Thursday, August 27, 2015

Ki Tetze, Good Deeds and Responsibilities

Many people think that a mitzvah is a good deed. Jewish tradition however understands this term to mean a God given commandment, a sacred responsibility. According to the tradition there are 613 mitzvot gleaned from the Torah.

There is the familiar, “Be fruitful and multiply,” and the obscure, “You shall not wear a mixture of wool and linen.” There are ethical mitzvot and ritual. There are positive and negative. There are laws that are dependent on the ancient sacrificial cult and therefore no longer applicable and there are other laws that are only incumbent upon those living in the land of Israel.

Genesis gives rise to only three commandments. Exodus provides us with the familiar commandments to observe Passover and Shabbat as well as the demand that we not oppress the stranger. Leviticus gives us the laws of keeping kosher and those surrounding the incomprehensible sacrifice of animals. Numbers commands us to wear a tallis and Deuteronomy to give tzedakah and recite the Shema.

Deuteronomy provides us with the most commandments, 200 of the 613. In this week’s Torah portion we find 72, far more than any other portion. There are many interesting commands detailed here. “If you chance upon a bird’s nest with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over them, do not take the mother with her young. If you see your fellow’s donkey or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not pick it over again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.”

Most interesting is the following: “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring blood guilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.” On Long Island we don’t have too many homes with rooftop parapets. And so I wondered, to what can this apply? I began thinking about fences. But here on Long Island we build fences for privacy rather than protection. We build them to keep the neighbors out rather than to protect our neighbors from harm.

The Biblical ethos is instead that each of us is responsible for our neighbors. The parapet is akin to pool fences. We have an obligation to protect our neighbors. In our culture we remain fixated on the rights of privacy and shielding our lives from our neighbors. The Bible insists that we must not remain indifferent to our neighbors.

All of the Torah is built on the idea that we are responsible for others. It is not constructed around our rights and privileges but rather around our duties and obligations, most especially to our neighbors.

The required list may no longer be 613 items long but the point is the same. Our neighbors are not to be ignored. The fences we build should not be about keeping our lives to ourselves. They must instead be about our responsibility to others.

That is the essence of the mitzvot.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Shoftim, Justice and Peace

We live in a world where people often scream about injustice, but rarely take action to correct such failings. The injustices we most often speak about are those that involve people closest to us. We complain about this friend or that. We criticize this family member or another. Rarely do we seek to make amends and make peace.

This week’s Torah portion focuses on justice. In addition to legislating how judges should be appointed, it contains the famous verse: “Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 16:20)

We hear this call for justice, but too often we misapply its message to friends and family. Instead we need to spend more time pursuing justice for our society. Our country faces many problems. There is a growing inequity between rich and poor. We continue to witness simmering racial tensions explode into view. On our very own Long Island there are far too many homeless and hungry. The Interfaith Nutrition Network, for example, serves over 300,000 meals per year! There are still far too many without adequate jobs. We must create more employment opportunities. These are but a few examples of the many challenges our society faces. We need to work to repair the many problems in our broken society.

This is the Torah’s demand. We must pursue justice for the sake of our country and our community. But rather than working to fix these problems we level the charge of injustice against family members and friends. With regard to those closest to us we are instead commanded to pursue peace. Hillel said: “Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace.” (Avot 1:12) According to our tradition Aaron best exemplifies peace making. Why? The Israelites clamored to build a Golden Calf when their leader Moses was busy on the mountaintop communing with God. Aaron was left in charge. He did not as one might expect talk them out of their unholy task. Instead he appears to have helped them. Aaron facilitated the building of the calf. The Torah’s judgment of his actions is harsh.

The rabbis, however, see in Aaron a model of peace making. Their suggestion is extraordinary. Even when family members are straying, or in this case building idols, we are to be like the disciples of Aaron, and make peace. Thus when it comes to family shalom, peace, is the greatest virtue. When it comes to the larger society the greatest value is tzedek, justice. We often confuse which value is to lead the way.

Pursue justice for the society at large. Pursue peace for family and friends. As the High Holidays approach I pledge to seek justice for our society, and make peace among family and friends.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Elul and Preparing for Change

Saturday begins the Hebrew month of Elul and therefore the start of the High Holiday season. Below you will find my article, recently published by Reform Judaism, reflecting on this moment: How the Torah Sets the Stage for Real-Life Struggle.

Real Torah is about preparation.

Take Moses' life as an example. First of all, Moses does not even begin his true calling until, at the age of 80, he leads the people from Egypt. We know incomparably little about his first 80 years. In fact, the majority of the Torah details his, and the people's, life from the Exodus forward. What little we do know about those years is more the stuff of legend than Torah. We do read there that Moses did not even want the job.

The 40 years of wandering and struggle are a prelude to Moses' dream of leading the people into the Promised Land - and yet he is denied this dream. Moses, who fails to achieve his lifelong ambition and singular goal, is allowed only to stand on the other side of the Jordan and glimpse the dream from afar. He is not allowed to touch the land of Israel, a privilege instead granted to his successor, Joshua.

The Torah suggests a reason for God's harsh judgment. Moses gets angry one too many times, losing his temper with the people. He smashes a rock when they complain, yet again, about the lack of water. Because of this action, his career concludes on the precipice of a dream, and his life ends with its goal unfulfilled and its ambition unrealized. He dies at the age of 120 years.

It is Joshua who leads the people into the land. We discover this not in the Torah, but instead in the Book of Joshua. The Torah concludes on the other side of the dream - in essence, on the wrong side of the river. It never fulfills its stated goal. After Moses' death, we roll it back to creation and we begin the preparation all over again.

The Torah is not about the fulfillment of dreams. It is instead about preparation - and it must therefore remain incomplete.

If we are to discover ourselves in its words and in between its lines, the Torah must never be perfectly fulfilled. This is real living. Perfection is an unrealizable ambition. Even the life of Moses, the prophet of prophets, falls short, which is why the tradition calls him not "Moses the prophet," but instead "Moses, our teacher." We learn from his life.

Perhaps the Torah's very incompleteness is a hint, then, of its perfection. It offers a perfect teaching: We wander. We struggle. And we prepare.

During the forthcoming days of the month of Elul, Jews the world over will turn inward. We will count 40 days from the first of Elul until Yom Kippur. They mirror the days Moses spent on the mountaintop communing with God. They are reminiscent of the 40 years when Moses lived Torah. Those years are, in fact, the majority of our scroll's verses.

These 40 days are intended for us to prepare for the High Holidays. We are meant to use these days to focus on repentance, change our ways, and most especially seek out those people we have wronged. We can only reach out to God if we first repair our human relationships. Yom Kippur is useless without the Torah of these 40 days of preparation, without first reaching out to others.

And yet, like the dream that Moses only sees from afar, we learn that teshuvah shleymah, complete repentance, is a distant, if not impossible, goal. According to Maimonides, such certain judgments about the mending of our ways can only be made if we find ourselves in the exact same situation, facing the exact same temptation but this time making a different decision. Even repentance is incomplete.

Still we continue to prepare. And this is where Torah is discovered.

We hold a dream in our hearts. We can improve. We can change. Friendships can be repaired. Relationships can be healed. We count our days in preparation for that dream. We wander through the Torah toward that dream.

Before we know it, our High Holiday prayers will conclude, and the gates will close.

We take comfort in the scroll that has no end. The dream seems distant. The preparations must begin again in earnest.

Our Torah is learned. The Torah is relearned.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Ekev and Feeding Compassion

The Talmud reports that Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: It is forbidden to eat before feeding one's animal. (Brachot 40a)

What is the import of this ruling? It would be cruel to eat in front of our hungry animals and pets. Our concern for God’s creation extends to animals as well as to humans. Compassion is taught by caring for pets. Attending to their cries, and pangs of hunger, molds a caring heart.

The rabbis derive this law from the following verse: "I will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and then, you shall eat and be satisfied." (Deuteronomy 11:15) Because the Torah speaks first about cattle and then about human beings, the rabbis rule that we must feed our animals before satisfying our own hunger.

It is fascinating that the ancient rabbis derive this teaching from the order of the verse’s words. Their reasoning reminds us that we live in a world not only where words matter but also the order of these words. They continue to teach us that compassion begins by reaching out to others first. Only then can we reach out to ourselves. Only then do we become sated.

Can compassion really be taught by sprinkling a few crumbs of food in a fish tank or by filling a dog’s or cat’s bowl with food before sitting down to our own meals? The Talmud’s answer is yes. Yes, absolutely. Before my hunger is satisfied I must first provide for others, I must first reach out to others. I must, in this case, reach down to those who cannot care for themselves, and provide for them. It begins by pausing, and noting the needs of other creatures.

Our spiritual hunger is sated when we turn to others, when we open our hands to all of God’s creatures.