After several hours of concentrated effort, I finally had the presentation ready for Tikkun Leil Shavuot, a night of study dedicated to healing the entire world. But then I felt moved to share something that is not only dedicated to healing the world, but offers ways for us to actually do that healing. Our seemingly endless world filled with billions of people and multitudes of different creatures and creations might actually be affected by what you or I feel, think, do and say. This is an astounding thought but I believe it to reflect emet, truth.
The true nature of loving kindness, what we Jews call chesed, ultimately is the source of healing for ourselves and for our world. I say this knowing how complex life is and how difficult and conflictual, perhaps even treacherous, our society has become let alone the rest of the world. The true nature of love kindness also is challenging for each of us to recognize, integrate into our lives and to act with toward others. True love originates with Source and each of us finite beings is capable of connecting to this Divine and infinitely alive trait, and bringing more of it into the world. We all are aware of the worldly options at our disposal, such as voting, demonstrating, speaking out, and so forth. These tools are important and our actions may change the politics of the moment. But real change requires love, love for ourself and love for other. Chesed is the nourishment that our world needs because it is the ingredient with which the world is made:
“The world is built with chesed.” Ps. 89:2
We look into ourselves and into the world and wonder about this chesed. We all have weaknesses, we all stumble, we all fall, we hurt others, we hurt those close to us and we hurt ourselves. We transgress against humanity, other creatures, our environment and the Source of Blessing. Where is the chesed in this? Jewish tradition answers that we continue to breathe, that we are alive and that the world goes on because G!D sustains the world with chesed.
In the Jewish view, it is not enough to hold good thoughts and prayers for someone. Each of us is responsible to help sustain another person. It is our actions filled with chesed, making a phone call, visiting, giving charity, volunteering, listening with empathy, etc., that count. Some sages have taught that our actions help to open our heart, and our heart opening helps other hearts to open, and all of this leads us back to the unending Source of Divine chesed.
Yet, the doing is not enough if the doing is moved from a sense of obligation rather than from an authentic sense of generosity. Unless our action is driven by our true desire to do kindness without expectation of reward, what we do is not an act of chesed. We do something kind without expectation of quid pro quo. Tit for tat is not a consideration. Jewish tradition’s teaching about service to the dead provides a clear illustration of chesed shel emet. When we help to bury or pray for one who is dead, the person cannot repay our kindness. When we help to prepare the body for burial, the dead cannot thank us. Chesed shel emet often requires that we go beyond our normal boundaries of giving. To do chesed is to practice a kind of soul yoga-we stretch ourselves to help another who is going the opposite way.
Our father Abraham often is identified with loving-kindness, both by our prophets and kabbalists. Abraham ran to do acts of kindness for others. When he saw three strangers approaching his tent, he invited them to stay. It says in the midrash that Abraham was healing from circumcision that he had three days earlier. The rabbis believed that the greatest pain is on the third day, but regardless, Abraham invited the strangers in for nourishment and rest. Then, the Torah tells us in Gen.18:2-5:
“. Abraham rushed to Sarah’s tent and said, “Hurry! Three measures of the finest flour! Knead it and make rolls.”
“Abraham ran to the cattle and chose a tender, choice calf, He gave it to a young man who rushed to prepare it.”
Abraham rushed to do chesed. These were not actions based on conditions or obligations. Though he was healing from pain, Abraham rushed to render kindness to others. It is important that we understand that Abraham’s heart was oriented to giving and to offering kindness in substantial and sustaining ways.
Our prophet Micah (6:8) just nails this idea when he wrote:
ח הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם, מַה-טּוֹב; וּמָה-יְהוָה דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ, כִּי אִם
עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת, עִם-אֱלֹהֶיךָ.
“He has told you, O man, what is good! What does Y H V H, (Is-Was-Will Be-Being) your G!D ask of you, that you do justice, love chesed and walk humbly with your G!D.”
What does Micah mean by these words? Rabbi Hama son of Rabbi Hanina answers in the Talmud:
“The meaning is to walk after the attributes of the Holy One of Blessings. Just as G!D clothes the naked, so should you clothe the naked, as it written, (Gen 3:21) And the Eternal G!D made garments of skins for Adam and his wife and clothed them. Just as the Holy One of Blessing visited the sick, so should you visit the sick, as it is written (Gen 18:1)And the Eternal appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre. Just as the Holy One of Blessings comforted mourners, so should you also comfort mourners, as it is written (Gen. 25:11) After the death of Abraham, G!D blessed his son Isaac. Just as the Holy One of Blessing buried the dead, so should you also bury the dead, as it is written (Deuteronomy 34:6), G!D buried Moses in the valley.”
Micah and the sages are teaching us that we realize true loving-kindness, true chesed, when we imitate the attributes of G!D with a heart oriented to love, generosity and kindness. It is through acting with true chesed that we connect with Source of Chesed, Infinite One Being.
What if someone is acting in mean and hurtful ways to us or others? Some of us read Tomer Devorah together, the Palm Tree of Devorah. Its author, Rabbi Cordovera, tells us that,
“Even if one is aware that another person is doing him evil, and this angers him, if that person has some redeeming quality….this should be sufficient cause…..to delight in the kindness that he does (the mean one)….A person should say…with regard to every person….”It is enough that he has been good to me or to someone else in such and such a way, or that he has such and such a positive quality.”
In her diaries, Etty Hillesum, z”l, a Dutch Jewish women who was murdered at Auschwitz, wrote that she would look into the faces of Nazi guards for some sign of humanity.
I know that what I am saying is not easy. It requires constant refinement of our personalities and our evolving in consciousness and in spirituality. Therefore, I want to leave you with two exercises that I believe help condition the heart to loving kindness. “Love your neighbor as yourself, I am G!D.” We have to love ourselves to truly love others. These two exercises are not only soothing and promoting of wholesomeness, they also help us to continue to orient our hearts to loving-kindess.
- Go into meditation or just sit quietly for 10-15 minutes. Bring to mind something that you did that was a kind or good action that benefited someone else, that contributed to another’s well-being. If something comes to mind, allow yourself to experience the happiness of this remembrance. If nothing comes to mind, gently turn your attention to quality that you like about yourself. If still nothing comes to mind, reflect on the urge for happiness that humanity shares. (From Sharon Salzberg’s book “Lovingkindess”)
- Rabbi Jeff Roth was the first one to introduce me to this kind of “blessing meditation.” Feel free to change it in any way that you would like.
May I be blessed with good health or May I be healed or May I make friends with my body
May I be blessed with joy and compassion
May I be blessed with insight and clarity
May I be blessed with inspiration and spiritual light
Repeat this to yourself or out loud for 15-20 minutes/day for as long as you need
You cannot make a mistake in these meditations. Even if negative feelings arise or you get lost in thought, return to the meditation and begin again. Feelings will give you information about your internal environment. The skill of meditation is to return to its focus.
© 2022 Rabbi Debrah Shenefelt
- Morinis, A. (2007) Everyday Holiness, Boston: Trumpeter Books; See chapter on Loving-Kindness for a detailed discussion of this trait within the context of Mussar (Jewish Ethics)
- I heard from my rabbi, Rabbi Theodore Brod, z”l; Also see Rashi’s comment on Gen. 17:1
- b. Sotah 14a, Translation used is from Morinis op. cit. p. 193
by Marsha T. Shulman
“Integrity” is a multi-faceted word that has three (3) distinct meanings according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary sitting on my bookshelf. These are:
- A firm adherence to a code, especially of moral or artistic values; incorruptibility;
- An unimpaired condition or soundness;
- The quality or state of being complete or undivided.
Although some aspects of “integrity” can be applied to inanimate objects, as well as to persons, in this article I will be talking specifically about “integrity” from the standpoint of “a firm adherence to a code of moral values.”
Therefore, when “integrity” is talked about as a character trait, it is clear from the use of the word “integrity” that I am talking about a person who is upstanding, honest and honorable. Having “integrity” further means that a person follows through or fulfills on his promises to others or if he can’t keep a commitment, as soon as he realizes that he can’t keep it, he immediately communicates with the person to whom he made the promise and makes it right by either redefining or rescheduling the commitment in a manner that is agreeable to both parties. “Integrity” boils down to being true to oneself and one’s ideals, and being one’s authentic self at all times. “Integrity” is being honest about who you are and what you say.
You may be asking yourself, what is the difference between “honesty” and ‘integrity”? Stephen Covey, the preeminent self-help guru of the 90’s, concisely articulated the precise definitions and the difference between the two words in the following passage from his book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” Covey writes, “Integrity includes but goes beyond honesty. Honesty is conforming our words to reality. Integrity is conforming reality to our words — in other words, keeping promises and fulfilling expectations. This requires an integrated character, a oneness, primarily with self but also with life.”
Werner Erhard, the founder of the EST training, whose “work” is now offered around the world by a successor company, Landmark Education, is quoted as saying: “Integrity is often thought of as moral uprightness and steadfastness—making the “good” choices, doing the “right thing.” In fact, it is far more than that. Integrity is actually a phenomenon in and of itself. It has to do with authenticity—being true to ourselves—and it is the foundation for power and effectiveness. It is a home, a foundation, a continuing commitment—a way of being and acting that shapes who we are.”
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, Executive V.P. Emeritus of The Orthodox Union, who is a fan of the above-mentioned Stephen Covey, stated in his article “Distinguishing between Honesty and Integrity,” published on July 31, 2019, “Honesty for Covey, and I for one agree, is the virtue describing reality exactly as it is, of telling the truth.” Rabbi Weinreb further says: “For Judaism, truth, emet, is more than just a virtue. It is one of the three fundamental principles, along with justice and peace, upon which the world stands.” He further writes, “As rare as the trait of honesty is, the trait of integrity – the ability not only to say what you mean, but to mean what you say – is even more difficult to find. Integrity is the quality of conforming one’s actions to one’s words, of reliably following through on one’s commitment.”
Even in the 1600’s, in a line spoken in Act 1, Scene 3 of Hamlet, playwright William Shakespeare weighed in on the definition of “integrity” saying, “This above all: to thine own self be true, it must follow, as the night the day, Thou cans’t not be false to any man.” When one is true to one’s word (which is being true to one’s self), one cannot be but true to any man.
The above precepts of “Integrity” – of doing the right thing that is expected of us – are embedded in the foundation of Judaism and examples abound in the teachings of the Torah and the Talmud. In fact, the actions that represent an “out of integrity” and how an “out of integrity” is to be corrected are prescribed in the Bible in the Book of Leviticus, Chapter 5, Verses 20-26, as follows:
20 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,
21 If anyone sins, and betrays the Lord by dealing falsely with his neighbor concerning a deposit, a pledge, or an object of value he has taken or he has oppressed his neighbor in any such way;
22 or he had found that which was lost, yet he denies it and swears falsely to a lie regarding his actions,
23 and it shall be, if he has sinned, and is guilty, that he shall return that which he has stolen, or the thing that he had gotten by oppression, or that which had been deposited with him as collateral, or the article which he had found;
24 or anything else about which he had sworn falsely, he shall restore it in full, and shall pay the principal and add a fifth part more to it. He shall
give it to its rightful owner on the day that he repents for his guilt.”
25 He shall bring an unblemished ram of equal value from his flock to the Kohen, the priest, as his guilt offering for the Lord.
26 And the Kohen shall make atonement for him before the Lord, and the guilty one shall be forgiven for his sin.
The Torah also provides another lesson about keeping our word that can be found in the Torah portion Matot Masei – in the Book of Numbers, Chapter 30: Verse 2 – Chapter 36: Verse 13. Sometimes we overextend ourselves and make promises that we cannot possibly keep, so can a vow thus expressed be annulled?
Rabbi Weinreb speaks to this as well: “The Torah, ever practical, answers ‘yes,’ and describes some of the procedures designed to release a person from his or her vows. Most well-known among the “ceremonies” releasing us from our personal vows is the Kol Nidre prayer that ushers in Yom Kippur, a statement in which we declare our past vows null and void. It allows us to begin the Jewish New Year with a clean slate.” Judaism teaches us the primary importance of keeping our word, but it does not lose sight of our human frailties and limitations.
Rabbi Warren Goldstein, who has been the Chief Rabbi of the Union of Orthodox Synagogues of South Africa since 2005, wrote in “A Word of Torah: What is the Real Meaning of Integrity?” that “This value of integrity encapsulated in the phrase ‘say little and do much’ is connected to a network of values so essential to human greatness. One such value is the sanctity of speech and fulfilling verbal commitments.”
As I mentioned supra, additional examples of the importance of “integrity” can also be found in the Talmud. The Talmud describes the human being as the “medaber” – the “speaker.” Speech is sacred, and by extension, so are the promises we make to others.
As the great Talmudic sage, Shammai states in Pirkei Avot Chapter 1: Verse15: “Say little and do much.” According to the Talmud, saying little and doing much is in fact the defining quality of a truly righteous person – and that someone who promises much and doesn’t deliver on those promises is the very opposite of a righteous person. To illustrate this idea, the Talmud cites the example of a group of travelers who pass by Abraham’s tent in the heat of the day. (The travelers later turn out to be Angels, although Abraham did not know that when he first encountered them). Abraham runs out to meet them, promising them bread and water, but instead, he actually lays out a lavish banquet for them, or as it is said in the Talmud, “a royal banquet fit for the table of King Solomon himself!”
In fact, according to the Talmud, one of the first questions a person is asked before the heavenly court after leaving this world is, “Did you deal faithfully and honestly with others?”
Not only does God require that WE live and act with integrity, God sets the example for us. There are numerous examples in the Torah and the Talmud of God being his word and exhibiting the quality of “integrity” through his promises to the Jewish People. Here are just a few examples:
In Genesis 12:1-3, God tells Abram, “Go forth from your land, your relatives, and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you. In return, God promises three things to Abram: 1) I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you; 2) I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing, and 3) I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. All the families of the earth will find blessing in you.” As we know, God kept his promise and Sara at 100-years-old gave birth to Isaac. In fact, God fulfilled on all three of his above promises to Abraham with integrity.
A further example of God showing integrity in his relationship with the Jewish people can be found in Deuteronomy Chapter 29: Verses 9–13. In these verses Moses, after leading the Israelites through the desert for forty years, promises the Israelites that if they (and their future generations) keep God’s Covenant as God had sworn to our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, they will be blessed and will prosper. By giving the Torah to the Jewish People on Mt. Sinai, God fulfills on his promise.
One of the most powerful examples of God keeping his word to the Jewish people, is found in Deuteronomy, Chapter 30. In this Chapter, the Jews transition from being semetic wanderers in the desert, to being Klal Yisroel, a Nation. In keeping with his Covenant, God gives the Jewish people a permanent homeland – Palestine, which was subsequently re-named Israel, after Abraham’s grandson, Jacob. Jacob’s name, you may recall was changed to “Israel” after he wrestled all night with the Angel in Genesis.
It should be clear by now from the foregoing discussion and examples of “integrity,” that there are certain basic traits that are usually associated with persons of integrity. A person of integrity is authentic, genuine and real regardless of the situation. A person of integrity is also gracious, honest, trustworthy and responsible. He or she is patient, helpful, punctual and has a good work ethic.
At this point some of you may be thinking, “Possessing all of these qualities are a pretty tall order for any one human being to be able to achieve!” Instead, I suggest picturing it as a continuum: “Integrity” is at one end of the spectrum of what we as human beings should aspire to in our lives, and “lashon hara” or “evil tongue” falls at the other end of the spectrum. In more relatable terms, “lashon hara” could also be defined as derogatory speech about a person, which emotionally or financially damages them or can damage their reputation or esteem in other people’s eyes.
There is an old Chassid teaching that clearly demonstrates the damage “lashon hara” can wreak on another person’s reputation: As the teaching goes, God told a man who was notorious for speaking “lashon hora” against others to go around his village and lay a feathers at the door of each person he had spoken ill of. After that task was completed, God then told the man, “Now, go back around and pick up all the feathers you placed before the doors! The Chassid who had committed “lashon hora” was unable to retrieve all the feathers! The moral of this story is obviously that we cannot take back our words once they are out of our mouths…” “Lashon hora” is like murdering the other person’s reputation!
Now, I’d like YOU, the reader, to participate in a short exercise. It is actually a gift I am giving to you:
Please take out a piece of paper, as I believe it would be more meaningful, if you jot down a few notes, which are only for you to see.
I want you to think about a personal situation in your life in which you did not act with integrity. You can choose a situation that may have occurred very recently or one from your past. It should be fairly easy to identify such a situation, because most likely it still brings up a good amount of regret or other strong emotion for you, no matter how hard you have tried to bury it.
Considering that situation, what do you see that you could have done that you didn’t do, or asked another way, what would you have done differently if you had an opportunity for a “do over”?
If the person is still alive, what steps could and WILL you now take to clear up your integrity?
Is it too late to correct this “out-of-integrity? In other words, does the out-of-integrity involve someone who is no longer living? Even in that situation, you can do the exercise as if that person is still alive. The exercise will still have a profound effect on you!
You may not be present to the cost or toll of carrying this “out-of-integrity” around with you. You may wish to let sleeping dogs lie and avoid addressing the situation, but consider if you do address it, how freed up you will feel from no longer having to carry around this heavy burden. If it came up for you when I first asked you to think about a situation, it is definitely claiming valuable real estate in your head and your energy field.
© 2022, Marsha T. Shulman
After fifty years of supporting access to abortion services, the Supreme Court appears ready to take the right away from millions of women who rely on quality medical care when they and their doctors determine that a pregnancy should be terminated. Individual states legislatures then will regulate the status of the right in terms of how restrictive or liberal it remains and even if the right will survive at all. The Senate Minority leader speaks about Congress passing federal legislation that would outlaw and criminalize abortion throughout the United States. None of these laws and regulations will stop women from aborting unwanted pregnancies that could ruin their physical or mental health. Those with the fewest resources will bear the brunt of restricted access. Women who seek illegal abortions will once again find access to the medical procedure in back alleys and dirty rooms operated by those who profit from their misery. As in the past, more women will die.
Rabbi Shenefelt with her then 15-year-old daughter Shaina at the March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C., April 2004.
As a rabbi, I find the prospects of outlawing abortion or severely limiting it to be fundamentally against my Jewish faith. Branches of Judaism run along a continuum from the ultra-orthodox to very liberal and Jewish positions on abortion vary along the way. What all of them have in common is the belief that the status of personhood begins after the baby is born and upon his or her first breath. Judaism, like some other religions, does not teach that independent life entitled to related civil rights begins at conception. Rather, Judaism teaches that the fetus does not attain personhood protected by civil rights afforded to all human beings until after the baby can survive outside of the mother’s body. The mother’s life takes precedence over the life of the fetus which is an independent person in potential only.
The most orthodox branches of Judaism do limit the circumstances under which an abortion can take place and focus largely on the physical well-being of the pregnant woman. What constitutes “well-being” is the question that orthodox rabbis continue to answer. Furthermore, orthodox Judaism may even require abortion if the fetus is harming the health of the pregnant woman. Other branches of Judaism are far more liberal in their views. For example, the Reform movement concentrates on the dignity of the pregnant woman who has full human agency to make her own decision.
Jewish organizations have filed briefs with the Supreme Court asserting that overturning Roe v Wade will interfere with the first amendment rights of Jewish women. In Judaism, because the fetus does not achieve the status of personhood until the moment of first breath, the rights of pregnant women are primary. In some cases, Orthodox rabbis view abortion as “self-defense” if the pregnant women’s life is at stake. Furthermore, liberal Jewish tradition affords wide latitude to a pregnant woman’s emotional suffering which can be even greater than physical pain. I cannot fathom the depths of despair that a woman who is forced to carry a fetus to term would encounter. Without access to abortion as a part of quality health care, Jewish women will not be able to practice the relevant teachings of Jewish religion without interference from the government.
The conflict between the views that life begins at conception and that personhood begins with first breath remains. As a rabbi and as an American, I cannot condone any law that deprives a person of individual religious heritage. But having access to abortion does not mean that Jewish women will choose to have an abortion. I know Jewish women who believe in and support the right to choose but personally would not choose to have an abortion. Being pro-choice is not the equivalent of being pro-abortion. I honestly can say that I do not know anyone who is pro-abortion. Having the right to choose is fundamentally American and fundamentally Jewish.
We need Passover so very much this year. It is one of three holidays on which we celebrate the miracles that G!D did and does on our behalf. Acts of grace and love come straight from the heart of All reality for us and our world. We need acts of Divine grace in our world of gut-wrenching war and parallel universes that do not intersect because they are filled with “alternate realities.”
Why were the enslaved redeemed? Why did grace descend in Nissan? Until then, we were so lost in our enslavement that we could not even speak. But! We could do one true thing. We could groan.
Ex. 6:5 And I have also heard the groaning of the people of Israel, whom the Egyptians are enslaving, and I have remembered my covenant.
In Jewish mystical circles, this is called awakening from below. The truth of our groans, unexplained and undefined, pierced the heavens and Y H V H “heard” them.
G!D responded with promises of redemption from slavery of the narrow spaces, a fabulous sacred story that we read at the beginning of Passover: This is called awakening from above:
Ex. 6:6. Therefore say to the people of Israel, I am Y H V H, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will rid you from their slavery, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments;
ו לָכֵן אֱמֹר לִבְנֵי-יִשְֹרָאֵל אֲנִי יְהוָֹה וְהוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלֹת מִצְרַיִם וְהִצַּלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם מֵעֲבֹדָתָם וְגָאַלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בִּזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה וּבִשְׁפָטִים גְּדֹלִי
I share the feelings of frustration and powerlessness that so many of us have in light of the seemingly intractable problems we face as people of the world. But, remember, we also are going through a propitious time for miracles, and the Haggadah teaches us how to coax heaven, so to speak.
One of the meanings of Pesach, the Hebrew word for Passover, is speaking (sach) mouth (pe). Tell the story of our redemption, then and now. Speak one true thing to Being; one true request for redemption from the narrow places of Mitzrayim. One true groan, cry, or elaborated request opens our hearts so that we can enter into the auspicious time of Passover with some faith and trust. One true tear drop from the depths of whatever reality is confining each of us can be life-changing in our inner worlds and in the world that appears outside of us.
Pray for peace. Pray for redemption for those who others are trying to rob of their freedom. Pray for redemption from our own enslavement to the task-masters of anything that drives us to rely on powers beyond our sense of True self.
I wish each of you a meaningful and transformational Pesach!
Rabbi Devorah Chanah Talyah (Rabbi Deb)