Vaccine nation

Did you know? Israel leads the world in percentage of population vaccinated against COVID-19

You know, to be honest, I’ve known this fact about Israel for some time, but I didn’t really appreciate the extent to which it is true until today – when I looked at the data online.

Like many of you, I’m sick and tired of hearing about and reading about COVID-19. To a large extent, I’ve tuned out from COVID-19 news. It’s simply too endless and too depressing. Of course, broadly speaking, I have been following the lock-down and quarantine rules imposed upon my family over the last year, but otherwise I have mostly been trying to live my life as normally as possible. Actual normalcy often seems like no more than a fantasy to me these days, but obsessing over the pandemic is no help – following the news doesn’t grant one any control over the uncontrollable.

This is the first time I have actually written a post about COVID-19. I have been through three lock-downs and two separate quarantines here in Israel, but I have never before been moved to write about any of those experiences. Quite the opposite – I’ve been grimly hoping to simply push through this horrid global insanity.

Anyway, I’m going to write something about it for several reasons.

  1. It turns out that I live in the country, which has, by far, vaccinated the highest percentage of its population against COVID-19, and that deserves my recognition and appreciation.
  2. There are people who oppose vaccination, and I feel that I must take a stand on this, albeit a toothless one.
  3. My fellow local Jerusalemite and friend Dave wrote about it on his blog, leading me to consider doing so myself. (BTW, I agree entirely with everything he wrote on the subject)
  4. I received the first of my two vaccine shots yesterday.

My lived experience

In terms of my lived experience of receiving the first vaccination shot, there’s not much to write, but it goes like this:

Israel has socialized healthcare, and every citizen is a member of one of several major HMO’s. The HMO’s are largely why Israel has been so efficient at distributing vaccines and vaccinating its public. They first began vaccinating the elderly, the sick, healthcare workers, etc., and gradually started reaching out to more and more Israelis.

As a healthy 41-year-old, I received an automated phone call and text message on Tuesday of this week to set up an appointment for COVID-19 vaccination. When I called the following day, they also allowed me to make an appointment for my wife who is five years my junior. Yesterday, we arrived on time, waited in line for half-an-hour or so (maybe more), got vaccinated, waited (as instructed) for 15 minutes, and went home.

Our arms feel slightly sore, but otherwise we are totally fine. Our second vaccination shot has been scheduled for February 11th.

None of this is very interesting, but it shouldn’t be. It should be exactly this mundane and normal to get vaccinated.


A Jewish perspective on getting vaccinated

Since I stand by everything my friend Dave already wrote about why everyone should get vaccinated, I do not feel inclined to rehash any of his thoughts; I think his post on the subject was very excellent. What I would like to do instead is offer a couple of traditional Jewish text sources that inform my thinking on vaccinations in general.

Usually, I include traditional Jewish texts in my ‘ethical will’ entries, but this particular post on vaccination doesn’t quite seem to fit that mold so I’m categorizing it as a regular blog post. Still, I would like to share some very simple thoughts from the perspective of my faith tradition.

Maintaining one’s health

Maimonides (1138-1204) was not only a rabbi, but also a physician; and he wrote the following in his seminal halakhic work, which could not be more clear (‘Mishneh Torah’, ‘Hilchot Deot’ 4:1):

הוֹאִיל וֶהֱיוֹת הַגּוּף בָּרִיא וְשָׁלֵם מִדַּרְכֵי הַשֵּׁם הוּא. שֶׁהֲרֵי אִי אֶפְשָׁר שֶׁיָּבִין אוֹ יֵדַע דָּבָר מִידִיעַת הַבּוֹרֵא וְהוּא חוֹלֶה. לְפִיכָךְ צָרִיךְ לְהַרְחִיק אָדָם עַצְמוֹ מִדְּבָרִים הַמְאַבְּדִין אֶת הַגּוּף. וּלְהַנְהִיג עַצְמוֹ בִּדְבָרִים הַמַּבְרִין וְהַמַּחֲלִימִים. Since maintaining a healthy and sound body is among the ways of God – for one cannot understand or have any knowledge of the Creator, if he is ill – therefore, he must avoid that which harms the body and accustom himself to that which is healthful and helps the body become stronger.

Responsibility to community

Vaccination is not only a matter of guarding one’s personal health. It is only effective if the general public is vaccinated.

This following Jewish text, which speaks to that consideration, is such a classic. It comes from Pirkei Avot, which is often called ‘Ethics of the Fathers’ in English, or, more accurately: ‘Chapters of the Fathers’ (2:4):

אַל תִּפְרוֹשׁ מִן הַצִּבּוּר… Do not separate yourself from the community…

Simply put

I know as well as anyone that one can cherry pick religious texts to make their point. That’s one of the reasons that I have come to be so skeptical about religion and religious leaders in particular. However, my point here is simple – traditional Jewish sources to support getting vaccinated exist. In fact, scholars and rabbis have written about this quite extensively and brought many more sources than I have.

Tolerance of competing ideas is an aspiration of mine, but I confess that I have very little patience for antivaxxers… I consider anti-vaccination to be fundamentally irresponsible – not only for one’s own health, but also for everyone else’s.

If you have the opportunity to get vaccinated against COVID-19, DO IT.

Ethical will: Loving-kindness

In composing my ethical will, I usually find myself resistant to including entries that should, according to my sensibilities, be self-evident. That’s not to say that I personally exemplify any of these self-evidently positive traits; rather, it is to say that I wish I did.

On the other hand, my ethical will is, by default, a Jewish document, and it strikes me that no such ethical will would be complete without the traditional basics. In the ancient Jewish text called ‘Pirkei Avot’, which is known in English as ‘Ethics of the Fathers’ (but is more precisely translated as ‘Chapters of the Fathers’), the following text is broadly known among Jewish scholars and laypeople alike (Ch. 1:2):

… עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים: … The world stands on three things: on the Torah, on the Service [to God], and on [deeds of] loving-kindness.

This is, of course, hardly the only ancient Jewish text to highlight loving-kindness, and today’s Jewish scholars and religious leaders have certainly not abandoned this most basic of religious tenets either. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l (1948-2020) wrote:

Acts of kindness never die. They linger in the memory, giving life to other acts in return.

‘From Optimism to Hope p. 130

‘Loving-kindness’ as the cornerstone of successful marriage

According to Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

I found a beautiful vort (Yiddish for ‘word’ of Torah) shared by Rabbi Schorsch (1935-), which highlights the degree to which Jewish tradition emphasizes ‘loving kindness’. It spoke to me in particular because it highlights the profound significance of ‘loving kindness’ in marriage, which is exactly what first came to my mind when I chose to include this Jewish value in my ethical will.

I encourage you to read the entire vort, but following are the salient sections:

We don’t pick spouses for our children anymore. But if we did, what trait would we single out as the best indicator of a happy marriage?

This is the task that Abraham, feeling the increasing weight of his years, gives to Eliezer, the steward of his household. Isaac, the son of his old age, is still without a helpmate…

Eliezer… devises a character test that will identify a suitable wife for Isaac… He will rest his caravan of ten camels and ask a young woman for water for himself. If she responds by giving him a drink and then spontaneously watering his camels as well, she will have marked herself as a person worthy of his master’s son.

The first woman Eliezer confronts is Rebekah, the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother, and she indeed reacts with rare magnanimity. “Drink, my lord…. I will also draw for your camels, until they finish drinking (Genesis 24:18-19).

The Torah regards this cameo portrait as so important that it indulges in an exceptional threefold repetition – first Eliezer’s own musings, then the description of the event itself and, finally, its retelling by Eliezer to Rebekah’s greedy brother, Laban. Such lavish attention should not go unnoticed by us.

Maimonides (1138-1204) went so far as to posit that cruelty is utterly alien to Judaism. No Jewish community was to be without a society devoted to the fostering of deeds of loving kindness, cheering bride and groom, visiting the sick, burying the dead or comforting mourners…

The Torah begins and ends with striking examples of acts of loving kindness. God clothes Adam and Eve and buries Moses personally. In between we are treated to an incomparable feast of striving for self-transcendence. Every Jew is called upon to add to the sum total of divine sparks in the world.

-Rabbi Ismar Schorsch (1935-)

My good luck

My wife

It would embarrass my wife to know that I’m writing the following, but here goes anyway:

That which most attracted me to my not-yet-wife at the start of our relationship was her kindness, which she glows with. In fact, in the years previous to meeting her, I had spent some time contemplating which character traits I would most like my potential spouse to have, and I came to the conclusion that kindness was the most important to me.

Papa & Mama

I would also like to add the following:

After Papa died in 2018, I thought a lot about what I had most appreciated about him, and I must say that it was certainly his kindness. I have listed many of Papa’s most positive traits, but – his loving-kindness remains the one that first comes to my mind. His kindness was of the most simple, natural kind – and it informed his general selflessness.

It is my belief that Mama, being incredibly kind herself, was drawn in large part to Papa’s gentle kindness – I have come to consider this one of the pillars of their marriage. (I haven’t asked Mama about this thought of mine, but it is my strong impression.)


Loving-kindness ≠ charity

In writing about kindness from a Jewish perspective, it’s important to draw a distinction between the Jewish understandings of ‘charity’ and ‘loving-kindness’. In fact, the word ‘charity’ is an inexact translation of the Jewish word ‘tzedakah’.

‘Tzedakah’ is a word derived from the Hebrew root dq (צדק), which means: ‘Justice’. In Jewish tradition, you see, ‘tzedakah’ is an obligatory 10% of one’s earnings, as a matter of social justice. Even the poorest Jew is religiously mandated to give away 10% of their earnings to others. ‘Charity’, on the other hand, is voluntary. Not so ‘tzedakah’.

The rabbis of the Talmud drew a sharp distinction between ‘tzedakah’ and ‘loving-kindness’ (‘gemilut ḥasadim’), ultimately concluding that ‘loving-kindness’ is the superior act (Tractate Sukkah 49b):

ת”ר בשלשה דברים גדולה גמילות חסדים יותר מן הצדקה צדקה בממונו גמילות חסדים בין בגופו בין בממונו צדקה לעניים גמילות חסדים בין לעניים בין לעשירים צדקה לחיים גמילות חסדים בין לחיים בין למתים Our Rabbis taught, In three respects is gemilut ḥasadim superior to tzedakah: tzedakah can be done only with one’s money, but gemilut ḥasadim can be done with one’s person and one’s money. Tzedakah can be given only to the poor, gemilut ḥasadim both to the rich and the poor. Tzedakah can be given to the living only, gemilut ḥasadim can be done both to the living and to the dead.

It’s important to understand this fundamental point if we’re going to expound upon ‘loving-kindness’ from a Jewish perspective: this is not an entry about ‘charity’.


My daughter

As I watch my six-year-old daughter grow up, I am moved by her constant acts of kindness. Even when she was younger and less articulate than she is now, she was constantly warming the hearts of others will her love and sweet affection.

When we used to visit my Babushka (mother’s mother), for example, my daughter would climb up unto the couch next to her and smother the old woman with hugs and kisses; and this was at a stage in Babushka’s life when she was blind, weak, and generally unable to entertain her youngest great grandchild. Once, when Babushka felt her way down the hall to the bathroom, our little girl took her by the hand so that she wouldn’t bump into the walls.

I suppose that it’s actually an odd thing for me to be waxing didactic about ‘loving-kindness’ in my ethical will, which is ostensibly for my very kind & loving child… Really, I should be learning about it from her.

Ethical will: Patience

What do we remember of our departed loved ones?

In speaking to other mourners, I have noticed that people’s recollections of their deceased loved ones differ widely. Some people seem to remember only the most loving and tender of moments, whereas others recall a wider range of experiences. (I’ve also met widows who only spoke of dark and painful memories after their husbands passed away, even after decades of living peacefully with their spouses’ shortcomings.)

I miss Papa more than my words can express, but not all of my memories of him are positive. On one hand, I don’t want to besmirch Papa’s good name; on the other hand, I don’t think that focusing exclusively on my good memories does him any real honor.

If we’re being honest, I think all of us inevitably learn two ways from our parents – 1) we observe certain choices and ways of theirs that we hope to emulate, and 2) there are others that we consider less than ideal, which we deliberately attempt to approach differently than they did.

We empower ourselves and our children to best learn and improve ourselves by honestly reflecting upon our collective pasts.


A particular memory

After graduating from college, I lived at home for several years while my brother Eli was yet a child. One memory that has stayed with me to this day is that of babysitting him on a particular afternoon while our parents were away. The details are hazy in my mind, but I remember losing my patience with him, and I remember him bursting into tears (he was only four or five at the time).

I also remember myself immediately feeling terribly guilty and attempting to comfort the little boy, apologizing to him for my unreasonably irritable outburst. A thought followed, soon after I had calmed him down: “Oh, God. That’s the way Papa acts.”

Papa, you see, tended to be irritable and impatient with me, leading me to often approach him with hesitancy. It was a trait of his that I had never fully developed the tools to content with, other than to avoid him.


Just to be clear!

What I’ve written above bears clarification.

My Babushka (Mama’s mother), who very much adored my father (as did all of my mother’s family), no less than she might have adored her own son, put this to me in a way that rang deeply true. My Papa, as Babushka explained to me on more than one occasion, could be irascible (вспыльчивы), but he never stayed angry for long and never bore any grudges. He was irritable, yes, true, but he was also incredibly forgiving, and one of the kindest men to have ever lived.

Human beings are all so complicated, aren’t we?


Me, myself, and I

The memory I shared with you above is one of my own impatience, and it’s one which I have been trying to grow from in all the years since.

Nevertheless, the reality is that despite my best efforts to subdue this particular character trait of mine, my irritability still manages to occasionally find its way to the fore. I have been impatient at times with both my wife and my daughter, and that is not something to be proud of in the slightest. Such episodes have always left me feeling ashamed. Thus, it is my own limitations, rather than Papa’s, which have led me to write this blog post.

Reflecting upon this, I have decided to explore some traditional Jewish texts and lessons on patience and attempt to create something positive: another article for my ‘ethical will’.


Still waiting for the Messiah

The first thing that immediately strikes me regarding Jewish theology is that we Jews are still waiting for the Messiah’s arrival. Obviously, that’s not to say that all Jews believe in the Messiah, but, still, that’s the official party line: we have been praying for Redemption for thousands of years; and, even today, even with the establishment of the modern Jewish State of Israel (from which we were exiled for nearly two millennia), we continue to pray for the eventual coming of the Messianic Age.

Famously, the 12th of Maimonides’ (Spain, Egypt, 1135-1204) ‘Thirteen Principles of Faith’ is:

I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah; and even though he may tarry, nonetheless, I wait every day for his coming.


The most classic example of Jewish impatience

My second thought relates to the classic Biblical case of the Jewish people’s impatience. Stories of our collective impatience abound in our TaNaKh (Jewish Bible), but most people would agree that the story of the Golden Calf represented our greatest failure.

As the story goes, the Israelites were impatient for the return of their leader Moses from Mount Sinai after he ascended to receive the Torah from God. They felt he was tarrying too long. The Torah describes this impatience as the cause of the Israelites’ unrest, which ultimately resulted in their demand for a Golden Calf.

Descending from Mount Sinai, Moses witnessed the Israelites worshipping their Golden Calf. He became enraged and hurled the Ten Commandments, which he had just received from God, down to the ground. The stone tablets shattered into fragments. God then told Moses that he intended to destroy all of the Israelites (Exodus 32):

ט וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה: רָאִיתִי אֶת-הָעָם הַזֶּה, וְהִנֵּה עַם-קְשֵׁה-עֹרֶף הוּא. 9 And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people.
י וְעַתָּה הַנִּיחָה לִּי, וְיִחַר-אַפִּי בָהֶם וַאֲכַלֵּם; וְאֶעֱשֶׂה אוֹתְךָ, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל. 10 Now therefore let Me alone, that My wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them; and I will make of thee a great nation.’

It was only upon Moses pleading with Him that God finally relented:

יד וַיִּנָּחֶם, יְהוָה, עַל-הָרָעָה, אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לַעֲשׂוֹת לְעַמּוֹ. 14 And the LORD relented on the evil which He said He would do unto His people.

In fact, the Torah does not even suggest that God forgave the people for their impatience and lack of faith. Rather, it was Moses’ beseechment that moved Him, and the prophet’s plea to the Master of the Universe appealed only to A) God’s concern with His own reputation, and B) The promises He’d made to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (Jacob).

One can only imagine how differently the Jewish story might have unfolded if the Israelite people had exhibited faith in God and His chosen messenger.


Verses on wisdom

Beyond the above “big picture” examples, the TaNaKh, as one would expect, is very direct about the virtue of patience. Such verses include the following:

Ecclesiastes 7

ח טוֹב אַחֲרִית דָּבָר, מֵרֵאשִׁיתוֹ; טוֹב אֶרֶךְ-רוּחַ, מִגְּבַהּ-רוּחַ. 8 Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof; and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.

Proverbs 14

כט אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם, רַב-תְּבוּנָה; וּקְצַר-רוּחַ, מֵרִים אִוֶּלֶת. 29 [He who has] long patience is of great understanding; but [he that is] hasty of spirit exalteth folly.

Proverbs 16

לב טוֹב אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם, מִגִּבּוֹר; וּמֹשֵׁל בְּרוּחוֹ, מִלֹּכֵד עִיר. 32 [He who has] long patience is better than a hero; and [better] he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.

These three verses speak to my point so I won’t belabor it any further, but a cursory review of Jewish source texts reveals others as well.


Patience… with myself

If I were to list my most self-destructive traits, impatience would rank in my Top 5. As much as I am drafting this ethical will of mine piece by piece for my daughter and future children, I find that it is also helpful to me to collect my thoughts and do some much needed introspection and self-work.

Coming from a traditional Jewish context, writing about patience is almost too easy because it stands out as a primary theme that is splattered all over the scored and stitched leather sheets of our Torah scrolls.

In this vein, I’ve been encountering a personal conflict in compiling my ethical will… some principles and values are so self-evident to me that I hesitate to write about them at all. Do I really need, I have asked myself, to write posts about being kind, being appreciative, being generous, etc.? Shouldn’t we naturally appreciate the truth and fundamentality of these values?

It seems to me that I must work on being more patient with myself.

There, or: Here?

I.

  Some day, 
 I'll die, 
and this,

  perhaps, 
 will be 
my parting kiss
          to those alive, 
        to those not yet,
          to fulfilled hopes,
        to worn regrets;

  and you,
 I think,
will live

  because
 you've yet
so much to give
          to dearest friends,
        to family,
          to unmet dreams,
        to memories


II.

  and then,
 a day
will come -

  your time
 to part
for Where all's from
          to the Unknown
        to Where there is no time,
          no rhyme, 
          no yours and mine,
        to Where all goes, but no one knows
      about 
        'til he's arrived

There


III.
 
It's all a mess here;
There? Who knows? Where
where can be described in tastes and colors
sensations -
that's not There. Where
where can be conveyed in lines and stanzas
images -
that's not There. Where
where can be perceived by mind and senses
faculties -
that's not There. Where -

Where indeed?  

IV. There once was a great rabbi who taught that the Place can only be described in the negative because He would otherwise be limited. In Jewish tradition, those who are mourning their loved ones are told: May the Place comfort you among the rest of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem –

Where indeed?

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 44

_1

Days before my father’s unveiling, my wife and I were taking our 4-year-old to see her first fireworks display on Yom HaAtzmaut at the Haas Promenade (Tayelet) in Jerusalem; she was skipping with excitement. Thankfully, she had napped that afternoon and could enjoy the late night entertainment. I was also impressed; the fireworks were bursting just overhead, impossibly close to us.

As we walked along the Promenade, we recalled how much my Papa had enjoyed strolling there with his camera equipment, capturing the renowned, panoramic view with his steady hands and patient eyes. Despite the festivities, I was somber, remembering him and contemplating my upcoming trip to New Jersey. It struck me that I should bring a chunk of Jerusalem stone from his beloved Tayelet to lay on Papa’s tombstone.

Pleased with myself, I sent a picture of the stone to my mother, who responded: “Beautiful! Wonderful idea! Bring one for each of you.” The next day, at my wife’s suggestion, we found four additional pieces of Jerusalem stone: a total of three for myself, my wife, and our daughter in Jerusalem, and two more for my mother and brother in America.

_3

Afterwards, my curiosity led me to Rabbi David Golinkin’s (b. 1955) research [link] into the origins of this particular custom, and I learned that its earliest mention in our sources can be found in a halakhic work by Rabbi Shalom Ben Yiẓḥak Of Neustadt (1350-1413):

… they pluck grass from a grave or they take a pebble and put it on the grave, it is because of kevod hamet [respect for the deceased] to show him that he had visited his grave.

The fundamentality of stone challenges my romanticization. It is permanent; solid; simple. Rabbi David Wolpe (b. 1958) writes poignantly [link]:

While flowers may be a good metaphor for the brevity of existence, stones are better suited to the durability of memory. In moments when we are reminded of the fragility of life, Judaism reminds us that there is permanence amid the pain. While other things fade, stones and souls endure.

Now our five Jerusalem stones rest atop the uneven surface of Papa’s tombstone; in my mind’s eye I can see them being blown off in a storm gust, landing at its base along with other memory stones. Mama has told me that the many pebbles she’d laid over the course of this year before the setting of the headstone were left undisturbed by the workmen, out of respect.

_2

* * *

In modern Hebrew, the word for gravestone is matzeivah (מצבה), which harkens back to the Bible. Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein explains [link]:

The common word for a tombstone in spoken Hebrew is a matzeivah (literally, ‘monument’), and, indeed, when Yaakov buried his wife Rachel, the Torah reports that he erected a matzeivah at her grave (Gen. 35:20). Elsewhere (Yechezkel 39:15 and II Kings 23:17), the Bible refers to graves that are marked with a tziyun (‘marker’).

However, these ‘monuments’ and ‘markers’ of the biblical era were not what we think of today as tombstones. Joseph Jacobs (1854-1916) and Isaac Broydé (1867-1922) unpack this in the Jewish Encyclopedia [link]:

The custom of marking a grave by a stone which bore an inscription describing the qualities of the deceased and giving his age and the date of his death was foreign to the ancient Hebrews. Stones were indeed used to mark the sites of graves… but they were not intended as monuments and bore no inscriptions. Even in the geonic period the custom seems to have been unknown to the Jews of the East, and it can not, therefore, have been current in Talmudic times.

So how, then, does rabbinic literature refer to tombstones? I wonder. The answer can be found in the Mishnah. In Tractate Shekalim the rabbis discuss the ancient tax, which went towards the maintenance of the Temple in Jerusalem.

There arises a question: what should be done with funds that one set aside for the Temple, which exceed a half-shekel of silver? On this, Rabbi Nathan the Babylonian gets the final word (Shekalim 2:5):

רבי נתן אומר, בונין לו נפש על גבי קברו Rabbi Nathan says: They [use the extra funds to] place a nefesh over his grave.

What?!

It’s true; Maimonides (1135-1204) uses the same terminology in his seminal halakhic opus – the Mishneh Torah (Book of Judges 4:4):

ומציינין את כל בית הקברות ובונין נפש על הקבר והצדיקים אין בונים להם נפש על קברותיהם שדבריהם הם זכרונם ולא יפנה אדם לבקר הקברות … and markings are made on the graves; and a nefesh is placed on the grave; and for the righteous, by contrast, a nefesh is not placed, for their words will cause them to be remembered; a person will not [need to] turn to visit [their] graves.

I am stunned. The word nefesh has come up before in my research (blog #28), but I never expected this. In modern Hebrew, the word nefesh has come to mean soul, and in biblical Hebrew it was “understood in a unitive way as the totality of being – ‘man does not have nefesh, he is nefesh, he lives as nefesh’” (Jewish Views of the Afterlife, p. 54).

oh…
… oh.
Perhaps I understand this.

The standard turn of phrase used in shul (shul’ish) when partaking of a kiddush sponsored in memory of somebody’s loved one is (blog #24): ‘L’ilui neshama’ (לעילוי נשמה – for the lifting up of [their] soul). The operative word for ‘soul’ here is neshama, rather than nefesh.

Certainly I’m disinclined towards mysticism, but I recall learning that the Kabbalah distinguishes between five levels of the soul, the most basic and earthly of which is the nefesh. It would seem that tradition is suggesting that this aspect of Papa rests forever in the earthly realm, represented by his tombstone. The mourner’s kaddish, it would seem, is not traditionally recited for the redemption of a parent’s nefesh.

* * *

Following three days of rain, the weather at the unveiling is lovely. The sun is shining; ghost white clouds billow softly on azure. Some twenty of us are gathered below the heavens at Papa’s grave; family and friends have arrived here out of love.

My mother addresses the gathered; she passes out packets containing seven of my father’s photographs (one for each letter of his name), the stanzas of Psalm 119 corresponding to ‘Alexander son of Mosheh – Neshama’ (אלכסנדר בן משה – נשמה), which I’ve studied in memory of Papa (blogs #31 thru #41), and the El Malei Rachamim prayer (blog #43) for my father’s soul.

Self-consciously, I read the 128 verses (16 stanzas) of Psalm 119 from the packet slowly, stumblingly. It takes forever. Hauntingly, my father’s friend Yossi chants El Malei Rachamim. Mama speaks. She reads letters from her sister Dina (in Hebrew) and Papa’s childhood friend Sasha (in Russian). She explains the inscription at the top of the Nefesh:

והנצח זו ירושלים
And the Eternity is Jerusalem

I am moved to provide further context for these words and read aloud the letter that I wrote to my father for his birthday – blog #23 – in which I explored the original source text and parsed the language. Then I share aloud a letter written by my wife for Papa; with a twinge, I feel that the heartfelt words of others are less onerous than my Psalm 119 recitation and blog post(s). Am I making mourning too complicated?

My brother then shares another of his clear-eyed reflections, and I recite the mourner’s kaddish along with Yossi who lost his wife quite recently. We pass little pebbles collected by Mama to each attendee, inviting everyone to place these atop the nefesh. I take to resting our five Jerusalem stones among the pebbles, shifting them around, so as to minimize their wobbling on the rugged surface.

All are invited back to our home for a beautiful meal lovingly prepared by my mother. She really poured her heart into it. She says that my father would have been pleased with the array of dishes set out for our guests, and I agree. On top of my father’s favorite Olivier Salad and countless other dishes, our cousin Lyonya has brought an enormous Napoleon Torte all the way from Boston, loving prepared by his wife Tanya. My father, my brother and I always, always relished Tanya’s Napoleons.

Eventually, the guests begin to say their goodbyes, and everybody disperses. I am left with warm feelings and memories. The event for me was perfect.

* * *

The following day is Thursday, and I join my third Virtual Mourner’s Kaddish (blog #42) conference call, this time led by Naomi from lab/shul. She shares with us a poem written by Jack Gilbert, in which he likens his grief over the death of his wife to the physically trying experience of carrying a heavy box:

Michiko Dead

He manages like somebody carrying a box
that is too heavy, first with his arms
underneath. When their strength gives out,
he moves the hands forward, hooking them
on the corners, pulling the weight against
his chest. He moves his thumbs slightly
when the fingers begin to tire, and it makes
different muscles take over. Afterward,
he carries it on his shoulder, until the blood
drains out of the arm that is stretched up
to steady the box and the arm goes numb. But now
the man can hold underneath again, so that
he can go on without ever putting the box down.

What do you think of his words? She asks. Do you find Gilbert’s simile relatable? Would anybody like to share a reflection?

My mind is still at the unveiling, struggling through the biblical Hebrew of Psalm 119 at Papa’s graveside. I had worked so hard to prepare for that reading, delving week after week into the verses and commentaries, searching for myself and my Papa in its words, pushing to find personal relevance and meaning in a tradition that I would otherwise have found meaningless. I remember my relief upon completing my analysis (blog #41); I’m done with 119, I’d thought.

I’d tired of carrying 119 all those weeks, and so I’d shifted, “pulling the weight against my chest” in that sunlight; but this too proved to be both relief and burden.

I realize that I will carry this forever.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 43

Given my dazedness and state of shock last July, I had no preconceived assumptions nor expectations of my sudden, unanticipated status as a mourner. Then, abruptly, in the middle of Papa’s funeral, I found myself stung sharply with tenderness towards the friends and family who had been closest to him.

Papa lived a rather solitary life due to his hearing impairment (blog #19), but he resided in proximity to several friends and would go out with each of them every month or so; he used to mention his lunch dates to me with fondness. While sitting shiva, I recall being particularly moved to learn that one friend had always brought a notebook and pen whenever getting together with Papa- that way they could be sure to understand one another over the restaurant din.

30 days after the burial, when I was back in Jerusalem, another of Papa’s friends was moved to read those stanzas of Psalm 119 corresponding to my father’s name (אלכסנדר) at his graveside. I hadn’t yet learned then of this tradition, but now, as ‘Daddy Pig’ would say, “I’m an expert at 119.”

With the unveiling soon upon us, that same friend was kind enough to check in with me regarding my thoughts on what prayers and Psalms I might like to recite at Papa’s grave. In addition to Psalm 119, we both naturally thought of El Malei Rachamim (EMR), the traditional Jewish prayer for the soul of the departed. It is among the many Jewish mourning traditions that I have discovered this year.

At some point after my return to Israel from the shiva, the gabbai of my regular minyan asked me if I would like to have EMR recited at the synagogue to mark the first 30 days of mourning. At that time, I was battling back feelings of frustration and resentment towards shul norms and shook my head ‘no’ immediately, even grimacing involuntarily, which I immediately regretted. I didn’t know what EMR entailed, other than standing in front of the congregation while holding a Torah scroll, but I knew that my comfort zone did not extend much beyond the back wall of the synagogue.

Since my reluctant return to shul this year for kaddish, I’ve taken in many EMR recitations, which take place during public Torah reading days: Mondays, Thursdays, Saturdays. In fact, my observations led me to make a false assumption (one in a line of many*): Since Torah readings are only held at shul in the presence of a minyan, I assumed that one could only recite EMR with a prayer quorum.

In any case, this isn’t true.

Unlike the recitation of kaddish, EMR does not require the presence of a minyan, and it is often intoned by solitary Jews at their loved ones’ gravesites. I won’t be on my own at Papa’s unveiling, but I could recite it even if I were.

*A tangent:
One of the reasons that I feel myself a perennial outsider in the Orthodox community is that my discovery of Jewish religious rituals is simply endless (and I’ve been at this for upwards of two decades). Untold numbers of traditions remain unfamiliar to me, including some that I’ve seen practiced countless times and assume I know.
An example: based upon years of observing Orthodox social norms, I had once assumed that only men may recite kiddush on Shabbat for their families. Imagine my shock when I began to delve into the halakha and learned that women can recite kiddush for men as well! 
(Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 271:2)

* * *

It doesn’t take much to pique my curiosity these days. What can we find out about El Malei Rachamim (EMR)?

The Hebrew volume Sefer Kol Bo al Aveilus (‘The Book Containing Everything on Mourning’) was written by Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Greenwald (1889–1955). Regarding EMR Greenwald makes the following observation (p. 211):

תפלת אל מלא רחמים. תפלה זו שנשפשטה מאד בחוגי ישראל לכל המינים, לא נודע מתי נתחברה… ״אל מלא רחמים״ לא נזכרה בשום ספר בספרי ראשונים… הראשון שמזכירה בשם ״אל מלא רחמים״ הוא המחבר מעבר יבק The prayer of EMR. This prayer -which has become very normative in Jewish circles of all kinds- it is not known when it became part of [Jewish tradition]… “EMR” is not mentioned in any book of the books of the Rishonim (the rabbinic leadership of the ~11th to ~15th centuries)… The first to mention it by the name “EMR” is the author of ‘Ma’abar Yabboḳ’ (Rabbi Aaron Berechiah of Modena).

Rabbi Aaron Berechiah of Modena died in 1639; and his Ma’abar Yabboḳ was published in 1626. We may assume, then, that the recitation of EMR only became popularly accepted in the 16th century, which is later than the origins of our mourner’s kaddish tradition. As I recall, the earliest text to mention the mourner’s kaddish is the Maḥzor Vitry, which was published in the twelfth century (blog #24). That was some four centuries before EMR was even a twinkle in the rabbis’ eyes.

In Dr. Ronald Eisenberg’s ‘Jewish Traditions: JPS Guide’, he explains the timing of this development (p. 87):

The prayer originated in the Jewish communities of Western and Eastern Europe, where it was recited for the martyrs of the Crusades and of the Chmielnicki massacres.

Oof.

* * *

Historical developments in Jewish mourning practices such as El Malei Rachamim (EMR) were signs of the ongoing democratization of Judaism, which, according to Rabbi A. J. Heschel (1907-1972), began in the twelfth century, when the mourner’s kaddish tradition originated (see: blog #29).

It’s really quite fascinating. Consider that while we most often think of the mourner’s kaddish as the Jewish prayer for the dead, it actually makes no mention of death whatsoever. Clearly, the Jewish community needed something more explicit:

El Malei Rachamim

אֵל מָלֵא רַחֲמִים, שׁוֹכֵן בַּמְּרוֹמִים God, full of mercy, who dwells in the heights,
הַמְצֵא מְנוּחָה נְכוֹנָה, עַל כַּנְפֵי הַשְּׁכִינָה provide a true rest on the Divine Presence’s wings,
בְּמַעֲלוֹת קְדוֹשִׁים וּטְהוֹרִים, כְּזוֹהַר הָרָקִיעַ מַזְהִירִים in the holy and pure heights, like the brilliance of the sky do they radiate,
אֶת נִשְׁמַת אלכסנדר בן משה שֶׁהָלַךְ לְעוֹלָמוֹ, בַּעֲבוּר שֶׁנָּדְבוּ צְדָקָה בְּעַד הַזְכָּרַת נִשְׁמָתוֹ on behalf of the soul of Alexander son of Mosheh who left for His world, charity was given in memory of his soul.
בְּגַן עֵדֶן תְּהֵא מְנוּחָתו the Garden of Eden shall be his rest
לָכֵן בַּעַל הָרַחֲמִים יַסְתִּירֵהוּ בְּסֵתֶר כְּנָפָיו לְעוֹלָמִים Therefore, the Master of Mercy will hide him forever, in the hiding of his wings,
וְיִצְרֹר בִּצְרוֹר הַחַיִּים אֶת נִשְׁמָתוֹ and will bind his soul in the bond of life.
יְיָ הוּא נַחֲלָתוֹ God is his inheritance,
וְיָנוּחַ בְּשָׁלוֹם עַל מִשְׁכָּבוֹ, וְנֹאמַר אָמֵן and he shall rest peacefully upon his lying place, and let us say: Amen.

Such beautiful imagery; and I know just the right charity to donate to in memory of Papa’s soul.

* * *

Now that I’ve read through and translated the full prayer, I recall that Dr. Eisenberg highlights an evocative textual nuance (ibid.):

El Maleh Rahamim includes the phrase on the wings of the Divine Presence,’ rather than the more common under the wings of the Divine Presence.’

The latter phrase implies heavenly protection from danger by using the analogy of a bird spreading its protective wings over its young. The analogy is reversed when speaking of spiritual elevation–God’s presence is compared to a soaring eagle that puts its young on top of its wings and carries them aloft.

There’s much more to this. In the 17th volume of the Ḥakirah Journal, a journal of Jewish law and thoughtRabbi Yaakov Jaffe has an article titled “Upon the Wings of Eagles” and “Under the Wings of the Shekhinah”: Poetry, Conversion and the Memorial Prayer, in which he makes this point (pp. 195-6):

There are numerous scriptural passages that… convey the poetic image of being ‘under the wings’ of a stronger and more powerful Divine Being in the context of protection from danger. Psalm 17:8… ‘Hide me away in the shadow of Your wings’ … Psalm 61:4-5 conveys similar sentiments: ‘… I will be covered by being hidden by Your wings, selah.’ Other Psalms also speak about refuge, shelter, or concealment under God’s wings in difficult times… In contrast, there are no scriptural precedents for the image of being upon the wings of the Deity per se.

According to Rabbi Jaffe’s article, it’s not only that scripture doesn’t provide a basis for the imagery of “being on the wings (כנפיים – knafaim) of God”. In the 43rd chapter of his seminal Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides (1135-1204) comes down hard on the implication of God’s “wings” in Scripture (Jaffe, p. 200):

According to Maimonides, whenever the word ‘wing’ is used in reference to the Deity, it must be translated as ‘that which conceals’ or ‘that which covers.’ … Maimonides here indicates that the very translation of the word kanaf is ‘tool of covering or concealment.’ …

Despite all of this, Jaffe notes (p. 192-4) that:

Increasingly, [Modern Orthodox] congregations in the United States have begun turning to the text ‘al kanfei ha-Shekhinah’ … The dominance of this version in modern siddurim and modern communities is particularly striking in light of the practice of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik to use the ‘taḥat kanfei ha-Shekhinah’ formula. Soloveitchik, the leader of Modern Orthodox American Jewry for decades, preferred one version, although today, increasingly, congregations and prayer books that purport to represent the Modern Orthodox ideology prefer the other version.

Jaffe explains that the original shift from ‘under’ (תחת – taḥat) to ‘on’ (על – al) is attributed to the mystic Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (1555-1630), and made its way into the Zohar, the foundational work of Jewish mystical thought: Kabbalah. This is intriguing on its own merits, but also: did Modern Orthodoxy start slipping towards mysticism in the mid-20th century, or do people simply find the imagery of “true rest on the Divine Presence’s wings” more compelling? I’d wager that it’s the latter.

* * *

The very notion of God hiding my father’s soul under his protective metaphorical wings leaves me cold. Firstly, I don’t believe in postmortem metaphysical punishment in the slightest (ask: what would God be protecting Papa’s soul from?). Secondly, as regards Papa in particular:

This is unrelatable. My father was an incredibly kind and unassuming man, and the person he most hurt was himself. I am certain that my father punished himself more than enough during his lifetime.

– me, blog #11

In fact, Papa, strong and courageous spirit that he was, was much more a protector than one who sought protection from others. When I was born during a wet Jerusalem winter and it came time to bring me home from Hadassah Hospital, my father, anxious at the fragility and vulnerability of the tiny bundle that had been entrusted to him, cradled his newborn son in his arms and ran to the dormitory, shielding me from the rain with his broad, muscular torso. This was quintessentially Papa.

When he did need saving, it was always Papa’s boldness and boundless curiosity that got him into trouble. Whether it was getting stung by a rockfish while diving off the coast of Sharm El Sheikh or one of his misadventures in alpinism in the USSR, his eagerness and sense of adventure were most to blame.

In my mind’s eye, I envisage my father soaring ever higher on his new adventure, one from which he needs no saving. If Papa could soar upon God’s wings and come back to tell us of it, the photographs he surely would have taken would be absolutely epic.

Photo by Alexander Bogomolny z”l, 2016: Agamon HaHula, Israel

 

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 34

Spring has arrived, as my allergies attest, but the last few weeks of Winter in Israel were cold and rainy. The season did not go quietly, but idiosyncratic as I am, I wore my waterproof Source sandals despite the weather – even when schlepping to shul through rain torrents in trench coat and rain pants.

At one point, the gabbai (beadle) came up to me and said, “You look like a Franciscan monk in black with those sandals and trench coat.”

Amused, I quipped, “Perhaps that’s why I’m so uncomfortable at services.”

* * *

My blogging makes shul-going more tolerable. Herein, I don’t pretend. My doubts, my discomforts, my misgivings – these are all part of my process and identity no less than my daily kaddish recitations. I am grieving traditionally and also honestly.

* * *

As the seasons change, more mourners complete their years of kaddish. The gentleman who had been most regularly leading shacharit (morning) services at Kehillat Yedidya completed his journey more than a week ago. I’ve led shacharit several times since, but not on Mondays or Thursdays – those are Torah reading days, when the service is longer and beyond the cusp of my spiritual comfort zone.

There are two other male regulars reciting kaddish. One of them shows up every day; the other shows up fairly often. I’ve noticed that the first is never interested in leading services, and the other noted to me last week that it’s not a requisite – he doesn’t want to lead either. Despite having learned that it’s not obligatory, I’ve unexpectedly come to prefer that a mourner lead the prayers so that he might recite the half kaddishes and full kaddish, which are not exclusive to mourners. After all, these do hold special significance for those who live from kaddish to kaddish.

Nonetheless, I strongly empathize with my two fellow petitioners – I prefer to stand at the back by myself and daven at my own pace. It’s actually liberating to be one of several mourners who aren’t leading services – I’m not alone in avoiding the limelight.

For now, I’ll maintain my new balance: I will lead shacharit on Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays when Torah is not read, assuming that no other mourner takes the initiative.

* * *

As for my ‘Skeptic’s kaddish’ series, I’ve recently settled into posting new entries once a week. Not a day goes by, however, that my writing doesn’t occupy me.

As I study the stanzas of Psalm 119 corresponding to the letters of my father’s name, I am simultaneously vitalized by the creative process of engagement with the text and challenged by the Psalmist’s traditional faith language.

This week, I turn to stanza ס (samech), the fourth letter of Papa’s name. The Artscroll Book of Psalms (published just last year!) provides the following tasty tidbit:

The letter ס, samach, literally means support; i.e., Hashem [God] supports all those who rely on Him. The very shape of this letter, which is in the form of a circle, represents protection and support from all sides… When a person is resolute in his faith and recognizes God’s Presence everywhere, he is protected from all sides. The wicked who are oblivious to God are סעפים (seiafim), irresolute, and do not merit Divine Protection.

I respond to this below.

* * *

ר

ד

נ

ס

כ

ל

א

ה

ש

מ

ן

ב

ה

מ

ש

נ

PSALM 119:ס (verses 113-120)

[CLICK for glossary]

קיג סֵעֲפִים שָׂנֵאתִי; וְתוֹרָתְךָ אָהָבְתִּי 113 I hate them that are of multiple thoughts; but Thy Torah do I love.
קיד סִתְרִי וּמָגִנִּי אָתָּה; לִדְבָרְךָ יִחָלְתִּי 114 Thou art my cover and my shield; in Thy dvar do I hope.
קטו סוּרוּ-מִמֶּנִּי מְרֵעִים; וְאֶצְּרָה, מִצְוֺת אֱלֹהָי 115 Depart from me, ye evildoers; and I may keep the mitzvot of my God.
קטז סָמְכֵנִי כְאִמְרָתְךָ וְאֶחְיֶה; וְאַל-תְּבִישֵׁנִי, מִשִּׂבְרִי 116 Support me according unto Thy amirah, and I may live; and put me not to shame in my hope.
קיז סְעָדֵנִי וְאִוָּשֵׁעָה; וְאֶשְׁעָה בְחֻקֶּיךָ תָמִיד 117 Care Thou for me, and I shall be saved; and I will occupy myself with Thy hukim always.
קיח סָלִיתָ, כָּל-שׁוֹגִים מֵחֻקֶּיךָ: כִּי-שֶׁקֶר, תַּרְמִיתָם 118 Thou trampled all who stray from Thy hukim; for their deceit is false.
קיט סִגִים–הִשְׁבַּתָּ כָל-רִשְׁעֵי-אָרֶץ; לָכֵן, אָהַבְתִּי עֵדֹתֶיךָ 119 Thou removed all the wicked of the earth like dross; therefore I love Thy eidot.
קכ סָמַר מִפַּחְדְּךָ בְשָׂרִי; וּמִמִּשְׁפָּטֶיךָ יָרֵאתִי 120 My flesh stiffens for fear of Thee; and I fear Thy mishpatim.

* * *

I see a juxtaposition between the first two verses (113-114) of stanza ס and its last two verses (119-120). The word אָהָבְתִּי (ahavti), which means ‘I love’ occurs in both 113 and 119.

In the first instance, the Psalmist expresses love for God’s Torah, whereas the second use of ‘I love’ is in relation to God’s eidot. In the first instance, the Psalmist describes God as his ‘shield’ (verse 114), hoping for God’s dvar, whereas at the end of the stanza (verse 120) we find his very flesh stiffening in dread of God and his mishpatim.

Let us make use of the glossary that Radak (1160–1235) provides for greater clarity:

In verses 113-114, the Psalmist expresses love for God’s Torah, referring to the details of how God’s commandments are to be carried out. This is followed by an acknowledgement of God’s protection and an expression of hope for God’s dvar, which refers to God’s promise.

In verses 119-120, the Psalmist expresses his love for God’s eidot, which are commandments that testify to God’s supremacy and the revelation of Torah (in the general sense). This is followed by his fear of God and His mishpatim, which Radak understands as the the Divine laws that govern human interactions.

The first love is a love for the intricacies of God’s Law, which traditionally religious Jews face every day. This love of the commitment to Divine strictures leads the Psalmist to feel protected and to hope for the fulfillment of God’s promise. I’ve been there; an intensive focus on the subtleties of our own behaviors may create a sense of control in an otherwise chaotic reality.

The second love is a love for the collective Jewish memory, enshrined in our tradition, testifying to God’s sovereignty. Today this is unimaginable, and it would overwhelm humankind if realized. How would we live if we actually experienced God’s dominion? Such an awareness leads the Psalmist to fear God. The Almighty rules, aware of every action, and so the Psalmist is most concerned with the mishpatim – the Divine Laws governing his interactions with other human beings. (I’d like to think that God cares most about these.)

* * *

There is more to the story. What leads the Psalmist to love God’s eidot?

119 Thou removed all the wicked of the earth like dross; therefore I love Thy eidot.

According to the Psalmist, God has taken tangible action against the wicked – He has “removed” them. This is something that flies in the face of my life experience, but it is the Psalmist’s context. For him, it is true. Certainly, if God were to “remove” the wicked I too would likely love and fear Him.

On the other hand, what is the context for the Psalmist’s love for God’s Torah?

113 I hate them that are of multiple thoughts; but Thy Torah do I love.

Those hated by the Psalmist are the סעפים (seiafim), the “irresolute”, which the Artscroll Book of Psalms describes as “wicked”.

As always, there is Rashi (1040-1105):

סעיפים שנאתי. חושבי מחשבות און, כמו ׳לכן שעפי ישיבוני׳ (איוב כ:ב), ׳על שתי הסעפים׳ (מלכים-א יח:כא) I hate סעפים: Those who think thoughts of iniquity, like (Job 20:2): “Therefore, my thoughts (סעפי) answer me” [and] (I Kings 18:21): “between two ideas (הסעפים).”

Rashi has made things worse for me.
I must take issue with the Psalmist and the rabbi both.

* * *

Where to begin?

First of all, according to the BDB Dictionary, the root ס-ע-פ has *nothing* to do with iniquity. It can refer to any of the following concepts: “cleave, divide; cleft; branches; divided, half-hearted, divided opinion”. In Biblical Hebrew, the singular סָעֵף (sa’eif) is simply: “a thought”.

In fact, neither of Rashi’s examples support the case for reading ‘iniquity’ into verse 113. The verse in the Book of Job is neutral: ‘Therefore do my thoughts answer me’ (Job 20:2). Verse 18:21 in the first book of Kings comes closer, but Rashi’s comparison still falls short:

כא וַיִּגַּשׁ אֵלִיָּהוּ אֶל-כָּל-הָעָם, וַיֹּאמֶר עַד-מָתַי אַתֶּם פֹּסְחִים עַל-שְׁתֵּי הַסְּעִפִּים–אִם-יְהוָה הָאֱלֹהִים לְכוּ אַחֲרָיו, וְאִם-הַבַּעַל לְכוּ אַחֲרָיו; וְלֹא-עָנוּ הָעָם אֹתוֹ, דָּבָר 21 And Elijah came near unto all the people, and said: ‘How long limp ye between two thoughts? If A) the Lord be God, follow Him; but if B) Baal, follow him.’ And the people answered him not a word.

Here, the people’s סְּעִפִּים (thoughts) can be faithful to either A) God or B) Baal. The people have agency of choice; their thoughts are not inherently iniquitous! 

Secondly-

What else does the Psalmist attribute to the “wicked”?

118 Thou trampled all who stray from Thy hukim; for their deceit is false.

The word שׁוֹגִים – shogim (those who stray) has the root ש-ג-ג, as Rabbi David Altschuler (1687-1769) explicitly underscores in his ‘Metzudat Zion’ commentary: שׁוֹגִים is “מלשון שגגה”. 

Back to the BDB Dictionary: what can this root mean? The possibilities include: “go astray; commit sin or error; sin ignorantly, inadvertently; sin of error.” This root clearly connotes ‘error’; the Talmudic term שוגג (shogeg) refers specifically to one who commits a sin by accident, as opposed to one who does so deliberately. Of all the ways in which one might transgress God’s law, this is the most innocent.

And… which category of Divine commandments are these “wicked” people inadvertently breaking? The hukim! These, as we know from Radak’s glossary for Psalm 119, are the mitzvot whose reasons have not been revealed – the most impenetrable of all of God’s commandments!

It would seem that the Psalmist hates those who have multiple, potentially conflicting thoughts and believes that God actively punishes those who accidentally break His most inscrutable demands.

I cannot recite these words and mean them.

* * *

It was not my intention to pick fights with Rashi and the Psalmist, but what am I to do? Perhaps I would be less frustrated with the thrust of stanza ס if this strain of judgmentalism were only a biblical phenomenon.

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983), the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, validates my sentiment in his book Basic Values in Jewish Religion, which includes a chapter on ‘Creative Doubt’. He writes (pp. 96-98):

The attitude of traditional religion towards those who doubt its tenets has been one of unqualified condemnation…

[However,] our Bible is not lacking in expressions of religious doubt… Notable is the fact that the Torah pictures Abraham, who is always taken as the exemplar of religious faith, whose faith, tested by ten trials, withstood them all, as nevertheless questioning the justice of God…

[Abraham’s] doubt wrings from him an exclamation of horror, but he expresses it interrogatively… His was ‘a faith that inquires’…

There is… a doubt that is an inseparable accompaniment of religious faith… [There is] a constructive doubt arising from the eternal refusal of the human spirit to acquiesce in evil.

It would be absurd for me to post Rabbi Kaplan’s chapter on ‘Creative Doubt’ in its entirety, but it’s tempting. Truer words have never been written.

* * *

Going back to Rashi, the great rabbi makes one subsequent point in his commentary on verse 113 (continued from above):

כשאתה קורא סְעִפִים הוא שם המחשבה, וכשאתה קורא סֵעֲפִים נופל הלשון על החושבים אותה When you read סְעִפִים (se’ifim), it concerns the thought, but when you read סֵעֲפִים (seiafim), the language refers to those who think it.

In other words, according to the language of the Bible, which does not include any vowels, the Psalmist may not hate anyone at all – he might find hateful only those *thoughts* that challenge the Torah’s veracity.

The rabbi is making a deliberate interpretive choice here, and let’s not forget the two biblical examples of סעיפים, which Rashi cites himself: Job 20:2 and I Kings 18:21. Both examples are referring *only* to people’s thoughts, rather than to those who think them.

I think this is a crucial distinction because the Psalmist is writing about *hate*.

‘Hate’ is a strong word.

* * *

As often happens, my learning brings me back to memories of Papa.

My father was a man of deeply rooted morality and intensely firm convictions, he was incredibly passionate and at times even fiery in debate, but he never harbored hate for any person. Certainly, he had disdain for particular ideas and schools of thought, but he would engage with those that he disagreed with – because ideas mattered to him.

Furthermore, Papa was genuinely curious to understand the people he differed with. I remember him proactively engaging ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem with questions while they were protesting against traffic on the Sabbath, querying animal rights activists in Tel Aviv as they campaigned for veganism, and sincerely wondering aloud at how otherwise intelligent family members could vote for the Labor party. He didn’t hate people for thinking differently than him; he simply found it perplexing.

The Psalmist felt threatened by complexity.
My father, confident in his morals and reasoning, wished to understand.

Papa would certainly have agreed with Maimonides (1135-1204) in his foreword to his ‘Eight Chapters On Ethics’:

One should accept the truth from whatever source it comes.