“Hey Rabbi Jamie, what does Judaism say about…?” How many times have I heard this? People like to think that Judaism will give them a definitive answer about a given issue, but that isn’t always so.
An early Jewish sage named Ben Bag Bag said,
:בֶּן בַּג בַּג אוֹמֵר, הֲפֹךְ בָּהּ וַהֲפֹךְ בָּהּ, דְּכֹלָּא בָהּ. וּבָהּ תֶּחֱזֵי, וְסִיב וּבְלֵה בָהּ, וּמִנַּהּ לֹא תָזוּעַ, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ מִדָּה טוֹבָה הֵימֶנָּה
“Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it.” (Avot 5:22)
Ben Bag Bag is referring to the Torah, and his words remind us that in a world of multiple and varied perspectives, our tradition teaches us to look at issues and challenges from different angles. We need to recognize that others may glean different answers from the same texts and be flexible enough to find a solution that works for a specific situation.
Hebrew Free Loan operates in the same way. As an organization made up of warm and caring individuals, we recognize that no two applicants’ stories are the same. Each has some facet to their situation that makes it unique. Like the sages of the Talmud* who probed and poked at issues from all sides, we explore issues from multiple sides and perspectives, to find solutions that help people in our community meet life challenges and take advantage of life opportunities.
That you can see things afresh, no matter how many times you have looked at an issue, was apparent to me at Purim, which was celebrated last month. And as I plan for Passover, which begins Wednesday evening, April 5th, one would think that by now I would have culled each holiday’s embedded ideas, and each year’s celebrations would be the same. Why should I expect to experience Purim or Passover differently from year to year given that we read the same core texts every time (the Book of Esther for Purim and the Haggadah for Passover)? Because each year, I read these texts with the fresh eyes of my growing life experience and awareness of changing world events.
Purim commemorates the saving of the Jewish people from a threatened massacre in ancient Persia. As a child, we dressed up as the main characters – Queen Esther, Queen Vashti, Mordechai – though today you may find a teenage ninja turtle or a Harry Potter thrown in. For many, Purim is a raucous celebration of “they tried to kill us, they failed, and now let’s eat.” But when I look at the holiday through my adult eyes, other themes emerge. I see the feminism of Queen Vashti, who stood up to King Achashverosh when he demanded she dance before him. I recognize that to stay safe as a minority in a foreign land, one must have friends in high places, like the Jewish Esther who becomes queen and saves the Jews through her proximity to the king. In the Purim of my childhood, difficult passages of the story were skipped over, such as the passage where revenge is taken on those who could have harmed the Jewish community. The Jewish people haven’t often been in a position of power or able to take revenge. Perhaps these verses were a retributive fantasy, but this darker message – that a Jewish community was capable of causing indiscriminate harm to others – hits me hard.
Passover commemorates the Israelites’ exodus from slavery in Egypt to living as a free people. And as I prepare for the conversations at our seder dinner, I am cognizant that the world is changing, and so am I. This year, rather than thoughts of Moses and the Israelites’ exodus from slavery to freedom, my mind turns to the hard work ahead to change our ways, if we want to live in a world that we feel good about passing on to our children and grandchildren. We need to work to save our planet and to protect the democratic liberties that we value, here and in Israel.
As we strive to address these challenges, like the sages of the Talmud we don’t always agree on what to do. Two of the Talmud’s most famous figures, Hillel and Shammai, had very different approaches to issues. Hillel was known for moderation, and Shammai took more of a hardline approach. Still, they modeled that inquisitive exploration of an idea from all sides, and showed us the value of continued dialogue.
At Hebrew Free Loan, we are proud that our tradition guides us to embrace the broad diversity of our Jewish community with open minds and hearts that want to help. When you approach us for assistance, know that we will be engaging in a thousand-year tradition by examining your situation from many sides to find the unique solution that meets your needs.
“Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it.”
*The Talmud, a record of rabbinic debates from the 2nd to 5th centuries, documents all these differing angles of inquiry.