Wednesday, December 2, 2009

We should speak with humility, God willing

We should speak with humility, God willing
Rivy Poupko Kletenik • JTNews Columnist
Posted: August 19, 2009

Including requests for God’s watchful eye in our conversation makes a difference

Dear Rivy,
I don’t know when I started noticing this or maybe once I did notice it, I just started to notice it more. What I’m talking about is the habit some people have, when talking, to throw in a “God willing” about any anticipated event in the upcoming future. For example, “We are, God willing, going to Los Angeles next week.”

I am wondering about why they do this. Is this mandated by Jewish law? Is it a custom? Is it wrong to not say it?

You have picked up on a subtle nuance that is most certainly an element of the standard parlance of many pious people. Extreme caution when speaking is something encouraged by a host of our traditional texts. Whether in regard to how we speak (“words spoken softly by the wise are heeded”), or of what we speak (“do not be a talebearer”), or when we speak (“say less — do more”). Speech is considered a powerful tool, fraught with potential pitfalls.

But you raise a somewhat different aspect of speech. Some might say that those who invoke the English “God willing” or the Hebrew phrases “im yirtzeh Hashem” which translates as “if God wishes” or “be’ezrat Hashem,” meaning “with the help of God,” are trying to do their best to ward off the evil eye and we might be tempted to leave it there. In truth, there is more here than simple superstition.

Not that I would ever, ever mess with the evil eye. Those of us who grew up with notions of ayin hara, the evil eye, do not cast it aside with ease. By no stretch of the imagination did the thought of it rule our lives, but neither was it to be taken lightly. In fact, I am the duly respectful proprietor of an anti-evil eye incantation. My mother, of blessed memory, confidentially passed on to me a secret Yiddish chant that is assured to ward off the evil eye. I was not, she cautioned, to use this invocation unless it was absolutely necessary. It was certainly not to be evoked casually.

The core belief of ayin hara is that there are bad vibes out there, perhaps from people who may be envious of you. They could cast an “evil eye” upon you at your very pinnacle of success or good fortune, when you might be most vulnerable, to bring you down. Therefore, in a prophylactic effort, some utter “God willing” with the hope that its effect will undermine the muscle of the “evil eye.”

The following Midrashic puzzle addresses this very practice. Here’s the puzzle: One story, two versions. In Devarim Rabbah, we find the following short story: Once Rabbi Simeon, the son of Halafta, went to a circumcision ceremony. The father of the child made a feast and gave those present 7-year-old wine to drink, saying, ‘Of this wine, I will store away a portion for my son’s wedding feast.’ Later on, the sage, having the opportunity to chat with the Angel of Death, was told that though the father had excitedly pronounced, “Of this wine I will store away a portion for my son’s wedding feast,” this father has no idea that tragically, his child’s time has come. He is to be snatched away after 30 days and will therefore never have a wedding feast.

The episode is of course deeply disturbing. Curiously, the same story appears in Kohelet Rabbah, but here the father speaks a bit differently. He says instead, “Drink some of this old wine, and I trust in the Lord of heaven that He will grant me to offer you drink at his wedding feast.” Something has been added: A version of our “God willing.” This is one part of the very different narrative, which goes on to say that the baby’s life is spared. Quite the puzzle.

It is not that we would say that the baby’s life is spared because of the addition of the father’s, “and I trust in the Lord of heaven that He will grant me.” That would be pushing the providential envelope. But rather, there were deeply disturbing elements in the first version and in a subsequent rendition the disturbing elements were tweaked. One of those disturbing elements is the haughtiness of the father, who unabashedly and arrogantly boasts, “Of this wine I will store away a portion for my son’s wedding feast.”

In contrast, in the second version, we feel the humility, some of the “by the grace of God go I” stance that is more behooving of one who walks humbly with the Lord. This stance is what lies behind the pronouncing of “God willing.”

That you hear a number of “God willings” begs the question of overuse. Is there an appropriate utilization of the expression? Is there a point where it becomes a trite aphorism encouraging mockery rather than sincerity? Who’s to say? We are a people taken with adages and rote formulations. My mother would tell of a rabbi who would visit their house on Shabbat and with every mouthful of food he would raise to his lips he would say, “l’kavod Shabbos kodesh,” in honor of the holy Sabbath. Every morsel! It was a visceral devotional exercise in his experiencing the holiness of his food. It left a deep impression on a little girl.

So, too, this “God willing” expression. Though this is not anything that would fall under the rubric of Jewish law, it is instead one of those subtleties that conveys a certain worldview. The skill of speaking carefully and responsibly is a lifetime occupation; few among us have no regrets in this regard. This particular nuance is an opportunity to train ourselves in humility and, God willing, we will be the better for it.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Sober Up, It's Purim

Sober up! It’s Purim
Rivy Poupko Kletenik
Posted: March 21, 2008

The story of Purim is not nearly as uplifting as the holiday we celebrate

In preparation for the upcoming holiday of Purim, I decided to really read the Book of Esther. I feel like I’ve been jolted into reality — I thought Purim was a fun-filled, joyous holiday, but now the mask has been taken off the story. This is no lighthearted tale. The situation is gravely serious and the fate of the Jewish people is at stake. All this is compounded by its unwittingly frightful foreshadowing of later episodes in Jewish history. Why is it such a jovial day with happy-go-lucky celebrations of costumes, food, drink and shtick and spiels, when the story is such a somber one? I don’t want to be the Grinch Who Stole Purim, but I think we need to inject some gravity into the day.

Our angst is appropriate. Sometimes tragedy and comedy collide. Dramatically speaking, in tragedy the end game is usually the death of the hero accompanied by sorrowful lamenting, while in comedy we anticipate the restoration of the disrupted communal order. Yet, as we consider the end of the Megillah, we cannot be entirely satisfied with a narrow comedy label. Though communal order is restored to a strong degree, the story ends without complete resolution. We are left unsettled by at least three disturbing elements of the story: First, the fate of Esther, a Jewish woman trapped in the palace of the gentile king. Second, the Jewish people are still very much grounded in a foreign country rather than returning to the Promised Land. Third, though we were saved from annihilation, our salvation was not the intimate miraculous swooping down of the Omnipotent; instead, deliverance was brought about ambiguously by the hidden hand of the Almighty.

We are in the disconcerting territory of tragicomedy. Each of the disturbing elements causes us a sense of disequilibrium which we must grapple with. It’s okay to be troubled — after all, this is not Shakespeare’s “All’s Well That Ends Well.” Instead it’s more like, “All’s Still Troubling, That Ends Almost Well.” Take Esther for example. As children we are led to believe that Esther was an enthusiastic 
participant in a “beauty pageant” and wanted — just like all the maidens in the land, to become the Queen of Persia. As adults we know that this is quite the sugar coating of a very unsavory situation. As we mature, we become more sophisticated in our awareness of the not so pretty circumstance through which Esther really became the wife of Achasverosh. The text tells us in Hebrew “va’teelakach” — Esther was taken by force. She was not a willing participant. Until she had to take action and voluntarily offer herself to the king to save her people, Esther was a woman under duress. Still, she behaved heroically, considering her dire predicament. Though she starts off silent and subdued, Esther finds her voice and summons up the courage to ingeniously save her people. In so doing, however, she sacrifices not only her life as a member of the Jewish community but also something even more personal.

Brace yourselves, I may be dropping quite the bombshell here — according to the sages in the Talmud, Esther and Mordechai’s relationship goes beyond adoptive uncle and adopted niece. According to Talmudic tradition, the two were married. This approach is not only mentioned several times in the Talmud, it is the basis upon which halachic decisions have been grounded. That Mordechai and Esther are husband and wife in the Megillah casts the story in almost an entirely different light. Now we can begin to understand the depth of the sacrifice of Esther and the monumental tragedy that lingers after the last grogger is sounded, the final hamantaschen munched on, and the last drop of wine imbibed. Esther has given her all.

A second thorn in our Purim side is the realization that this Purim story takes place in a specific historical moment in time. It is not a tale simply floating out there in some never-never-land world. This threat to our existence in the Diaspora takes place after Cyrus, King of Persia, has written the decree permitting Judean exiles to return to the land of Israel. The Book of Ezra records the official declaration;Now in the first year of Cyrus, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying:

“Thus saith Cyrus, King of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth hath the Lord, the God of heaven, given me; and He hath charged me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whosoever there is among you of all His people — his God be with him — let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord, the God of Israel, He is the God who is in Jerusalem.”

Some modern Bible scholars put forth the notion that the Megillah has a satirical edge to it. When King Achasverosh summons Vashti his queen to his party, it is the text ever so subtly reminding us that God, our King, has summoned the Jewish people to his palace in Jerusalem — and we have refused to appear. At this point in history there has been one aliyah to the Holy Land of a mere 40, 000 people — by no means have the majority of the Jews in the Babylonian exile returned to the land. Remember these people are the descendants of those who bitterly lamented, “By the waters of Babylon we laid down and wept for the Zion!” This evil, anti-Semitic plot to exterminate the Jews takes place after the Jewish people have been liberated and permitted to return to the land. As the story of the Megillah closes, our people are left connected to Persia and to Persian culture.

Finally, the distance from God is marked by the hidden-ness of the miracle; it is as if God hides His face from us. The name of God does not appear at all in the Book of Esther. Instead the miracle occurs seemingly through happenstance. Though this feels painful and detached, that the Talmud emphasizes that belief in a time when God is obscured is a higher level of belief and commitment. Having faith in a God who is less apparent and more mysterious is an elevated level of conviction. Hence, when the Jews accept upon themselves the celebration of Purim in the Megillah, this indicates their wholesale acceptance of God and recognition of Divine Providence, a veritable affirmation of the Sinai experience, even without the overwhelming presence of the Almighty. Though there is a compelling residue of tragedy in the Purim story, we have chosen as a people to focus on the incredible salvation. We have given ourselves permission to let go of some of the more tragic elements because, bottom line: They tried to kill us, we were saved, let’s eat. Happy Purim!