Everyone Has A Unique Perspective

Some of my favorite Jewish personalities are those who bring about fresh perspectives despite the well-worn paths in Torah. While many do little more than quote the scholars of the past, my personal favorite thinkers are those who will be quoted in generations to come from now for their unique insight. While you would assume that these individuals are incredibly intimidating, they also happen to be some of the most approachable figures in existence. They have their own doubts and fears just like the rest of us. In fact, many of these thinkers are so similar to the average person that one may not realize their own genius. I would go even further to argue that even every common person has their own contribution to Judaic thought. My main source for this theory would be Exhibit A: Myself.

While I have a blog online that discusses Jewish ideas, I’ve always said I’d rather be the talk show host than the interviewed guest. My knowledge of Hebrew is mediocre at best and I’m not particularly well-studied in comparison to many of my fellow online Jewish writers. I’ve sat across from scholars fluent in several languages, those who had entire works committed to memory — those with all sorts of titles before and after their names on very expensive pieces of paper. I am not one of these people. I am the one who dreams of simply reading the books published under their names. Despite this, I believe that every person has a unique perspective on the well-worn path of Torah scholarship and Jewish life. I didn’t realize this as much until someone brought one of my ideas up in conversation — me, a quasi-educated Midwesterner trying to catch up with my own Judaism.

In October of 2014, I published an article in which I argued that the 10th commandment of the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) was the most underrated commandment of the ten. The piece was called “The Most Underrated Yet Most Destructive Sin.” In it, I basically argued that the act of coveting was the basis for all other averiot (sins). One must desire something in a way that is unhealthy before they act upon such a desire. One steals because they covet an object. They commit acts of violence or infidelity because something appears to be in the way of what they covet. Even desecrating the Shabbat is done so when one covets not being “burdened” by the Shabbat’s stipulations.

This didn’t necessarily seem like an earth-shattering piece to me, but fell more under the criteria of “Judaism According to Ken.” Some years later, I was visiting Congregation B’nai Israel, the headquarters of the Karaite Jews of America in Daly City, California — just a little ways outside of San Francisco. After Erev Shabbat dinner, I was sitting with my friends, Shawn Lichaa (creator of A Blue Thread) and Tomer Mangoubi — an MIT graduate and accomplished Karaite Jewish scholar. They both wanted to talk more about my idea about the 10th Commandment being linked to all other transgressions. They seemed to be making a bigger deal about it than I thought they would and seemed to hold the opinion in very high regard.

 

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Shawn, his son Reuven, Tomer, and James Walker (in kippah)

 

“Do you realize that this was an opinion held by the Karaite sage Hakham Nisi Ben Noach in his work ‘Bitan Maskilim’?” Tomer uttered.
I shrugged, as I had never heard of Hakham Nisi Ben Noach. They continued to shower me with compliments about coming to such an insightful conclusion.

“Yeah, well…how do you know that I didn’t just rip that idea off from ‘Bitan Maskilim’?” I murmured as a means of reminding them that it was me they were talking about — not some published authority.

“Because ‘Bitan Maskilim’ has never been translated into English and I know that your Hebrew isn’t that great,” Shawn said with a truthful laugh. He was right — my Hebrew, especially then, was trash. Though he had said this for the entire room to hear, the previous compliments on my ideas about “לא תחמד” more than outweighed any potential embarrassment I could have felt.

While I continue to study Torah, I would be tremendously surprised if I ever were to come up with many more ideas that would seemingly warrant such accolades — after all, coming up with “ooh-ahh” concepts is not the reason I study. Still, I would encourage any person to share their own perspectives with their peers. If someone like me — who couldn’t pass for a talmid hakham on TV — can come to an insightful conclusion worth repeating, surely you have an entire book to write.

“Whoever is able to write a book and does not, is as if he has lost a child.”

– Rabbi Nachman of Breslov

Hallowed To Hollowed: Why The 10 Commandment Monument Should Come Down

For many of my friends, I’m that guy they ask about the Bible, God, religion, and spirituality in general. Being an observant Jew in Oklahoma – a place where many people of my generation are fairly burnt out on religion from certain people forcing their faith on them, I guess many ask me for feedback because I’m not trying to convince them of anything. I’m not trying to convert them to my religion and they probably find that makes me an unbiased source with no ulterior motive. Being that I’m that guy, I started receiving some questions about the State of Oklahoma’s back and forth disputes about having a monument depicting the Ten Commandments on the State Capitol.

My response? Take it down.

I know that seems like a strange response from a religious person, much less a Jewish person, but I feel that the display is simply unnecessary…and frankly, a bit offensive.

To explain why I want the Ten Commandments removed from the Oklahoma State Capitol, I probably need to explain the motivations of the proponents of such a display. I understand perfectly well that Christianity is the majority faith not only of Oklahoma, but of the United States in general. Many will argue that the very basis of our legal system is directly inspired by the Hebrew Bible. In order to maintain this link to our nation’s heritage, the motivation to display the Ten Commandments seems to make just as much sense as displaying the Magna Carta. The argument from proponents is that the Founding Fathers were mostly Christians and therefore founded our country’s legislation based on Judeo-Christian values. According to that logic, the Ten Commandments are a list of rules that both Jews and Christians can get behind. Seems reasonable enough, right?

From Hallowed To Hollowed

I could start off on a rant about how many of the most influential Founding Fathers were not only not religious, but were anti-religion ( “Priests and conjurors are of the same trade.” – Thomas Paine. “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty.” – Thomas Jefferson), but that’s not really the reason I don’t personally care to see the Ten Commandments on the Capitol lawn. The problem I have with displaying the Ten Commandments on government property does not stem from any qualms I have with the Ten Commandments themselves, but rather the opposite is true – these hallowed concepts are being reduced to a hollow symbol.

As Jews, our lives can be compared to that of professional organizers – spiritual organizers. Part of our observance has traditionally been to acknowledge God in the world where He normally goes unnoticed. Part of the way we do this is with b’rachot (“b’rah-khot”), or blessings. We don’t bless objects such as food, religious articles, or periods of time, but we bless God for His setting certain things of concepts aside for specific purposes. As Rabbi Yehuda HaKohen once said, “A b’racha is a protest against taking something for granted.” As the Shabbat (Sabbath) begins, we make a b’racha (“brah-kha” – singular version of b’rachot) to separate that day from the rest of the days. This is one way that we observe the 4th Commandments – “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” The word for “holy” is “קדוש” which means literally to separate for a specific purpose. The same word is used in the b’racha we say to open the Shabbat, “Baruch atta Adonai, m’kadeish haShabbat” – “Blessed are You, Lord, Who sanctifies (separates for a specific purpose) the Sabbath.” When the Shabbat has come to a close, we again sanctify it by blessing God in order to praise Him for separating it from the rest of the days of the week. “Baruch atta Adonai, hamav’dil bein kodesh l’chol” – “Blessed are You, Lord, who separates between the sacred and the secular.”

The majority of individuals who are in favor of the Ten Commandments monument being displayed could not, off the top of their heads, tell you the significance of why the 4th commandment should be displayed on government property. Why? Because to display this commandment on government property stands in opposition to the concept of “קדוש” – to separate for a specific purpose. These are not secular guidelines for living. Sure, half of them are great guidelines for how to interact with your fellow man (“Do not murder” , “Do not steal” , “Do not bear false witness”…) but the first half of them are specific instructions for a specific people on how to interact with their God. These are not to be subject to a cherry-picking which one’s are most convenient. To push these commandments on people who do not acknowledge this God is to make these commandments no longer “קדוש” – no longer, by definition, holy.

Most dangerously, the modern motivation for erecting such a monument on government property is not to promote the values corresponding to the 10 Commandments, but to hijack them for political sway. Many feel that religion and God are falling out of popularity so the obvious choice is to erect monuments to ensure this doesn’t happen. Erecting monuments as a means of preserving an ideal is more closely tied to the Egypt the Israelites fled than the ways of the God they ran to. God doesn’t look down on the monuments we make to Him with pleasure; the evidence being where He originally chose to dwell with us – a tent.

When a people attempt to make a secular government more holy pushing religion into it, it is not the government that becomes more holy but the religion that becomes more secular.

(Photo credit:JOHN CLANTON/Tulsa World)

Podcast Episode 4 – The Most Underestimated Commandment

Transcript:

Shalom everyone and welcome to episode 4 of the Okie Hebrew Podcast. I’m Ken Lane, aka: Yefet ben Ezra of OkieHebrew.com and this podcast will cover something extremely unique we find in the Torah: legislation of the mind. Let’s get into it! 
I’ve noticed that there’s one mitzvah – one commandment that gets the least amount of attention – yet deserves the most – and it’s found in Exodus 20 at the tail end of the rest of the 10 commandments. 
לֹ֥א תַחְמֹ֖ד בֵּ֣ית רֵעֶ֑ךָ לֹֽא־תַחְמֹ֞ד אֵ֣שֶׁת רֵעֶ֗ךָ וְעַבְדֹּ֤ו וַאֲמָתֹו֙ וְשֹׁורֹ֣ו וַחֲמֹרֹ֔ו וְכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר לְרֵעֶֽךָ
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey or whatever belongs to your neighbor.” 

Seems pretty straight forward, right? Think again – literally! Though classically thought of as the 10th Commandment (or utterance) of the Decalogue, this prohibition is one that surpasses one’s physical conduct and requires the practitioner to actually adjust the way they think. In most teachings on the Decalogue, this mitzvah gets swept under the rug because it’s almost impossible to enforce. How does anyone else know when you’re admiring the form of the lady bent over the copy machine in the office or shaking your mental fist at your buddy’s new car when you compare it to your clunker? 

What’s even more startling is when you realize that, though this mitzvah is dead-last on the list of the ten utterances, it’s almost always responsible for us committing the other nine. Whether you envy your friends who go out to the movies on Shabbat or allow your heart to lead by your head over some infatuation with someone other than your spouse, what leads up to transgressing the mitzvah of breaking Shabbat or committing adultery is the “act” of coveting something. Though the tablets of stone end with this one, they also start with this one. 

One of the most detrimental aspects of violating this commandment is the effect it has on relationships. No other sin pins brother against brother, friend against friend and destroys community faster. All power-grabs are attributed to transgression of this mitzvah. In the same way, many marriages have been destroyed by the wandering eyes and therefore wandering hearts of spouses. Every day, they see what they could have had. This turns from seemingly innocent “window shopping” to entire fantasies built up in people’s minds until they feel they must act for the sake of fulfilling their own desires. Just as soon as the fantasy has a chance to become a dream-come-true for the coveter, it becomes a nightmare for their spouse and family – oftentimes for them as well. 

Just like other sins we strive to avoid, the 10th commandment is no different – it requires preparation. In the same way you prepare for Shabbat by making sure you have the day off work, grocery shopping beforehand and working out all of the details the week prior, abstaining from coveting works in a similar way. Here are few of those ways. 

  • Guard Your Eyes: Modesty goes beyond what you wear – it’s also where you choose to indulge. If your eyes are a hurdle, practice looking away from potentially tempting sights. It’s difficult at first so you may need to “feed your animal” a bit by rewarding yourself on your successes until it becomes habit. If you can successfully keep your eyes off the cute guy in marketing (sorry, ladies – I’m taken) or other things that may tempt you, reward yourself with something you like – just make sure it’s kosher. 
  • Train Your Brain: Sometimes, whether you like it or not, temptation will always find it’s way to your line of vision. You may have to work with that lady who insists on wearing low-cut blouses everyday and you really do value her friendship. In these situations, conjure up the most unsavory thought you can think of. Imagine that same blouse on your buddy Carl who is about 40 pounds overweight and maybe doesn’t shower everyday. Better yet, imagine she’s Carl – warts, odors and all! 
  • Remember What You Have: One of the biggest reasons people start to covet what other people have is that they take what they themselves have for granted. While your husband may not have the broad shoulders of that handsome UPS guy that delivers to your neighborhood, remember why you married your husband in the first place. He loves you and cares for you. He would be do anything for you. Recall all of the things that first drew you to him. Keep this at the forefront of your mind. One practice that many observant Jews use to keep their mind in the right place is by reciting blessings over the little things in life. Rabbi Yehuda HaKohen once said in a shiur, “A bracha (blessing) is a protest against taking things for granted.” When you make a bracha over your food, you’re actively telling God, “This may just be a hum-drum sandwich out of a plastic bag, but it’s from You and I haven’t forgotten that.” In the same way, you should periodically make a bracha over your husband, your wife, your children, your parents, heck – even your clunker.“Blessed are you God, King of the Universe, Who has blessed me with this 1987 Plymouth Horizon. I could be walking 7 miles to work, but I have this!” (Side note: I really do miss my ’87 Plymouth Horizon…not that I’m coveting those who have them…just saying…) 

Abstaining from coveting requires a perception shift. It requires the conscious act of not reducing objects to their lowest form of your emotional desires, but instead seeing people as they are – fellow earthlings with their own doubts and fears just like you. By coveting, you’re taking your attention away from a feeling of gratitude and shifting it towards greed – which will never satisfy. Choose an attitude of gratitude. 

So, the question remains – why is this mitzvah listed amongst the 10 utterances?! It can’t be legislated. No prosecution in the world can find sufficient evidence for a crime that is committed within your own heart and mind. 
What’s the answer? God wants to help you. What is unique about this mitzvah? We don’t find a listed punishment for breaking it. If you kidnap, you can be killed. If you harm someone, you have to make restitution. Even if you commit manslaughter, you’re exiled for a time. If you covet something, then what? 

The only evidence that can be found regarding this mitzvah is the evidence of God’s love for you. You see, this mitzvah is a tool for you to use. It’s a freedom from the distractions of vanity. It’s a training regimen for your mind to not be tied up things that really don’t matter – in the urges that, when misallocated, become destructive. And I’m not talking destructive on some lofty spiritual plane – no, destructive to your daily life and to your household. If you’re conditioned to crave what you don’t have (many times, just because you don’t have it), you’re not only never satisfied with what God gives you, but then it’s incredibly difficult to truly experience happiness and simple pleasures. We hear stories of millionaires and billionaires and we want that life. They have gorgeous wives, handsome husbands, cars, fancy vacations, extravagant houses with all the amenities and then what? Many of those marriages end in divorce. Some of these people go bankrupt. Some turn to drugs and other addictions simply to fill the void – the void of “enough.” God gives us this mitzvah as a tool to help us see “enough.” Then these people that we once thought were on top of the world look to the poor family with the children that truly love their parents, the husband and wife whose love has been strengthened by having to weather storm after storm, their ability to be satisfied by simple joys. They covet this.

This commandment is a gift – the gift of joy and happiness – even in the tiny amount of material things we possess in this world. God blesses us with this law for our own sake. 

This has been episode 4 of the Okie Hebrew Podcast. I hope that it’s been a blessing for you in order to help you better appreciate what you have in this world. I’m Ken Lane, aka: Yefet ben Ezra of OkieHebrew.com. Shalom!

The Most Underrated Yet Most Destructive Sin

It’s usually the time leading up Yom Kippur that most of us focus on the concept of sin, but really the best time to focus on sin is the moment immediately following that time. With this in mind as we start a new Torah cycle, I’ve noticed that there’s one het, or sin, that gets the least amount of attention – yet deserves the most:

לֹ֥א תַחְמֹ֖ד בֵּ֣ית רֵעֶ֑ךָ לֹֽא־תַחְמֹ֞ד אֵ֣שֶׁת רֵעֶ֗ךָ וְעַבְדֹּ֤ו וַאֲמָתֹו֙ וְשֹׁורֹ֣ו וַחֲמֹרֹ֔ו וְכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר לְרֵעֶֽךָ
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey or whatever belongs to your neighbor.”
– Exodus 20:17

When Scripture Legislates Thought

Seems prettystraightforwardd, right? Think again – literally! Though classically thought of as the 10th Commandment of the Decalogue, this prohibition is one that surpasses one’s physical conduct and requires the practitioner to actually adjust the way they think. In most teachings on the Decalogue, this mitzvah gets swept under the rug because it’s almost impossible to enforce. How does anyone else know when you’re admiring the form of the lady bent over the copy machine in the office or shaking your mental fist at your buddy’s new car when you compare it to your clunker? This is a tough one.

Why The 10th Commandment Should Actually Be The First

What’s even more startling is when you realize that, though this het is dead-last on the list of commandments, it’s almost always responsible for committing the other nine. Whether you envy your friends who go out to the movies on Shabbat or you’re a teenager and begrudge your friends who get to go out when you’re grounded, what leads up to transgressing the mitzvah of breaking Shabbat or sneaking out when your parents tell you to stay home is the “act” of coveting something. Though the tablets of stone end with this one, they also start with this one.

When a “Dream-Come-True” Becomes a Nighmare

One of the most detrimental aspects of violating this commandment is the effect it has on relationships. No other sin pins brother against brother, friend against friend and destroys community faster. All power-grabs are attributed to this het. In the same way, many marriages have been destroyed by the wandering eyes and therefore wandering hearts of spouses. Every day, they see what they could have had. This turns from seemingly innocent “window shopping” to entire fantasies built up in people’s minds until they feel they must act for the sake of fulfilling their own desires. Just as soon as the fantasy has a chance to become a dream-come-true for the coveter, it comes a nightmare for their spouse and family.

Like Getting Ready For Sabbath, Get Ready For a Covet-Free Day

Just like other sins we strive to avoid, the 10th commandment is no different – it requires preparation. In the same way you prepare for the Sabbath by making sure you have the day off work, grocery shopping beforehand and working out all of the details the week prior, abstaining from coveting works in a similar way.
  • Guard Your Eyes: Modesty goes beyond what you wear – it’s also where you choose to indulge. If your eyes are hurdle, practice looking away from potentially tempting sights. It’s difficult at first so you may need to “feed your animal” a bit by rewarding yourself on your successes until it becomes habit. If you can successfully keep your eyes off the cute guy in marketing (sorry, ladies – I’m taken) or other things that may tempt you, reward yourself with something you like – just make sure it’s kosher. 😉
  • Train Your Brain: Sometimes, whether you like it or not, temptation will always find it’s way to your line of vision. You may have to work with that lady who insists on wearing low-cut blouses everyday and you really do value her friendship. In these situations, conjure up the most unsavory thought you can think of. Imagine that same blouse on your buddy Carl who is about 40 pounds overweight and maybe doesn’t shower everyday. Better yet, imagine she’s Carl – warts, odors and all!
  • Remember What You Have: One of the biggest reasons people start to covet what other people have is that they take what they themselves have for granted. While your husband may not have the broad shoulders of that handsome UPS guy that delivers to your neighborhood, remember why you married your husband in the first place. He loves you and cares for you. He would be do anything for you. Keep this at the forefront of your mind. One practice that many observant Jews use to keep their mind in the right place is by reciting blessings over the little things in life. Rabbi Yehuda HaKohen once said in a shiur, “A bracha (blessing) is a protest against taking things for granted.” When you make a bracha over your food, you’re actively telling God, “This may just be a hum-drum sandwich out of a plastic bag, but it’s from You and I haven’t forgotten that.” In the same way, you should periodically make a bracha over your husband, your wife, your children, your parents, heck – even your clunker. “Blessed are you God, King of the Universe, Who has blessed me with this 1987 Plymouth Horizon. I could be walking 7 miles to work, but I have this!” (Side note: I really do miss my ’87 Plymouth Horizon…not that I’m coveting those who have them…just saying…)
In the end, abstaining from coveting requires a perception shift. It requires not reducing objects to their lowest form of your emotional desires, but instead seeing people as they are – fellow earthlings with their own doubts and fears just like you. By coveting, you’re taking your attention away from a feeling of gratitude and shifting it towards greed – which will never satisfy. Today, choose an attitude of gratitude.