Nistar

Ethical will: Truth

Following my previous ‘ethical will’ entry on ‘listening’ and the profoundly divisive aftermath of the 2020 U.S. Presidential elections, which once again reveals a country broken jaggedly in half, I’ve been thinking a lot about the pervasive lack of trust that has come to typify today’s global politics.

Yes, we must listen to one another earnestly, but why don’t we?

Fundamentally, it comes down to a lack of trust. Americans don’t trust one another to have their best interests at heart, nor do they trust their public institutions, nor the fourth estate. Why were the pre-election polls so drastically wrong this year, particularly following the pollsters’ epic embarrassment of 2016? Whence the preposterous, gaping chasm between Americans, policymakers, and opinion-molders?

We don’t trust others to tell us the truth; or perhaps we no longer trust in those truths, which are most available. Access to information used to be conveniently provided to the people by big money interests and power brokers, which used to work for them beautifully, but the modern information age has left them nary a shadow to hide in.

Personally, I find myself increasingly turning to independent and conflicting news sources across the political spectrum to calibrate my impression of reality. More often than not, I remain unconvinced by them all.


Truth is a challenging subject for me because I am the sort who has to push through cowardice to speak it. Still, truthfulness is something that I admired in my father, continue to admire in my mother, and admire in all of my role models. Truth impresses, challenges, and scares me.

The first entry in my ‘ethical will’ focused on being true to one’s self… but what about being honest with others? While I am hardly the most qualified to expound upon this particular ideal, it would be negligent of me to omit it from my will.

What priority should we place on honesty, and what limits might we consider?


According to the Torah we are to distance ourselves from matters/words of falsehood, the only sin from which the Torah warns us to “distance” ourselves (Exodus 23:7):

מִדְּבַר-שֶׁקֶר, תִּרְחָק; וְנָקִי וְצַדִּיק אַל-תַּהֲרֹג, כִּי לֹא-אַצְדִּיק רָשָׁע. Keep thee far from a false matter; and the innocent and righteous slay thou not; for I will not justify the wicked.

Taking a different tack, the Book of Proverbs (a later book of the Hebrew Bible) provides practical counsel on the matter, rather than commanding us (12:19):

שְׂפַת-אֱמֶת, תִּכּוֹן לָעַד; וְעַד-אַרְגִּיעָה, לְשׁוֹן שָׁקֶר. The lip of truth shall be established for ever; a lying tongue is for a moment.

As expected, truth is a popular theme in Jewish tradition, as I imagine it would be in all faith traditions that lay claim to its mantle, which is to say: all of them. Another popular, oft-cited Jewish text on truth can be found in the Talmud (Tractate Shabbat, 55a):

… ור”ל אמר תיו סוף חותמו של הקב”ה דאמר רבי חנינא חותמו של הקב”ה אמת אמר ר’ שמואל בר נחמני אלו בני אדם שקיימו את התור’ כולה מאלף ועד תיו… … and [Rabbi] Resh Lakish said: [The letter] ‘tav’ [which is the final letter of the alphabet] is the end of the seal of the Holy One, blessed be He, for R. Hanina said: The seal of the Holy One, blessed be He, is emeth [truth] [which ends with a ‘tav’]. R. Samuel b. Nahmani said: It denotes the people who fulfilled the Torah from ‘alef’ [the first letter of the alphabet] to ‘tav’…

I won’t belabor the point further, for it’s the simplest of truths:

People of decency
ought to strive for truth.


But – are there limits? There must be some, right?

The Jewish textual tradition often impresses me with its good sense, which is one of the reasons that I remain drawn to it. One of the most famous examples of a lie, which is not only permitted but actually encouraged, arose from a dispute between the renowned ancient Houses of the Rabbis Hillel and Shammai, which the House of Hillel won (Talmud, Tractate Ketubot 16b-17a):

תנו רבנן כיצד מרקדין לפני הכלה בית שמאי אומרים כלה כמות שהיא ובית הלל אומרים כלה נאה וחסודה אמרו להן ב”ש לב”ה הרי שהיתה חיגרת או סומא אומרי’ לה כלה נאה וחסודה והתורה אמרה (שמות כג) מדבר שקר תרחק אמרו להם ב”ה לב”ש לדבריכם מי שלקח מקח רע מן השוק ישבחנו בעיניו או יגננו בעיניו הוי אומר ישבחנו בעיניו מכאן אמרו חכמים לעולם תהא דעתו של אדם מעורבת עם הבריות Our Rabbis taught: How does one dance before the bride? The House of Shammai say: The bride as she is. And The House of Hillel say: ‘Beautiful and graceful bride’! The House of Shammai said to the House of Hillel: If she was lame or blind, does one say of her: ‘Beautiful and graceful bride’? Whereas the Torah said, ‘Keep thee far from a false matter’ (Ex. 23:7). Said the House of Hillel to the House of Shammai: According to your words, if one has made a bad purchase in the market, should one praise it in his eyes or depreciate it? Surely, one should praise it in his eyes. Therefore, the Sages said: Always should the disposition of man be pleasant with people.

Even more broadly, the Jewish tradition teaches us that we may “modify a statement” for the sake of peace, based upon God’s behavior in the story of Abraham and Sarah. The sage Rashi (1040-1105) picked up on a nuance in these two verses (Gen. 18:13-14):

יב. וַתִּצְחַק שָׂרָה, בְּקִרְבָּהּ לֵאמֹר: אַחֲרֵי בְלֹתִי הָיְתָה-לִּי עֶדְנָה, וַאדֹנִי זָקֵן? 12. And Sarah laughed to herself, saying: ‘After I am withered shall I have pleasure, my husband being old?’
יג. וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם: לָמָּה זֶּה צָחֲקָה שָׂרָה לֵאמֹר, הַאַף אֻמְנָם אֵלֵד–וַאֲנִי זָקַנְתִּי? 13. And the LORD said unto Abraham: ‘Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying: Shall I of a surety bear a child, old as I am?

Rashi pointed out that when speaking to Abraham, following His promise to Sarah, God changed Sarah’s words so her husband would not know that she had been laughing at his old age. The lesson derived from the distinction between these two verses was also underscored in the Talmud (Tractate Yevamot 65b):

וא”ר אילעא משום רבי אלעזר בר’ שמעון מותר לו לאדם לשנות בדבר השלום… דבי רבי ישמעאל תנא גדול השלום שאף הקדוש ברוך הוא שינה בו דמעיקרא כתיב (בראשית יח) ואדוני זקן ולבסוף כתיב ואני זקנתי: R. Ile’a further stated in the name of R. Eleazar son of R. Simeon: One may modify a statement in the interests of peace… At the School of R. Ishmael it was taught: Great is the cause of peace. Seeing that for its sake even the Holy One, blessed be He, modified a statement; for at first it is written, My husband being old, while afterwards it is written, And I am old.

It seems that the Jewish tradition approaches the ideal of speaking the truth very sensibly. After all, we are only human, and so few of our relationships in this world work out tidily. Telling the truth is an ideal that we should always aim for, and the acceptable exceptions to this rule are only for the sakes of other people. Even then, we ought to be wary, for in my personal experience, the road to hell is truly paved with good intentions.


My Papa was a man of the utmost integrity, but he was also a very practical man. Ultimately, I remember him prioritizing the golden rule above all else.

In my childhood, he was always disappointed in me for my falsehoods and deceptions, but mostly because of how my lack of consideration for others (including him and Mama) reflected upon my character. Suffice it to say that I wasn’t lying for the sake of peace, as the Talmud would have it.

Thinking through this now, I’m not at all sure of the best balance between truth and intention, which I suppose is ultimately a situational matter. Nobody ever said that being a moral person is easy.

I am wondering which of these is at the root of our increasing lack of trust in our leaders and institutions… perhaps a bit of both?

Lady, or: Machine

Flying across men's endless rails, whistling adrenaline 
Churning axles hissing past so many a longing gentleman 
Chasing what she's never had; rims gripping faithful track 
Each disembarking lover spurned; ne'er thought of turning back 
She, ever forward, leaves 'em gasping in billows of sultry steam 
Thick diesel firing through the veins of lady turned machine

H/T @Suzette B

H/T @Poet of the Light; @Poet of the Light

Ethical will: Listening

We find ourselves on the eve of the 2020 U.S. Presidential election, and voices across the world on both ends of the political spectrum are declaring that all we know as humankind will come to a devastating end if their preferred candidates don’t win.

What befuddles me is that I personally know well-intentioned and well-educated people with diametrically opposed political views, equally certain that the other side is utterly misguided (at best). The people I am referring to are my close friends, family, and mentors; they are among the most upstanding human beings that I have known. How can one side’s assessment be entirely wrong and the other side be right? How can they all be so sure of themselves?

Worse, both here in Israel and in the USA where my mother and brother still reside, it feels to me as though nobody has any interest in listening to those with whom they disagree politically.

And, regardless of who wins this election, I can’t imagine any scenario in which people on opposite sides of the aisle start heeding one another’s concerns.

I have truly never felt so disheartened.


I considered expressing my sentiments in a poem or a blog post, but instead I’ve decided to add a page to this ethical will of mine. This feels to me a productive use of my anxious energies.

While I follow U.S. politics very closely, having lived in Washington D.C. for three years after earning my graduate degree in public policy, I do not believe that I have anything valuable to contribute to the political discourse. Also, given the political climate, making any such attempt seems pointless, and I’m disinclined to churn out words simply for the sake of producing content.

Therefore, taking a 30,000 foot view, as they say, I would like to focus instead on my perspective on the root cause of the breakdown in our national and international discourses…

What follows is my personal attempt at lemonade:


In Jewish tradition, Moses was the greatest of our prophets, meaning that his relationship with God was closer than any other’s. Deuteronomy 34:10 reads:

וְלֹא-קָם נָבִיא עוֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, כְּמֹשֶׁה, אֲשֶׁר יְדָעוֹ יְהוָה, פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים. And there hath not arisen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face;

Famously, Moses protested to God that he was not fit to be His prophet. Why not? Because, as Moses himself put it, his lips were uncircumcised (Deut. 6:30):

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה: הֵן אֲנִי, עֲרַל שְׂפָתַיִם, וְאֵיךְ, יִשְׁמַע אֵלַי פַּרְעֹה. And Moses said before the LORD: ‘Behold, I am of uncircumcised lips, and how shall Pharaoh hearken unto me?’

‘Uncircumcised lips’ has been interpreted in a number of ways throughout the centuries, but, most fundamentally, it meant that Moses could not speak well. Despite this (and some suggest: because of this), he heard God’s voice more clearly than anyone in history.

This may be contrasted with the prophet Jeremiah’s criticism of the ancient Israelites (Jer. 6:10):

עַל-מִי אֲדַבְּרָה וְאָעִידָה, וְיִשְׁמָעוּ–הִנֵּה עֲרֵלָה אָזְנָם, וְלֹא יוּכְלוּ לְהַקְשִׁיב; הִנֵּה דְבַר-יְהוָה, הָיָה לָהֶם לְחֶרְפָּה–לֹא יַחְפְּצוּ-בוֹ. To whom shall I speak and give warning, that they may hear? Behold, their ear is uncircumcised, and they cannot attend; behold, the word of the LORD is become unto them a reproach, they have no delight in it.

In fact, this theme of the Israelites not heeding God and His prophets went all the way back to the start of Moses’s own endeavor to serve as God’s prophet. In this week’s Torah reading (Exodus 6:12), Va’eira, Moses complained as follows:

וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה לֵאמֹר: הֵן בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֹא-שָׁמְעוּ אֵלַי, וְאֵיךְ יִשְׁמָעֵנִי פַרְעֹה, וַאֲנִי עֲרַל שְׂפָתָיִם. And Moses spoke before the LORD, saying: ‘Behold, the children of Israel have not hearkened unto me; how then shall Pharaoh hear me, who am of uncircumcised lips?’

Here, again, we see Moses’ concern regarding his ‘uncircumcised lips’, but in Exodus this greatest of all prophets is underscoring something beyond his own human limitations: Moses is highlighting the Israelites’ failure to heed him.

The Sefat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, Poland, 1847 – 1905) deftly tied these two strings of thought together, and the renowned modern-day Torah scholar Aviva Zornberg (1944-) explicates the Chassidic Rebbe‘s teaching for us as follows:

Moses refers to his lips as ‘uncircumcised’ because “Speech… normally creates listeners… it is the listener who creates the act of speech… As long as there is no one to listen to God’s word, language impotently stutters” (The Particulars of Rapture, p. 84).

Simply, if we truly hearken to one another, we will find ourselves able to express ourselves more eloquently; and I have been finding this to be particularly true during children’s formative years:

The more we make a sincere effort to listen to our daughters and sons, the more articulate they will become.

Baked, or: Wry humor

Free verse, free verse, getcher free verse!
Tomorrow it'll cost ye! Straight 
outta the oven! Yes, Ma'am! 'ere ye go, Ma'am! 
Oh, yes, Sir! We've been in the guild fer fi... 
no... make it six generations in consonance 
with our family's standards...
Th-the vow, Sir? O-of course, Sir, b-by 'eart, Sir!
I do solemnly vow, ill or 'ealthy, to uphold
the standards of the Bakers' Guild, to 
purchase only the best... the b... S-
Sorry? What's that, Sir?
The boy? Oh, 'e's 
my ward, Sir; 'e was sent 'ence
by the royal baker, Sir... jus' 
fer stealin' a fresh verse, Sir, but 'e's 
a good boy, a-a quiet 
boy... now, n- never ye mind
that, Sir! A fine boy, 
I tell ye! J-just made a m-mistake,
is all! And I still remember the first thing 'e
said to me, v-ver-verbatim, Sir! I'd jus' 
taken some fresh verses outta th... wh-what, Sir? 
Oh, rye - I'm 
sure of it, Sir...
a-anyway, this waif, I see 'im eyeing the rye - 
I'm thinking 'e's gonna grab 
one and run, but instead 
'e says t'me, wouldn' ye give me a warm verse, Mister,
if I writes ye a poem, Mister? I writes good, Mister!
And then 'e jus' collapses right there, an' 
he's lyin' flat on the ground, an' I near... I... 
near... It was horrid, Sir! Din't know what to do!
But then, real slowly like, the boy pulls 'imself up, 
an' 'e stands a-an', oh,
oh heck, 'e didn't owe me anything - 
it was just a free verse like this one

One death at a time, please

Should I have recited kaddish for Babushka?

Babushka Masha z”l

This post is one that I deliberately did not write during my year of mourning for Papa because I felt guilty for going against my rabbi’s guidance, especially after I had sought it.

During the year following my father’s death, I was challenging myself to chronicle my yearlong experience of reciting kaddish for Papa. He died on July 7th, 2018, and I began my kaddish writing project 30 days after burying him. That year, as prescribed by Jewish tradition, I recited kaddish for Papa every single day (but one) for eleven months, and I also continued attending shul on a daily basis during the 12th month of traditional mourning, when I was no longer reciting kaddish.

Less than three months after Papa’s funeral, my Babushka, my mother’s mother, also passed away. Thus, within the span of three months, my Mama lost both her husband and her mother; my brother and I lost our father and our maternal grandmother (our last surviving grandparent).

When Babushka died, I seriously considered reciting kaddish for her. After all, I was already three months into my kaddish year.


Nobody else would have done it

I knew with certainty that nobody else in my family would recite the mourner’s kaddish for Babushka, just as I had known that nobody else in my family would do so for Papa. Ours is a predominantly secular family, and most of us are not familiar with prayers and shul norms.

Now, the tradition is very clear about which of our loved ones we are expected to recite kaddish for. Technically, Jewish laws of mourning only apply to those who have lost immediate family members. Traditionally, one only recites the mourner’s kaddish following the death of a parent, sibling, spouse, or child.

This is not to say that there aren’t exceptions – there are plenty! One will find Jews at shul reciting kaddish for many different people in their lives. Some are moved to recite kaddish for their friends or members of their extended families, particularly if they are aware that nobody else will do so; and sometimes those whom tradition designates as mourners opt to request that somebody else recite kaddish in their steads.

Reciting kaddish for Babushka was something that I was capable of doing, and it was something that nobody else in my family would think to do.


I did not want to do it

Still, in the innermost chambers of my heart, I did not really want to recite kaddish for Babushka.

… Actually…
That not quite true.

The truth?

In the innermost chambers of my heart, I did not want to recite kaddish for Papa and Babushka concurrently.


Why didn’t I want to?

Thankfully, my mother did not request this of me, as she had done after Papa’s death. If Mama had asked me to recite kaddish for her mother, I would have done so, but I’m certain that Babushka herself had no concept of kaddish whatsoever.

More importantly, I didn’t lend any serious credence to the supposed supernatural effects of reciting kaddish for a loved one’s soul. Papa’s soul, I was certain, would have been no worse off if I hadn’t been reciting kaddish for him. In essence, I knew that I was reciting kaddish during my year of mourning almost entirely for my own peace of mind.

Whereas my relationship with Papa was fraught at times, my relationship with Babushka could not have been any more simple; and the two of us were especially close during the last years of her life.

Obviously, there would never be any opportunity for me to work on repairing my relationship with Papa, but I wanted to do him that final honor, which was uniquely mine to offer; and I knew that I could do it in a way that he actually would have respected. Whereas he surely would have looked askance upon the performance of mourning rituals for the sake of propriety, he would have respected my studying them. Papa challenged me to delve into the history of kaddish, to learn it deeply, and to transform rote recitations of a popularized doxology into a meaningful, personal experience.

That year, I wanted to focus exclusively on Papa.


A discrete year of mourning

Jewish tradition is very specific about the lengths of official mourning periods, during which particular restrictions upon our daily behaviors apply. We mourn for a total of 30 days for spouses, siblings and children. We mourn for a total of 12 months for either one of our parents.

One of the texts I encountered that year was Maimonides’ (1135-1204) ‘Mishneh Torah’ (Book of Judges, The Laws of Mourning 13:10-11), which was quite stern with me:

אין מספידין יתר על שנים עשר חדש We do not eulogize for more than twelve months.
אל יתקשה אדם על מתו יתר מדאי שנאמר אל תבכו למת ואל תנודו לו כלומר יתר מדאי שזהו מנהגו של עולם A person should not become excessively broken hearted because of a person’s death, as Jeremiah 22:10 states: “Do not weep for a dead man and do not shake your head because of him.” That means not to weep excessively. For death is the way of the world.

Maimonides would have held that a son should not extend his mourning period beyond the allotted 12 months, and I well saw the wisdom in this.

I spent the latter half of that year dreading the end of my mourning period and knowing that I needed it to end. Experientially, I wanted to have a memory of my discrete year of mourning for Papa; I did not want to extend my mourning period for an additional several months.


Still, I wanted a way to mourn for Babushka

After Babushka died it took me a long while to get used to putting my headphones away before leaving the office every evening because she and I had been in the habit of speaking on a nearly daily basis just as I was leaving work.

True, I didn’t want to recite kaddish for her that year, but – I did want to mourn her Jewishly. Regardless of my faith (or lack there of), I love Jewish ritual and symbolism. Our tradition is full of riches, and I was looking for a gem.

I called my rabbi, hoping against hope that he would recommend something to me that wouldn’t involve reciting kaddish or studying Torah (both of which I was already doing for Papa):

Rabbi, my mother’s mother died. We’re going to the funeral today.
I’m so sorry. Your poor mother. Is she in Israel?
Yes, I picked her up from the airport.
How is she?
Sleeping. She’s worn out.
Please give her our heartfelt condolences.
Thank you; I will. Listen, I was wondering… is there a traditional way for me to honor her as a grandson? I know that I’m not obligated to…
But nobody else is going to do it? Listen, I think you should say kaddish for her. You’re already a couple months in; it would only be a few additional months at the end of your year.
… Thank you, Rabbi. I… I’ll do that.

But I knew I was lying.