10 Texts To Change Your Life -- Selichot 2014

שאין לך דבר שעומד בפני פקוח נפש חוץ מע"ז וגילוי עריות ושפיכות דמים.

Nothing stands before [the duty of] saving life except for idolatry, incest and murder. [AJWS translation]

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. What is the core value this text puts forth?

2. In our contemporary context when human life is lost at an astonishing rate, how can we fulfill this fundamental directive without losing our own lives?

Abraham Joshua Heschel, "A Prayer for Peace," 1971 from Abraham Joshua Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996), P. 231

O Lord, we confess our sins, we are ashamed of the inadequacy of our anguish, of how faint and slight is our mercy. We are a generation that has lost its capacity for outrage. We must continue to remind ourselves that in a free society all are involved in what some are doing. Some are guilty, all are responsible.

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. In what ways have we lost our capacity for outrage?

2. How are we responsible, as Heschel asserts? 3. What kind of mercy would Heschel like to see?

Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, "Can Social Justice Save the American Jewish Soul?", Judaism, Justice, and American Life, P. 4-5

If the Exodus created an ethnic/tribal consciousness among Jews, it was Sinai that invested in them an understanding of their mission in the world. Jewish existence was to be based on bringing tzedek and mishpat, righteousness and justice, to all God’s children. The covenant forged at Sinai committed the Jewish people to a life of ethics and values. It was the spiritual/moral genesis of the Jewish people, and it was powerfully connected to the Jewish people’s understanding of what God wants of them. The Torah’s teachings about acting with compassion (chesed), protecting the stranger in one’s midst (ahavat ger), and pursuing peace (shalom) and truth (emet) shaped the Jewish notion of how one should live in the world. Sinai consciousness is at the root of the Jewish understanding that to live true to the covenant that God established with the Jewish people at Sinai is to live a life of social responsibility.

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. According to Rabbi Schwarz, what is the mission of the Jewish people?

2. How should Jews fulfill this mission?

3. What is your social responsibility?

וטוב לב ממוצע בין הנבלה ויתרון טוב הלבב, (ומפני שאין למדות האלה שם ידוע בלשננו צריך לפרש ענינים ומה שרוצים בו הפילוסופים, לב טוב קורים מי שכל כוונתו להטיב לבני אדם בגופו ובממנו ועצתו בכל יכולתו בלתי שישיגהו נזק או בזיון והוא האמצעי, הנבל הוא הפך זה והוא מי שאינו רוצה להועיל לבני אדם בדבר אפילו במה שאין בגו חסרון ולא טורח ולא נזק, והוא הקצה האחרון, ויתרון טוב הלבב הוא שעושה הדברים הנזכרים בלב טוב, ואפילו אם ישיגהו בזה נזק גדול או בזיון או טורח רב או הפסד מרובה, והוא הקצה הראשון).

Goodness of heart - [falls] between meanness and excessive kindness. (And because these virtues do not have a name in our language - it is necessary to explain them and to explain what the philosophers wanted: A good heart - this is called to one for whom all his intentions are to improve the state of man with his body, his wisdom and his money to the maximum of his ability but without causing any harm or contempt. This is the middle path. The mean one - he is the opposite of this and he is one who does not want to contribute to humanity a thing, even things which he is not lacking and would not be a bother to him nor cause him damage. This is the fartherest extreme. And the excessively good heart - this is one who does all the things listed above in "good heart" but does them even when they cause him great damage, or contempt, or trouble, or great loss. This is the first extreme.) [AJWS translation]

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. How can we find the middle path and contribute to humanity?

2. How do we evaluate what counts as a loss or damage to the giver?

3. How can we continue to grow as individuals and as communities while repeatedly finding the middle path?

(כא) שָׂנֵ֥אתִי מָאַ֖סְתִּי חַגֵּיכֶ֑ם וְלֹ֥א אָרִ֖יחַ בְּעַצְּרֹֽתֵיכֶֽם׃ (כב) כִּ֣י אִם־תַּעֲלוּ־לִ֥י עֹל֛וֹת וּמִנְחֹתֵיכֶ֖ם לֹ֣א אֶרְצֶ֑ה וְשֶׁ֥לֶם מְרִיאֵיכֶ֖ם לֹ֥א אַבִּֽיט׃ (כג) הָסֵ֥ר מֵעָלַ֖י הֲמ֣וֹן שִׁרֶ֑יךָ וְזִמְרַ֥ת נְבָלֶ֖יךָ לֹ֥א אֶשְׁמָֽע׃ (כד) וְיִגַּ֥ל כַּמַּ֖יִם מִשְׁפָּ֑ט וּצְדָקָ֖ה כְּנַ֥חַל אֵיתָֽן׃

I loathe, I spurn your festivals, I am not appeased by your solemn assemblies. If you offer Me burnt offering- or your meal offerings- I will not accept them; I will pay no heed to your gifts of fatlings. Spare Me the sound of your hymns, and let Me not hear the music of your lutes. But let justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream. [JPS translation]

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. What is implied by the juxtaposition of God's refusal of sacrifices and God's call for justice?

2. When can religious expression be a distraction from justice work? When can it be a support?

3. Why do you think justice means here? Why is justice compared poetically to water?

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, from A. Besdin, "Man of Faith in the Modern World: Reflections of the Rav" (New York: KTAV Pub Inc, 1989)

The Modern Jew is entangled in the activities of the Gentile society in numerous ways - economically, politically, culturally, and on some levels, socially. We share in the universal experience. The problems of humanity, war and peace, political stability or anarchy, morality or permissiveness, famine, epidemics, and pollution transcend the boundaries of ethnic groups. A stricken environment, both physical and ideological, can wreak havoc upon all groups...It is our duty as human beings to contribute our energies and creativity to alleviate the pressing needs and anguish of mankind and to contribute to its welfare.

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. In what ways will we all be affected by war and famine happening far away?

2. In what ways are we meant to contribute our energies? How is this measured?

The Physician's Oath

The eternal providence has appointed me to watch over the life and health of Thy creatures. May the love for my art actuate me at all time; may neither avarice nor miserliness, nor thirst for glory or for a great reputation engage my mind; for the enemies of truth and philanthropy could easily deceive me and make me forgetful of my lofty aim of doing good to Thy children. May I never see in the patient anything but a fellow creature in pain. Grant me the strength, time and opportunity always to correct what I have acquired, always to extend its domain; for knowledge is immense and the spirit of man can extend indefinitely to enrich itself daily with new requirements. Today he can discover his errors of yesterday and tomorrow he can obtain a new light on what he thinks himself sure of today. Oh, God, Thou has appointed me to watch over the life and death of Thy creatures; here am I ready for my vocation and now I turn unto my calling. [This has been attributed to Maimonides, but was probably written by Marcus Herz, a German physician, pupil of Immanual Kant, and physician to Moses Mendelssohn. It is not known with certainty where it is from, though it first appeared in print in about 1793.]

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. Does this approach differ from modern healthcare?

2. How should healthcare providers take this oath into consideration on a daily basis?

3. Do you always view another who is struggling as a 'fellow creature in pain?' How can we truly enact empathy?

(א) בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעולָם אֲשֶׁר יָצַר אֶת הָאָדָם בְּחָכְמָה וּבָרָא בו נְקָבִים נְקָבִים חֲלוּלִים חֲלוּלִים. גָּלוּי וְיָדוּעַ לִפְנֵי כִסֵּא כְבודֶךָ שֶׁאִם יִפָּתֵחַ אֶחָד מֵהֶם או יִסָּתֵם אֶחָד מֵהֶם אִי אֶפְשַׁר לְהִתְקַיֵּם וְלַעֲמוד לְפָנֶיךָ אֲפִילוּ שָׁעָה אֶחָת:

(ב) בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' רופֵא כָל בָּשר וּמַפְלִיא לַעֲשות:

Blessed are You, God, our God, sovereign of the universe, who formed humans with wisdom and created within him many openings and many hollows. It is obvious in the presence of your glorious throne that if one of them were ruptured, or if one of them were blocked, it would be impossible to exist and stand in your presence. Blessed are You, God, who heals all flesh and performs wonders. [translation by Hazon]

Suggested Discussion Questions

The words nevakim ("openings," such as your eyes and mouth and anus) and chalulim ("cavities," such as stomach and intestines, etc.) are already in the plural, yet they are repeated twice in this prayer. Why do you think this is? What effect does it have? What does this bracha teach us about how to relate to our body?

אמר רב יהודה אמר רב מעשה באדם אחד שנתן עיניו באשה אחת והעלה לבו טינא ובאו ושאלו לרופאים ואמרו אין לו תקנה עד שתבעל אמרו חכמים ימות ואל תבעל לו תעמוד לפניו ערומה ימות ואל תעמוד לפניו ערומה תספר עמו מאחורי הגדר ימות ולא תספר עמו מאחורי הגדר.

Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: It happened once that a man cast his eye upon a woman and was overcome with great desire, so much so that he became gravely ill. They came and asked the doctors, who advised, “He cannot be healed unless he has sex with her.” The sages said, “Let him die and not have sex with her.” [The doctors suggested] “Let her stand before him naked.” The sages said, “Let him die and let her not stand before him naked.” [The doctors suggested] “Let her speak with him from behind a fence.” The sages said, “Let him die and not speak with her from behind a fence.” [AJWS translation]

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. Why was the man gravely ill? Why did he think that having sex with the woman would cure him?

2. Are we allowed to indulge our desires when they come at the expense of others? Why?

3. What values were the sages prioritizing? What is the rule that might come from this?

(ט) אַֽל־תַּ֭שְׁלִיכֵנִי לְעֵ֣ת זִקְנָ֑ה כִּכְל֥וֹת כֹּ֝חִ֗י אַֽל־תַּעַזְבֵֽנִי׃

Do not cast me off in old age; when my strength fails, do not forsake me! [JPS translation]

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. Who is the speaker here? Is that person young or old?

2. Why are we often inclined to abandon the elderly?

3. How can you and your community take steps to ensure that the elderly are properly cared for?