I have a theory that without Maimonides, we wouldn’t be here today, that he saved Judaism. Now, I won’t say he’s my hero, he wasn’t the best husband. But, without him, I don’t think I’d have a job. So, who exactly is Maimonides? There is a saying, “From Moses to Moses there arose no one like Moses.” We have learned that for 700 years this has been a saying of the Jewish people. After Moses the lawgiver, there was no one like him, until Moses Maimonides.
As Israeli speaker, diplomat and politician, Abba Eban once asked, “What sort of man could win such praise? Only a man who gave his entire life to helping others who were sick in body or in spirit, a man of brilliance in many fields; and above all, a man who brought order to the great body of Jewish law and, in that sense, restored it to the Jewish people” or, as I say, saved our people from chaos.
Maimonides, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Rabbi Moses the son of Maimon, or plain old Rambam, was born in Cordova, Spain, in 1135. At that time, religious warfare between the somewhat new Christians and the even newer Muslims was rapidly bringing the Golden Age to a close. When he was thirteen, Maimonides and his family had to flee Spain and travel from place to place until they were at last able to find a safe home near the city now called Cairo in Egypt. There, Maimonides became the greatest doctor in the world!
He already had a huge practice among Jews and Arabs, when he was appointed physician to the king of Egypt, the Sultan Saladin. Somehow, Maimonides managed to find time to treat the Sultan and his household, plus all his regular patients, be the leader of the Jewish community of Egypt, and still write a systematic code of all Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, produce one of the great philosophic statements of Judaism, The Guide to the Perplexed, publish a commentary on the entire Mishna, and write numerous books on medicine; which rank him as the greatest Jewish philosopher of all time. And, as much as I say Maimonides saved us all, I also say, “No Way.” No way could one person have written all that we say he did; because, unlike rabbis today, he had a real job.
I even have a letter written by Maimonides himself in the year 1199 that he wrote to a friend about his daily routine. And here it is:
I live at Fostat and the king resides in Cairo, about 4000 paces distant from each other. My duties to the ruler are very heavy. I am obliged to visit him every day, early in the morning, and when he or any of his children or any of the women in his harem are sick, I dare not leave Cairo, but must stay during the greater part of the day in the palace. It also frequently happens that one of the two royal officers fall sick, and I must attend to their healing. Hence, as a rule, I leave for Cairo very early in the day, and even if nothing unusual happens, I do not return to Fostat until the afternoon.
Then I am almost dying with hunger. . . But I find my lobby filled with people, both Jews and gentiles, nobles and common people, judges and bailiffs, friends and foes, a mixed multitude, who await the time of my return. So, I dismount from my animal, wash my hands, go forth to my patients and ask them to bear with me while I partake of some slight refreshment, this the only meal I take in any twenty-four hour period.
Then I go forth to attend to my patients, and write prescriptions and directions for all their various ailments. Patients go in and out until nightfall, and sometimes even, I solemnly assure you, until two hours or more into the night. I converse with and prescribe for them while I am lying down from sheer fatigue; and, when the night falls, I am so exhausted that I can scarcely speak at all.
Because of all this, no Israelite can speak with me, except on Shabbat. On that day the whole congregation, or at least the majority of the members, come to me after the morning service, when I instruct them as to their proceedings for the whole week; we study together a little until noon, when they depart. Some of them return, and read with me after the afternoon service until evening prayers.
And here I have related to you only a part of what you would see if, by God’s grace, you were to visit me.”
Maimonides wrote this letter at the age of 64. By the way, he died 5 years later, at 69, which is no surprise, what with the schedule he kept! With a daily schedule like that, how could anyone do what he is credited to have done? But, debunking the Maimonides Myth is not my point today. Instead, we’d like to picture Maimonides as some old guy, pouring over book after book, all day every day, night after night, studying and writing. But, he actually had very little time to do that. In reality, he had only one day a week to be a rabbi and that was Shabbat. And, if Maimonides worked like he did and still found time to be the greatest philosopher in Jewish history, so can we. No, we most likely cannot be the greatest philosophers in the world; but, we can be Jewish too. For almost every single one of us is busy; but, we still need to find time, to make time, to be Jewish, a lot or a little, and it is possible. One hour a day or one day a week, it is possible. No matter how busy a person is, if they care, they will always find the time.
Life isn’t easy. That’s what makes it so precious. Judaism isn’t easy either. It takes work, hard work. God does not want us to quit our jobs or leave our families to be Jewish. We are busy, thank God. Bill Stevens, the terrific man who works here at Beth El, always says to me that busy is good, it means that we have a job. Thank God we’re busy, but we all have the ability to find time, to make time, to be Jewish and it is a choice.
I believe Maimonides saved Judaism. Maimonides lived in the Golden Age. When you live in the Dark Ages, you don’t get out much, you’ve got a lot of free time, hiding. But, when you live in the Golden Age, you are busy being part of society. The typical Jew had no time to be Jewish. And, believe it or not, not all Jews agreed back then. What do we follow? The Hebrew Bible or the Talmud? And, if it’s the Talmud, who has time to read 10,000 pages of Rabbis disagreeing with each other? So, that’s where Maimonides comes in. I call him the King of Lists. He simplified everything. He made Judaism easy to understand for the working person. He said, “Who needs the Talmud? I’ll write the Guide to the Perplexed, it’ll explain everything you need to know. I’ll list the 613 commandments you hear so much about. The eight degrees of charity.” He even listed every law of the Talmud, so you could skip all the commentary and get on with your life. Why? Because we were busy back then. And we are busy today.
We can make a conscious decision to set time aside for Judaism. We can read a book, attend a service, do tikkun olam, make the world a better place. We can study, we can observe a mitzvah, or a holiday. We’re all busy, maybe not as busy as Maimonides; but, we too can carve out some of our time for our religion, our history, our community, our future.
But how does one go about making time to be Jewish? Kara Baskin, parenting reporter for JewishBoston.com, once wrote an article entitled “How to Make Time for Judaism, a Jewish educator on incorporating spirituality into a busy life.” Jessica Slavin Connelly is a psychotherapist and longtime Jewish educator. She’s also a busy mom. Kara asked Jessica how to incorporate Judaism into her daily life. “Yeah, yeah, we’re all stretched for time. It’s hard to add one more thing to a to-do list (and then feel guilty about it if, say, you don’t make it to services). She offered up some incredibly manageable, resonant advice for weaving Jewish life into our daily lives.”
“For every Jewish family, there’s a different way to be Jewish,” she says. In that spirit, here are three helpful reminders:
One. Jewish identity is internal. What does your identity mean to you? I hate to say it, but not everything has to happen in a synagogue, though it certainly can be a wonderful, powerful gathering place for reflection. This kind of reflection can be hard to do alone (have you ever tried doing yoga alone, for example?), and it helps to have a supportive community. As Ahad Ha’am once said, “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” The marking of time through the laws of the Sabbath gave the Jews the chance to regroup in communities at the end of every week, and this regrouping helps us sustain Jewish identity. Think about what this identity means for you, personally, and for your family. Marking time can be a very personal effort. “Ask yourself, ‘What drives me?’” There are plenty of rituals and holidays, each important in their own way, but you don’t have to do each and every one. Think about what resonates most for you. “What do you feel, in your busy life, will help you sustain a Jewish identity day to day?” Maybe it’s about lighting candles on Shabbat. Maybe it’s about singing a song. Maybe it’s about keeping kosher in the home. Do what feels manageable.
Two. Consistency helps. Shabbat happens every week. Maybe you can’t get to a Sheldon Low, guitar-playing Friday night service at 6:00 p.m. due to traffic on Cochran or the Liberty Bridge catching fire, perhaps a PJ-wearing, Oreo-eating Shabbat on a Saturday morning feels more doable. Reframe your expectations and remember why you do what you do: The idea behind Shabbat, for instance, is rest and respite. It’s about setting aside a sacred time. “Take a nature walk. Turn off the TV. Read a Shabbat story to your children.” Try PJ Library for terrific Jewish stories! You needn’t upend your schedule and then beat yourself up. Instead, create rituals that you can maintain and sustain for the long term. For example, Connelly knew an educator who always held a Passover Seder by the sea. No matter what the weather, she and her family would pack a picnic, go to the ocean, and sip matzah-ball soup out of thermoses. Offbeat, sure; but, for her family, this was sustenance. “Get to the nuts and bolts about what really matters. You do not have to do everything. Do one thing.”
And, finally. Pinpoint the Jewish values that matter most to you, and nourish them. Is it culture? Community? Religion? Food? Pinpoint the particular aspect of Judaism that matters the most to your family, and hone in on that, whether it’s by joining a community group for parents of young children or enrolling in a class for interfaith couples, if that applies to your family. Target the particular area that makes you feel committed. If Shabbat is a priority, for example, make it easy and inclusive. Connelly has ordered KidKraft Shabbat sets from amazon.com with candlesticks, pretend challah loaves and goblets, to help her family celebrate the Sabbath, lending a special boost to the everyday. “What small thing helps you connect on a daily basis? List out what’s meaningful to you in general. Focus on what matters to you. You don’t need to do it all.”
Carving time out of our busy schedules does not all have to be actions and activities either. Judaism is about doing, creating, and modeling. It is external; but, it can also be internal. It can be about making time for our Jewish soul. Rabbi Zach Shapiro the Spiritual Leader of Temple Akiba, in Culver City, CA, wrote:
I looked at my calendar recently and realized that I was booked, back to back, the entire day. It was gratifying in that I was doing important things. But, it was also scary… Why? Because I hadn’t set a priority for perhaps the most important meeting – a meeting with my soul.
A meeting with the soul should be fixed on all our calendars. It’s not about finding the time. Rather, it’s about making the time. It could be a one-hour walk or bike ride. It could be twenty minutes reading an article or listening to music. It could be five minutes to stretch our bodies. It could be even just a moment in time to concentrate on mindfulness and breathing.
Making time should not be debilitating. It should be grounding. The Hebrew name of God, Adonai, Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey, derives from the verb, haya, “To Be.” And, as we are made in God’s image, the very act of just being allows us to connect with the Eternal when we allow ourselves to stop.”
Whether it is for our souls or for our families or for our communities or for our religion, we need to not only find time, but make time. Being busy is not new for our people. We must take care of ourselves, but that includes our spiritual needs as well. For each and every one of us there is a different way to be Jewish. Figure yours out and cultivate it. If you will take the time to take care of your Jewish identity, then it will take care of you.
Shana Tova! Happy New Year!