctity. Though left unexplained, its import is bitterly clear. To be long-suffering can often manifest itself as callous indifference (B.T. Gittin 56b).”

In an article from 2008 (in Hebrew) http://www2.polskieradio.pl/eo/print.aspx?iid=73793, Dr Penina Meizlish recounts the history of Rabbi Shem Klingberg, the rabbi of Zaloshitz in Poland. When Krakow was overrun by the Germans, Rabbi Klingberg was on the list of wanted rabbis – part of Nazi policy to try to destroy the spiritual leadership. He managed to escape and live in hiding in a nearby town for about two years. There, he studied, taught and encouraged those around him. In 1941, he was forced to enter the Ghetto, at which time he ceased singing Sabbath Table songs. Paraphrasing the Midrash (Bavli, Megilla 10B and Sanhedrin 39A) he said: “The people of Israel are drowning in the sea and you sing?” The Midrash tells of the ministering angels, who sought to sing before God when they saw the Egyptians drowning, but God stopped them, saying, “My creatures are drowning and you are singing before Me!” (and in Shemot Rabbah 80 23 on the same theme God says, “My legions are suffering and you are singing to Me”). Dr Meizlish notes that this episode is related in the book “Be’Ohalei Shem – In the Tents of Shem” comprising those of Rabbi Klingberg’s writings that survived the Holocaust, and published posthumously by his son. In it, Rabbi Klingberg addresses this issue in a few sentences, which Dr Maizlish believes merely scratch the surface of his thoughts on the subject of God’s reaction (or seeming lack thereof) when His creatures are suffering. She briefly summarises, starting with the quotation above from the Mechilta (Beshalach 80 8), “Who is like you among the mute, O God, Who is like You, Who hears (or sees) the affront to His children, and is silent”. And here the silent One is God. But in the Midrash of the Lekach Tov we find, “The silent ones are [the people of] Israel in exile, who are afflicted and do not respond, and the Holy-One-Blessed-be-He sees their suffering and is silent.” In the wake of the pogroms in Wurzburg, Germany, in the Second Crusade in 1146, the paytan (liturgical composer) Yitzchak ben Shalom composed the lament that opens with the words “Who is like You among the mute, Who holds back and is silent towards the tormentors; our enemies are many and rise up.” This lament appears in the SiddurKeminhag Polin – Of the Polish Tradition” and is recited on the first Shabbat after Pesach, which is close to the day on which the Egyptians were drowned and the Song of the Sea was chanted. Dr Maizlish assumes that Rabbi Klingberg was very familiar with these Midrashim as well as this particular prayerbook and the liturgy found in it. He was murdered in the Pleschov camp on the outskirts of Krakow in April 1943. Dr Meizlish says, “Commenting on Psalms 73:17: “Until I entered the sanctuary of God, then I understood their end”, he said: “When the Messiah comes we will understand the secret of the divine conduct of these times, the secret of the murders and the slaughter”. He was certain that there was an explanation for the Holocaust which had fallen upon Israel, but that human experience until now was completely unable to deal with it and only in the days of the Messiah, when a different cosmic order will prevail, will it be understood. His son added “He did not say more than this and refused to discuss the situation, taking care not to express any hint of doubt concerning the decree of Heaven and accepting everything with love.” ”

Dr Schorsch asserts that “the interchangeability of eilim and ilmim, of celestials and those who neither hear nor speak, became the currency of protest and lament. In the Hebrew elegies composed in Ashkenazi after the First and Second Crusades and recited in the synagogue, the accusatory query resurfaces. Indeed, these poems are fraught with many other expressions of doubt and dismay. When history challenged faith, Judaism sanctioned calling God to account. A genuine covenant needs to be observed by both partners. To dispute with God is a sign of a living relationship. The incidental bon mot cited by Amos Oz is testimony to the degree to which history has imprinted itself into the daily fabric of Jewish life.” Dr Schorsch concludes, “But when God falls silent, we must do more than dispute and decry. We must fill the void.”
Dr Schorsch closes by appending a beautiful Yiddish poem entitled “Help” by the young Abraham Joshua Heschel, which, he says, foreshadows so much of Rabbi Heschel’s later life:

Set me at the head of all the dying
with a greeting, a message from You.
The desolate call to You, and You don’t come.
So send me, and any others You might choose.
I cannot curse as justly as did Jeremiah.
People are poor, weak; and it seems to me
that their guilt is Yours;
their sins, Your crimes.
You are meant to help here, Oh God!
But You are silent, while needs shriek.
So help me to help! I’ll fulfill Your duty,
pay Your debts.
“The Ineffable Name of God,” trans. by Morton M. Leifman,
Continuum: 2005, 33

 

Bo: Marking time

This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.” (Shemot 12:1-2)

Is this how you eat?
No time together
for questions
and answers
no time to recline
dip twice and savor;
in haste to move on
eyes on the cell phone
awaiting the call
the master controls
the slave is not free.


Rashi, the medieval French commentator (1040-1105), in the very first comment he makes on the Torah, asks why the Torah in Bereishit opens with an account of creation. He quotes Rabbi Isaac who said, “The Torah, which is the law book of Israel, should have commenced with the verse, “This month will be the first of months to you,” (Shemot 12:1) which is the first commandment given to Israel.” So we wonder, what is the unusual significance of this particular mitzvah, which appears in this week’s  parasha, Bo, of marking the beginning of months from Nisan, the month of redemption; why was it suggested that it be chosen as the first commandment out of the 613 mitzvot enumerated in the Torah?

The Etz Hayim commentary notes, “One of the first steps in the process of liberation was for the Israelites to have their own calendar, their own way of keeping track of time and recalling the most important days of their people’s history. A slave does not control his or her own time; it belongs to someone else. [Rabbi Samson Raphael] Hirsch (1808-1888) wrote that “the Jewish calendar is the Jewish catechism,” for it is the most concise summary of what we remember and what we stand for.”

In a commentary on Parashat Bo, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/bo/5773/redemption-place-and-time, Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz cites Ovadia ben Yaakov Sforno, (c.1475-1550) on this same verse, “From this point on, the coming months will be your months, to do with them as you wish — according to your desires. In contrast, during the many days of your enslavement, “your” days were not your days. For those days were devoted to the work of others and according to their will. Therefore, this is the first of the months of the year for you. For from this very point begins your new reality of free choice.” Rabbi Berkowitz notes “Sforno distills the import of the first commandment gifted to the Israelites. Far from simply being a new counting of the months for this nascent nation, it is a command that speaks to the heart of identity, time, and freedom. With their newly found redemption, the Israelites must now live according to their precepts, their rhythm, and their festivals. The rules and regulations of their Egyptian taskmasters are now irrelevant — part of an oppressive past that has opened itself to new possibilities. With the gift of freedom and ownership, however, also comes the burden of responsibility. The Israelites must now learn to sanctify themselves and their time. It is a task that is easier said than done. As Ahad Ha’Am famously said, “The real task, the most difficult task, has still to be commenced. Pharaoh is gone, but the work remains; the master has ceased to be master, but the slaves have not ceased to be slaves.” (Contemporary Jewish Thought: A Reader [1963], 42).”

In a commentary on Parashat Bo from 2003, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=5320, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson points out that the parasha contains the last set of plagues with which God afflicts the Egyptians, culminating in the Exodus from Egypt. He notes that between the first nine plagues and the last one, the Torah suddenly digresses with a declaration about Pesach which starts with God telling Moses that this month will mark the beginning of the months for the Children of Israel.
Rabbi Shavit Artson asks, “What does God tell us by identifying this as the beginning of the months? And what does the phrase “for you” add? If it’s the first month, isn’t it the first month for everyone? In fact, this verse invites us to contemplate the nature of time itself, and how we mark the passage of time.”
He points out that aside from the objective passage of time, the sages teach that the words “for you” suggest that specifically as a people, we are called upon to remember constantly the significance of this month which marks the beginning of our redemption from enslavement and our covenant with God Who wrought our liberation.
He cites the Midrash, the Mechilta, “When the moon renews itself, it will be the beginning of the month for you,” which he says is teaching us that “we do possess the power and vision to redirect our energies, to refocus our goals. Learning to recognize the present as an opportunity for new beginnings is essential to a life well lived. We need not be trapped by our past.”
He brings a teaching by the Ramban (1194-c1270) who reminds us “we remember the exodus from Egypt in our counting.” Rabbi Shavit Artson points out that throughout the year, on Sabbaths and Festivals, mention is made of the Exodus from Egypt, not just as a historical reference, but “as a living reality at the core of Jewish life.” The Exodus is the beginning, not because of chronology only, but because redemption is at the the heart of the Jewish story.
He adds, “Time passes with or without reflection. But a life of wisdom is the result of attending to time, of uncovering the significance of the passing ages. By drawing our attention to the miracle of freedom, by identifying that freedom as the essential core of Jewish identity and human heritage, the Torah bids us to live the lives of free women and men, rejoicing in God’s gift of liberty and spreading that light to others as well.”
Rabbi Shavit Aronson continues, “Personal renewal and national character come together in this recognition that time passes for all people, but how we experience that passage is shaped by what we bring to it, and the attention we pay. Jewish time is always measured by how far we have come from our time of enslavement, by how far we have moved toward the freedom that is ours as a gift. Synthesizing the personal and the communal, Judaism offers a tool for paying attention to the unique promise of each moment.”

In a commentary on Parashat Bo, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/bo/5764/labor-leisure, from 2004, Rabbi Joshua Heller notes that the eve of the Exodus, as depicted in Parashat Bo and as we reenact it on the night of the Pesach Seder, contains a seemingly contradictory mix of labor and leisure. On the one hand, as the Mishnah (Pesachim 10:1) teaches, on the seder night, “even the poorest in Israel should not eat until he reclines, ” – for then, reclining signified leisure. And yet, we eat matzah, the bread of poverty and affliction. He notes, “In ancient times, having more than one “tavlin” (dipping sauce), was a sign of luxury, and yet even as we dip twice, one of the things that we dip is bitter herb, and one of the sauces is salt water. This contradiction has its beginnings in this week’s parashah, Bo, which describes the Paschal sacrifice (the true first seder) and carries through to a central paradox in modern life.”
Rabbi Heller notes that on the eve of the Exodus, the Children of Israel are instructed to offer a sacrifice and sit and eat together in families while outside, the Angel of Death moves through Egypt. “This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste.” (Shemot 12:11) He points out that the word for haste, “hipazon” has undertones of distress or panic, as in Devarim 20:3 and II Samuel 4:4. The picture, says Rabbi Heller, is far from one of a relaxed family meal. But, he adds, “the same chapter sends mixed signals. Just a verse earlier (12:10), God had commanded the Jewish people, “You shall not leave any of it over until morning.” Those who are poor and hungry and don’t know where their next meals will come from will try to defy instinct and save a bit for next time. It’s only the wealthy and comfortable who can afford to throw food away and not bother with the leftovers. Furthermore, a bit later in the same parashah, (12:45) after the description of the Israelites’ departure from Egypt, God issues a further commandment that the bones of the Paschal lamb must not be broken. Leaving the bones intact is also described by many commentators as a sign of luxury. If you’ve got plenty, you don’t have to rush to suck the marrow out of life. You can, as it were, just order another rack of lamb. Even as the Israelites depart, they bring with them all manner of luxury goods borrowed from their neighbors.”
Rabbi Heller suggests that the Rabbis who enacted the Seder played down this contrast by dispensing with the elements of haste and panic. He cites two examples from the Talmud. The first is from Pesachim 96b, on the command to eat in haste, “You shall eat this one in haste, but not in the future.” The second from Pesachim 116a discusses the concept of “lechem oni” which is generally translated “the bread of poverty and affliction” but here the Rabbis denote it as “lechem she’onim alav“- meaning “the bread over which one answers questions.” He says, “Indeed, the seder in its rabbinic conception took as its template the Greek symposium, a philosophical talk-feast where the wealthy would spend an evening reclining on couches, drinking wine and eating a multi-course meal while discussing a topic of intellectual interest.”
Rabbi Heller adds, “The tension between labor and leisure is not reserved only for the Israelites who huddled in their huts on the eve of redemption, or even only for those who will rise from reclining to check the brisket at this year’s seder. It is not even reserved solely for Jews. Rather, it is one of the hallmarks of our modern society. America is probably the wealthiest nation in the history of humankind, with comforts and conveniences today that our grandparents could never have imagined. We live in a country of cellphones and satellite TV, but we have found that comfort only through haste, hipazon.”
He traces the hours a laborer might have worked throughout the ages, noting that according to the Talmud, a contemporary worker 1800 years ago might have worked seventy-two hours a week: dawn to dusk, twelve hours, six days a week. He compares this with the situation at the turn of the twentieth century, when the regular workweek was about sixty hours, and over the next hundred years  was reduced to about forty. He notes, though, “Over the past decade, the decline has reversed itself, and not just for those at the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. The once-wide plateau between wealth and poverty has become a more slippery slope, so that at many levels of the scale, it now takes two incomes or more, or longer work hours, to support a family in a lifestyle that includes most modern conveniences. ”
However, the ongoing rise in bankruptcies indicates that many people are aspiring to a lifestyle that is increasingly difficult to maintain. He quotes the research of Elizabeth Warren, a former Harvard Law School professor specializing in bankruptcy law, which suggests that for various reasons, multi-income families may, paradoxically, find themselves in situations more precarious than those with a single income. Rabbi Heller says, “Whatever the other societal advantages and disadvantages of two-career families, adding another job doubles, rather than halves, the instability of uncertain times. Even for those who succeed, the boundaries between home and work are evaporating, thanks to innovations like pagers, cellphones and e-mail, and the increase in round-the-clock commerce.
“So, we may finish everything put before us at the seder, but the rest of the year, dinner may mean grabbing leftovers at odd hours rather than sitting down to a family meal. We may have no Paschal sacrifice whose bones must remain unbroken, but other factors may still prevent us from sucking the marrow out of life. The characteristic of the eved, the slave, as opposed to the free man, is that he is always available to his master. In fact, the lowest point of avdut Mitzraim, the Egyptian oppression, says the Talmud (Sotah 11a), was when Pharoah found ways to make work interfere with the family lives of the Israelites.
Rabbi Heller cautions against viewing the past as idyllic, compared with today. He points out that in next week’s parasha, we will read how the Children of Israel, out in the wilderness, have apparently forgotten the misery and bitterness of slavery and look back yearningly on their life in Egypt, “…we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread!” (Shemot 16:3)
He concludes, “Perhaps, in mixing feelings of luxury and slavery on that very first seder night, God sought to remind the Israelites that it is possible to be surrounded by the signs of physical comfort, but still be enslaved. Perhaps, too, the story of the Exodus, and its retelling in this week’s parashah and at the seder several months hence, can remind us, too, to rethink our definitions of slavery and luxury. Slavery is living one’s life in hipazon, in hurry, in concern, even though one might be living well, surrounded by the financial spoils of Egypt. Luxury, and freedom, is being able to sit back at a meal, even if it is made of leftovers, even if it is Lehem Oni.”

Va’era: The road to redemption

Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the Lord, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the Lord. (Shemot 6:6-8)

I rescued you, as birds immured
with stiff and withered wings; saved you
from believing that you still remained enslaved.

I showed you in abundant ways
that you were truly free, and
took you as My people in the covenant at Sinai.

I brought you to the land
and I yearn to see you fly.


In the beginning of Parashat Va’era, (Shemot 6:6-8) we read the “arba leshonot shel ge’ulah – the four expressions of redemption”: “I will free you…and deliver you…I will redeem you…I will take you…I will bring you into the land“. The Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS notes that via these stages, God will take the people into a unique relationship with Him – for that is the ultimate goal of liberation. Finally, when He has brought them to their own land, they can “become the special people they are summoned to be. Only there will they have the duty and the opportunity to translate the ideals of the Torah into the realities of daily life and fashion the model society from which all nations will be able to learn…”

In a commentary on the parasha, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=5312, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson says “In the process of liberating the Jewish people, God also teaches a lesson in persistence. Liberation comes in stages, not all at once. Permanent change in human nature requires time, patience and determination. Cosmetic alterations may come easily, but permanent and significant growth emerge over a long period, and only with great effort.”

Rabbi Shavit Artson notes that these four expressions of liberation became the “single paradigmatic emblem of Jewish redemption.” In the Midrash, in Shemot Rabbah, we learn that the rabbis enacted the drinking of the four cups of wine on Seder night, the evening of the Festival of Freedom. Each cup corresponds with one of these four expressions of redemption, fulfilling the verse, “I will raise the cup of deliverance and call the name of the Lord.(Psalms 116:13).
So each cup of wine on this night represents a stage in the move towards freedom. According to the Ramban (c1194-1270), each stage of deliverance is a stepping stone on the way towards redemption.
The first stage, “I will free you – lit. I will take you out,” refers to physical freedom, being released from external slavery. However, Rabbi Shavit Artson notes, “The absence of outside pressure is not in itself freedom.”
Then comes “I will deliver you,” which is understood to mean that the Egyptians will no longer wield any power or authority over the Israelites. The third stage of freedom, “I will redeem you,” involves the attainment of emotional freedom. Before the people could reach the stage of entering a covenant with God (being “taken” as His people), they needed to undergo an inner transformation. Rabbi Shavit Artson describes this stage as “a reorientation of values. It is through the mighty acts which accomplished the exodus from Egypt, the signs and wonders, that the Israelites came to understand that human pomp and pretension were unable to provide ultimate meaning and value. The temptations of Egyptian society were, in the final analysis, mere glitter and distraction from what made life ultimately significant.
“The moment of redemption was that time when Israel realized that ultimate worth – the goal of the religious endeavor – came in serving something ultimate, rather than furthering any human conceit.”
The fourth stage of freedom, “I will take you to be My people,” refers to the covenant between God and Israel at Mount Sinai. Rabbi Shavit Artson continues, “Ultimately, freedom is much, much more than the absence of external restraint. Freedom is the ability to assume responsibility for one’s own life and for one’s community as well. We are most free, most fully human, when we help ourselves and others to live up to our best potential as caring human beings and as serious Jews.”
He concludes, “Thus, the freedom of Torah – the only true freedom that Jews can enjoy – is a call to responsibility, toward spiritual adulthood. By assuming responsibility for the ‘mitzvot,’ by taking our place in the unbroken chain of Jewish observance, tradition and transmission, we renew the ancient process of liberation which our ancestors experienced in Egypt. When each of us proceeds through the stages of liberation, we exchange the modern-day Pharaoh of materialism and the contemporary idolatry of the self with the purifying service of the Holy Blessed One and acts of love toward our fellow human beings…”

Shemot: The Missing Name

“These are the names…” (Shemot 1:1)

Among the rolls
of worthy names
hers remains untold:
the unknown daughter
of a mighty king,
who sees a child
of wretched slaves,
condemned to certain death.
She could, unheeded,
turn aside,
yet risks her father’s wrath
to swim against the tide
and save him.
That child himself,
once grown,
can neither turn away,
nor overlook injustice
and he too
intercedes.


Shemot (both the parasha and the entire book) opens with a list of seventy names. In a commentary on Parashat Shemot, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=5306, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson poses a question: “Sh’mot has it all – a wonderful story of God’s saving love, extensive mitzvot so Jews can reciprocate and concretize that love, and a form of worship where both God and Jews can celebrate their relationship together. Why, with all those great details, would Sefer Sh’mot start with a long list of names?” He adds that the book lists names that have already appeared throughout the previous book of Bereishit. So why, he wonders, does an “otherwise promising book” start with such a list? Rabbi Shavit Artson notes that in Midrash Shemot Rabbah we learn that listing the names “adds new praise for the 70 souls who are mentioned, indicating that all of them were righteous.” So here, he says, “listing names is a way of affirming the worth of each individual listed…”
Rabbi Shavit Artson cites Rashi who addresses the importance of the list of names, “even though they were recorded during their lifetimes by their names, the Torah returned and recorded them after their deaths to proclaim how beloved they were.”

However, in this very parasha, the names of some key characters are not given.
In a commentary on the parasha from 2015, http://eng.beithillel.org.il/parshat-shemot-circle-of-compassion/, Rabbi Yakov Nagen notes that while we hear the early life story of Moses, who will become “the most important of all Israel’s leaders, the greatest of all the prophets, and the primary personality in the saga of the Exodus from Egypt and the journey to the Land of Israel” we nowhere learn the name that Moses was given by his parents, only that bestowed upon him by the king’s daughter:  “And the child grew and they brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he was a son to her, and she called him Moses for “from the water I drew him.”  “(Shemot 2:10)
Rabbi Nagen observes that the Midrash addresses this: “God said to Moses, “By your life, of all the names you are called, I will call you only by the name you were given by Batya, Pharaoh’s daughter” ” (Vayikra Rabbah Parsha 1:3).
He asks why God chooses this name in particular, and answers, “According to the Midrash, one who raises another’s child is considered as if the child is theirs. Pharaoh’s daughter not only raised Moshe, she also saved him from certain death when she took him from the river and brought him to her palace. Moshe’s rescue was like a rebirth. The waters of the Nile from which he was drawn are the womb from which he was delivered.” But Rabbi Nagen adds that there is an even more compelling reason that this name she calls Moses becomes the only one by which he is known, “The name “Moshe” recalls the formative event of his life and maybe even anticipates his entire life story. Moshe only survives because of the unlikely action of Pharaoh’s daughter. She is overwhelmed by the humanity of his plight and moved to mercy, but she doesn’t simply stand aside and feel empathetic, she takes action in the face of injustice.”
Rabbi Nagen notes that Moses’ parents are not named here, only by the more general “man of the house of Levi” and “Levite woman”. And furthermore, tellingly, in addition to the Torah withholding Moses’s birth name, no name is given for Pharaoh’s daughter herself. Rabbi Nagen suggests that this emphasizes the archetypal nature of the interaction, “the daughter of Pharaoh” and “a Hebrew child” (Shemot 2:5-6), thus he notes “the Torah highlights the former’s bravery in interceding to save the life of a baby condemned to death by her own father.”

As we read on, we see that as Moses grows up, he seems to have absorbed his adoptive mother’s humanity, as he too is unable to stand by in the face of injustice, and he also chooses to turn his back on royal privilege and take a moral stand.

In an article entitled: Daughter of Pharaoh: Midrash and Aggadah, http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/daughter-of-pharaoh-midrash-and-aggadah, Dr Tamar Kadari brings the Midrashic description of the daughter of Pharaoh, in which we learn that she “did not follow her father’s wicked ways, but rather converted and ceased worshiping idols.” Pharaoh’s daughter is viewed positively by the Rabbis, and included among such righteous women converts as Hagar, Asenath, Zipporah, Shiphrah, Puah, Rahab, Ruth and Jael wife of Heber the Kenite. Dr Kadari notes, “The midrash specifically praised the daughter of Pharaoh for her rescue of Moses, thereby aiding in the exodus of all the Israelites from Egypt. Moses was raised in her home, by a woman who believed in God. She radiated warmth and loved him as if he were her own son, and accordingly was richly rewarded: she married Caleb son of Jephunneh and joined the people of Israel. Some midrashim attest to her longevity and claim that she entered the Garden of Eden while still alive.”
The Midrash identifies the daughter of Pharaoh with “Bithiah,” who is mentioned in I Chron 4:18: Dr Kadari notes that “The Rabbis found the name bat-yah to be fitting for the daughter of Pharaoh in the Book of Exodus, since she (unwittingly) realized the divine plan when she kept alive the rescuer of Israel. The midrash relates that the daughter of Pharaoh received her new name of Bithiah (bat-yah; literally, the daughter of God) from God as reward for her actions. God told her: “Moses was not your son, yet you called him your son; you are not My daughter, but I call you My daughter.” (Vayikra Rabbah 1:3).
Dr Kadari relates midrashim whereby the Rabbis illustrate the effort which Pharaoh’s daughter had to invest in order to save Moses: she had to battle her internal voice which warned her against transgressing her father’s decree; she herself had to act (in an un-royal manner) to draw the baby from the river (as she said when she named him, “For I drew him out of the water.”

In a commentary on Shemot http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=10919, Rabbi Aaron Alexander summarises this episode of Pharaoh’s nameless daughter and the Hebrew baby, in which we read of “the compassion and vision of Pharaoh’s daughter, who while seeking a bath by the river happened upon what so many of us blind ourselves to daily: Humanity, a life desperate for attention, care, and love. But our rabbinic tradition teaches us she had the vision to see exactly what was there. She saw a basket, a baby (Moses), and she saw God. And this king’s daughter -who was want for nothing – showed deep compassion by saving his life and inserting herself into life’s narrative -precisely where it would be easier to decline a role.”

In her book Kitchen Table Wisdom, Dr Rachel Naomi Remen relates that she once boarded a flight out of San Francisco and found herself seated in the aisle while the window seat was occupied by an elderly, elegant looking man, and the middle seat was vacant. After the stress of boarding, she immersed herself in a novel until lunch was served – a salad, a bagel, and a pint container of yogurt. Dr Remen commenced eating, engrossed in her book, until she heard her seatmate gasp in dismay. She glanced aside and saw that he had upset his container of yogurt onto the floor, spilling it onto his shoes, the rug and part of his overnight bag. She says, “He was looking out of the window. I was waited for him to take some action, but nothing happened. Looking down again, I saw that he was slowly drawing his right foot, the shoe covered with yogurt, until it was almost under the seat. I could now see his left foot clearly. His ankle was swollen and a metal brace emerged from his shoe. His left leg was paralyzed.” Dr Remen describes ringing the bell for the flight crew, to no effect. Later, when a stewardess came around with the drink cart, Dr Remen pointed to the floor and requested a wet towel. She continues, “Before I could say anything more, she went ballistic. “There are over four hundred and fifty two people on this plane,” she snapped. “I’m doing the best I can. You’ll just have to wait.” Her defensiveness baffled me. We looked at each other in silence. Then, I realized that it had simply not occurred to her that I was a participant. “If you bring a wet towel, I will be able to get that up,” I said quietly. She hesitated and I wondered if she had heard. Then she raised her eyebrows, turned on her heel, and brought a towel.” Once the cart had been moved on, Dr Remen looked again the elderly gentleman who was still staring, statue-like through the window, his right foot hidden under his seat. She told him that while she had once loved flying, she now found it difficult due to impaired vision. Her seatmate, still looking through the window, then divulged that he had suffered a stroke eight months previously, and had since lost sensation in both arms up to the elbows. She continues, “Yet he had flown half way across the country to spend some time in the home of his son. He was speaking almost in a whisper and I leaned toward him to hear. “Since my stroke, I’m incontinent,” he said. “I have to wear a diaper.” I marveled at the choreography of this chance seating arrangement. “I have an ileostomy,” I said. He turned to look at me and asked what that was and I explained that my large intestine had been surgically removed and I wear a plastic appliance attached to the side of my abdomen to collect my partly digested food. I added, “Even after thirty years, I’m concerned that it may leak, especially on a plane.” After a moment, we smiled at each other. Then he looked at the towel I was holding and I looked down at his feet. As we talked, he had brought his right foot out from under the seat. “May I?” I asked, motioning with the towel. Kneeling, I began to wipe his shoes. As I was doing this, he leaned forward and told me, “I used to play the violin …” ”
Dr Remen then describes the profuse thanks proffered by the crew, and even more surprisingly, she relates that as she left the plane, the pilot standing in the doorway also thanked her and pressed something into her hand, which she discovered was a pin in the shape of a pair of wings, often presented by airlines to children after a flight. Dr Remen concludes, “A flight crew deals with hundreds of thousands of Americans every year. Their surprise reaction to a simple act of kindness is chilling. Perhaps we are no longer a kind people. More and more we seem to have become numb to the suffering of others, and ashamed of our own suffering. Yet suffering is one of the universal conditions of being alive. We all suffer. We have become terribly vulnerable, not because we suffer, but because we have separated ourselves from each other. A patient once told me that he had tried to ignore his own suffering and the suffering of other people because he had wanted to be happy. Yet becoming numb to the suffering will not make us happy. The part in us that feels suffering is the same as the part in us that feels joy.”