Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Parshat Ekev / How did this paragraph get into Shema?

Last week we read the first paragraph of Shema in parshat V’etchanan. It’s a beautiful paragraph that teaches – in poetic language – how to make God and Torah the center of our lives. It doesn’t define either God or Torah for us and therefore its words grow with us through the generations and centuries. This week, we open to parshat Ekev where we find the second paragraph of Shema, a paragraph that encapsulates the Deuteronomic theology of reward and punishment in such detail and specificity that many find it troubling. There appears to be far less wiggle room for interpretation:
If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving God with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil – I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle – and thus you shall eat your fill. Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and God will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Lord is assigning to you. Therefore impress these My words upon your very heart, bind them as a sign on your hand, and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead, and teach them to your children – reciting them when you stay home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up; and inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates – to the end that you and your children may endure, in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to assign to them, as long as there is a heaven over the earth. (Deuteronomy 11: 13-21)
According to Deuteronomy, loyalty to God’s covenant, in addition to being rewarded with new grain, wine, and oil, fertile flocks and herds, health and well being for people and animals alike, will bring military victories and secure borders. Failure to keep God’s covenant will result in unmitigated disaster. Is this how the world works?

According to Deuteronomy, God holds all the cards, and we have but two choices: obey or rebel. The processes of nature take their cue – day by day – from God, who considers our lives and decides if we deserve blessing or curse. Leaving aside the obvious clash with science, is this the God you worship?

On the one hand, Torah in general, and Deuteronomy in particular, sees God as all-powerful, coercive, and punishing. On the other hand, it is equally true that Torah asserts that God loves Israel passionately, is eternally loyal to the Covenant with our ancestors and us, and seeks continuous relationship with us. Are they two separate views, or two sides of a single coin?

Put another way: Is a God who rewards and punishes in a way that brings on waves of human suffering a God I want to worship? Or are the ideas encapsulated in Deuteronomy human expression, the words of people who understood the world – and God – in a particular way that perhaps differs from my way? If the answers to these questions are yes and no (respectively) all is well and I have no trouble praying this paragraph. If, however, the answers to these questions are no and yes (respectively), how do I incorporate the second paragraph of Shema into my prayers in more than a perfunctory way? How do I interpret them extract religious meaning from them?

For me, the answers are no and yes, so I will attempt to construct a rationale for praying the second paragraph of Shema.

First, a frame for my response: Moses reminds the Israelites that God subjected them to privation in the wilderness, and then nourished them with manna to teach them ki lo al ha-lekhem l’vado yi-kheyeh ha-adam, ki al kol motza fi-Adonai yi-kheyeh ha-adam “that man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that the Lord decrees” (Deuteronomy 8:3). It is not necessary to see God as a coercive, bullying Being to find meaning in these words: the world is a dangerous place and life is filled with hardships. To cross the Wilderness – a place of challenge and ultimate freedom (i.e. the ability to make moral choices) – mere bread (i.e. satisfying physical needs) is not sufficient. We need both more and less. There are times when we can get along without even bread; we can experience privation and survive with out bodies, minds, and integrity intact. And even when we have sufficient bread (i.e. our physical needs are met) that alone is not sufficient. We have spiritual needs, satisfied by God however we conceive God, that are integral to our survival and wellbeing. What we need is no simple matter, and the Israelites learned that their desires and actions impacted one another at every turn.

With this truth in mind, the second paragraph of Shema (quoted above) comes to remind us that all our choices have consequences that affect not only us, but others, as well. It’s easy to lose sight of this in the day-to-day tussle of life. It’s easy to slip into seeing everything as an isolated event and evaluating things according to the “what’s in it for me?” or “how will it affect me?” criteria alone. This paragraph reminds us that our lives are intertwined with those of others and our decisions have an impact beyond our range of vision. That message alone is worthwhile and can help us retool our thinking and behaving in as diverse arenas as our utilization of energy and natural resources, our proclivity to engage in lashon hara (gossip), and our involvement in issues of social justice. No wonder our tradition delivers a daily dose of it.

I don’t subscribe to the theology of Deuteronomy, but I benefit from the daily reminder that my life is interwoven with the lives of others and the life of the universe. It’s both a head and humbling thought, isn’t it?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Tisha B'Av in the 21st Century

Today is Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, the infamous and tragic date on the Hebrew calendar when the First Temple (of Solomon) was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, and the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. It is a day of fasting and mourning, when Eicha (the Book of Lamentations) is read in the synagogue, Torah study is set aside, and the customs of mourning are observed.

For many liberal Jews, there are two significant impediments to observing Tisha B’Av. First, nearly two millennia have passed since the destruction of the Second Temple. Should we continue to mourn? For those who do not pray for the rebuilding of the Temple – for those who believe that prayer, study, and deeds of kindness are superior ways to worship God than the reinstitution of sacrifices – Tisha B’Av raises this question: is it relevant? A second problem for many Jews trying to extract meaning from Tisha B’Av is that while it commemorates two cataclysmic historical events, the Talmud lays the blame for both squarely at the feet of the Jewish people: their sins led to the destruction of both Temples. In the minds of the Rabbis, the Babylonians and Romans were mere instruments of God for punishing Israel for her sins. This theology is troubling to many modern Jews.

I acknowledge both concerns as legitimate, but for the moment, I want to move around them to ask: without evaluating these concerns, what lessons can we extract for the 21st century from the historical events and traditional interpretations surrounding Tisha B’Av? Viewed in this way, Tisha B’Av is a primer in why religious communities and institutions fail, and how we fail our religious communities and institutions.

Tradition holds that the First and Second Temples were destroyed for very different reasons. (Or were they really so different?) The Talmud tells us that the First Temple was destroyed because the Jewish People were engaged in idolatry. They violated their exclusive covenant with God and worshiped the idols of surrounding peoples, flagrantly neglecting the moral obligations of Torah. They failed to address the suffering of the most vulnerable members of society, and engaged in hedonistic moral crimes. The people were more concerned with their narrow, personal interests, than the needs of those in the community suffering deprivation, and the manner in which the sacrifices were being carried out on their behalf in the Temple. The Rabbis tell us that the Second Temple was destroyed due to sinat chinam, gratuitous hatred. The community was in an extreme state of disarray and disunity. People placed their own self-aggrandizing concerns above all else.

In a sense, the two explanations – for the destruction of the First Temple and the Second Temple – are the same. Misplaced values and priorities, selfishness and self-aggrandizing behavior, weaken the bonds of community and cause the disintegration of religious institutions. When people pull together as a community, setting aside some of their personal desires in favor of the needs of the community, the community thrives and is strong enough to resist assault from without. In both cases, had people operated as a true community, the Rabbis tell us, they would have been able to save Jerusalem. Certainly we can recognize the vicissitudes of history, and the role the Babylonians and Romans played in the destruction of the First and Second Temples, but at the same time, we have all seen the truth that how we set our priorities, and how we live in community, can be either destructive or life-sustaining.

Seven special Haftarah portions pave a spiritual road from Tisha B’Av to Rosh Hashanah. Each offers us the promise of forgiveness, the possibility of substantive change for ourselves and for our communities. The Torah portion we will read on the shabbat prior to Rosh Hashanah spells out this choice in unmistakable terms:
See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity. For I command you this day, to love the Lord your God, to walk in God’s ways, and to keep God’s commandments, laws, and rules, that you may thrive and increase… I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life – if you and your offspring would live – by loving the Lord your God, heeding God’s commands, and holding fast to God. (Deuteronomy 30: 15, 16, 19, 20)
May our choices and priorities be for life and blessing.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, July 12, 2010

Summing up, saying farewell / Parshat Devarim

Sefer Devarim has another name in Jewish parlance: Mishnei Torah, which means “repetition of the Torah.” Mishnei Torah is the name that lent itself to the title “Deuteronomy” that we use in English.

The fifth book of the Torah has a different character from the other four. It consists of:
  • Five discourses delivered by Moses that review and summarize the Israelites’ experience, from redemption from bondages in Egypt until they reach the border of Eretz Yisrael four decades later.
  • One of the two most ancient pieces of Hebrew poetry we have in Parshat Ha’azinu. (The other is Shirat HaYam – the Song at the Sea – in Parshat B’Shallach.)
  • Two narratives concerning Moses’ preparations for transition of leadership to Joshua bin Nun following his death (chapter 31), and the account of Moses’ death (chapter 34).
  • Deuteronomy looks forward to Israel’s life in the Land of Israel and the fulfillment of Israel’s covenant with God, and foresees as well the pitfalls that might befall a nation attempting to establish itself, chief among them the danger of falling into idolatry. Success depends upon Israel’s ability to create – on the basis of Torah – a society in which justice and compassion prevail.
In a sense, our lives are a microcosm of Deuteronomy: searching to fulfill our covenant with God, seeking a life established on the twin pillars of justice and compassion. Like the ancient nation Israel, we pray for health, security, peace and prosperity. And like the ancient nation Israel, each of us falls prey to idolatrous distractions and unworthy diversions.

Moses’ review of the Israelites’ experience – the nation’s lifetime thus far! – is a combination life review and ethical will. Moses does not merely recount the past; he reflects upon it and offers both wisdom and warning for the future. His experience guiding Israel out of Egypt and through the Wilderness becomes the basis for Moses’ ethical will to the Jewish people.

There is a wonderful, time-honored tradition in Judaism of writing ethical wills that has fallen by the wayside, but is well worth resurrecting. An ethical will – most often in the form of a letter – is a vehicle for sharing your values, wisdom, and hopes and dreams for your loved ones, and to bestow forgiveness and blessings on them. It is among the greatest gifts you can give those you love.

Please consider writing your own ethical will. Here are some resources to help you:





Robert U. Akeret with Daniel Klein, Family Tales, Family Wisdom: How to Gather the Stories of a Lifetime and Share Them With Your Family.

Barry Baines, Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper.

Jack Riemer and Nathaniel Stampfer, So That Your Values Live on: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them.

(c) Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Of Vows, Vengeance, and Women / Parshat Matot-Masei

Parshat Matot is about vows (primarily by women) and violent vengeance (primarily against women).

Two weeks ago we read of the incident at Baal Pe’or, a troubling narrative inserted into the story of Balaam. In Numbers chapter 25 we are told that Israelite men are lured into idolatry by Midianite women, evoking God’s wrath. God instructs Moses, “Take all the ringleaders and have them publicly impaled before God, so that Adonai’s wrath may turn away from Israel” (25:4). But at just that moment, an Israelite man takes a Midianite woman into the Tabernacle where they copulate. Pinchas runs them through with a spear, halting the punishing plague in progress that had already taken 24,000 lives.

The account of Baal Pe’or, and the subsequent war of revenge against the Midianites, has many troubling features, not the least of which are Pinchas’ vigilantism against Zimri and Cozbi (the couple coupling in the Tabernacle) and the very idea of a war of vengeance. My focus here, however, is the manner in which woman are portrayed as sexual sirens who lure men into idolatry.

In this week’s parashah, God demands that the Israelites go to war with the Midianites on account of Baal Pe’or. God spoke to Moses, saying: “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin” (Numbers 30:31). This is to be Moses’ last battle, a war of vengeance. The war is a success. No Israelite soldiers dies. The Israelite soldiers capture a bounty of spoils – cattle, herds of sheep and goats, human captives and their possessions – yet Moses is not satisfied:
Moses became angry with the officers of the army, the officers of thousands and the officers of hundreds, who had come back from the military campaign. Moses said to them, “You have spared every female! Yet they are the very ones who, at the bidding of Balaam, induced the Israelites to trespass against God in the matter of Pe’or, so that God’s community was struck by the plague. Now, therefore, slay every male among the dependents, and slay also every woman who has known a man carnally; but spare every female dependent who has not had carnal relations with a man. (Numbers 31:13-18)
God did not issue this command to Moses (Numbers 30:31, see above). Is the order to slaughter women from Moses alone? Moreover, how are the officers to distinguish between women who had carnal relations with Israelite men, and those who did not? It is unlikely they can, and once the slaughter begins, it is unlikely that distinctions will (or can) be made.

And there is more: The soldiers must undergo an intense purification because, having killed human beings, they have become ritually impure. The purification takes a full week. When it is completed:
The officers of the troop divisions, the officers of thousands and the officers of hundreds, approached Moses. They said to Moses, “Your servants have made a check of the warriors in our charge, and not one of us is missing. So we have brought as an offering to God such articles of gold as each of us came upon: armlets, bracelets, signet rings, earrings, and pendants, that expiation may be made for our persons before God.” (Numbers 31:48-50)
The told offered that day by the officers totaled 16,750 shekels. The commentary to Etz Hayim notes, “This parenthetical comment underscores the magnanimity of the officers’ contribution. Although a census requires a monetary ransom from each person (Exod. 30:12), the officers donated more than twice the amount needed to ransom the entire army – ½ shekel of silver per soldier (not to speak of gold), totaling 16, 750 shekels. Thus each infantryman could keep his booty (see v. 32).”

The officers don’t bring any old booty. They bring specifically and exclusively jewelry – it seems, jewelry belonging to the women they have killed – to offer atonement. The jewelry suggests that the sin of Baal Pe’or rests with the Midianite women – all of them – even more than the Israelite men with whom they consorted. The image of women as sexual sirens leading men astray stands at variance with other presentations in the Torah (the strong matriarchs) and Talmud (the woman refused to worship the Golden Calf and were rewarded with Rosh Chodesh; see Midrash Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, chapter 45). I’m not claiming that this is a singular theme in Torah or Talmud, but any generalization is dangerous, and we should guard against them all.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman