Monday, August 27, 2012

Parshat Ki Teizei
14 Elul 5772 / August 31 – Sept. 1, 2012
Dvarim 22:5 – 25:19
Cross Dressings and Momma Birds?!
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ
In this week’s parsha I would like to consider why two scenarios are presented next to each other. The verses 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 הקןSending 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-הָאֶפְרֹחִיםאוֹ 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 can provoke a discussion about the qualities of human empathy and compassion. 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 sexcapades. This is very different from a woman wearing pants or a transgender male to female wearing lipstick. The ability to assume another’s role or experience is rooted in the expression of empathy. While empathy is one key to human connectivity, compassion is lacking in a situation of deceit, as emphasized by Rashi. Thus, there are limitations to “walking in another’s shoes” that seems to be a good protective measure for a just society. 

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 forces us to think about compassionate and respectful involvement in the chain of life.

Many Blessings!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Parshat Shoftim
Dvarim 16:18-21:9
7 Elul 5772 / August 24-25, 2012

Precious Human, Precious Tree, Precious Planet
by Laura W, MH London Alumnus
Somewhere in the lush green English country side is a Hindu temple donated by the late Beatle George Harrison in 1973.  On the far wall of the eco garden on their 70 acre estate lies a verse from this week’s Parsha "ki ha'adam etz hasadeh" (כי האדם עץ השדה),‘ Every person is a tree in the field’. Amongst the solar panels and wild life there are quotes from a variety of the world’s holy books. This was the one chosen to represent the Jewish view on environmental non-violence.

There have been several interpretations of this verse which refers to the forbidden destruction of fruit trees in a Jewish military siege.

The Jewish legal tradition focuses on the practical reading of the verse which strongly condemns the uprooting of fruit producing trees. The rabbis extended the prohibition of the meaningless destruction of the trees to a generalized prohibition against waste, known as ba’al tashchit, "Do not destroy." According to Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 6:10):

"This is the law not only for trees, but anyone who breaks containers, tears clothes, destroys a building, stops up a well, or wastes food violates the prohibition of 'do not destroy.' "

As master kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero of Safed ("RaMaK," 1522-1570) teaches in the Holy text Tomar Devorah: "One's compassion should extend to all creatures, and one should neither despise nor destroy them; for the Supernal Wisdom extends to all of creation -- the "silent" or mineral level, plants, animals, and humans. This is why our sages have warned us against treating food disrespectfully. Just as the Supernal Wisdom despises nothing, since everything is produced there -- as it is written, 'You have formed them all with wisdom' (Psalms 104:24) -- a person should show compassion to all of the works of the Holy One, blessed be He."

My blessing to the Moishe House community is higher awareness of the beauty of our Torah and it’s teachings of how to consume with a social and ecological conscience in light that we are all creations. 

Shabbat Shalom!

Monday, August 13, 2012

To Act or Not to Act

Parshat Re’eh
30 Av 5772 / August 17 - 18, 2012
Dvarim 11:26 – 16:17

To Act or Not to Act
by Zvi Bellin, MH Head Quarters

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 this person. “Your hand shall be the first against him to kill him (verse 13:10).” In the case of a Wayward City, there is a more level-headed approach. “You shall seek out and investigate, and inquire well (verse 13:15).” 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, according to Rashi (medieval Torah commentator extraordinaire), 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; rather the enticer should be taken to a 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.   

Monday, August 6, 2012

Stepping Towards Godliness

Parshat Ekev
Dvarim 7:12 – 11:25
23 Av 5772 / August 10 – 11, 2012


Stepping Towards Godliness
by Emly Oren, Moishe House Portland

In Parashat Eikev, the third parshah in the book of Dvarim, Moses continues speaking to the Israelites before entering the Promised Land. He promises that if they fulfill the commandments, they will prosper in the land that is, “Flowing with milk and honey.” Moses also addresses the hardships we went through, such as recalling the worship of the Golden Calf and the rebellion of Korach. The Parshah concludes with the description of manna and the blessings of the seven species. 

I noticed the first sentence uses this week’s Parshah, “Eikev”, as a conjunction of “because”: “And it shall come to pass because you heartened and you listened and you obeyed God’s commandments.” As a noun, however, Eikev is defined as a “heel.” For me, this definition gives me more insight. The Israelites have stopped wandering the desert and are about to enter the Promised Land. They have walked long and far and are now grounding themselves with their heels. In this Parshah, heels symbolize our history and the lessons that Moses has taught us. Now the Israelites are entering their new home with their feet forward, knowing that their heel has led them to this very moment. It is up to them to let their toes guide them in the right direction while allowing their heals to be grounded.

Where we put our feet depends on the choices we make and the direction we take is completely up to us. During this week I think it is important to ask ourselves the following questions: Are we walking with our feet towards godliness or away from it? Are we stepping into a place of light or darkness? This week’s portion is teaching us that we have choices to make in life. May we enter this week with the direction of free-will and may our feet guide us to a place of holiness.