Thursday, September 2, 2010

Learning to Appreciate and Acknowledge all of G-d’s Children

It’s truly funny how our learning experiences are so cumulative and connected if we are truly paying attention. I think its one of those coincidences of life …. You know, G-d’s way of remaining anonymous.

So, my son Brian and I have finally returned to our regimen of learning Gemara after his various camp experiences this summer. Lo and behold, here we are on 8b of Berachot and we read the most amazing information. Loosely translated, here goes:

It was taught in a Baraita by Rabbi Akiba: There are three things I like about the people of Medes. When they cut their meat they cut it on a table (as opposed to using their hand for a base, which could lead to injury and spilling of blood); when they kiss, they kiss only on the hand (as opposed to the face or mouth, thus spreading germs); and when they hold counsel, they hold counsel only in the field (and not in public leading to possible embarrassment).

A bit later, we continue with another group of admirable practices of a grouping other than the Jews:

It was taught in a Baraita by Rabbi Gamliel: There are three things I like about the Persians. They are modest in eating, they are modest in using the privy, and they are modest in their marital relations.

These Baraitot occur within the discussion of practices that the Jewish people should or should not engage in, specifically not to cut meat or food using one’s hand as a base and not walking by a synagogue while there is a minyan and not going in. It is within this discussion of appropriate practices that these Baraitot appear, indicating that important teachers amongst our Jewish scholars found these practices of other peoples admirable, perhaps so much so they should be emulated within our Jewish ranks.

Who says that only WE know what G-d wants? Who says that the most devout amongst any group, even the Jews cannot learn about refinement and proper behavior from others? After all as we learn in Pirke Avot, “The Mitzvot are given to us to refine us.”

There is an important lesson here, especially in our day of fractionalization and so much enmity between different groups of faith communities, both within and amongst them.

Merely a few weeks earlier this summer at the Sholom Hartman Institute, we learned a chapter of Isaiah, specifically 19. The end of this chapter goes as follows (verses 23 – 25):

In that day there will be a highway out of Egypt stretching to Assyria and the Assyrians shall come into Egypt and the Egyptians shall come into Assyria; the Egyptians and the Assyrians shall serve and work together. In that day Israel will be third with Egypt and Assyria; even a blessing in the midst of the land. The Lord of hosts shall bless them saying, “Blessed by Egypt my people and Assyria the work of my hands; and Israel my inheritance.”

This text was presented with the challenge that it was probable that the 130+ Rabbis and scholars in the room had rarely, if ever, taught it. As we learned it together we discerned why. This text as well as the texts above from Berachot goes against the grain of the particularism that so many Jews hold dear. Here we learn that Egypt and Assyria will also be blessed if they can “pass the test” of cooperation and we come in third. How humbling!

To be sure, we are NOT G-d’s only children and G-d does not ONLY have expectations of us and no others. Clearly there are practices of other people such as those of Medes and Persia that are noteworthy and valuable to consider and there is potential redemption for all peoples, even Egypt and Assyria if they (that is WE) learn to work together.

Clearly something to consider as we approach the Days of Awe and listen to the call to ALL of the Shofar these days of Elul!

Creator of the Universe! Let us learn to work together and travel to and fro from each other’s land and ways of understanding. Let us acknowledge what is praiseworthy in each other. Let us learn to live and work together while maintaining the important aspects of our individual identities!


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  2. Thank you for this reminder! How often do we think we are the sole holders of the truth in our personal lives as well. Now is the time to look deep into ourselves and get the good chutzpa to start learning from the others.

    Shana Tova!