It is a Tree of Life to Them that Hold Fast to It

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, August 10, 2018 / 29 Av 5778

See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you heed the commandments of the Lord your God that I am giving you today; and the curse, if you do not heed the commandments of the Lord your God, but stray from the way I am commanding you today … (Deut. 11:26-28) Parshat Re’eh

Summary: This is about a car. It is also about a teshuvah, a Jewish legal opinion I wrote in rabbinical school. This is a story about our values and how difficult it is to align them so that they can all be active at the same time. Finally, it is about the persistence of vision and how such patience can help us arrive at the place we’ve longed to reach.

Yesterday, Laura and I went to pick up Daniela Meltzer’s car. She and the girls finally were able to join Adam in Colorado and begin their new life there. As part of unwinding their Portland life, we agreed to take over the last two years of her car’s lease. It is a Ford Focus all-electric vehicle, and will be Laura’s commuter vehicle to her job in Hillsboro.

How we got here, though, is a longer story, one that takes us back to rabbinical school. In our final year, we were tasked to write a teshuvah on a contemporary issue that flowed out of our Jewish legal tradition and the guidance it provides for our lives. Environmental issues were very important to me. Indeed, in those days, it seemed the most pressing and central issue for humanity. Jewish sources on this topic were not readily available then, and couldn’t be located on the internet. You had to do the hard work yourself, chasing down and usually translating obscure original materials.

My research led me to the conclusion that as Jews, our Torah demanded a high level of personal responsibility for environmental degradation. It held us accountable for the distant effects of our actions, as Maimonides set down in a case about air pollution caused by a tannery. We weren’t fully liable, but nonetheless we weren’t off the hook either. As a consequence of this work, it seemed clear to me that in 2005, a committed Jew ought to strive to drive a car that attained thirty miles to the gallon. In that teshuvah, I argued that an observant Jew who had the financial capacity ought to drive a Prius. They would thus fulfill their religious duty toward the environment. Additionally, this market demand would spur competition and drive down the cost of hybrids, allowing those of lesser means the same capacity to preserve the natural world—and that was also a mitzvah. Finally, I noted that this thirty mile per gallon goal was a relative one; over time, as technology improved, a pious Jew would need to increase the minimum mileage of their vehicles.

Those were my values, crafted in an Ivory Tower. But they weren’t my only values as I was to discover. Kids came. Suddenly, we needed a safe vehicle—one that was secure in the snow-covered roads of an eastern winter. One that had high safety ratings for front and side impacts. It had to be dependable. Affordable. We got a used Subaru. It got twenty miles per gallon. That year, I purchased carbon offsets to compensate for the additional pollution. It was less than a Prius…

The kids got bigger. Laura’s dad moved in with us. In addition to a car with good mileage, we needed one that could take all 5 of us, and really another kid or two for regularly occurring playdates so that we could help other young families—just as they helped us during those early family years. We still couldn’t afford a Prius, and in any case, it wouldn’t have fulfilled those other needs. So we got a used minivan. I didn’t buy carbon offsets for it.

Our boys are now young people. We no longer need the supply line or logistics of a small army every time we leave the house—no stroller, diaper bag, snacks galore, books, swaddling cloths, sippy cups, favorite toys, et cetera. (Young families—I assure you it goes fast!). Just give us a few well-placed cup holders. Finally, finally, we could begin to research electric cars. I mentioned that in a side comment to Daniela, one thing led to another, and we now have an electric vehicle in the driveway.

In the Talmud, you often come across a structural phrase “xka mashma lan.” This short phrase tells us that if all of the previous information had not been presented as it was, we would have drawn incorrect conclusions. The Talmud is stating that we had to be forced to reflect on a situation precisely so we could correctly analyze it and grow as a result.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The Talmud is a book that reflects the structure of life. We can all reflect on our lives as though they were Talmudic lessons.

So looking back, what have I gleaned in the years since I wrote that teshuvah?

We all have a set of values that are very important to us.

It’s hard to manifest all of these values simultaneously. Most of us lack sufficient resources of time, money, and attention to do everything at the same time. Certainly we can’t do everything in a serious way all at the same time.

That means we need to make concessions along the way, and this is a good and necessary process because it illuminates what we really think.

Our actions are themselves the illumination. They tell us where our most important values truly are at a given moment. Jewish day school tuition was more important to my family than being an early adapter of hybrid or electric vehicle technology. I couldn’t have verbalized it at the time, but in hindsight, I’m ok with that choice.

Because we are all limited, there is a danger that many of the values we espouse can become mere lip service. We say something. We may even mean it. We may even take a symbolic action around it, but we fundamentally aren’t living that value or taking substantive action.

The way to avoid moral posturing and lip service is contained in a Hebrew phrase we say each Shabbat. Eitz Chayim hi lamachazikim bah. Torah values are a living tree if and only if we cling tightly to it. By holding on to our values, by maintaining the persistence of our moral vision, we eventually will be able to manifest our values in a meaningful and robust way. As it says in Ecclesiastes, “there is a time and a place for everything.”

The persistence of vision demands from us and is achieved by us only through the cultivation of patience. When we lack such patience, we rarely achieve our vision, or may not have the guts to entertain a grand moral vision. We sell it out for a shortcut, a daydream or moral posturing.

But with patiences and persistence? Anything is possible.

As we enter the Hebrew month of Elul, may we all find ways to cling tightly to our values. If we do, I suspect at the end of our lives, we’ll be pretty happy to discover what a meaningful and purpose-driven life we all have led. Ken Yehi Ratzon. May it be so!

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. Think about and share your own “ka mashma lan.” Looking back on your life, what is an example where the value you thought was most important to you was replaced by a different value.
  2. How do you feel about those invisible choices you made then? Were they the correct ones?
  3. How can we discern necessary patience from accommodation? Meaning, when are we truly putting our values on hold for another value, and when are we rationalizing our behavior so we don’t have to live up to our values?

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