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27 Iyar 5772 / May 18-19, 2012


Dan Horwitz photo

In this week’s double Torah portion, where we complete the Book of Leviticus by reading the portions of both Behar and Bechukotai, we are immediately introduced to the concept of the land resting.

"Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the 7th year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest.”

Who knew the ground needed a break! It’s hard to remember sometimes that most of our ancestors were farmers, and that our major holidays (of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot) have agricultural underpinnings.

After seven sets of seven years (49 years) there is a Jubilee year.

In the 50th year, the Jubilee year, the land rests and is returned to its original owners (with a couple of exceptions) and private debts are forgiven. I know quite a few folks who would love for the Jubilee year to be reinstated so as to extinguish their mortgages!

We stopped celebrating the Jubilee for a number of reasons. A couple of thoughts: (1) It was hard to keep count as a Diasporic people spread all over the place. (2) There was a rabbinic argument about when the 50th year technically started, thus there were conflicting opinions about when to observe it. It’s hard to have a society-wide phenomenon, where land holdings are returned to their original owners, if you don’t know when exactly that’s meant to happen.

Also – there were practical issues.

Every seventh year, we were required to let the land lay dormant, and to only eat what it naturally produced. We could not plant, sow, harvest, etc. The Torah says that God promised to provide enough food in year six to cover years six, seven and eight. If the 49th year was a seventh year, which it would be, that means that for both the 49th and 50th years, the Israelites would not have been allowed to grow food! While the Torah says that God will provide, having that kind of faith is admittedly difficult.

During the seventh year of each seven-year cycle, as well as in the 50th year, all debts were forgiven. If you were a lender, and you knew that all debt would be forgiven in the near future, why on earth would you lend anyone money, knowing you might not get it back? We see in our own economy today that having the ability to borrow money is essential for meaningful economic growth.

As you might expect, lenders were loath to lend when close to the seventh or Jubilee years, despite God’s explicit instruction to do so in the Torah (effectively making the potential lenders sinners). In response, Rabbi Hillel created a legal fiction called “Prozbul” that allowed for lenders to lend to others, even when approaching the Jubilee year, by creating a legal document that would accompany the interest-free loans (charging interest to fellow Jews is forbidden in the Torah) that stated that the loans were to be transferred to the courts, making the debt public, and thus not required to be released during a seventh year or during the Jubilee. Prozbul benefitted both borrowers and lenders – borrowers had access to cash, and lenders knew their money was safe. And yet, Rabbi Hillel created a system that explicitly went against God’s specific instructions!

In doing so, Rabbi Hillel established a meaningful tradition that has guided many rabbis in terms of how they make decisions. We look to the Torah, our texts and traditions; we look at the realities in the world around us; and we find a way to meaningfully and authentically blend the two.

But how can we find meaningful ways to blend the two in our own lives? Particularly if many of us don’t have a firm grasp of our texts and traditions?

We learn from Rabbi Shammai in Pirkei Avot, the section of the Mishnah that shares the “ethics of our ancestors,” that we as Jews are meant to set aside a regular time in our schedules for Torah study. Rabbi Hillel echoes Shammai, saying: “Do not say when I have free time I will study Torah, lest you not have free time.” Rabbi Hamnunah says in the Gemara that "[t]he first thing a person will be held accountable for on his day of Heavenly judgment is whether he fulfilled his duty of studying Torah."

While most of us aren’t really thinking about our day of Heavenly judgment, what we are thinking about is all of the work we have to get done this week, the errands we need to run, the room we’re meant to clean, the friends we want to spend time with, figuring out why the Tigers’ offense stinks, and the desire we have to read the third book of the Hunger Games and/or watch the season finale of Glee. With all of those things, how on earth are we meant to set aside time to continue our Jewish educations?

I have a secret to share with you. You may not believe it’s true, but I’m going to tell you anyway:

There is nothing more fun or more meaningful in the entire world than learning. Seriously.

The desire to learn is programmed into us as human beings, both naturally, and with some societal nudging. As babies, we take in the world around us and by trial and error learn what’s dangerous. In elementary school, we learn how to read and write. In middle school, we learn what it is to have a crush on someone. In high school, we start to really figure out who we are as people, and what we really believe about the world around us. In college we lay the foundation to achieve our professional goals. The pursuit of knowledge – and on a higher level, of truth – is our de facto motivator as humans. And wouldn’t you know it – truth is one of the ways we describe God. We end the Shema with the words “Hashem Elokechem Emet” – “The Lord your God is Truth.”

In the spirit of furthering my argument that learning in general, and Jewish learning in particular, is both fun and meaningful, I have some suggestions for topics you may like to study as you continue your Jewish education:

Did you know that there were several different ancient versions of the Torah, mostly differing by spelling, and that there are words that are traditionally read differently from the way they’re written?

Go and Learn!

Did you know that in the Torah, Moses never actually says “Let my people go!” – rather, he tries to trick Pharaoh by having him let the Israelites go on a three day trip into the desert in order to have a festival to God, with the promise that they would then return?

Go and Learn!

Did you know that in the Mishna, our legal code published around the year 200, there is a whole section about people who are “Androgynous” and don’t fit neatly into the category of “male” or “female?”

Go and Learn!

These are just a few of innumerable interesting realities begging to be studied.

Like Rabbi Hillel and his creation of Prozbul, so too do we have the ability, and I would argue, the responsibility, to meaningfully engage with our sacred texts, to be aware of the world around us and the events taking place in it, and to devote ourselves to finding ways to enhance our own lives and the lives of all we encounter by meaningfully and authentically combining the two. To do so, we need to commit to learning from our tradition and to learning about the world around us.

How do we know where to start when it comes to Jewish learning? In the words of our ancient sage Joshua ben Perachyah, also quoted in Pirkei Avot: Provide for yourself a teacher and get yourself a friend. Utilize the rabbis and teachers you’ve formed relationships with. Reach out to new rabbis and teachers. Develop meaningful relationships with them and others. Make our tradition truly your own. Never stop learning.

Tzeh Ul’mad – Go and Learn.


The Human Voice at 100

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The Human Voice at 100 photo

I almost said no when my friend asked if I wanted to come, but in the end, how many opportunities do you have to celebrate a great man's 100th birthday? Last night at the Newberry Library, a packed house honored Studs Terkel on the centennial anniversary of his birth. We sang songs, listened to stories about the man himself, and ate cake shaped like his signature red checkered shirt. "This weekend in particular," said the host, "buy one of Studs' books and give it to a young person."

What's the big deal? you may ask yourself. Who is this guy and why should I read him?

For one, they're amazing books that changed my life, but I understand if that's too hyperbolic to make much of a judgment yet.

Louis Terkel (yes, Jewish) moved to Chicago from New York in 1920, when he was eight years old. He helped his mother run a boarding house near Merchandise Mart, where he first made close study of the characters who would fascinate him his whole life. The boarding house was near Bughouse Square, where rabble-rousers attracted crowds year-round with speeches and calls to action. Studs is an alum of my alma mater—he got a law degree from the University of Chicago in 1932, but "there was some trouble passing the bar," according to our host last night (everyone chuckled).

He came of age during the Depression, and began a life of astounding engagement with the world. Studs was an actor, an activist, a radio DJ, a journalist, an oral historian, a gabber, a talker, a listener, an encourager. He talked to everybody and anybody, fundamentally committed to the idea that all people have a story to tell. He died on Halloween in 2008, just a few days before the presidential election. He and his beloved wife were buried together beneath a tree in Bughouse Square—or Washington Square Park, as it's officially called, right outside the Newberry Library.

Studs came into my life in 2009. I'd heard his name before that, but wasn't really sure who he was or why he was important. At that time, I was living and breathing Band of Brothers, the spectacular HBO miniseries about the 101st Airborne paratroopers who fought in WWII from Normandy to Bastogne to Berchtesgaden. I was reading every autobiography of Easy Company men I could get my hands on, not to mention Stephen Ambrose's original Band of Brothers book. At a bookstore in D.C., a friend shoved "The Good War" into my hands. "I'm not letting you leave without buying this book," she said. "You of all people have to read it."

When I finally cracked the spine (all of Studs' oral histories are doorstops), I was engrossed. No book has moved or challenged me quite so much as that one. Studs talks to everybody, and makes no judgment on any of his interviewees. We hear from SS officers, children who were in Hiroshima, POWs from Bastogne and Bataan, black soldiers who were hideously abused by the Army, journalists who covered the war behind enemy lines, women who worked at factories, crooks who ran the black market, Japanese-Americans sent to internment camps, draft dodgers, conscientious objectors, USO performers, high government officials, Marines who fought through Okinawa, Axis soldiers, Axis civilians, Hitler youth, spies, MPs, ordinary people… Studs lets those who lived it tell it for themselves, and in doing so, never lets us think that WWII is so simple as being "the good war."

This book floored me. All of his do. Read Hard Times, his oral history of the Depression, and tell me the things people said about the 1930s don't sound shockingly contemporary. Lest you think he's one of those "boring, serious" historians, you should know that while Studs takes on issues like race, poverty, age, death and war, he also brings you into the lives of vaudeville musicians, movie stars, sportscasters, rail-riders, comedians and numberless wonderful, joyous, fascinating people. Studs is epic and intimate in scope at the same time, and revels in it, and believes in it with all his being. His work so articulates what I want to do with my own life that, in searching for a career, I found myself asking, "How can I be Studs Terkel when I grow up?"

Again, I understand this may be a bit effuse and hyperbolic. It's easy to get that way about those world-altering experiences. I'll follow last night's example, and let Studs make his own case.

One of the speakers told us about a hotline the public can call, to either share their encounters with or experiences of Studs, or to talk about an instance in which listening has been important to them. The number is (559) 546-1661, and you can hear from other people at the Studs Terkel Centennial Celebration website. There will be more events throughout the next year, but I hope you can attend at least one, on your own time: reading and experiencing one of his books.

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