Monday, August 19, 2013

It’s Mine! Or is It?

Parshat Ki Tavo
D’varim 26:1 – 29:8
18 Elul 5773 / August 23-24, 2013

It’s Mine! Or is It?
by Rebecca Karp, MH East Regional Director

As we are in the thick of the text of Devarim (Deuteronomy), the last book of the Torah, as we push ever closer to the high holidays and begin again, Ki Tavo reminds us of a few key points HaShem made earlier on in our story.

The bulk of the parsha (weekly Torah portion) speaks about our covenant with G~d and how, if we follow the various dictums G~d has laid out for us, we will be supremely blessed. There are details upon details of how those blessings will manifest in our lives, the lives of those closest to us, and so on.

In contrast to this list, albeit in its own right lengthy, there is a far more detailed account of what curses will befall us should we fail to obey and participate in G~d's covenant. The details of the curses that will come upon us outweigh the blessings almost 3:1! Curses that affect mind, body and soul, personal livelihood and community, your family and those under your care.

Now, when I wrote the Dvar Torah I gave at my Bat Mitzvah, on this very parsha, I focused on on those blessings and curses. I spoke about why the curses would be so much more detailed and lengthy than the blessings and I would be happy to debate my thoughts on the matter again.

However, today, I chose to go in a different direction. The first section of this portion reminds us of a commandment that was first mentioned in Shemot (Exodus) 23:19 - the commandment of בכורים/Bikkurim or first fruits. From Ki Tavo, Devarim 26:2 " shall take of the first of every fruit of the ground that you bring in from your Land that HaShem, your G~d, gives you..." and 26:10 "And now, behold! I have brought the first fruit of the ground that You have given me, O HaShem! And you shall lay it before HaShem, your G~d, and you shall prostrate yourself before HaShem, your G~d."

That, to me, is quite remarkable. To think, you have been wandering through the desert for forty years and you have finally reached The Promised Land. The land that G~d has brought us to. The land that we have inherited. And now, you have even spent enough time in that land, working its soil, tilling the earth, watering, waiting, watching, that that earth has born fruit. If that were me, I would be thrilled. Ecstatic, in fact! And when I saw that fruit, say, that delicious cherry tomato or raspberry on the vine, I would pluck it and drop it into my mouth to savor my handiwork. Almost without a second thought. And that, I believe, is exactly the point.

We often work so hard at something, whether it be a professional degree, landing that new, great job, finding a partner and starting a life together, that when we succeed in obtaining that "fruit", we forget to look at our surroundings and offer blessings and thanks for what brought us to that point. That, for me, is the lesson in בכורים/Bikkurim that we can take from this parsha.

As we wind down the days of Elul, a traditional time for stock-taking and review of your deeds and actions over the past year, I hope you are able to look at your first fruits within their larger context. May we all be blessed to bear many first fruits in our lives, and to have the courage and self-awareness to give thanks and offerings for those fruits.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Cross Dressing and Momma Birds?!

Parshat Ki Teizei
11 Elul 5773 / August 16 – 17, 2013
Dvarim 22:5 – 25:19

Cross Dressing 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, complete enmeshment can be harmful. Thus, there are limitations to “walking in another shoes” that seem 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 5, 2013

Justice is Your Business!

Parshat Shoftim
Dvarim 16:18-21:9
4 Elul 5773 / August. 9-10, 2013

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


Thursday, August 1, 2013

Parshat Re’eh
27 Av 5773 / August 2 - 3, 2013
Dvarim 11:26 – 16:17

Re’eh - 27 Av 5773 / August 2-3, 2013by Rabbi Dan Horwirtz, MH Director of Immersive Learning
In this week’s portion, Re’eh, Moses continues his long-winded speech to the Israelite nation.  In addition to reminders about kosher restrictions, the remission of debts, and the three pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot), he makes a particular point to focus on the rules and regulations surrounding sacrifices.

He reminds the Israelites that unlike their actions in the desert, where they’ve offered sacrifices to God all along their journey, upon entering the Promised Land, they cannot simply offer sacrifices wherever they please.  Rather, they are required to offer up sacrifices “in the place that God will choose in one of your tribal territories.”  Ultimately, as we know, that meant the Temple in Jerusalem.
It seems a bit intense to think that in order to connect with the Divine, our ancestors were required to trek all the way to Jerusalem.  (Admittedly, many contemporary Jews still flock to Jerusalem - and specifically the old city and Wailing Wall area - as a spiritual and holy site)

For our ancestors, based on the guidelines, worship inherently meant a communal activity in a public setting.  There effectively were no options for worshipping at home.  For millennia, our institutions (first the Temples, now synagogues) reflected that reality – after all, there are certain traditional prayers only said in the presence of a quorum.

And yet, nowadays, many of us don’t prioritize communal worship (partially because we feel awkward about the concept of worship in general).  We often think that we’re able to connect with the Divine, worship and exist on our own.  We pride ourselves on being independent (some would argue bordering on selfish / hyper-individualistic). Individual connections are important and valuable.  However, I would argue that being part of a larger community is an essential component to living a complete Jewish life.

We find in this portion the following instruction: “don’t harden your heart or shut your hand against your kinsman.”  We’re meant to be open and generous with those in our community – and being part of a community is a necessary prerequisite for fulfilling that obligation.

This Shabbat, reflect on the various communities (Jewish and otherwise) that you’re a part of (or wish you were a part of).  What about the communities makes them attractive / alluring?  What value does being part of a community add to your life?  If you were to build a community from scratch, what would the building blocks be?

By directing our attention to the beauty and meaning that can be harnessed by sharing our lives with others, we can begin to form the connections necessary to truly be witnesses to the awe and inspiration of the world around us.