My Dear Rabbi Zahavy column in The Jewish Standard for March 2016: Vengeful Prayers and Racist Purim Tunes

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

I was informed by my manager at work that one of my coworkers complained to him that I berated some other coworkers in a meeting in a way that was offensive and has affected their morale negatively.

My associate never came to me to complain about it. I know that I did not do what he claims. I am angry to find out that one of my workmates went behind my back to my superior, apparently in an effort to harm my reputation, or perhaps to get me fired.

Is there a prayer I can recite to make this awful person disappear?

Persecuted and Angry At Work

Dear Persecuted,

First, are you sure that you are blameless? You might want to mull over your behavior before you engage in any actions on this matter, either in prayer or otherwise.

If you are confident that the charges are without merit, you still have a big problem that you must manage or resolve. And if the charges have merit, you have a greater need to take action to fix things up at work.

To answer your direct question, Yes, there are prayers to ask God to make those who slander you go away. In fact, you do not have to do much searching at all to find that kind of prayer.

The twelfth blessing in the Amidah, which an observant Jew recites three times every weekday, beseeches God, “And for slanderers let there be no hope, and let all wickedness perish as in a moment; let all your enemies be speedily cut off, and the dominion of arrogance do you uproot and crush, cast down and humble speedily in our days. Blessed are you, O Lord, who breaks the enemies and humbles the arrogant.”

It sounds to me like this blessing will serve your purpose — if you believe that a prayer to God is the way to solve this problem between you and another person at your place of employment.

I do not think that such prayer is your best option. It seems that neither did Beruryah, the wife of the ancient sage Rabbi Meir. A Talmudic story about the couple (Bavli Berakhot 10a) recounts the following events.

Brigands in Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood used to trouble him greatly. He prayed that they die. Beruryah, his wife, said to him, “What are you doing? You know it is written in Psalms (104:35), ‘Let sins cease from the earth?’ Is ‘sinners’ written in the verse? ‘Sins’ is written. Furthermore, look at the end of the verse, ‘And they are wicked no more.’ Since their sins will cease, they will be wicked no more. So pray that they repent and be wicked no more.” Meir then prayed for them, and they repented.

Clearly Meir’s original approach is sanctioned in Judaic tradition. Nevertheless, Beruryah presents him with a morally superior option — along with an exegetical midrashic proof that she is right. And Meir accepts her wise advice.

So I suggest that you ought not pray for your associate at work to die or disappear. It’s better to heed Beruryah and to pray for him to repent.

But in spite of the fact that as a rabbi I must subscribe to the theory that praying to God can be an effective means of solving problems, here that is not my final advice to you.

If you want to fix a toxic situation at work, you need to try to do that directly, not via third party praying.

You ought to tell your manager that you are going to find time to discuss this situation that you have with your complaining workmate and make it right. That immediately buys you good points within the work setting. Managers want workers to get along, to resolve contentions themselves, and not to engage in strife and backbiting.

Then you need to follow through and meet with your workfellow in a quiet and non-confrontational way. You might start out by letting him know that you were admonished by your manager and that was not something positive. You might follow that by admitting that you do not fully know what you did to him. You have to assure him that you had no intention of upsetting. And while it may be hard for you to do this, you should say that you are sorry.

You might remind your colleague that you once had a problem with him humming loudly, or perhaps doing something else annoying, and that you mentioned it politely and directly to him and he realized he had to be more careful, and he stopped. And you may point out that you did not take your complaint to the manager.

You need to make it clear that you do not want to upset, annoy, or demoralize anyone at work. And if anything you do or say does that, you want to be informed directly and you will stop those actions immediately.

It’s likely that this direct approach will help you resolve, or at least manage, the friction at your job. But there is no guarantee that this approach will work. And if it does not, and you find yourself in a toxic and aggravating place of work, then your best bet is to find a new job. That’s never an easy task, and so you should make every effort to fix the situation you have.

Bottom line, yes, prayers to negate slander and banish our enemies are in our liturgies. Yet you still have to manage the realities in which you live as best you can, and not rely on God to hear your prayers and to solve your problems.

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

My preschool child came home singing a Jewish Purim holiday song to the tune of American slave music, namely, “Pick a Bale of Cotton.” I happen to know that the early lyrics of this song were quite offensive, including the N-word: “O massa told de n—- / Pick a bale of cotton / O massa told de n—- / Pick a bale a day.” And the general association of the tune with slavery recollects a dark chapter in our nation’s past.

Am I wrong to complain and ask the school not to teach my child songs with tunes that carry such racist baggage?

Picky about Music in Paramus

Dear Picky about Music,

Logically and deductively, no you have no reason to complain about the tune because the festive words associated with them now are innocuous or even meaningful and positive.

In this case I believe the tune is used for the song Mishenichnas Adar that celebrates the happy beginning of the Hebrew month of Adar, because Purim is just around the corner.

However, I’ve read many times that it is the right side of your brain that processes artistic and intuitive music learning. And since that is where holistic impressions can motivate our deepest emotions, that may explain your strong reaction to this seemingly innocuous circumstance.

Certainly, the social and political origins and uses of music ought to govern their acceptance in a society. Because of their associations with Nazism and Hitler, the operas of Richard Wagner were banned from public performance in the modern State of Israel for many decades. Wagner’s stirring music was played as a favorite by the Nazis at state occasions and on Nazi newsreels.

Some Wagner was played first as an encore at an Israel Philharmonic concert in 1981, led by Zubin Mehta, and that was met with protest and disapproval. Daniel Barenboim conducted Wagner’s “Tristan” Prelude in Jerusalem in 2001. In 2012 a planned performance of Wagner in Tel Aviv was withdrawn. As an ironic postscript, Alex Ross wrote in 2012 in the New Yorker that he discovered that Wagner also inspired Theodore Herzl, who heard it performed often while he was writing “The Jewish State.”

Your question is not about Wagner, yet it is one that entails possible offense and racist associations.

If it is any consolation to you, this specific song melody of “Pick a Bale of Cotton” has been used for years in Israel by the Artik company to advertise their ice pops: “Artik Menta Shokolad Banana, Artik Menta Shokolad limon (Artik mint chocolate banana, Artik mint chocolate lemon).”

Knowing this song’s positive association with Israeli ice pops may make it a bit easier for you to tolerate hearing your child sing to the melody for a Purim song.

So no, I do not advise you to make a big tzimmis about a little ditty. When your child is older and more aware of the good and bad chapters of our country’s history, you may want to remind her that the tune she learned about the joys of Adar in pre-school is also the tune that slaves sang in an unfortunate time of our past in America. Or by that time, perhaps your emotional reactions will have cooled and you will not want to do that.

Tzvee Zahavy earned his Ph.D. from Brown University and rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He is the author of many books, including these e-books available at Amazon.com: “The Book of Jewish Prayers in English,” “Rashi: The Greatest Exegete,” “God’s Favorite Prayers” and “Dear Rabbi Zahavy” — which includes his past columns from the Jewish Standard and other essays.

The Dear Rabbi Zahavy column offers timely advice based on timeless Talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally respectful and meaningful to all varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Please mail your questions to the Jewish Standard or email to zahavy@gmail.com.

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