Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, August 28, 2015 / 13 Elul 5775
Let me first wish you all a sweet new year. I look forward to communicating with you in this space about matters large and small. I also invite you to let Marci Atkins know if there are particular topics you might be interested in hearing about. If it sparks something for me, we may address it here. This first “column” is a bit long, but I wanted to provide some background.
We Jews have been around several thousand years. Not surprisingly, any people that has stuck around so long has piled up a few accomplishments. It’s probably equally true that different peoples have areas where they have especially expressed their giftedness. Without a doubt, we Jews have poured tremendous energy into the legal realm. Here at Neveh Shalom, this should not be surprising. Our building proudly displays the aseret dibrot, the Ten Commandments, on its western facade. We heard God’s voice at Sinai uttering law, and ever since, we have invested our resources creating and arguing about the law. The Talmud, our central canon of tradition and practice, was completed in the 6th century of the Common Era. A rich history of legal call and response, of question and answer, followed and continues unabated down to the current era. Jews love the law, and as an often powerless minority people, we embraced the law as a source of protection. Our very name, Neveh Shalom, a phrase found in Isaiah, meansan oasis of peace. Properly applied law, in the Jewish imagination, creates a just society which indeed becomes an oasis of peace.
In Judaism, the law, though, is far more than a set of written protections. It is a richly varied corpus filled with genius, inspiration and our spiritual values. It delineates common practices that have united us across millennia and countless countries and preserves the diversity of our customs as well. It contains aspirational material to guide us in our personal and business relations, and it often urges us to do more than the law itself requires of us. Some of our best thinking has been dedicated to legal explication. It is a way of thinking and of living.
For most of our history, we Jews were responsible for our own communities, and so the Jewish legal tradition (halakhah) had the power of enforcement behind it. After the Haskalah, after the Jewish enlightenment, and our acceptance into the western nations, however, halakhah disappeared from the consciousness of most Jews. Without our self-directed communities of the past, observance of the law became largely a voluntary matter, and knowledge of the law also withered.
This is a shame, because most of us also lost access to the wisdom halakhah contains which transcends its merely legal or rule bound aspects. Given that, I’d like to dedicate some part of my weekly messages to you to exploring small bits of Jewish law. Sometimes, these bits of our tradition will have direct relevance to our lives today, other times, a law may simply strike my curiosity. I’ll bring those pieces forward also, in the hope that you too may find them interesting.
To kick us off, here is one small dictum from the Be’er Hetev, which is an 18th century commentary on the 16th century code of law, the Shulkhan Arukh. It is a law with which many of us are familiar, even though we may not have recognized it as anything more than a pleasant custom.
From the start of the month of Elul*, when you write a letter to an associate, you should begin by alluding to the person that you are wishing them a good year. Be’er Hetev 581:10
Most of us are inundated with communications, emails and texts. These days, we often don’t even use a salutation anymore, such as “Dear Henry.” Sometimes we don’t even sign our emails. Part of this speaks to our age’s informality, and the speed with which we react. I too have been guilty of all these sins of omission as I try to efficiently respond to people. Yet our ancestors also understood the danger that can result when we allow our communication to become purely functional. So we are enjoined to make a connection that transcends the transactional, and connects us in a deeper way, even if only for a flickering moment. What a profound reminder. At the receiving end of our letters, emails, texts and social media threads are living human beings with needs and concerns. How often we forget!
Let me take advantage of the Be’er Hetev’s wisdom to end as I began, and to wish you and your loved ones a year of health, contentment and well-being. I look forward to spending it with you!
*Elul is the current Jewish month, and precedes Rosh Hashanah and our fall holidays.