Shivim Panim Latorah: Understanding our Humanity

Remember that time when you were planning that really important thing, and then all of a sudden you couldn’t remember what you were trying to do? You lost all motivation and all you wanted to do was sleep?  Or eat?

What happened to your strong resolve? What happened to your commitment?

Every so often, for many of us, the body beats the mind. We get so tired, so hungry, so “done,” that we become blinded by our physical need, and our best laid plans fall away.  It’s what cravings specialists refer to as getting to “HALT:” Hungry Angry Lonely or Tired.

Ask anyone who knows me well;  when I’m in HALT, I can (every once in a while) be (a bit of) a drama queen.  I will admit that on occasion I have said things I don’t mean: “I’m so hungry I could DIE.”  And if you asked me to give away the most important thing in my life at a moment when I feel like I need to sleep, I might actually be willing to negotiate a price.

So it’s hard for me not to empathize with Esav in this week’s parsha.  He arrives at the end of a long day of hunting, and his quiet brother Jacob is making a lentil soup. Sell me some of that soup, he says, ki ayef anochi,  “because I am tired.”  Jacob agrees, on the condition that Esav sell his birthright, and Esav agrees.  Hineh anochi holeich lamut, v’lamah zeh li bechorah?  “I’m about to die. Why do I need the birthright?” (Genesis 25:30-32)  The rabbinic tradition wants to vilify him, to make him a thoughtless jerk who doesn’t know the value of important things in his life. And they point to his animalistic nature, in the way that he asks for the soup, the way that he eats it. But what if Esav is not an animal at all, but just deeply, utterly human? What if he has just hit the end of his rope at the end of a long day? Perhaps the Torah is encouraging us to hear the humanity in Esav, to understand that he is simply a victim of his cravings, of his exhaustion, and of his humanness. Evidently the Torah understood the concept of HALT. The Torah understood that human beings do stupid things when their defenses are down.

Even more, one interpretation suggests that Esav had probably learned this kind of language from his own mother.  As Robert Alter suggests, Esav’s words v’lamah zeh li bechorah (“why do I need the birthright?”) call to mind Rebecca’s words when she was struggling to have a child:  lamah zeh ‘anochi (“why me?”).  (See Robert Alter’s Genesis, p. 129.)  This beautiful connection pushes the point that Esav may have had a model in his own home of this kind of self-pity, this kind of giving up. He may not know any other way to be.  Shouldn’t we have a bit more compassion for him?

The rabbis teach that there are shivim panim latorah, literally, 70 faces of Torah. Our trick as careful readers of text, then, is to find ourselves in each of the figures of our story. We have a responsibility to look at each Biblical character from shivim panim, through 70 faces, and to see each one as utterly human.

Remember that time when you lost all your focus and gave up for a moment?  When you did the dumbest thing ever, just because you were tired or hungry, or you didn’t know a different way?  Most of us can remember at least one of those moments. And we must hold them in our minds when we meet Esav, or for that matter, anyone whose actions we may not understand. There are at least 70 faces to Torah. Look in the mirror; one of them is yours.

v’chol hachoshvim alay ra’ah: On (not) reading the comments

Friday afternoon, October 31, my lovely tree-lined Upper West Side street had been transformed into a Halloween horror show. Hanging down from the buildings on my block were ghosts, skeletons, and 5-foot plastic tarantulas (my childhood terrors come to life!), and I was shaken.  I called my mom and left a message in exasperation:  “I hate my block!”

A few hours later, I got a voicemail back.  “Abby, we got your message.  I’m so sorry you hate your blog!  Daddy and I thought it was FINE!”

Earlier in the week, my mom and I had talked through some of her questions about this blog:  she wasn’t sure about the title and she wondered about a point I had made in a post.   Throughout the conversation, I said (more than once): “hmm, maybe you’re right.  I should probably change that.”  And more than once, she responded: “But isn’t the point of the word ‘shameless’ not to be concerned with what other people think?”  So when I called in a Halloween panic, she had reason to think I might have given up hope and closed up shop on this new adventure.

But I’m hanging in.  And I have her to thank for it, as well as some of the other writers who have shared their own questions– and fears– about their writing.  I love that JK Rowling talked about her own fears in her commencement speech at Harvard (a must-watch speech:  Or that my friend and mentor Lenore Skenazy pushes women to use their creative energies, despite their own blocks and questions.  And I’m so grateful to have seen writer Marjorie Ingall ‘s post on Facebook when a friend gave her the perfect necklace: “Never read the comments.”

I am an old pro at reading the comments.  I’ve been doing it before blogs even existed, and without ever reading a single written word. I can walk into a room and within minutes “read the comments” before anyone has opened his or her mouth.

I’m not saying I’m reading them correctly.  My telepathy extends far past its usefulness, most of the time. People may not even be giving me a second thought, but I can still guess what they are thinking, what they are saying, and even what they will say in two hours after I’ve left the room.

It’s good to know I’m not the only one who worries what others think. The meditation at the end of our Amidah, attributed in the Talmud to Mar bar Ravina (Brachot 17a), reminds us that this concern is at least as old as the Talmud itself!  The prayer includes a line for chol hachoshvim alay ra’ah.  “all those who plan evil for me,” or as we might read, for all those who think badly of me…  meherah Adonai Hafer Atzatam v’kalkel machshavtam.  “Quickly, God, mess up their designs and screw up their thoughts!”

Brilliantly, Mar bar Ravina recognized that there is a cycle that happens in our social lives, and very often, we are the instigators ourselves. His meditation begins with the phrase from Psalm 34:  Elohai netzor l’shoni mera… “My God, protect my tongue from evil.”  The more we speak ill of others, the more we might assume that others are speaking badly of us.  When we let our own judgment go, refraining from judging or commenting on others, then we can trust that we live in a world where the “comments” are not unkind.  We create the world which we inhabit, with our actions, our speech, and our own judgments.

As for those comments I’m afraid to read?  Most of the time, they don’t exist!  People aren’t really commenting on my blogs, and as much as it may disappoint me, they’re rarely thinking about me at all! People don’t think about us NEARLY as much as we think they do.  And the meditation helps us to remember that.  V’nafshi ka’afar lakol tihyeh. “Let my soul be like dust to everyone around me.” Or, as I like to think of it, let me remember that I’m just made of dust and ashes, or, to put it more simply, no one really cares.

Ultimately, for better and for worse, none of us is that important.  It turns out that our fears of what others think are often about as real as those plastic tarantulas that hung on my street.  They may make us shudder with terror, but they can’t do any harm because they aren’t even real!   Mar bar Ravina’s real prayer seems to be: God, help me to remember what’s important.  And help me to build a world where we all have the faith and the perspective, every once in a while, to read the comments.

Silent shekels: rethinking class “participation”

Walking into a Jewish high school, you’d never guess that Judaism values silence.

And yet, the beauty of silence is extolled throughout Jewish literature. Most famous, perhaps, is the mishnah from Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel in Pirkei Avot:

Kol yamai gadalti bein hachachamim, v’lo matzati laguf tov ela shtikah. V’lo hamidrash hu ha’ikar ela hama’aseh. V’chol hamarbeh dvarim mevi chet.

Throughout my life, I was raised among the scholars, and I discovered that there is nothing more becoming a person than silence; not study, but doing mitzvot (actions) is the essence of virtue; excess in speech leads to sin. (1:17)

I know, I know. Wasn’t I JUST saying how important it is to speak up for justice? That was last week. This week, I’m thinking a lot about how it’s not ALWAYS important to speak up.  The ability to be silent is a pretty amazing trait (a tough one for me!). So then we have to ask ourselves: why do we push so many of our students to “participate more in class?”

This week, during Parent-Student-Teacher conferences, I was reminded again of how many students continue to get the message that they have to talk in class.

“So, do you have any questions for me?” I asked at the end of one meeting. “Yes,” said one student. “Do I need to participate more?”
“Not sure,” I responded. “Do you WANT to participate more?”

Some students wish they spoke more in class. Maybe they are nervous to say the wrong thing, or they feel like other students intimidate them. Those are students I want to help find their own voices. But I don’t believe that every student needs to “PARTICIPATE,” in the way that teachers so often say. Every year, parents tear up when I say it’s okay if their child doesn’t speak in class. “For 12 years, teachers have told us that he needs to speak more in class. This is the first time anyone has ever told us that it’s okay for him to be himself.”

Why does everyone have to speak in class? I’m grateful to Susan Cain for the TED talk “The Power of Introverts” for teaching me that not everyone processes things by speaking about them.

One student’s mother was so relieved to hear that her son could sit and listen or write his thoughts down instead of speaking them. An Asian immigrant, she said that she thinks the expectation for students to speak in class is cultural.  “In Taiwan, we were taught that silence is golden. Show humility, don’t speak too much. In America,” she said, “everyone has to self-promote.”

So I had to ask myself, what is silence worth in Jewish culture? According to the Talmud (Megilah 18a), Rav Dimi came to Babylonia with a lesson from the West (Palestine): “Milah b’sela, mashtokei b’trein.” “A word is worth one coin; silence is worth two.”

Think about Moses, our greatest prophet– decidedly not a big talker. “Lo Ish Dvarim Anochi,” he tells God in chapter 4 of Exodus. “I am not a man of words,” says our lisp-laden leader. (He does eventually learn to say what he needs to say, as Bible teacher Dorothy Weiss reflects. “He doesn’t shut up through the whole book of Deuteronomy!”)

Our greatest prophet was most likely–surprise–an INTROVERT. Most of the other prophets were, as well. And when one prophet, Elijah, is outspoken, mocking the people, making demands on God, screaming and shouting, what sign does God send him? Not a storm or an earthquake, but a kol d’mama dakah. A still small voice. “Stop yelling,” God seems to be saying. “Be quiet for once!” It is in the quiet where the Divine can be found.

It’s time we leave our introverted students alone on this “class participation” thing. We don’t need to shame them into talking more in class. My creative colleagues at Schechter have taught me well; let students write their ideas down on a class blog or share them privately with us. Not every student has to have the same personality. The rest of us (my talkative self included) have a lot to learn from these quiet learners.  If we stop talking for a moment, the silence may speak for itself.