Parashat B’haalot’cha 5783
Delivered June 17, 2022
Last week, Rabbi Gordon concluded her remarks by asking us to send loving care and blessings to someone within each of our own personal spheres. I want to start tonight in that same place.
I would like to invite you to close your eyes and bring to mind someone you admire. This can be someone you know personally or someone you have observed from afar, the writer you never miss reading or the musician whose album you can’t stop listening to, a loved one who has long since died or a child whose sense of wonder sparks something similar within yourself.
Bring to mind someone for whom you have admiration.
When my grandmother died, on the first night of Shiva, we held a minyan. I led the service, and as I am accustomed to doing, asked if anyone wanted to share a memory before we said Kaddish. Some told brief stories. And then, my cousin tearily said, “Your grandmother was my hero.” Imagine that person for whom you would say something similar.
Next, imagine the attributes that generate your admiration. What is it about the person that generates your respect? Like Abraham, maybe the person responded bravely to the call of Lech l’cha, that he went out and made a legacy for himself. Or is the person more like Moses, willing to stand up to an unjust and cruel Pharaoh? It might be she’s Ruth, spiritually attuned to family and future, saying “Wherever you go, I will go, your people will be my people, your God, my God.”
In thinking through what we admire about these individuals, we are like museum-goers who have stopped to linger in front of a large portrait, slowly taking in all the details from edge to edge of the canvas. The best portraits hanging in any gallery convey more than beauty, they signal to the viewer something about the subject’s character. In the best portraits, we can come to admire the beauty of the person’s inner traits.
Hold on to that image of the person you are thinking of, and the qualities that make up who they are or were. While the clothes make the man, the person’s inner nature, their way of being, defines the sort of regard with which we hold them.
The Rabbis whose teachings are recorded in Pirkei Avot also taught that we should be clear eyed about what makes a person’s character worthy of admiration. There we find the teaching that:
Seven things… define a wise person: the wise never speak before someone of greater stature, they do not interrupt, they are not quick to answer, they ask questions that are plain and to the point, they speak of first things first and last matters lastly, about something they do not understand they say, ‘I do not understand,’ and they always acknowledge the truth.1
Translating this list, then, we can say the wise give deference to their teachers and to their fellow, they show curiosity, speak their mind, speak truth, and make sure to communicate in a clear and organized fashion.
Importantly, this teaching has one other component, an opposite. Were we looking at the text on the page, after outlining these seven attributes of the chakham, we read, “the unrefined person (golem) is the opposite.” If you want to paint a portrait of an empty vessel of a person, describe them as someone who jumps on another’s words, who answers first in every situation, puts forward unfounded answers, speaks in a long-winded and rambling way, always seems to have a perspective about matters for which they are not expert, and they lie. About these folks, the text describes them as golem, an empty shell of a person.
But the wise are our focus tonight: Seven attributes go into building the ideal of a human being. In the Jewish tradition, seven represents wholeness. I do not believe, though, that we need to embody all the traits of a chakham to achieve the spiritual goal of wisdom. Perhaps one or two will do.
In the Book of Proverbs,2 we read Eishet Chayil, an acrostic poem that outlines the rare, capable wife, whose worth is beyond rubies. In a plain reading of this poem, one meets a woman who is good to her husband and family, who has a career by day and who still manages a multi-course dinner each night. She has an abundance of strength, her lamp never goes out. She gives tzedakah regularly, her children declare her happy, and her husband praises her.
Many have said much about this poem over time, especially in the last handful of decades during the major waves of feminist thinking. Some love it, others not. It is traditional for a husband to recite the poem to his spouse at the Shabbat table. I am forbidden from reciting it in my home.
Which I welcome because the poem describes an asymmetrical marriage, far from the partnership ethic by which my wife and I operate. Yet, I also will admit nostalgia for Eishet Chayil because my wife is, in her own way, a woman of valor.
In reading the poem, she does not check all the boxes. Who does? If there were a parallel text describing a husband in kind, I too would fall short. And so, even while we wax poetic about our admiration of others, we are also called to check that our regard is reasonable, that our respect does not swerve into hero worship. Because then, we set up unreasonable expectations for others and for ourselves, standards by which no imperfect person could ever meet. No one can insist that we be superheroes, only to act with a humility and dedication, to do right for ourselves, to honor our relationships and commitments, and to walk humbly with God.
In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites are wandering through the wilderness, and there, receiving Torah and Mitzvot, teachings and instructions on how to both be a community and collectively serve God. In that context, Moses says to the Israelites, “Imdu v’esh’m’a’, Stand and let me understand the commandments that the Eternal God is giving You.”3
To stand and understand—these are attributes the Rabbis read back into that list of seven given in Pirkei Avot.4
Moses stood with the Israelites. Moses had regard for his People Israel. We know, even if the Israelites complained, they too loved Moses. They stood together, in mutual admiration.
And, Moses asked to understand what God was asking of them, showing curiosity. The Israelites will say soon enough, “Na’asei v’nishma’, we will do, and we will understand.” Both Moses and Israel seek understanding: the understanding of their service to one another and the understanding of their being in relationship with God.
In the character set of wisdom, understanding and being at attention in the presence of others, these attributes cannot be understated.
And so, let’s close by coming back to the person whom we each first imagined. Each of us is the embodiment of a full set of character traits. How are we doing on that scorecard? How are others doing on the scorecard we carry for them? If you were to take out a list and draft up the attributes you hope others would admire about you, what would be on that list? Are there character traits of which you are not so proud, one’s you might like to have excised from that list?
If Numbers or Proverbs or Pirkei Avot are to teach us anything this Shabbat, it is this: We are to pay attention to the traits that make us, us. We link our lives to one another in a mutual bond of caring. And, our lives are finite. Understanding all of this, then, we are invited to ask: “So, what is that I want to be known for?”
1 Pirkei Avot 5:7.
3 Numbers 9:8.
4 Avot D’Rabbi Natan 37.