Monday, August 30, 2010

Standing Together

Shabbat Nitzavim-Vayelech
D’varim 29:9 – 31:30
25 Elul 5770 / Sept. 3 – 4, 2010

Standing Together
By: Dani Mor from MH Vienna

This week's Torah reading begins, “Atem nitzavim (You are standing here today).”
The commentaries explain that Nitzavim in Hebrew means "standing firm." This comes to teach us that our standing firm is conditional upon it being all of us standing together. Each one of us, from the highest to the lowest, has our part to play and our own potential to fulfill.

The Talmud's Ethics of the Fathers tells us, "Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot." Rather than worrying about why we are not standing in somebody else's shoes, our task is to fulfill our potential at the level we are at, in the situation where we are now, knowing that even if it may seem insignificant, each of us contributes on our own level and in our own way to the greater picture.

The story was told of Rabbi Aryeh Levin (known as "The Tzaddik from Jerusalem') who said to a doctor, "My wife’s leg is hurting us." This idea applies to all of us, as a community. When one person suffers, another feels the pain, even at a distance. When an event takes place in a distant country, this affects us as much as if it were to happen next door.

There is no "us and them." Anything which undermines decency and the sanctity of human life, the very fabric of our community, has an effect on all of us, whether we are directly involved or not. Each person needs to be intact, in order for us to achieve our communal potential.

Monday, August 23, 2010

First Fruits

Parshat Ki Tavo
Dvarim 26:1 – 29:8
18 Elul 5770 / August 28th, 2010

First Fruits
Parsha Ki Tavo opens with God continuing his instructions of what the Israelites should do when they enter the Promised Land:

“And it will be, when you come into the land which the Lord, your God, gives you for an inheritance, and you possess it and settle in it, that you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you will bring from your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving you. And you shall put [them] into a basket and go to the place which the Lord, your God, will choose to have His Name dwell there. And you shall come to the Kohen who will be [serving] in those days, and say to him, "I declare this day to the Lord, your God, that I have come to the land which the Lord swore to our forefathers to give us."

For years, the Israelites had been longing to enter the land of Israel, a land that had been promised to them. However, even though the land is spoken of as if it is inextricably theirs – promised to them by God – the first fruits of its yield are not to be enjoyed by the Israelites. Rather, they are to be brought to the temple and made as a sacrifice for God.

The thought of not reaping the first benefits of a new possession, inheritance, or action – but rather setting them aside as an offering to God – is a lesson that need not be relegated to a distant moment in Jewish history when our people first entered the land of Israel. Each day we are given gifts, we acquire possessions, we have new experiences. While they may be small in relationship to the entrance of a people into their homeland, each of these moments can, too, be an opportunity to acknowledge that what may seem ours by birthright or acquisition is actually a part of a broader creation, of which we are only temporary stewards.

The act of bringing the first fruits from a new land to the Temple was a way of sanctifying the land. Judaism provides us a vehicle for continuing to transform the mundane to the holy, if only we maintain the intentionality to acknowledge that there is Godliness in everything.

Benjamin Bechtolsheim, Moishe House Silver Spring

Monday, August 16, 2010

Cross Dressings and Momma Birds?!

Parshat Ki Teizei
11 Elul 5770 / August 13 – 14, 2010
Dvarim 22:5 – 25:19

In this week’s parsha I would like to consider why two scenarios are presented next to each other. The verse from Parshat Ki Teitzei are pasted below from Chapter 22. The first case is a prohibition about cross dressing and the second is an obscure law about sending a mother bird away before taking the young birds or eggs. The later mitzvah is known as Shiluach HaKen (שלוח הקן) Sending from the Nest.

5 A woman shall not wear that which pertains unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment; for whosoever does these things is an abomination unto the LORD thy God. {P}

ה לֹא-יִהְיֶה כְלִי-גֶבֶר עַל-אִשָּׁה, וְלֹא-יִלְבַּשׁ גֶּבֶר שִׂמְלַת אִשָּׁה: כִּי תוֹעֲבַת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, כָּל-עֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה. {פ}

6 If you happen upon a bird's nest on the way, in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs, and the mother is sitting upon the young, or upon the eggs, thou shalt not take the mother with the young;

ו כִּי יִקָּרֵא קַן-צִפּוֹר לְפָנֶיךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּכָל-עֵץ אוֹ עַל-הָאָרֶץ, אֶפְרֹחִים אוֹ בֵיצִים, וְהָאֵם רֹבֶצֶת עַל-הָאֶפְרֹחִים, אוֹ עַל-הַבֵּיצִים--לֹא-תִקַּח הָאֵם, עַל-הַבָּנִים.

7 thou shalt let the mother go, but the young thou may take unto thyself; that it may be well with you, and that thou may prolong your days. {S}

ז שַׁלֵּחַ תְּשַׁלַּח אֶת-הָאֵם, וְאֶת-הַבָּנִים תִּקַּח-לָךְ, לְמַעַן יִיטַב לָךְ, וְהַאֲרַכְתָּ יָמִים


What might the Torah possibly be teaching us by juxtaposing these two commandments together? I would like to suggest that these two cases provide for an opening to talk about empathy and compassion as human qualities. In the first verse we are prohibited from dressing up like the other gender. Rashi commented that this is purely in the case where dressing up like the other gender is for the purpose of sexual deviance. For example, dressing up like a woman to sneak into the Women’s locker room for voyeuristic escapades. This is very different from a modern woman wearing pants or a transgender male to female wearing lipstick. The ability to assume another’s role or experience is an important piece of expressing empathy. While empathy is one key to human connectivity, complete enmeshment can be harmful. Thus, there are limitations to “walking in another shoes,” that seems to be a good protective measure for our world.

Similarly, shooing away a mother bird and stealing her eggs is not an example of compassion at first glance. But when we consider what a fox might do who happens upon a bird’s nest – goodbye momma bird and so long chickies! Perhaps this commandment gives us pause to recognize our base-animal tendencies and also our ability to act against them. Thus, shooing away momma is perhaps not better then leaving the chicks alone, but it opens the door for choosing with compassion and respect for our involvement in the chain of life.

Many Blessings!
Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

Monday, August 9, 2010

Justice of Means and Ends

Parashat Shoftim
4 Elul 5770 / August 13 – 14, 2010
D’varim 16:18 – 21:9

Parashat Shoftim begins with God commanding the Jewish people to establish a legal system. God commands us to appoint “magistrates and officials” to “govern the people with due justice.”[1] Law is the modus operandi of an imperfect world. The functionality of society depends on the willingness of individuals to sacrifice a certain amount of autonomy in order to obtain the benefits of order; therein lays the logic behind the social contract. It is this social contract that creates the mandate for the rule of law, and our obedience to it. In democracies, the goal of this contract is to elevate man from his lowly individual existence and to hopefully create a just society. However, the very fact that the creation and practice of law are a human-led endeavour marks it with an inevitable fallibility, especially in its pursuit of justice. Since man is fallible and subject to unjust tendencies, so too the law he creates is also subject to such imperfection. In the image of man, law was made. Although intermittently unjust, law is our saving grace from the barbarity of anarchy, and necessitates obedience. As Justice Felix Frankfurter once said: Fragile as reason is and limited as law is as the institutionalized medium of reason, that's all we have standing between us and the tyranny of mere will and the cruelty of unbridled, undisciplined feeling.
            God provides us with a enigmatic directive in our pursuit of achieving a just society: Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof  or “Justice, justice shall you pursue”[2] This oft quoted phrase is grammatically unique, the Torah could have made its point with merely one “justice” rather than two, as our sages teach us there is no such thing as a redundancy in the vernacular of the Torah, and this second “justice” has a profound meaning. Rav Elya Meir Bloch[3] interprets the verse to mean "the pursuit OF righteousness must also be pursued WITH righteousness". We are not merely being taught to run AFTER justice. We are told to run AFTER justice WITH justice. Many times we pursue that which is righteous and fair. Our goal is to ensure that what is right prevails. We are often tempted to let the ends justify the means. We may overlook the fact that we have to step on a few laws here and there as long as in the end "righteousness will prevail". The message of our verse is that we may not overlook unscrupulous methods to achieve lofty goals. Righteousness must be pursued WITH righteousness.”
A “rodef” is usually a person that is chasing you with the intention of doing you harm. The use of this word shows us that the pursuit of justice is a dangerous endeavour, a pursuit that is never an easy option. Without parallel the tragic fate of Socrates at the hands of Athenian lawmakers most powerfully illustrates the divergent course of law and justice, and our sober responsibility in its wake. Let me briefly summarize the history of Socrates' trial and death.                                                                                                      
 An Athenian jury convicts Socrates of corrupting the youth and heresy against the gods, ultimately sentencing him to death. Although Athens was a society that prided itself on democratic principles, its court system had decided it was prudent to put Socrates to death for speaking his mind. The hypocritical nature of the conviction and sentence leaves the reader with an interminable frustration. However, when Socrates is presented the option of fleeing and averting death, he refuses, presenting us with one of the most powerful arguments in the Western intellectual tradition. Socrates argues that to avert punishment handed down by the courts, however unfair, would be unjust. He claims that he entered into a social contract with the Athenian democracy through his residing and benefiting from the society before the sentence was issued.
            What relevance does this history have for us today? Having accepted upon himself the binding nature of the contract, Socrates was obligated to adhere to its judicial decisions. He understood that the functionality of society depends on the citizens’ obedience to its laws: “Do you imagine that a State can subsist and not be overthrown, in which the decisions of law have no power, but are set aside and overthrown by individuals?" 1An evil verdict had been imposed on Socrates, yet he understood that breaking the law was not the solution, as the following citation makes abundantly clear: “Neither injury nor retaliation nor warding off evil by evil is ever right”2 Socrates was fearful of the slippery slope that ensues when an individual disregards his duties and takes matters into his own hands. In his strict adherence to the virtues of justice, Socrates departed “in innocence, a sufferer and not a doer of evil; a victim, not of the laws, but of men.” 3
Law is not inherently just, and must be actively protected from the manipulation of those ready to prey on the law’s weaknesses for their own purpose. Tzedek Tzdek Tirdof. The injustice that is perpetrated through the law is no argument for the removal of law, but rather a tribute to the evil men behind it. Socrates understood the sacredness of the rule of law and the social contract. He was willing to die at its hands, knowing that although it may not be flawless, it is a necessity for order.
            Socrates ran AFTER justice WITH justice, and would not compromise on an immoral mean to achieve a seemingly just end. True revolutionaries can be killed, but it is their revolutions that are eternal, however, a revolution that uses immoral means in hopes of achieving a moral end is a “revolution that devours its children.” Those before us who strove for truth and justice merely pass it on for the next generation to prove themselves worthy of defending it.

[1] Deut. 16:18
[2] Deut. 16:20
[3] as told by Rav Frand

Monday, August 2, 2010

Boundaries of Faith

Parashat Re’eh
27 Av 5770 / August 6 – 7, 2010
Dvarim 11:26 – 16:17

I was struck in this week’s parasha by the laws regarding a person that leads others astray versus a city that has already been led astray – aka, the Wayward City. The text states that if a person tries to lead you to worship another god (the enticer), you should immediately kill him. “Your hand shall be the first against him to kill him (verse 10).” In the case of a Wayward City, there is a more level-headed approach. “You shall seek out and investigate, and inquire well (verse 15).” In the case of the city, first be sure that the majority of people are serving another god, and then kill them all by sword and burn all their property and leave the site as a smoldering mound forever.

I know. This is a tough piece of Torah to swallow. The question that I would like to focus in on is how come the Torah specified taking time to investigate with the city scenario and not with the individual enticer? To me it seems like the Torah should state that in both cases there should be certainty before any punishment is doled out.

Here are some ideas that I have been thinking about:
1. The actual law, in the Rabbinic writing, is that in ALL cases there needs to be substantial investigation into the matter. And in fact, the person who has been enticed should not kill the enticer right away, rather the enticer should be taken in front of the Beit Din (Jewish Court of Law). Still, the literal reading of the text needs to be addressed!
2. A simple answer is that it makes sense that if you are being enticed, then you know it to be true and you should take immediate action. In a way, this created a form of “Neighborhood Watch”. We are all responsible for protecting the boundaries of our community beliefs. The problem, of course, is that this seems like a precursor to the Salem witch trials. A person’s life should not hang on the balance of another person’s limited perspective.
3. When you read the verses about the individual enticer, possible relationships are also listed out: a brother, or step brother, your son, daughter, wife, your step mother, or “your friend who is like your own soul.”! These are people that you would probably NEVER think are trying to lead you astray. Perhaps the Torah is telling us that when a person who we would least suspect is clearly trying to unravel our faith identity – we should act to protect ourselves even before we create excuses for them. At that point, it might already be too late.

Faith can be very delicate. It sways easily with each breeze of experience, impacted by every encounter. The teaching of the enticer reminds me that there are times when I should shout out and stand up for what I believe in. While the Wayward city might serve as a reminder that there are times when listening is needed before responding.     

Zvi Bellin