Monday, August 29, 2011

Justice is Your Business

Parshat Shoftim
Dvarim 16:18-21:9
3 Elul 5771 / Sept. 2-3, 2011

Justice is Your Business
by Damon Mathias, MH Dallas

This week’s portion begins with the commandment from God that: “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice.” Deuteronomy 16:18. The verse provides us with two precepts, first there must be magistrates and officials and secondly they must govern with justice. A few verses later in Deuteronomy 17:14-5 God addresses another “branch” of government: “If, after you have entered the land that the Lord your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, ‘I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me, You shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by the Lord your God.’ ” Why does God mandate the appointment of judges and leave the appointment of a sovereign as discretionary? The Torah is teaching us that this particular form of government is far less important than the presence of an independent judiciary which is a fundamental and indispensable part of a civilized society. The manner in which “executive” power is manifested is subject to change and should at times be challenged, as Noam Chomsky presciently states:

There is no reason to accept the doctrines crafted to sustain power and privilege, or to believe that we are constrained by mysterious and unknown social laws. These are simply decisions made within institutions that are subject to human will and that must face the test of legitimacy. And if they do not meet the test, they can be replaced by other institutions that are more free and more just, as has happened often in the past.

The necessity of a fair and impartial judiciary however, is indispensable. It is the most fundamental manifestation of the superiority of reason in civilized society and is what differentiates man from beast. Whether the children of Israel are ruled by prophets or kings the requirements for the judiciary remain the same.

God tells us through the prophet Jeremiah (21:12): “Execute justice in the morning and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the oppressor!” The use of the word “morning” in this verse teachings us two very important lessons: 1) just as the morning is the first part of the day so to when executing justice make sure that it is performed before all else, it is the most important task and has priority above all other matters; 2) the morning also represents the transition from darkness to light, teaching us to administer justice when such actions are transparent and clearly seen. Justice should not be administered in the darkness such as a private closed hearing, rather proceedings should be unconcealed with the “light” shone upon the rulings we are making. In the Talmud (tractate Sanhedrin 7a/b) Rabbi Josiah explains the use of morning to mean “If the judgment you are about to give is clear to you as the morning [light], give it; but if not, do not give it.” It is only when we execute justice in such fashion that we can expect the “spoiled to be delivered out of the hand of the oppressor.”

The second commandment of the opening verse that “you shall govern the people with due justice” is expounded upon a few verses later in the parasha in verse 19, when God commands: “You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.” Throughout history there have been stark examples of civilizations that have ran afoul of the biblical imperative of implementing a fair and impartial judicial system. The fall of Rome can be attributed to civilization failing to heed this call as Plutarch wrote of Rome’s descent: “The abuse of buying and selling votes crept in and money began to play an important part in determining elections. Later on, however, this process of corruption spread to the law courts and to the army, and finally, when even the sword became enslaved by the power of gold, the republic was subjected to the rule of emperors.” The judiciary was to be the bulwark preventing corruption from the officials to the army, but once the judiciary was corrupted the empire unraveled.

When reading the opening verses of Parashat Shoftim dealing with the judiciary a seemingly odd two verses appear at the end of Chapter 16 (“You shall not set up a sacred--post any kind of pole beside the altar of the Lord your God that you may make, --or erect a stone pillar; for such the Lord your God detests” 16:21-22) The two verses don’t seem on their face to have much of anything to do with the previous verses (“Justice Justice shall you pursue” & the imperative against bribery). However, upon closer examination the verses correlate beautifully. The Torah is teaching us that the altar and the judge’s bench are both holy and just as the erection of pillars & posts near the altar is hateful to God, so too the presence of bribery in the justice system is equally abominable. The idea that material should influence truth and justice is just as much idol worship as the placement of an “asherah” near the altar of God.

This Shabbat I ask that we meditate on the first verse of this portion. There is a positive commandment for the nation as a whole “You shall appoint magistrates and official...and they shall govern the people with justice.” We must ask ourselves how involved are we in the process of “appointing” our judges? Are we doing our part to insure that they are governing with justice? Although the judges are commanded to “govern the people with justice,” since it is through our “appointment” that they obtain power we are all accountable for allowing indiscretion into our court system. Justice Justice shall you pursue!” צדק צדק תרדוף

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Curse of the Silver Lining

Parshat Re’eh
D’varim  11:26-16:16
27 Av 5771 / August 26 – 27, 2011

The Curse of the Silver Lining
by Taras Prokopenko, MH Gomel

Many years ago there lived a very rich person in a Jewish shtetl. He was a faithful person, he remembered about the troubles of poor people and was always eager to help and to do his best to change the sad situation into the best. Let’s call him Chaim. And Hashem also loved him and didn’t leave him without attention- Chaim’s business ran well and developed permanently, became more and more prosperous and successful. But, nevertheless, the more rich he became, the less he thought about the people around.

And one day, when Chaim’s donations to the Community affairs were close to zero, a local Rabbi decided to visit him and to remind him about the importance of the mitzvah of zedakah (charity) and helping the poor.

After 2 hours of waiting in the hall, the Rabbi was allowed to enter the luxurious cabinet, and the rich man Chaim was sitting there behind a massive oak table.

Chaim was irritated and asked about the purpose of the visit- ther must be a very important reason to disturb such a busy person!

But the Rabbi smiled and asked Chaim to do him a favour and come to the wide window, look at the street, and to tell him what he could see there.

The perplexed miserly man came to the window and declared: “A dog is running somewhere; a little boy is playing with a wooden soldier; a carriage is passing by, making so much noise; an old lady is sitting on the bench with a puzzled look on her face; three men are quarrelling near the meat shop.”

“And now could you come to the mirror in the corner of our cabinet, please!”- asked the old wiseman. “What can you see there?”

“Hem, I see my own face, it goes without saying!”- Chaim’s voice was both irritated and surprised.

“That is what I wanted to tell you, my dear Chaim! Regular glass, like that window, allows you to see people around you, but if you add a silver (kesef) backing your clear glass window becomes this mirror and you can see nothing except yourself in it!”

In our weekly portion Re’eh we learn one of the main Jewish mitzvoth- a commandment of giving Tzedokah- helping the poor. Wise men say, that a person, who gives Tzedokah would never become poor himself and that our belief in G-d can be tested by richness and poorness, and that wealth is the most difficult trial. A person should understand, that all the money he possesses doesn’t belong to him- it is the property of Hashem, that is given to a person to use for the right purpose. And if G-d gives wealth to someone, she is expected to spend it in the proper way and it is a real test!

I would like to wish you all a lot of prosperity and wealth, given by G-d, and a lot of powers to help others and to spend your time and resources in the best way and to pass this example successfully!

Много лет тому назад в одном еврейском местечке жил состоятельный человек, Б-гобоязненный, который всегда помнил о нуждах бедных, всегда был готов помочь и войти в положение, назовем его Хаим. И Вс-вышний также не оставлял его без внимания- дело его расширялось, становилось все более доходным, процветающим и успешным. Однако, чем богаче становился этот еврей- тем меньше продолжал думать об окружающих.
И вот, когда пожертвования Хаима почти иссякли, местный раввин решил посетить его, чтобы напомнить о важности заповеди цдаки и помощи бедным.
Просидев два часа в приемной, раввин был допущен в огромный кабинет, где за массивным дубовым столом сидел богач Хаим.
Хаим неприязненно посмотрел на раввина, поинтересовался, что тому надобно- не с руки отрывать такого занятого человека по мелочам!
Мудрец попросил хозяина кабинета сделать для него одолжение- подойти к огромному окну, выходящему на улицу, и сказать, что он там видит.
Скупец с явным раздражением подошел к окну и начал говорить: «Собака пробежала; малыш копошится в грязи; карета едет, поскрипывая; старушка  идет, похрамывая; несколько мужчин спорят у перекрестка».
«А теперь подойди к зеркалу, что в углу - что ты видишь?»
Хаим недоуменно побрел в ту сторону и начал говорить: «Ну, как же… Я в зеркале, кто же еще…»
«Вот в этом и разница, дорогой!»-сказал мудрый ребе. «И то, и другое- стекло, через которое можно увидеть окружающих, но стоит добавить чуть побольше серебра- и кроме себя ты никого уже не увидишь!»
В нашей недельной главе Реэ мы учим заповедь цдаки- помощи бедным. Говорят наши мудрецы, что тот, кто дает цдаку – никогда обеднеет и что веру человека можно проверить двумя путями- богатством и бедностью, причем богатство является более тяжелым испытанием. Человек должен отдавать себе отчет в том, что деньги, которыми он обладает, на самом деле не "его", а Создателя. Если Б-г поручает ему богатство, то, тем самым, Он проверяет человека, будет ли тот раздавать цедаку с добрыми намерениями.
Я хочу пожелать нам всем, чтобы Вс-вышний щедро одаривал нас материальными благами, а мы, в свою очередь, не забывали про окружающих людей, и у нас всегда была возможность и желание им помочь!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Finding Your Voice

Parshat Ekev
Dvarim 7:12 – 11:25
Av 5771 / August 19 – 20, 2011

Finding Your Voice
Introduction by Zvi, Guest writer is Rabbi Ronnie Cahana of Montreal

This week I want to share a unique Dvar Torah written by a Rabbi who recently suffered from a stroke. Rabbi Ronnie Cahana lives in Montreal and serves as the Rabbi of a Conservative synagogue. I am very good friends with his daughter Kitra and can bear witness to how loving and wonderful Rabbi Cahana is to his family and community. Since the stroke, which happened about one month ago, Rabbi Cahana has lost most motor control of his body. His mind is functioning perfectly and so he continues to communicate through blinking as he slowly recovers from this tragedy. Kitra sent me the Dvar Torah below that is so packed with honest and deep wisdom and I was given permission to share it with you. Though it is about an earlier parsha (Dvarim), it is fitting to our portion too.

This week, we read in 8:3, “…not by bread alone does a person live, rather by the entire expression of G-d’s word does man live.” The parallel of this pasuk with the Dvar below about the struggle to find voice and hear the word is very powerful. Please read on and if you have any reactions or message for the writer I am happy to pass it on.

Parashat Dvarim 

 ברוך אתה ה' אלוקינו מלך העולם מתיר אסורים
Blessed are You Hashem, Our G-d, King of the Universe, who releases the bound.

    An uncle of mine, an Israeli gentleman farmer, liked to say, “Just add more phosphorus; nothing should ever stop growing.”  The latter part of the sentence still intrigues.  I certainly don’t subscribe to the notion that all of nature devolves into mulch.  Creation has more spiritual content than that.  No, G-d’s Creation gives meaning from the Beginning to the End.  Pursuing the knowledge of G-d at every juncture of life is the purpose of Judaism.  We must chase after G-d in every encounter and always distinguish between good and evil in cold nature.
    Not long ago, our morning minyan took on a challenge at the breakfast to bring to the table our personal stories of deep Jewish wisdom.  Perry Lande, עליו השלום, brought a teaching that still impresses me.  He said that he was taught by his father, Shepsel, זכרונו לברכה, before he joined the Canadian Army, that HaShem gives everyone “arba amot” to take care of—about 6 feet square in land and air.  If you keep yours b’seder in order, he told us, then usually everything comes out alright.  An ama is about 1 ½ feet—the distance between our organs and our limbs.   We measure an “ama” by our reach—the space from our elbow to the tip of our longest finger, which is exactly where we put our tefillin shel yad on while making the bracha of love to G-d. 
      Taking care of our own spheres is a deep secret of how we can tend the divine garden and make it perfect.  However, in times of crisis, we need to open our ”arba amot”  and reach out to others and for others.  No ordeal should be experienced alone.  How wondrously close all of G-d’s creatures are to each other and what an impact we can have in each others’ lives.  I know that I have experienced this miracle and beyond.  I’m asking for us all to expand our reach, even as I cannot find mine just now.

    From this vantage at the Montreal Neurological Institute, I’m deeply inspired by our Jewish values. Our Jewish Community doesn’t allow anyone, any family, to feel isolated and our Beth-El family outshines my life.  As I am trying to find my own shofar voice—naturally, brokenly, triumphantly—tekiah, shvarim, teruah, I’m calling out to shul in gratitude: tekiah gdolah.  And please collect your wisdom stories for the shul, share them and forward them around.
     We always read Parashat Dvarim on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av to dispel the loneliness of the Hurban,  the destruction of the Temple.  Moshe Rabbenu cries to G-d, “How can I bear this people alone?”  How odd this statement.  He did not even want to start the mission.  You recall that he told G-d that he couldn’t speak, but, in fact, we never see this evidenced.  Moshe was the most effective, eloquent orator ever.  He was G-d’s mouthpiece.  How could he ever say that he was a stammerer?
        The Five Books of the Torah are filled with G-d’s speech.  In Bereshit, G-d calls out everything in nature and gives meaning to Creation.  In Shmot, G-d names the People and gives us purpose.  In Vayikra, G-d calls us personally.  In Bamidbar, G-d speaks to the Jewish People from the Ohel Moed. Now we begin Dvarim - Elu Dvarim - These are the words.
        Moshe Rabeinu does not think that he cannot speak; he believes that the people cannot hear or understand G-d's meaning and the beauty of life. Moshe feels alone if he doesn't connect Israel to G-d. We are imprisoned if we only have a relationship with our G-d alone. We need community to find G-d together.

ברוך אתה ה' אלוקינו מלך העולם מתיר אסורים

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Ronnie Cahana

Monday, August 8, 2011

Parshat Nachamu (Comfort)

Parshat Va’Etchanan (Shabbat Nachamu)
Dvarim 3:23 – 7:11
12 Av 5771 / August 12 – 13, 2011

Parshat Nachamu (Comfort)
by Laura W., MH London Alumnus
This Dvar is dedicated to the Aliyah Neshama of Ursula bas Yisrael and Zvi ben Abba

This week’s Parshah is Va'etchanan and as it always follows Tisha b'Av, it is more commonly referred to as Shabbat Nachamu (Comfort). This name is taken from the opening words of the haftarah from Isaiah (40:1)

'Nachamu, nachamu- Comfort, comfort My people'

I recently read an article about how a robotics division of a Japanese company lent a retirement home two of its seal robots, nicknamed Love and Peace, in an attempt to console survivors of the Tsunami and earthquake. It reminded me that this week we read the first (of seven) haftarot of consolation. During the next 7 weeks we read passages in which Hashem sends messengers to console Jerusalem. We start to see the familiar Jewish themes here of destruction and renewal. Though it is not until week 7, when Hashem offers direct consolation as we approach the month of Elul, that real healing and renewal can begin.

Sometimes it takes the experience of a personal or national tragedy to see what's real in our lives. We read about how the 2nd Temple was built with silver and gold but its destruction was due to a lack of social action and consciousness. Hashem seems more concerned with what is in our hearts and considers that more real than how much money we have and what we can buy with it. It was only by losing something so essential and significant as the Temple that we could realise how important it is to take care of each other and the world we share.

On one hand, as I am writing this (before Tisha B’Av) I am aware that the Temple lights are about to go out and we will soon experience a severing of spiritual power. On the other hand, I am comforted by the fact that Tish B’Av also heralds in a process of creating a new light.

My blessing to everyone is to experience a complete redemption from both physical and spiritual exile this Shabbat and the ability to feel Hashem’s light and comfort in our lives.