Friday, September 23, 2016

Parashat Ki Tavo

Is God a Crazed Soccer Mom?

Years ago, I read an article in one of those on-flight magazines about a town in Virginia, a “Soccer Town,” where the local culture was one in which youth soccer was taken very, very seriously. Of course, there were many benefits to this, including the teaching of important values of teamwork, cooperation, camaraderie, and humility.

At the same time, things were blown out of proportion.  Parents and children traveled two hours each day to games, competitiveness was on overdrive, there were numerous divisions and rankings, and each team (of grade schoolers!) had professional coaches.  It became a culture symbolized in part by the proverbial soccer mom, but crazed exponentially.

While I find it hard to believe that I would fall victim to this level of loss of perspective, I understand it.  Losing perspective is something we, as people, can do.  Sometimes, we blow things out of proportion.

What is strange about Parashat Ki Tavo is that it seems to present God as losing it, blowing things out of proportion—not unlike the stereotypical crazed Virginia soccer mom.

We read this week about the ceremony of the first fruits, the Bikkurim:  How a farmer takes the first fruit of the season—even a single fig-- up to Jerusalem, recites a concise but moving text placing himself in the context of Jewish history and destiny and the Jewish people’s relationship to God, and rejoices before God in Jerusalem.  

Considering this ceremony is all about one piece of fruit, it seems out of proportion.  To get a sense of how much so, contrast it with tithing, Ma’aser, when we give ten percent of our crops to the Levites or to the poor. We give 10% of everything, but there’s no ceremony at all.

With a mitzvah demanding a whole to-do in Jerusalem over one fig, our Parasha seems to present God as taking everything out of proportion here, as having developed an obsession over a piece of fruit not unlike that which possessed that frenzied Virginia town.

Here’s an alternative suggestion to explain the big deal about one little first fruit in contrast to the lack of a big deal over tithing:  Ma’aser, tithing, is about the past.  We give our 10%, but we already have all of our crops for the year.  We know we still have the other 90%, and we know how much that is.

By contrast, when we bring that first fruit to Jerusalem, we don’t know how many more fruits are coming in the rest of the season.  Maybe it will be a small crop, or a bad crop.  We’re celebrating, we’re giving from the first of what we have before we have anything else, before we know how much we’re going to ultimately get.

We give thanks and we rejoice regardless of what we will have.

Perhaps there is some attitudinal guidance here, as we approach Rosh Hashanah and peer into the impenetrable obscurity of the upcoming year:  The future is uncertain.  It might not be what we want or hope to get from it. It might even, God forbid, bring tragedy and loss. But that cannot deter us from a certain type of faith that enables us to rejoice before God.  Bringing the Bikkurim is designed not to give us faith that the future will be bright—it very well might not be—but to cultivate the type of faith by which we see the holiness and the joy in what we do have, whatever that might be.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Parashat Va'etchanan

This post is at least 8 days late, but since it deals with the Shema which we say every day, I thought it relevant still.

Parashat Va'etchanan has in it the first paragraph of the Shema, which has a very clear structure:  The movement from inner to outer.

How does this work?  Look at the progression:
1. It starts with the principle of God's absolute unity, as well as the fact of our relationship with God:   Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad.  God is our God.  God is one.

2. This reality (or internalization of it) leads to internal love of God:  v'ahavta . . .al levavecha.  (you shall love God. . . place these words on your heart.)

3. Love expands from the heart into how we speak-- "v'shinantam levanecha v'dibarta bam. . ."  (you shall teach them diligently to your children and speak of them)-- love of God manifests itself in holy words, in words of Torah.

4. It moves from speech outward, to action, represented by the mitzvah of tefillin: ukshartam l'ot al yadecha. . . and you shall tie them as a sign upon your hand. . . 

5. Action expands even further to change our environment, as represented by the mezuzah:  u'chtavtam al mezuzot beitecha. . . and you shall write them on the doorposts of your house. . .

I will leave as an open question whether this progression from inner to outer is descriptive or prescriptive.  That is, does it describe what happens, that belief in God's unity will lead to love of God, which will lead to holy speech, etc. ,   or does it prescribe for us what we should do-- we should make sure to focus on God's unity to develop love, and push that love outward from speech, to action, to affect the world around us?

Friday, August 12, 2016

Devarim/Tisha B'Av

  1. Tisha B’Av has a Partner!

Tisha B’Av has a partner holiday.


Chazal teach us that whatever day of the week the first day of Pesach falls on, that is the day that Tisha B’Av will fall on in the same year.  They are linked by the calendar.

And they are linked by theme as well.  Pesach is redemption, Tisha B’Av is exile. 
Yet on Pesach, under all the joy, there is an undercurrent of mourning—the egg, the missing korban Pesach, the absence of which hangs like a cloud.  Pesach Seder in the Galut is like celebrating the birthday party of a dear loved one—who is not with us.

And yet, too, on Tisha B’Av, buried deep within its sadness, is the reason for the holiday: כל המתאבל על ירושלים רואה וזוכה בבנינה.  There is a tradition that Mashiach will be born on Tisha B'Av.  One who mourns for Jerusalem merits to see it rebuilt.  We mourn in order to sharpen our sense of loss, and loss is born of caring, which bears the seeds of hope.   Our very mourning is girded with hope. 

  1. Polite hints and verbal cues?
We’ve all been in situations where we are too polite to directly tell someone that they are intruding on our personal space, or on our time, so we try all sorts of gentle verbal hints and body-language cues, but usually-- these subtle hints do not work.

It is surprising, therefore, to see how in Parashat Devarim, which we read the week before Tisha B’Av, our Rabbis explain Moshe’s description of the travels of the Jewish people as a type of subtle hint of rebuke.  Look, for example, at how Rashi explains that each of the places Moshe mentions is a hint to a sin that the Jewish people committed in the desert, and therefore a chastisement.

In light of how ineffective subtle hints are, it is surprising that Moshe chastises the people so indirectly, through hints and innuendo.   It is so ineffective!  Why would he do such a thing?

  1. The Parallel in the Partners

Maybe another similarity to Pesach reveals that Moshe was not dropping hints at all, but painting his telling with layers of meaning in order to make the experience real for the new generation about to enter Israel. 

On Pesach, we have an obligation to see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt.  חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים.  When we go beyond intellectual understanding and bring ourselves to re-experience redemption, then when we say thank you, we really mean it.  We feel happy naturally.

Perhaps on Tisha B’Av, we also have an obligation, parallel to Pesach, to see ourselves as if we personally were present at the Churban Beit Hamikdash and the litany of tragedies that followed.

When we go beyond intellectual understanding and bring ourselves to re-experience calamity, we bring ourselves from outward mourning to a sense of loss, and from a sense of loss to caring for our people and for others.  Caring is the exact opposite of שנאת חינם; it fosters unity, and bears the seeds of redemption.  כל המתאבל על ירושלים רואה וזוכה בבנינה

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The sins of the fathers

In the Ten Commandments' injunction against idolatry, the Torah states that God is "pokeid avon avot al banim al shieihim v'al ribe'im l'sonai", "visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me."

(This contrasts with God's reward of the descendants of the righteous to the thousandth generation, but that is not the subject of this post).

What is the subject of this post is a problem which is noticed by our Sages, and answered, but a first-glance at their treatment of the problem doesn't seem to solve anything.

The problem: God seems to punish the children, grand-children and great-grand-children (2nd, 3rd and 4th generations) for the sins committed by the first generation of the wicked.  This seems to contradict various assertions in Torah and the prophets that God is just and punishes each person only for his or her own misdeeds, not for anything inherited.   

The answer of our sages:  The verse says that God visits this to the third and fourth generation "of those who hate Me"-- i.e., those who continue in the first generation's wicked ways.   God obviously doesn't punish righteous descendants for the wickedness of the first generation.

This answer doesn't really help, though, at first glance.  Think of it this way.  There are two possibilities as to what the verse means.  Either A)  God punishes the wicked 2nd, 3rd and 4th generations for their own sins PLUS the  sins of generation #1, OR B) God punishes wicked 2nd, 3rd and 4th generations only for their own sins and doesn't add any punishment from generation #1.

Possibility B means that the verse says nothing.  God punishes each person as he or she deserves, and really visits nothing on the future generations.   But possibility A is problematic-- Why should generation 2, 3 or 4 be punished MORE than they deserve?  Why should a wicked person whose father was wicked suffer more punishment than an equally wicked man whose father was righteous?  This still seems to fail the justice test that bothered our Sages.

Here is my suggestion as to what our Sages were getting at.   If one's parents are wicked, then the children are also likely to be wicked because this is the behavior and attitude modeled for them when they grew up.  One might think that generations 2, 3 and 4 really have little or no choice, that they are patur, not really responsible for their wicked actions.  The Torah comes to dismiss this assumption and tell us that the 2nd, 3rd and 4th generations really are responsible for their actions.  There are other relatives, other people in town, teachers, etc., who can serve as role models.  They are not fully trapped in the model of their wicked forbears.   After the 4th generation, however, the Torah seems to exculpate such people from (heavenly, not human) punishment.   It's just too ingrained to really say people have freedom of choice.

So the verse actually doesn't mean to convey possibility A above, that God gives the first generation's punishment to the subsequent generations in addition to whatever they deserve.  It actually describes possibility B, that God punishes each person only for his own behavior.  The chiddush--what makes this significant-- is that the Torah disregards any excuses because of upbringing and asserts the freedom of the individual's choice, up until after the 3rd or 4th generation.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

A quick thought on Megillat Esther

וַיֹּאמֶר מָרְדֳּכַי, לְהָשִׁיב אֶל-אֶסְתֵּר:  אַל-תְּדַמִּי בְנַפְשֵׁךְ, לְהִמָּלֵט בֵּית-הַמֶּלֶךְ מִכָּל-הַיְּהוּדִים.  יד כִּי אִם-הַחֲרֵשׁ תַּחֲרִישִׁי, בָּעֵת הַזֹּאת--רֶוַח וְהַצָּלָה יַעֲמוֹד לַיְּהוּדִים מִמָּקוֹם אַחֵר, וְאַתְּ וּבֵית-אָבִיךְ תֹּאבֵדוּ; וּמִי יוֹדֵעַ--אִם-לְעֵת כָּזֹאת, הִגַּעַתְּ לַמַּלְכוּת

What does Mordechai mean when he says "ומי יודע אם לעת כזאת הגעת למלכות"?  Who knows if for a time like this you arrive(d) at the malchut (monarchy/majesty)?

I always understood it to mean, and my informal poll of 5-6 people in town confirms it, that Mordechai is saying to Esther:  Maybe this is why you are here, as the Queen-- to save the Jews at a time like this!

Indeed, this is how Ibn Ezra explains it.

However, Rashi seems to take a very different explanation.  He understands Mordechai as saying:
Who knows if --לעת כזאת at another time like this one--
הגעת למלכות--you'll get the chance to be close to the King's favor.

Rashi notes that the decree, and this scene, happen in Nissan, and the actual date set for the destruction of the Jews is almost a year later, in Adar.

What drives Rashi to an explanation like his instead of taking the more obvious reading of the Ibn Ezra (and everyone else I've asked)?

I think it's because at the beginning of verse 14, he says "If you are silent at this time, salvation to the Jews will come from somewhere else."   The words בעת הזאת mean "at this time".   But the verse would mean the same thing without those words, i.e. if it said "If you are silent, salvation to the Jews will come from another place."

Rashi, I think, sees the words  "at this time" as superfluous according to Ibn Ezra's understanding, and understands Mordechai in a way that gives them meaning:

If you are silent at this time--the time of the decree--salvation to the Jews will come from somewhere else.  . . . And who knows,    אם לעת כזאת if at the next time like this--the time of the killing-- you will have access to the King.

Note: I have some things that I published after each Shabbat for Parashat Yitro and Mishpatim.  Drop me an email if you think I should post them, even though the time for those parshiot is past for this year.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Why do we like our holiday divrei Torah before the holiday? A final Chanukah thought

Why do we like to hear divrei Torah about holidays before the holiday, but afterwards, it's all just so uninteresting?   Apparently, we want to be spiritually prepared in advance (or at least on the holiday) to appreciate its meaning, and afterwards, the insights are too far away from next year to make a difference in preparing for our meaningful holiday.

But is this correct?  Doesn't this emphasis on preparing for the holiday's meaning really boil down to an intellectual interest, to the exclusion of religious growth?  Because after all, if I'm really interested in drawing close to God, I should look to see what lessons from the holiday (both in light of insights and my observance) will impact my life afterward?  The dvar Torah about Chanukah should be welcomed before or on Chanukah, of course.  But it should be most welcomed afterwards.

In that light, here is my final chanukah thought.  A friend in shul told me that he heard a Dvar Torah about Chanukah and money, which goes something like this:  Why is it that to get a chanukah candle, a poor person must even have to sell his overcoat if necessary?  Is there a connection between Chanukah and money?   He answered that indeed, the Rambam says that the Greeks "pashtu yadam b'mamonam" extended their hands to the Jew's money.   The connection, my friend quoted in the name of someone else, is that the Jews must have sinned with money, and were therefore punished by the Greeks midah k'neged midah, measure for measure.

This idea leaves me cold, even uncomfortable because of the presumed knowledge of the mind of God.

I suggested a different idea.  That there is indeed a connection between Chanukah and money:  Why is the Greek's assault on the Jews' money or property significant enough to warrant a mention by the Rambam?  Because of what wealth represents.  When leaving Egypt, God told the Jews to take silver and gold from the Egyptians.  What ever would they need it for?  For the building of the Mishkan, the temple dedicated to God.   Silver and gold--wealth in general-- are, from a religious perspective, to be channelled to the service of God.   Property becomes the means by which we do many of the mitzvot.

Thus, we say in Al Hanisim that the Greeks tried "l'hashkicham Toratecha u'l'haaviram mechukei retzonecha", to cause the Jews to forget the Torah and to remove them from the laws which are God's will.   What is the difference between these two things?  "Causing the Jews to forget the Torah" is an attempt to assimilate the Jews.   "Removing them from the laws" may mean something else--removing them practically from their ability to observe the laws by taking away their wealth and property.   In the absence of assimilation, this will separate Jews from the Torah.

Since wealth and property are the means for the dedication of the material to the Divine, and this was under attack by the Greeks, we must be willing to rededicate ourselves to that value.   For this reason, even a poor person with little property must be willing to part with so much in order to fulfill the mitzvah of Chanukah lights.

As we move on from Chanukah, may God bless us with the wisdom to use whatever resources we have to add holiness into our lives and into the world.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Are Your Values Twisted?

Two thoughts from last week, Parashat Vayera, before I forget them:

1)  How can Lot simultaneously be so evil as to offer his daughters to the people of Sedom, while doing so in the name of protecting guests?

One approach, which doesn't seem to reflect the accepted reading of the words (but maybe it does), is that Lot's question about offering his daughters is rhetorical.    He's really saying "Hey look, I have two daughters.  I would as soon offer them to you to have your way with as I would offer up my guests."   According to this, Lot is actually not offering up his daughters, but successfully clinging to hachnasat orchim, and doing so quite well.

Another approach is to say that he indeed did offer up his daughters instead of his guests.  His willingness to do so is reflective of the influence that Sedom had upon him.   Lot was raised with Avraham Avinu's sense of values, especially his renowned sense of hachnasat orchim.  Thus, when Lot found himself in Sedom, a city that specifically rejected the inviting in of others, a city defined by xenophobia and careless to the needs of the stranger, Lot felt the need to compensate by over-emphasizing the value that was under attack.    The problem, though, is that when one over-emphasizes one value in order to protect it, it warps one's entire value system, perhaps even without the person's knowledge.   Part of morality is the interrelation of values and knowing how to balance competing values.   This becomes twisted, and the "ignored" values may become, finally, immoral.
Thus, Lot's efforts to defend himself from the ideals and values of the city of Sedom had an insidious effect upon him and his values, in spite of his best efforts.

2) Why is the haftara for parashat Vayera about Elisha and the revival from the dead of the son of the Shunamite woman?

The obvious connection is the informing of a barren woman that she will have a child.  In the parsha, it is done by an angel, and in the haftara, it is done by Elisha himself.

Perhaps there is another connection:  The attempt to save Sedom-Amora and the attempt to save the child of the Shunamite woman. 

What is the whole issue of Avraham's debate with God about saving the Sedom-Amora metropolitan area?   At first it seems to be about how God shouldn't unjustly slay the righteous along with the wicked.  But soon it becomes about how God should save the wicked because the righteous are among them.  Somehow, either the presence of the righteous raise hopes for the repentance of the wicked, or the attachment of the righteous to the wicked moves God to relent, perhaps because He sees the love of the righteous for the wicked and wishes to reward the righteous.

This is also a theme in the haftara.  The boy is not revived because Elisha did CPR-- such an idea is somewhat annoying, and doesn't even warrant discussion.   He is revived when Elisha attaches himself to the boy-- matching his life up against the boy's, sharing his breath with the boy.   It is a case of the righteous attaching himself to the one who is doomed, and demonstrating his love for the doomed.   (One can hardly say the boy is wicked, so I write "doomed" because it seems that God didn't really want this boy to exist in the first place, and later seems to have killed him).     God didn't hear Elisha's prayer to revive the boy.  God responded when Elisha identified himself completely with the child.