Thursday, September 22, 2016

Parshat Ki Tavo

          Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki Tavo, continues Moses’s reminders to the Israelites to obey the commandments in order to be blessed. The Israelites are told that they are about to enter a land flowing with milk and honey, and that they will have success in their early agriculture. In return, they must bring their first fruits, the finest of their labor and toil, to offer as sacrifices to God. They are commanded to serve God with joy and with a sincere heart. Maimonides comments on both of these commandments. On the first, he extrapolates that in a time with no Temple, when we no longer offer physical sacrifices to God, we must still do anything we do for the sake of God, with a sincere heart, in joy, and to our fullest. “When one builds a house of worship,” he says, “it should be more beautiful than their personal dwelling. When one feeds the homeless, it should be the best and sweetest of their table. When one clothes the naked, it should be the finest clothing.” On the second commandment, when the Torah says we should do these things with a joyful heart, Maimonides adds, “For even though you served God, you did not serve in joy, and that is the source for all your afflictions.”
          I think RaMBaM’s commentaries on this are linked, that we can serve God by serving each other, and we must continue to do both with gratitude and joy. But I think we can take away from these related comments two distinct lessons. The first is the most important and the most in our control. When giving tzedakah or doing community service, doing a small amount only when it is convenient does not accomplish much. Giving away torn and worn out clothing that is hardly wearable anymore doesn’t help those poor and the homeless that much. Feeding the hungry tasteless or low nutrient food isn’t real chesed. I’m not saying everyone should go broke giving tzedakah or quit their jobs to start cooking full time for the local soup kitchen. But, we should all be willing to set some time and money aside to share our blessings in a meaningful way. This is the way we can give modern day sacrifices and serve God in a modern context with no Temple or physical offerings.
          If we do this with gratitude for all that we have and with the knowledge that it is a righteous act, it can be a pleasant experience. If we appreciate the opportunity to meet new people in our community and to learn from someone whose life has been very different from ours, it’s a joyful and holy experience.  If you do so grudgingly and miserably, it will not be fun, you will not appreciate or be able to learn from the new people you meet, and you will be more likely to notice the money you are losing by giving tzedakah or the time you are spending not doing something you’d rather be doing. We can’t always help what mood we’re in at any given moment, but I think this is what Maimonides meant when he said serving God joylessly is the source of afflictions. A negative attitude can be cyclical, and dragging our feet to accomplish important and holy tasks will only make them harder and less pleasant.
          Don’t hesitate to serve God, to serve your community, to pray for a better world. Go through as much of life as you can with a positive attitude and finding the good in small things. And may doing so bring you peace, joy, and God’s blessing. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, September 16, 2016

            Shabbat Shalom. This week at Gesher Jewish Day School, I was tasked with teaching 2nd graders about this week’s Torah portion. The goal according to the curriculum map is to teach to the students that this week’s portion is about respect: respect for women, captives, the world order, parents, the dead/life, property and ownership, animals, safety, nature, dignity, marriage, family relationships, cleanliness, the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the stranger. And for sure Parashat Ki Tetzei touches on all those topics, but they are not all so easy to talk discuss with 2nd graders. The curriculum I was given has very little in the way of materials and the materials I found elsewhere, from G-dcast and Chabad, focuses on the respect for animals.
            I mentioned in passing last week that Parashat Shoftim expresses concern for nature, and tells us not cut down fruit-bearing trees belonging to the city with which we may be at war. This week’s Torah portion continues telling us to be concerned with the natural world, and tells us not to be cruel to animals. Even an animal belonging to a potential enemy should not be forced to suffer. If we see an animal bearing too great a load, we should unburden it. In using animals for farm work, humans should never pair two animals who are so disparate in size that the smaller will suffer to keep up with the speed and strength of the larger. Animals should not be muzzled with working on a farm, but should be allowed to eat while they work. The second graders understood all of these concepts, why they show respect for animals, and why it is important for humans to take good care of animals and not abuse them. They had slightly more trouble understanding the commandment in this week’s parasha telling us that if we need food and we come upon a nest of an edible bird, we must shoo the mother bird away from the nest first and only take the eggs. The students said, “The mother bird will be sad when she returns and sees her babies are gone!” But eventually they came to understand even this concept that the care for the already living is more important than the potential life of the egg, and the mother bird can always lay more. But if the eggs are hatched after we eat the mother bird, the chicks will not be able to survive. For such young students, whose diets are almost entirely decided by adults, they had an impressive grasp on concepts of ethical and sustainable food choices and the balance between respecting the natural world and maintaining a nutrient-rich diet.
            Explaining the connections in the Torah portion to respecting humans was harder. Parashat Ki Tetze starts off with explaining the proper rules of war, including taking captives. It says that if a soldier kidnaps a beautiful woman from enemy territory, he must wait a month before taking her as his wife. For the time in which the rule was written and enacted, it’s clear to see its progressivism. If the man is displeased with her, he must set her free. He is not to sell her to another man or treat her as a slave. However, it doesn’t not specify if he must properly divorce her and give her any compensation for kidnapping her. It’s also pretty hard to believe that she’d be super into marrying this guy who took her as booty from her home which he and his cohort ransacked and conquered, likely killing her male relatives in the process. There are a lot of uncomfortable unanswered questions about the scenario, and teaching it to 2nd graders was daunting. Instead, we discussed in a general way the importance of showing respect to every person, even if you think they are your enemy, and going into war with an intention of mercy.
            The truth is, that’s what this rule was meant to convey for the time. When we read the Torah, it is sometimes difficult to place ourselves in the time period for which it was written, and this parasha is full of such moments. It’s important we understand the context, the civilizations that surrounded the ancient Israelites, and see where our ancestors tried to move their society forward. We learn from this to continue to do that work. Our great sages of late antiquity and the early middle ages knew we can’t really stone to death rebellious children, though that too is a commandment in this week’s parasha. As I said last week, they went to great lengths to ensure justice was always carried out with the least amount of bloodshed possible. Killing an angsty teenager for disobeying his father flew in the face of everything they knew to be holy, despite the fact that our holy Torah says to do so. We know that we need to be able to read the Torah with a critical eye and try to understand the commandment’s purpose for its own time, so that we might understand how it is we should live today.
Lest you get too down on Parashat Ki Tetze and vote it out the Torah entirely, it does also have plenty for us to be proud of. This portion tells us to be kind to animals, even that of our enemies. To lend money to our friends, family, and neighbors, interest-free. To leave the corners of our fields so that the poor may eat without begging. To care for the stranger, the widow, and the orphan. To care for runaway slaves and not return them to their masters. To keep our promises. To not play favorites among your children. To pay your workers on time. I think from all that, and more, it’s clear that the Torah is deeply concerned for treating people, animals, and our environments with kavod.
The Torah is a Tree of Life, and its mitzvot are meant to guide us toward righteous living, but sometimes it’s the thought process or the intention behind the mitzvah rather than the rule itself that we must learn from and adapt to modern times and our own life situations. Of course, this is no easy task. It involves a lot of gut-checking and a strong moral compass. But if we support each other and make clear our expectations for a healthy community, a respectful society, and peaceful relationships, we can work together to ensure that all people are treated as they want to be treated. May we all find our own path through the minefields of the Torah, to pleasantness and peace. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Parashat Shoftim and Patriot's Day

            Shabbat Shalom and allow me to again welcome and thank our guests for being here. It just so happens that in the Torah portion that Jews around the world will read this week, we are commanded to set for ourselves law enforcement in every city. The very first verse of Parashat Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18) translates as, “You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your cities that the Lord, your God, is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment,” and the earliest rabbis of the Mishnah recorded in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers, that the words for judges (shoftim) and law enforcement (Shotrim) are plural because none should judge alone. The great medieval commentator Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhak, also known as Rashi, added to this verse that the meaning of saying, “in all your cities” and “for your tribes,” means that every city and each group of people should have their own judge and enforcers of the judge’s decrees, such that the community’s own norms and customs may be upheld. The next line tells us that we must “not pervert justice,” and the third line is likely one of the most famous in the whole Torah: “Justice, Justice shall you pursue.” This verse, Deuteronomy 16:20, teaches us also that there is a just way of pursuing justice and an unjust way, and that to truly pursue justice we must do so the right way, following protocol, and being mindful of the pitfalls of subconscious judgements. This parasha also tells us that if we suspect a neighbor of wrongdoing, we must investigate the matter thoroughly, and then, if it seems like the evidence supports our suspicions, we must still bring the person out in front at least two other witnesses, that no one, not even a suspected criminal, may be killed by the judgement of one alone. The Torah says to bring the suspect in front of two or three witnesses, and you may think this is in case the they each have a different view and a tie-breaker is needed, but Rashi explains that this is actually to safeguard against the possibility that the first two witness may be colluding together to condemn this person to death.
            These themes recur throughout this portion, and indeed, many times in the Torah. Judaism upholds righteousness and believes in an equal protection of all life. There is a great concern in our texts to ensure that law and order is maintained, and also that true justice is honored, that the whole community must be involved in keeping each other safe and on the right path. The Talmud, a compendium of Jewish laws and daily practices, says that to take one life is to destroy the world and to save one life is to save the world entire, and there were arguments throughout the texts about how to properly execute justice in a serious manner without causing undue harm to the communities, even in questions of self-defense. For example, in Tractate Sanhedrin of the Talmud, sugya 57a, it states that if someone is coming to kill another, and the defender would be able to save himself by merely maiming the would-be killer, but instead does kill him, the defender is still liable for murder. In the codes of Jewish law on war, there are pages and pages discussing the use of unnecessary force, and what the possibilities are for the quickest path to peace with least amount of destruction to fellow human beings, whether civilian or warrior, and even to the environment (this Torah portion is also the source for that, as it tells us not to needlessly lay waste to the fruit-bearing trees surrounding a city with which the Israelites may be at war).
Law and justice is no easy matter, and our tradition takes this task very seriously. Judaism teaches us to be grateful to those that help to uphold safety in our communities and respect those that concern themselves in the matters of justice and righteousness. It also condemns those that fail in this duty and miss the mark on true justice and upholding righteousness. On this Patriot’s Shabbat, may we enter this weekend with gratitude for this respite of peace, and look forward to many more days ahead of pursuing justice, safety, and a healthy community. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.