Archive for the 'kinot' Category

18
May
11

Hillula d’Rabbi Meir Ba’al Haness


Last evening, SYR and I had the privilege to be at Sidney and Tammy Cohen‘s (partners at 18 Restaurant) apartment in Manhattan. We were there to commemorate the Hilula (yohrtzeit, as we ashkenazim call it) of Rabbi Meir Ba’al Haness. I had never heard of this custom until I got Tammy’s email last week… How I wish I had known of it earlier in my life!

Among walls covered with portraits of a very young Baba Sali (whose haunting eyes seemed to pierce right through me) and Chagall like paintings, the crowd, the tfilot, the candles, the food, made it all very special…

Dips galore, mashed potatoes, fish, couscous, chicken, beef and more...

Who was Rabbi Meir Ba’al Haness? The Babylonian Talmud, in Tractate Gittin 56a relates:

As he [Nero] came close, he shot an arrow towards the east and it fell in Jerusalem. He then shot an arrow to the west and it fell in Jerusalem. [He shot] towards the four points of the compass and it fell in Jerusalem. He then asked a [passing] boy, “Tell me the verse [from Scripture] you learned [today].” He [the boy] said, “I will place my vengeance upon Edom by the hand of my people Israel [Ezekiel 25:14].” He [Nero] said, “The Holy One, blessed be He, wishes to destroy His House and lay the blame on me.” He [Nero] ran away and became a proselyte. From him came Rabbi Meir.”

Rabbi Meir, the descendant of a former Roman emperor, eventually became a staunch supporter of Bar Kochba‘s rebellion against the Romans. Why was he called Meir, when tradition says that his name was either Nahori or Misha? “Meir” means “Illuminator,” as someone who illuminated the mind’s eye of students and scholars alike to give them an understanding of both the Written and the Oral Laws, he came to be known as Meir.

“Ba’al Haness” means “Master of Miracles,” why was that name added to him? It is related that on a certain occasion when a pack of wild dogs ran over to tear him apart, Rabbi Meir cried out: “Eloka d’Meir aneini – God of Meir answer me,” the dogs retreated. The Roman guard of a brothel was about to be hanged for having taken a bribe. He was bribed so as to allow Rabbi Meir‘s wife (Bruriah‘s) sister to escape (while still untouched) from the brothel where the Romans had condemned her to live her life in shame (after they killed her parents, the saintly R. Chananya ben Teradyon - one of the 10 martyrs we mention in the kinot of Tisha B’Av – and his wife). As the noose was tightened around the guard’s neck he cried out, “God of Meir answer me,” the rope tore – to everyone’s amazement – and the guard was saved!

Harav Raphael Benchimol, rabbi of the Manhattan Sephardic Congregation, very eloquently told the evening’s participants that the specific date 14th of Nissan (Pessach Sheini). was a very propitious time for asking Rabbi Meir Baal Haness to intercede in one’s behalf. As I walked around the room, I heard touching, gripping stories of people’s prayers being answered. Even over this last weekend in Providence, RI, I heard one such story…

Rabbi Benchimol: "If you need anything, or if you have lost your way, Rabbi Meir Ba'al Haness will help you find it..."

After Ma’ariv, people lit candles – on a specially set up table – while saying twice, “Eloka d’Meir aneini,” as each silently concentrated on his/her requests…

The emotions, the fervor, were contagious...

Meeting friends and friendly strangers, praying with them mincha and later ma’ariv, listening to the Rabbi’s divrey Torah, pouring out my heart as I concentrated on my personal requests – while lighting my candle – the delicious food, the drinks, made this a very inspiring and enchanted evening. Thank you Sidney, thank you Tammy.

Eloka d’Meir aneinU! God of Meir, answer US all!

CS

18
Jul
10

Survival of the nicest? – The strange case of George R. Price.


As we abjure from physical pleasures for 25 hours this Tisha B’Av, fasting, mourning, deep in contemplative prayer, reading the Kinot and the Book of Lamentations (Eicha), commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples and other calamities that befell the Jews, I give you the strange case of George R. Price.

Several weeks ago, I caught the tail end of an NPR (820 am on the radio dial) segment. The piece described George R. Price- physical chemist, population geneticist, science journalist, mathematical and theoretical biologist, a quirky eccentric genius.  He worked on the Manhattan Project, acted as consultant on graphic data processing for IBM, and even worked as a cancer research assistant.

George R. Price

George Price was also a man obsessed with the apparent altruism found in nature (a term coined by August Comte) and its negation drawn from the Darwinian Theory of natural selection and the survival of the fittest. (Don’t leave just yet, there is a point drawn from the reference.) Unlike reciprocal symbiotic relationships typified by the primate behavior of ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’, biological altruism refers to cases in nature where life forms as divergent as bacteria and dolphins exhibit behaviors analogous to kindness and sacrifice for the greater good. The honey bee, for example, may perform 100 times or more a ‘waggle dance’ -a pin-pointing signal for beehive members to spot food and new nesting sites. Essential for the colony’s survival, it does not directly benefit the waggle dancer worker bee. There are cooperative behaviors found in social insects like bees, wasps and ants; for example, sterile females in the colonies assist reproducing females with their offspring.  The loud squawk of the ‘watchman’ bird alerts other birds to the approach of predators like hawks, giving the flock time to fly off, while drawing the attention of the prey to itself. Wolves, lions and other animals risk their lives hunting prey, bringing back food for other members of their pack. The pelican will provide fish for blind pelicans within their flock. “The Arabian babblers (small birds) dance and take baths together, offer themselves gifts, clean themselves, and sometimes enter into conflict with each other for the privilege of helping another babbler. They may also feed their counterparts” (wiki) Dogs and other ‘sympathetic’ creatures often adopt strays or orphaned animals outside their species. Dolphins support sick or injured animals, swimming under them for hours at a time, pushing them to the surface so they can breathe. Darwin knew of these altruistic behaviors and it is said to have vexed him. Others came up with game theories (see John von Neumann, Oskar Morgenstern, John Maynard Smith) that mathematically tried to quantify, rationalize and find equilibrium (see Nash equilibrium) to behaviors in humans and in animals in which one individual benefits at another’s expense.

George Price, expanded on game theory, and spent years trying to come up with a mathematical equation to express altruistic behavior in nature and how such traits are genetically passed on. Eventually he did, and it became known as the Price Equation. The ability to quantify such an equation actually depressed George Price, for it meant that altruism was now a quantifiable, pre-determined, not chance or willed action, but rather inevitable. He abandoned his deep-seated atheism, coming to believe that it was beyond coincidence, but rather an act of Divine intervention, that led him to such a highly improbable equation.  He obsessively spent his remaining days trying to prove that the human spirit was greater than any random probability or equation; helping the poor, giving all his possessions to street beggars and drunks.  The depletion of his funds to aid the needy, the cruel actions of others, along with his physical/emotional deterioration, resulted in the tragic taking of his own life in 1975.

What struck me so strongly in all of this, was how a heretofore atheist came to see the ‘spirit’ of man to have the powers to dominate above all scientific reason or postulate. That in spite of the pre-programmed altruism in nature, such a brilliant mind could come to cherish the notion of a human spirit capable of willful good and selfless kindness toward others as such a strong driver that man can free himself from his animalistic, limited, determined nature and spirit the cause of something higher than himself.

The Jewish concept of sympathetic altruism whether reciprocal in nature or not is one of the cornerstones of the Jewish people.  The reward system and reciprocal benefits of the world to come is secondary to the obligation of each Jew to act for the well-being of his fellow Jew.  “Kol Yisroel arevim ze laze”.  We are intertwined, arms and legs of the same tree trunk rooted to His will and divine Torah. What affects one affects us all. We are responsible for one another and are obligated in demonstrating kindness and sympathy toward our fellow man, even at the expense of ourselves or possessions.  If altruism is evident in animal behaviors, what can the collective conscious collaboration of man accomplish if his actions and goals are acclimatized for the greater good?

Absorbed in the minutia of our lives and practices, we may become misdirected; missing emotional, physical, spiritual cues of others in our midst or beyond our normal perimeters. The jig of quantifiable causes, ‘meaningful’ actions, or pursuit of golden idols and placards often distracts us. Our ‘on loan’ possessions, tools and talents are by our choosing capable of manifesting sweet harmonics of creation of the highest human endeavors. May we never lose sight of our altruistic capabilities and may we collectively rebuild a binyan adei ad bimhera biyamenu.

SYR




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