Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Be careful what you wish for! / Vayechi

There is no death, aging, affliction, or illness in the Garden of Eden. When do they enter the world? Death (mortality) enters as soon as Adam and Eve leave the Garden. The Rabbis tell us that aging, affliction, and illness arrive in the world a good deal later, and we might be shocked by the reason they ener the world.

In the opening verses of this week’s parashah, Joseph is informed that his father Jacob has become ill, so he takes his sons to Jacob to be blessed before the patriarch dies.
Sometime afterward, Joseph was told, “Your father is ill. So he took with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. When Jacob was told, “Your son Joseph ahs come to see you,” Israel summoned his strength and sat up in bed. (Genesis 48:1, 2)
Midrash Beraishit Rabbah makes the astounding claim that not only illness, but also old age and affliction did not come into the world naturally, but rather bidden by our patriarchs. Is this a case of “be careful what you wish for” or is there another side to the experiences we most wish to avoid that we need to learn?
Abraham introduced he appearance of aging to the world, Isaac affliction, and Jacob illness.

Abraham requested the appearance of old age, pleading before God: "Master of the Universe! When a man and his son enter a town, none know whom to honor." Said God to him: "By your life, you have asked a proper thing, and it will commence with you." Thus… And Abraham was old and come along in days (Genesis 24:1).

Isaac asked for affliction, pleading thus: "Master of the Universe! When a man dies without affliction, Judgment threatens him; but if You afflict him, Judgment would not threaten him." Said God to him: "By your life, you have asked well, and it will commence with you." Thus… And it came to pass, that when Isaac was old, and his eyes were dimmed (Genesis 27:1).

Jacob requested illness, saying to Him: "Master of the Universe! A man dies without previous illness and does not settle his affairs with his children..." Said God to him: "By your life, you have asked well, and it will commence with you." Thus… Joseph was told, “Your father is ill” (Genesis 48:1).
We are accustomed to thinking that appearing old age, affliction, and illness are curses that are part and parcel of the human experience only avoided by the worse curse of dying young, and then consign this midrash to the “be careful what you wish for” category.

Yet this midrash introduces a surprising idea: the appearance of old age, affliction, and illness have silver linings, beneficial sides. Old age can – and should – confer honor and recognition for what one has accomplished in life and the wisdom one has accrued over time. For the Rabbis, suffering affliction protects us against future judgment. For those who don’t subscribe to this theology, suffering acutely sensitizes us to the experience of others who suffer: we wouldn’t choose it, but having experienced it we can assimilate the experience to become better people. Jacob’s illness permitted him time to settle his affairs, confer blessings on his children and grandchildren, and achieve closure on this life. Dying suddenly without warning, he might not have carved out the opportunity to do these things.

None of us chooses to appear old (would that we could add years without aging), suffer affliction, or become ill, but the Rabbis remind us that even in these it is possible to find a way to live better.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, December 21, 2009

So Many Approaches! / Vayigash

The crescendo in the drama of Joseph’s reunion with his brothers reaches its climax in the beginning of parshat Vayigash.
Then Judah approached him [Joseph] and said, “Please, my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord, and do not be impatient with your servant, you who are the equal of Pharaoh.” (Genesis 44:18)
Judah recounts at length the series of events that brought the brothers to Egypt, as well as their previous interactions with Joseph. Judah still does not know that the powerful and intimidating vizier of Egypt is his younger brother sold into slavery so many years earlier.

Midrash Beraishit Rabbah (93:6), ever sensitive to language, considers the opening words of our parashah, vayigash eilav Yehudah (“then Judah approached him). Three interpretations are offered, each speculating on Judah’s mindset as he approaches the grand vizier of Egypt.
Said Rabbi Judah: “he approached" (vayigash) for battle, as in the verse, So Joab and the people that were with him approached unto battle (II Samuel 10:13).

Rabbi Nechemiah said: “he approached" (vayigash) for conciliation, as in the verse, Then the children of Judah approached Joshua (Joshua 14:6).

The Sages said: It implies coming near for prayer, as in the verse, And it came to pass at the time of the evening offering, that Elijah the prophet approached... (I Kings 18:36).

Rabbi Eleazar combined all these views: I come whether for battle, for reconciliation, or for prayer.
Judah approached Joseph ready for war (if necessary), prepared to protect his brothers, open to reconciliation (if that was possible), and preparing through prayer. Why prayer? Judah remained open to possibilities, and prayer opened a channel for God to play a role in the encounter, providing strength and support to Judah to seek reconciliation and avoid war, just as his father Jacob had approached Esau after their 22-year separation with his heart and mind open to the possibility and hope of reconciliation.

The attitude we bring to an encounter with another can spell the difference between all-out war and reconciliation. Often we are unaware of the attitude we project and how it influences the nature and outcome of our interactions. Yet our expectations influence the tone and vocabulary of our communication, as well as our body language, and thereby influence the direction of the conversation. Politicians who convey willingness to compromise are most successful. Bosses who convey confidence and offer support are the most esteemed. Spouses who convey appreciation foster generosity. Parents who convey genuine interest in listening hear much more about their children’s lives. Inviting God into the conversation through mindfulness will help us achieve avoid more battles and achieve more reconciliations.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Who are you going to call on? / Miketz

Joseph has both a knack for doing things extremely well yet running into terrible trouble. He is Jacob’s favorite son, but as a result incurs the hostility of his brothers who sell him into slavery in a foreign land. He earns the trust of his master, Potiphar, and comes to be entrusted with running the household, but attracts the sexual attention of Potiphar’s wife and ends up in the dungeon prison falsely accused of rape when he rejects her advances. The chief jailer, recognizing Joseph organizational skills and efficiency, places Joseph in charge of the prison, but even after interpreting correctly the dreams of Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer and baker, Joseph languishes two more years in prison. Here’s a condensation:
After two years’ time, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile… The chief cupbearer then spoke up and said to Pharaoh, ‘I must make mention today of my offenses… A Hebrew youth was there with us [in prison], a servant of the chief steward; and when we told him our dreams, he interpreted them for us, telling each of the meaning of his dream. (Genesis 41:1, 9, 12)
Some commentators wonder why Joseph languished two additional years in prison between the time he interpreted the cupbearer’s dream and the day he was hauled out to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams.

One answer offered is that after interpreting the cupbearer’s dream, Joseph asked twice to be remembered to Pharaoh – his double request was superfluous.
But think of me (z’khar’ta’ni) when all is well with you again, and do me the kindness of mentioning me (v’hiz’kar’ta’ni) to Pharaoh, so as to free me from this place. (Genesis 40:14)
But if the first request is legitimate and only the second is superfluous, shouldn’t Joseph be imprisoned only one additional year? The two requests each bought him an extra year in jail because, as Rav says in Berakhot 58b tells us, “The dead one is forgotten from the heart only after 12 months.” Hence, Joseph brought the additional two-year stint on himself.

In contrast, midrash Beraishit Rabbah 89 explains, “Joseph had been given a specific time to spend in the darkness of the prison,” suggesting that the two additional years were part of a larger plan conceived in Heaven. In fact, Joseph confirms this thinking to his brothers:
Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come forward to me.” And when they came forward, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. (Genesis 45:4-5)
By now you may be yawning and thinking: Goodness, it’s just a plot element that heightens the tension when Pharaoh experiences what are clearly prescient dreams but cannot find anyone capable of interpreting them. Yes, I’m inclined to agree wholeheartedly, but it raises an interesting underlying question: What do we place our trust and faith in? When we are in narrow straits, facing danger, on the horns of a life dilemma, do we turn to God or do we rely on ourselves, or some combination? That, of course, is a question the Maccabees faced. Do they rely on God to redeem them from the might of Antiochus Ephiphanes IV and his armies? Or do they develop their own fighting skills and employ wit and strategy to wrest control of the land from the Hellenists?

There’s a very surprising passage in the Talmud on Berakhot 10b. We’re told that King Hezekiah – lauded as a righteous king – sequestered the medical books of his day so people would not rely on them rather than praying to God to heal them. Even more shocking, the Sages register their approval of this action. Yet what Jew would forego medical treatment, claiming that God who made illness possible, will affect a cure?

Let me share a teaching of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook that resolves the contradiction. He taught that there are two types of trust in God. One is the faith that God will perform a miracle when it is needed. The other – which the Maccabees employed and which works for many of us – is to trust that God will help us in our worthy endeavors. Hence the expression, “God helps those who help themselves.” Can we strike that healthy balance?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, December 7, 2009

Living Apart and Living Among / Vayeishev & Chanukah

Rav Avraham Isaac Kook pointed out a prescient connection between the conflict between Joseph and Judah, and the festival of Chanukah, which begins this shabbat. The brothers are emblematic of differing ideological schools of thought concerning the mission and meaning of Judaism. Joseph promoted the vision and mission of Am Yisrael (the People Israel) as an or ha-goyim liheyot yeshuati ad k’tzei ha-aretz “I will also make you a light unto the nations that My salvation may reach the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6) and hence encouraged interaction between Jews and other peoples and nations to expose the latter to the teachings of Judaism. Judah sought to protect the distinctiveness of the Jewish people and encouraged hen am l’vadar yishkom u’vagoyim lo yitchakhav “There is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations” (Numbers 23:9).

These ideologies arise in every generation, from the Hasmonean and the Hellenists to our own day. Do we seek openness, interaction, and assimilation, and to share our ways with others? Or do we seek distinctiveness and cultural intensity to preserve our values and traditions? Perhaps more realistically: how to do we achieve a balance between two competing yet legitimate ideologies? Joseph and Judah, after all, are brothers. Just as they live in the same family, these two ideologies co-exist among one People. Judah recognizes this when he says, “What profit is there if we kill our brother?” (Genesis 37:26). And perhaps this is why Jacob sends Judah ahead of him to Joseph l’hotrot lefanav Goshna “to point the way before him to Goshen”(Genesis 46:28): to point out the way to him that Jacob’s clan would live among the Egyptians, as well as separate from them, in Goshen.

We worry about Jewish survival but we are also committed to our mission. Without maintaining our distinctiveness and our traditions, our mission will fail. How do we find the balance needed?

When the Temple stood, each Sukkot 70 bullocks were offered over the course of the seven days of the festival. In the Talmud (Sukkot 55b) Rabbi Eleazar asks: “To what do those seventy bulls correspond?” He answers his own question: To the seventy nations (which for the Rabbis represented all the other nations of the world). Rabbi Yochanan thereupon comments: “Woe to the idol-worshippers, for they suffered a great loss but do not even know what they have lost! While the Temple was standing, the altar atoned for them, but now who shall atone for them?” On Chanukah, we ponder our national survival – we came frighteningly close to perishing in the days of Antiochus Epiphanes – but the Rabbis remind us that our survival is not solely for the sake of survival. Israel (the Jewish people) lives with and for others. The only way to do that is to remain distinctly Jewish.

Chag Urim sameach -- may your Chanukah be a light-filled and joyous festival.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Is Us-versus-Them an eternal condition? / Vayishlach

In parshat Vayeitzei, Jacob flees Eretz Yisrael with good reason: his brother Esau has threatened to kill him. Esau has cause, much as our commentators want to condemn him: Jacob tricked Esau out of the birthright and stole the blessing intended for him. Jacob absconds with the inheritance and future assured Esau by birth order; most importantly, he carries the mantle of the Covenant. Two decades later, Jacob returns to Eretz Yisrael and must face his brother Esau again.

In last week’s parashah, Vayeitzei, on Jacob’s first night alone upon fleeing home, he dreams of a sulam (ladder or ramp) extending from earth to heaven, with angels ascending and descending and God standing beside him. Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 29:2 comments that Jacob’s ladder was not the only special ladder. God created ladders for the princes of Babylon, Media (Persia), Greece, and Rome, as well. Jacob watched each ascend and descend and grew afraid that he too would not be able to reach the top and would fall back to the ground. But God replied, “Fear not, Jacob My servant (Jer. 30:10). Though you go up, you will never fall down.” For the Rabbis, this was reassurance that although the empires of Babylonia, Media, Greece, and Rome rose and fell, Israel would survive.

In this week’s parashah, Jacob meets Esau once again. According to the Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman of Gerona, 1194-1270) the story of the reunion of Jacob and Esau is a paradigm for all time for the struggle between the Jewish people and other nations. God redeems Jacob from his much stronger brother Esau. Moreover, Jacob does not rely on God to save him; he marshals his own resources and wits to protect himself and his family. We learn that in three ways Jacob prepares himself to encounter Esau: prayer, gifts sent to Esau, and by making ready for war if necessary. That formula, Ramban instructs, is the formula to follow for all time.

For legions and generations of commentators, Ramban’s view that in each generation the prevailing condition of us-versus-them is self-evident. Countless enemies have sought to wipe us out, and in each case we manage to survive by a combination of our wit and God’s grace. Who hasn’t heard the quip that most Jewish festivals can be summed up as follows: “They tried to kill, we survived, let’s eat.” Just before sundown next erev shabbat, December 11, 2009, we will light the first candle of Chanukah for 5770. The Maccabees faced an implacable enemy – the Syrian Hellenists – who sought to terminate Jewish sovereignty and dissolve Jewish religion and culture.

We have long focused on survival and have even justified Jewish identity and Jewish living on that account. Is it time to invest our energy in other directions? Judaism has so much to offer spiritually, communally, and intellectually. It offers a host of values to kindle the spirit, sacred texts to fire the imagination, and religious practices to spark the soul. Yours in the inheritance of Jacob. Are you putting it to maximum advantage in your life? Are you enjoying it fully?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Finding God: different strokes for different folks / Vayeitzei

Yaakov and Rachel have a great deal in common. Their lives have a remarkable number of touchpoints. First, both are shepherds, spending long days outside with sheep, goats, and their own thoughts. Second, both Yaakov and Rachel contend with their siblings whom they regard as rivals. Third, each, in a difference phase of life, flees home, leaving behind hearth and kin, and taking a father’s legacy in tow. Yaakov steals the blessing intended for Esav and Rachel takes her father’s terafim (Genesis 31:19), often translated “household gods.” Fourth, both Yaakov and Rachel employ deception to achieve their ends: Yaakov deceives Yitzhak into bestowing upon him the blessing and inheritance intended for Esav; Rachel deceives her father, Lavan, concerning the terafim. Fifth, each seeks spiritual encounter with God, but Yaakov and Rachel find that intimacy in very different ways that are instructive to us.

Yaakov discovers God when he is alone, scared, and vulnerable. Yaakov leaves Beersheba because Esav has threatened his life. The first night he is alone, he has the famous dream of the sulam (ramp or ladder) extending from heaven to earth, angels ascending and descending, and God standing beside it. God speaks to him and confirms that he, Yaakov, does indeed carry the Covenant. Yaakov responds with awe: Achein yesh Adonai ba’makom ha-zeh v’anochi lo yadati / Truly Adonai is in this place and I, I did not know it (Genesis 28:16). Yaakov finds his way to Haran, and in the next two decades he ingratiates himself with Laban, becomes his shepherd, marries his two daughters, breeds the animals so that he can take away most of the flock. There is no mention of his relationship with God during these 20 years. When he leaves, Haran, however, and returns to Eretz Yisrael, he knows he will see Esav again. Yaakov makes preparations for his camp and that night again finds himself alone, scared, and vulnerable. Again he encounters God, or this time, an angel who wrestles with him throughout the night.

Rachel, on the other hand, encounters God in the context of her relationships and her desire to bring new life into the world: Va’yizkor Elohim et Rachel va’yishma eileha Elohim va’yiftach et rachma. Va’tahar va’teileid ben, va’tomeir asaf Elohim et cher’pa-ti / God now remembered Rachel; God listened to her and opened her womb, so she became pregnant and bore a son. She said, “God has removed my disgrace. (Genesis 30:22-23). To be sure, her relationships with Yaakov and Leah are complicated and far from pristine, and her desire for children is nested in the context of a fierce competition with her sister for the love of their shared husband.

Yaakov turns to God at turning points in his life; he encounters God when is alone, scared, and vulnerable.

Rachel, in contrast, turns to God when she is overwhelmed by the pain of the most precious relationships in her life, and her unfulfilled desires.

This inspires two thoughts. First, our parashah affirms different types of spirituality. People encounter God in response to their individuality, needs, temperaments, personality, and the exigencies of life – not according to a pre-determined formula for the right way to find God. There is no formula, though there are avenues for entry that have worked for many (including prayer, study, and meditation). Parshat Vayeitzei affirms that each person finds his/her own way, and there are is a multitude of ways that work. One of the wonderful things about Judaism is that it provides so many options and entry points: we have a rich liturgy, a wealth of texts for study, mystical paths and practices, meditative techniques, social avenues for connection.

Second, Yaakov and Rachel seem not to seek God until things turn sour in their lives. God is not just for the bad times and in fact if we do not invite God and holiness in our lives during the good times, I wonder if we’ll be able to call on God’s strength and support in the bad times.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Do the ends justify the means? / Toldot

We are accustomed to examining and ruminating over the events of our lives by considering: What does this mean to me? What does this mean for me? Parshat Toldot offers another view that can broaden our perspective.

Rebekkah, the wife of Yitzhak, conceives. Twins struggle with one another while still in utero, causing Rebekkah to ask: Im kein, lama zeh anochi / If this is so, why do I exist?

Many commentators understand Rebekkah’s question as an inward plaint of pain. For example: “Why then did I yearn and pray to become pregnant?” or “Why do I go on living?” (see Etz Hayyim, Jewish Publication Society, p. 146). I would suggest that a miserable pregnancy is not at all the thrust of Rebekkah’s question. Rather, she is asking the significance of her experience, beyond herself, and also her part in the unfolding event that is her pregnancy. Hence, she is asking: If this is happening, what does it mean and what is my role as the mother of these two? God supplies an answer confirming that for Rebekkah this is more than a rotten pregnancy:
Two peoples are in your belly;
Two nations shall branch off from each other [emerging] from our womb.
One people shall prevail over the other;
The elder shall serve the younger. (Genesis 25:23)
Rebekkah is not the only mother to whom God discloses information about her son’s future: Hagar (Genesis 16:10-12) and Samson’s mother (Judges 13:3-5) also learn their son’s fates early on. But Rebekkah’s situation is different: her sons will contend with one another and ultimately one will dominate while the other will serve.

Rebekkah takes God’s words to heart. We might wonder if Yaakov is her “favorite” son because he’s a “mama’s boy,” as so many have made him out to be, or because Rebekkah has understood God’s words to her (Genesis 25:23) to mean that Yaakov is the designated son to carry the Covenant forward to the next generation. If she simply prefers Yaakov because he sticks close to the tent, then Rebekkah’s role in the deception of Yitzhak whereby he confers the blessings intended for Esav on Yaakov is immoral – indeed, despicable. If, however, she understands God’s intent correctly, then she is facilitating the transfer of the Covenant from Yitzkak to Yaakov in accord with God’s intent.

Yet serious problems remain, both in Torah’s account and – morally – for us. Claiming to know God’s will absolutely more often leads to absolute evil than to good – history is replete with examples ranging from the Inquisition to individuals who claimed to be doing what God bid them. Also to consider is whether the ends justify the means.

Machiavelli, in his treatise on power, The Prince, wrote that the ends justify the means and comments, “Anyone who would act up to a perfect standard of goodness in everything must be ruined among so many who are not good.” Yet there are times when it is precisely the moral outcome that justifies otherwise unacceptable means: for pikuach nefesh (to save a life) we may lie, cheat, and even steal. Yet there are limits: we may not commit murder, idolatry, or incest, even to save a life, including our own.

Consequentialists are moral philosophers who hold that a good outcome or consequence is the sole arbiter of the morality of the action that brought it about. This suggests that we cannot say whether an act is morally good or bad until we see what happens. But in this very real world in which we live, there are multiple consequences to our words and deeds – indeed, there is often a cascade of events.
Here are several questions to ponder:
  • Should Israel trade release terrorists from jail in order to secure the release of kidnapped soldiers?
  • Is it acceptable for missionaries to employ deceptive tactics to gain converts? What if we’re talking about a baal teshuvah yeshivah?
  • Is it morally acceptable to use torture to extract information if there is reason to believe that innocent lives could be saved?
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Belief and Behavior: The Chicken and the Egg / Chayei Sarah

Nearing the end his life, Avraham entreats his servant Eliezer to find a wife for his son Yitzhak. Who is a fitting mate for the second generation patriarch who carries the covenant of God? Certainly not an idolatrous Canaanite lest Yitzhak be absorbed into her family and sucked into the idolatrous practices of the people surrounding him. So Abraham sends his trusted servant Eliezer on a journey of many hundreds of miles to the land of his ancestors: Haran in Ur of the Chaldees, later called Babylonia, today called Iraq. Here’s what Torah says:
I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell, but will go to the land of my birth and get a wife for my son Isaac (Genesis 24:3).
Torah commentator Don Isaac Abravanel (R. Yitzhak b. Yehudah Abravanel, (Lisbon, 1437 – Venice, 1508) makes an astute observation. If Avraham’s objection to the Canaanites concerns their idolatrous practices, Abraham’s relatives in the Old Country – Nahor and Betuel – are no better, and perhaps not even preferable to Aner and Eshkol of Canaan, whom Avraham esteems.

The RaN (Rabbi Nissim ben Reuven of Girondi, Barcelona, ~1340-1380) explains that Avraham’s concern is not the beliefs of Aner and Eshkol, as opposed to Nahor and Betuel, but rather the evil deeds of the Canaanites compared with those of Terah’s people. He points out:
As Leviticus 18:3 tells us: You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.
The Canaanites did horrendous things, the RaN tells us – it’s not just that they were idolaters since of course everyone at this time was an idolater except Abraham and Sarah.

The point here is that the RaN held that beliefs, however misguided, are not hereditary, but growing up witnessing evil deeds leaves a lasting impression that is transmitted from one generation to the next. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch adds: the influence of the Canaanites will be more potent since Isaac lives among them. Yet beliefs are often provide the rationale and justification for evil deeds, as we have seen time and time again.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, November 2, 2009

Vayera / Avraham's Traife Banquet

Avraham is the epitome of hospitality, a model for all time. In parashat Vayera we are told that he is sitting at the entrance to his tent during the heat of the day when three stranger appear as if from out of nowhere. Avraham rushes to greet them and welcomes the strangers by washing their feet and providing a banquet. Avraham not only provides the best of what he has for them, he also serves them himself, rather than relegating this task to a servant.

One question we might ask is whether Avraham’s guests – whom we know to be angels – eat the food. Our Rabbis explain in Baba Metzia 86b that they only appeared to eat the repast, though a midrash claims four centuries later when the angels objected to God giving the Torah to Israel and implored God to keep it in heaven with them, God pointed out that they had indeed eaten traife in Avraham’s tent.

Another question that arises concerns the decidedly unkosher menu: [Avraham] took curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared and set these before them; and he waited on them under the tree as they ate (Genesis 18:3). Is this a cheeseburger? Avraham lived long before the laws of kashrut were given to Israel at Mt. Sinai, so this should not present a problem. Nonetheless, mishnah Kiddushin 4:14 (citing Genesis 26:5) assures us that Avraham kept all the mitzvot – including the laws of kashrut – although he was not commanded to do so. Moreover, other commentaries point out, Avraham did not actually dine with his guests; he only prepared and served the food. Yet another claims that Avraham didn’t serve the milk and meat together and left a proper waiting period between them. These are klugy answers.

Even Kabbalah weighs in on these questions and teaches that each physical substance represents a different spiritual energy. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi taught that dairy foods are associated with chesed (loving kindness) and meat is associated with gevurah (might). The creamy, white flow of dairy products reflects the emotional energy of loving-kindness and nurturing, while the red color and tough consistency of meat reflect the human capacity for discipline, limitation, and rejection. We need both attributes, and often need them at different times, but in most cases we want our chesed to prevail over our gevurah.

There’s a powerful message here about our innate proclivities. We have the capacity – and therefore responsibility – to both rein them in when they go too far, and to use them productively. How often do we excuse excess in one spiritual energy or another (either leniency or harshness) by claiming it’s our “nature” and we cannot “fight who we are”? If we think of both proclivities as powerful, valuable, creative spiritual energies, imagine how much we can accomplish in life by harnessing them for our purposes. One of the foundational ideas of Kabbalah is that God is an ever-flowing fountain of spiritual energy and if we know this, and make the effort (through prayer, study, meditation, and other means) we can tap into the flow. The message here is that you have resources you don’t yet realize, and continuous access to more.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, October 26, 2009

Lech Lecha / You want me to go where?

The Lord said to Avram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse whoever curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” (Genesis 12:1-3)
Torah pictures Avram as leaving everything behind at God’s behest. He does so without question, hesitation, or protest. Avram is 75 years old when we first meet him and we might wonder what it takes for a 75-year-old to make such a drastic change in his life.

Midrash Tanhuma wonders why God does not initially tell Avram his destination, and answers the question by saying that the command to leave his homeland is a test, and the mystery of his destiny intensifies the test. It is a test within a test.

At this juncture in history, we too are being tested. It is a test of our own making, however, and there is a test within the test. We don’t know the ultimate destination in the sense that we don’t know what the landscape will look like.

Our fossil-fuel-dependent economy and lifestyle must change soon. We are at the same time: (1) supporting with our petro-dollars the very political regimes that foment the terrorism we are fighting, and (2) pouring hydrocarbons into the atmosphere that are degrading the very earth we depend upon to sustain our lives. Scientists are warning us we cannot continue. Yet we don’t yet feel the need for change acutely, just as Avram did not feel the need to leave Haran until God told him to go. And just as Avram faced a test within a test, we don’t know our final “destination.” Certainly solar and wind power – completely free and completely renewable – will be part of the “destination,” but so too will there be new innovative technologies that will free us from dependence on fossil fuels.

Here is one hint concerning the future landscape: Prof. Yair Ein-Eli of Israel’s Technion Institute (in collaboration with Prof. Digby Macdonald of Penn State University and Prof. Rika Hagiwara of Kyoto University) has invented a battery made of silicon (essentially sand), has a long shelf life, can revert to sand at the end of its useful life, and although it is not rechargeable, it can supply power for several thousands of hours. Imagination the battery for an electric car made from sand and recycled to sand. Read more here and here and obtain a pdf manuscript publication by clicking here (click on “2009” – it’s the fourth entry).

Avram rises to the challenge and passes the test. He initiates enormous change and we are still feeling the wonderful reverberations in our lives of his response. The challenge before us is enormous. Will we respond positively?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Noach / Abundance of Water, Scarcity of Animals

In Noah’s time, there was an abundance of water and a scarcity of animals, given how many died in the raging floods. In our time we have seen an abundance of flooding and a frightening decrease in the number of species on earth.

From the beginning, Torah tells us that God is invested in biodiversity:
God said: Let the earth sprout vegetation, seed-bearing plants, fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it. And it was so. (Genesis 1:10)
We are told the same thing concerning sea creatures, birds, and land animals: each is endowed with the capacity for self-replication so that every kind can continue to prosper (see Genesis 1:21-22 and 24-25).

In this week’s parashah, God affirms the divine commitment to biodiversity:
Of all that lives, of all flesh, you shall take two of each into the ark to keep alive with you; they shall be male and female. From birds of every kind, cattle of every kind, every kind of creeping thing on earth, two of each shall come to you to stay alive. For your part, take of everything that is eaten and store it away, to serve as food for you and for them.” (Genesis 6:19-21)
Today, one species goes extinct every 20 minutes. Gone forever. Scientists estimate that is 1000 times the rate throughout history.

Torah tells us that in Noah’s time, God brought a mabul, a flood. Even then, God acknowledged this was a colossal mistake. We have seen floods of epic proportion in our own time caused by the global climate change; specifically, the warming oceans. Global climate change is real and every reputable scientist understands that. Those who claim it’s a hoax are on the payrolls of fossil fuel companies.

The implications of global climate change and the rate of species extinction are drastic. We might prefer not to think what this means for us in terms of rising oceanic levels, expanding deserts, increasingly extreme weather phenomena, but we can no longer afford that irresponsible luxury.

We have come to think that we live above and beyond the other species of this planet, and that since we don’t directly depend upon them to live, we can live without them. But we can’t. Our lives have from the beginning of creation, from the dawn of evolution, been integrally intertwined with other creatures – plant and animal – on Earth.

Our Rabbis provided us this prescient warning in midrash Kohelet Rabbah, written 15 centuries ago:
Upon creating the first human beings, God guided them around the Garden of Eden, saying, “Look at My creations! See how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! I created everything for you. Make sure you don’t ruin or destroy My world. If you do, there will be no one after you to repair it.”
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, October 12, 2009

Beraishit / Eve: Villain or Heroine of Humanity?

Just before the man and woman are expelled from the Garden of Eden, God calls a meeting to inform the main characters of the Eden drama of the consequences of their actions: The serpent is cursed. The soil is also cursed and, as a result, the man will have to work ceaselessly in order to eat (no more Club Med existence). And then there is this recondite phrase addressed to the woman:
Harbah arbeh itzvonekha v’heroneikh b’etzem teil’di vanim v’eil isheikh t’shukateikh v’hu yimshal bakh -- I am doubling and redoubling your toil and your pregnancies; with anguish shall you bear children, yet your desire shall be for your man, and he shall rule over you.
Is this a punishment? Or is this a natural consequence of mortality? I would suggest the latter.

In the Garden, the man and woman are permitted the Tree of Life which insures their immortality. They are forbidden the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that imparts moral discernment. If they do, their access to immortality will be revoked (Genesis 2:17). The Tree of Knowledge is off limits because immortality plus moral discernment would make the people too much like God.

The serpent certainly tempts Eve, but little encouragement is needed: Eve is determined to eat the fruit. She courageously chooses to trade immortality for moral discernment because without it, she can never be fully human. To be a higher level animal, but one that cannot distinguished good from evil, is not being human. Facing difficult decisions with moral capacity and free will is the essence of being human. The consequence of giving up immortality is the need to reproduce. The people can no longer live in the Garden because the Garden cannot sustain a growing human population. It is not the case that there was a time when giving birth was not painful for humans and then it changed because they were punished; it has always been painful because that’s simply the way it is.

If ever you’re tempted to think for a moment that Eve is cursed, read the Torah – it doesn’t say anything like that. If ever you’re tempted to condemn Eve for her “sinfulness,” consider this: if she hadn’t eaten the fruit, you would never have been born.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

What is Shemini Atzeret Anyway?

Shemini Atzeret is a curiosity. It’s the one festival for which we have no rituals, images, or narrative. It just is – but what is it?

The “Eighth Day Assembly” comes at the tail end of Sukkot, wrapping up the harvest festival. To understand its possible meaning, let’s take a look at the Three Pilgrimage Festivals (so-called because in ancient times, Jews would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate them together). They are Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot.

Taken together, they tell the story of our ancestors:
  • We were slaves in Egypt but God redeemed us and brought us out of bondage and into freedom (Pesach).
  • As free people and as a newly-formed nation, we arrived at Mt. Sinai where we entered into an eternal Covenant with God who revealed to us Torah, the text of our binding contract with God and our nation’s constitution (Shavuot).
  • We wandered through the wilderness for the next 40 years because the generation born into slavery in Egypt lacked the vision and courage to enter Eretz Yisrael and face the risks and challenges of living as an independent nation (Sukkot).
Each year we relive and rehearse that early history through our festival celebrations: redemption, revelation, wandering. But something is missing! In this cycle we never arrive in Eretz Yisrael, settle the Land, and build our nation on holy soil and sand. We come to the border, again and again, but always remain outside.

Perhaps this is because the notion of settling the Land and building a nation there is not just a matter of history; as a religious ideal it has never been entirely met. Our image of the messianic age involves ingathering and resettlement, restoration of the nation and resurrection of the throne of David. It is the missing chapter in the cycle writ large.

Perhaps Shemini Atzeret is that last chapter, a subtle, quiet, stealth festival. The number eight is significant. Seven is the cosmic number of creation. Eight is the number of creation realized, perfected. Hence circumcision is on the eighth day: it perfects the created child. The “Eighth Day Assembly” needs no rituals, images, or narratives because it is mysterious and, as yet, closed off to us. It is for us to imagine and envision what the messianic age will be like to inspire ourselves to act in the world so as to bring it ever nearer.

On the day following Shemini Atzeret, we celebrate Simchat Torah and rejoice fully and whole-heartedly in Torah – in Torah wisdom, Torah learning, Torah that builds community, Torah that enriches and inspires and consoles us, Torah that make us the People Israel, Torah that helps us be our best selves. Simchat Torah is precisely what the world will be like the day after the Messiah arrives.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Time to Party in the Sukkah

Sukkot is the only festival that is termed z’man simchateinu “the time of our joy.” Torah tells us, You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communities (Deuteronomy 16:14). God wants us to experience joy! Is that consistent with worship and religious behavior? Absolutely – Psalm 100:1 says, Serve God in gladness, come into God’s presence with shouts of joy.

Is it easier or harder to be joyous in a cramped, fragile hut open to the elements and utterly lacking the appurtenances of our comparatively luxurious homes (including a roof, windows, and the miracle of indoor plumbing)? I think we can learn something useful to answering this question from the tradition of the arba minim (four species) we bring to the sukkah: lulav, etrog, hadas, and aravah. Talmud (Menachot 27a) tell us:
The four plants are bound together in one cluster. It is comparable to Israel’s endeavor to conciliate God, which is successful only when all of Israel are together in one cluster.
The religious goal of connecting with God is here identified with quality human relationships. When we come together and get along with one another, then we can connect with God. When we repair and improve our relationships with each other, we can more easily repair and improve our relationship with God.

We have a choice: we can see time spent in a sukkah as time spent in a cramped, drafty, shabby hut – or we can see it as a wonderful adventure in family time, an opportunity to enhance precious relationships without the distractions of TV, computers, video games, and telephones. In a sukkah, there is time to eat, talk, tell stories, catch up, reconnect, and spend genuine quality time with people we love. What could be more joyous than that – for us and for God?

If you don’t have your own sukkah yet, there are plenty available for anyone to use. Most synagogues have sukkot. Pack up a picnic dinner and take your family or invite a few friends. Eat, laugh, tell stories and jokes, shakes the lulav and etrog, feel the breeze, gaze up at the stars, and luxuriate in the wonder of being alive in this universe and having loving relationships.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Heaven and Earth: Listening and Learning

Most of Ha’azinu, the shortest Torah portion, is a poem/song. In the opening words, Moshe calls upon heaven and earth as his witnesses:
Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;
Let the earth hear the words I utter!
May my discourse come down as the rain,
My speech distill as the dew,
Like showers on young growth,
Like droplets on the grass." (Deut. 32:1,2)
Is Moshe distinguishing between heaven and earth, or suggesting that together they constitute a whole?

In midrash Devarim Rabbah (Deuteronomy Rabbah 10:4), Moshe’s words are understood to attribute human characteristics to heaven, and if we pay close attention to the proof texts offered, we see something else, as well:
R. Yehoshua of Siknin said: From here you learn that the heavens have mouth, heart, and ear. Whence mouth? For it is written, The heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:2). Whence heart? For it is written, And the mountain burned with fire unto the heart of heaven (Deuteronomy 4:11). Whence ear? For it is written, Give ear (Deuteronomy 31:1).
The choice of proof texts is fascinating: Psalm 19 is a magnificent paean to God’s heavenly presence manifest in the physical universe (treat yourself: read it!). Similarly, Deuteronomy chapter 4 speaks of the revelation at Mt. Sinai, an event that was a nexus of heaven and earth. We are accustomed to thinking of heaven and earth as separate domains, but Torah continually reminds us that the universe is one cosmic whole.

In the early 1960s, James Lovelock, working for NASA in conjunction with the Viking program to develop instruments that would detect life on Mars, formulated the Gaia Hypothesis. He posited that all of Earth and its biosphere, functioning like one self-regulating biomass, is a single enormous organism. Scientists debate whether Lovelock’s hypothesis is scientifically valid (among his critics are Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins who have expressed concern about its predictive capacity and teleological underpinnings). Lovelock’s thinking has been derided as neo-Pagan New Age religion.

But can we view the Gaia Hypothesis as a beautiful and powerful religious metaphor: if we see our world as a metaphorically living, breathing organism, rather than a treasure trove of natural resources for us to excavate and plunder, we see a path forward that is in keeping with Torah’s teachings about protecting the earth, serving as her steward, and respecting her resources. The path leads us to see interconnections throughout the universe that we missed – and that truly matter: ecologically, religiously, spiritually.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman 2009

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Have we lost the art of apology?

Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the creation of the world, but more specifically, the creation of humanity. You might think this means Rosh Hashanah is a celebration of the wonder of us, but it’s not. It is a time for serious introspection, meditation, and prayer toward the end of facing our true selves with an honest, critical eye and asking: Am I the best version of myself I can be?

For each of us, self-improvement begins with patching ruptures of the past. Therefore, Rosh Hashanah is a time when we seek forgiveness from those we have wronged in the past year, approaching them to apologize and ask for forgiveness in the hope of achieving reconciliation. That’s not an easy thing to do because it means admitting our faults and failings.

There was a time when even if apology wasn’t easy, it was a normal thing to do. Today, crass behavior is often viewed as strength, and apology is frequently interpreted as a sign of weakness best limited to political necessity.
Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted, “You Lie,” in the midst of the president’s nationally broadcast address on Health Care Reform. Whatever possessed him to interrupt in this manner?

Kanye West interrupted Taylor’s Swift’s acceptance speech for best female video at the MTV Music Awards ceremony to state his personal preference for Beyonce Knowles.

Serena Williams smashed her racket in anger (bending it irreparably) and then launched into a tirade against the line judge at the U.S. Open.
Rep. Wilson apologized under pressure, and a few days later declared he wasn’t going to apologize any more, casting doubt on the sincerity of his apology.

Kanye West, under immense pressure, offered three public apologies – the third on The Jay Leno Show -- before he finally got around to calling Taylor Swift to apology personally. Poor form.

Serena Williams is reported to have said, "I really wanted to apologize sincerely. I think the lady was doing the best she could. She was just trying to do her job. I would like to give her a big old hug and put it behind us." But did she apologize directly to the line judge, or only offer the semblance of an apology to the press? I don’t know the answer to this question, but I’d like to think she did.
If one says: I shall sin and repent, sin and repent, no opportunity will be given to him to repent. [If he says]: I shall sin and the Day of Atonement will procure atonement for me, the Day of Atonement procures for him no atonement.

For transgressions between a person and God, the Day of Atonement procures atonement, but for transgressions between two people, the Day of Atonement does not procure atonement until the one has appeased the other. (Mishnah on Yoma 85)
Many things pass for an "apology" these days: "I shouldn’t have done that to you, but here’s why I did it..." and "I’m sorry you feel that way" are but two examples. These are not apologies.

We can all do better. And when we do, we will repair our relationships, restore trust, and move closer to becoming the best versions of ourselves possible. And along the way, we will experience a wealth of blessings:
R. Chama b. Chanina said: Great is repentance because it brings healing to the world… R. Levi said: Great is repentance for it reaches up to the Throne of Glory… R. Shmuel b. Nachmani said in the name of R. Yonatan: Great is repentance because it prolongs a person’s life… R. Meir used to say: Great is repentance because on account of an individual who repents, the sins of all the world are forgiven… (Yoma 85)
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman 2009

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Who's on First? On Sinai? In Moab?

I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord your God and with those who are not with us here this day. (Deuteronomy 29:13-14)
These verses are part of Moses’ third and final address to the Israelites who are encamped in Moab and preparing to enter Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). For our Rabbis, however, the “covenant” in verse 13 refers to Sinai, and these words were uttered when Torah was revealed.

Who are those who are standing here with us this day, and who are those who are not with us here this day?

Perhaps you noticed that “standing” is used in the first part of verse 14, but not in the second part of the same verse? Midrash explains that those standing here with us this day are all the Israelites who stood at Mt. Sinai when God gave Torah. The second part of the verse, those who are not with us here this day, refers to all the prophets and sages whose revelation and wisdom will fill the pages of Nevi’im (Prophets), Ketubim (Writings), and Talmud; they are not standing because they have not yet come to be. This interpretation permits the Rabbis to include all the elements of the Written Torah and the Oral Torah in the revelation at Sinai.
Another explanation of And God spoke all these words, saying: R. Yitzhak said: The prophets received from Sinai the messages they were to prophesy to subsequent generations; for Moses told Israel but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord your God and with those who are not with us here this day. It does not say “that are not here standing with us this day” but rather “not with us here this day” – these are the souls that will one day be created; and because there is not yet any substance in them, the word “standing” is not used with them… [Exodus Rabbah 28:6]
We find an even more expansive and inclusive view in the Talmud (masechet Shevuot 39a) where we are told that the phrase those who are not with us here this day includes all the future generations of Israel, as well as all who will enter the Jewish People through conversion. But the gemara goes even further making an even more remarkable claim:
…And from this [i.e., those who are not with us here this day] we know only [that the generations yet to be born were obligated to] the commandments that they received at Mt. Sinai. How do we know that they [the generations yet to be born, as well as future converts to Judaism] [were obligated to] the commandments that were to be promulgated later, such as reading the Megillah [the Scroll of Esther, read on Purim]? Because it is said, They confirmed and accepted [Esther 9:27]: they confirmed what they had long ago accepted [at Mt. Sinai].
This is about including all the generations of the People Israel in the Sinai covenant. The gemara is saying that not only are future generations retroactively included in the covenant of Mt. Sinai, but also future generations are included in future understandings of what constitutes Torah and its obligations, as interpreted by future generations, after Sinai.

How do we approach the notion of being born into obligation at a time and in a social milieu that rejects anything that conflicts with our complete and unfettered freedom of choice? How do we respond when our kids say, “I didn’t choose to be born Jewish”? We can respond by gently and calmly telling them that they are heir to many blessings: the blessing of belonging, the blessing of being accepted by a community, and the blessing of having a tradition and a heritage. They may not fully appreciate all this, but it is we, their parents, who make these blessings real and tangible and powerful for them by living them in our own lives. Our children learn more from what we do than what we say. Our words merely confirm the values we articulate, or prove us hypocrites.

© Rabbi Amy R. Scheinerman 2009

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Ki Tavo -- The Value --nay the necessity! -- of Joy

There are two mentions of the altar of unhewn stones in our Torah, one this week’s parashah, and one in Exodus prefaced with an “if.”

In parshat Ki Tavo:
There, too, you shall build an altar to the Lord your God, an altar of stones. Do not wield an iron tool over them; you must build the altar of the Lord your God of unhewn stones. You shall offer on it burnt offerings to the Lord your God, and you shall sacrifice there offerings of well-being and eat them, rejoicing before the Lord your God. And on these stones you shall inscribe every word of this Teaching most distinctly. (Deut. 27:5-8)
Earlier in Sefer Shemot (Exodus), we read:
Make for Me an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you. And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned them. (Exodus 20:21-22)
Rashi explains, “the purpose of the altar is to lengthen the human lifespan, while implements of iron (i.e. weapons) shorten it. It is therefore inappropriate for the executor to be raised upon the preserver.” Rashi is telling us that the altar, whose purpose is to affect reconciliation and peace, unity and harmony, was to be constructed of whole stones, untarnished by implements of violence or weapons of war. Accordingly, King Solomon would direct the construction of the First Temple from stones cut at the quarry so that no iron implements were used – or even heard – on the Temple Mount:
When the House was built, only finished stones cut at the quarry were used, so that no hammer or ax or any iron tool was heard in the House while it was being built. (I Kings 6:7)
The altar is, of course, the place sacrifices are offered to God. But our passage from Ki Tavo connects the altar with more than sacrifices: it is a place for rejoicing in our covenant with God.

In the Babylonian Talmud (Pesachim 109a), R. Yehudah b. Beteira taught:
When the Temple stood, joy was derived through eating meat [of the sacrifices]as it says, And you shall sacrifice there offerings of well-being and eat them, rejoicing before the Lord your God [Deuteronomy 27:7]. Now that the Temple is no longer standing, joy is derived through wine alone, as it says, wine gladdens the heart of man [Psalm 104:15].
Joy was an integral part of the sacrificial rite, and even after the Temple was destroyed, joy was still to be an integral part of Jewish religious ritual. Perhaps the unhewn stones of the altar also hint at an unhewn heart: one that should not be excessively tempered by social constraints of decorum and formality that stifle the joy we might feel and express in our religious ceremonies and worship. We have perfected the art of sitting quietly and politely. Have we lost the art of joy?

Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav taught: Dancing, singing (music), movement, and exercise of the body uplift the spirit and make possible a feeling of happiness. One should understand that simply the recognition of being Jewish is an amazing fact and a source of joy and happiness. And if one says out loud the phrase, “Praised is God who created us for His glory and distinguished us from those who were not given the Torah,” it has the potential to bring great joy.

Perhaps this explains the difference between the Exodus and Deuteronomy passages quoted above. The Exodus passage instructs the people to immediately make an altar of dirt, and if they should make a stone altar at some later time, it should be made of unhewn stone. The newly freed slaves are not yet ready to celebrate God with a whole (unhewn) heart. The passage in Deuteronomy reflects the time when that stone altar was about to become reality. The Israelite are entering the Land of Israel and celebrating the first fruits – they are ready for genuine, unbridled joy. Are we? Is it time to rediscover, cultivate, and nurture the experience and expression of joy?

May your week be filled with joy and your shabbat an expression of that joy.

© 2009 Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Ki Teitzei

If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow. If your fellow does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him. You shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent. (Dt. 22:1-3)
Torah teaches that in truth, the only owner in the universe is God. We are caretakers of the items we possess, stewards for a time, but not ultimate owners. Nonetheless, to get along with one another, we must respect the boundaries of possession and stewardship.

The Babylonian Talmud devotes considerable energy to elucidating the various conditions under which one might find a lost object and whether and how it must be announced publicly and returned to its owner (masechet Baba Metzia), and when it may be kept by the finder. Why so much concern? Because civilization is based on respect for others and the institution of proper boundaries. Thus in last week’s parashah we read, You shall not move your countryman’s landmarks, set up by previous generations, in the property that will be allotted to you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess (Dt. 19:4).

Pirke Avot 5:12 posits four types of people (numbers added for reference):
There are four character traits among people. Some say:
[1] “Mine is mine, and yours is yours” – this is the beinonit (average person).
However, some say this trait is characteristic of Sodom.
[2] “Mine is yours, and yours is mine” – the am ha-aretz (simpleton).
[3] “Mine is yours, and yours is yours” – the chasid (saint).
[4] “Yours is mine, and mine is mine” – the rasha (evil person).
The beinonit [1] is easy to understand and at first blush sounds reasonable: this person recognizes proper boundaries. We’ll return to the jarring comment about Sodom in a moment.

The am ha-aretz [2] also seems self-evident: only a fool would suggest that there are no boundaries at all and everything is a free-for-all.

The chasid [3] is generous, perhaps to a fault. He is aware of, and acknowledges, possession, but is generous in wanting to share what he has with others. He inspires our generosity, but there is no expectation that we will all operate as he does.

The rasha [4] is also easy to comprehend: to claim everything for oneself is selfish. The rasha has no sense of boundaries or respect for others.

But if the rasha [4] is evil, why is the seemingly most reasonable perspective, the beinonit [1] compared with the quintessentially evil inhabitants of Sodom (Genesis, chapter 19), who epitomize inhospitality, violence, and corruption? I believe that their sin was not just wickedness, but the types of wickedness that lead to a breakdown of the social order. Perfectly legal boundaries taken to an extreme result in a society in which people do not take care of one another: they live in separate spheres, isolated and unresponsive to the needs of others. “Mine is mine, and yours is yours” shuts the door to tzedakah and chesed; it shuts out the very love and compassion that are the crucial lubricants for civilization.

One last observation: our Torah passage ends with the warning, you must not remain indifferent.

On April 12, 1999, Elie Wiesel delivered a speech in the East Room of the White House, as part of the Millennium Lecture series (the entire speech is available online at http://www.historyplace.com/speeches/wiesel-transcript.htm). Wiesel addressed the plague of indifference:
In a way, to be indifferent to that suffering [in Auschwitz, as well as human suffering around the globe] is what makes the human being inhuman. Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred…

Indifference is not a beginning, it is an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor -- never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees -- not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity we betray our own.

Indifference, then, is not only a sin, it is a punishment. And this is one of the most important lessons of this outgoing century's wide-ranging experiments in good and evil.

© 2009 Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Parshat Shoftim

Deuteronomy 18: 10-11:
Let no one be found among you who consigns his son or daughter to the fire, or who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who casts spells, or one who enquires of ghosts (sho’el ob) or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead.
In the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 65b, we read:
One who enquires of a ghost (ob)… this means one who starves himself and spends the night in a cemetery, so that an unclean spirit [of a demon] may rest upon him [to enable him to foretell the future]. When R. Akiba reached this verse (i.e. Dt. 18:11), he wept: If one who starves himself so that an unclean spirit may rest upon him has his wish granted, he who fasts that the pure spirit [the Divine Presence] may rest upon him — how much more should his desire be fulfilled! But alas! our sins have brought this upon us, as it is written, But your iniquities have been a barrier between you and your God (Isaiah 59:2).

R. Akiba compares one who fasts in a cemetery hoping that demonic spirits will rest on him, to him with one who fasts in a synagogue hoping that the Shechinah (God’s presence in our world) might rest on him. We might be surprised at the concern R. Akiba expresses: while we would think that the person with the purer intention would be more successful in reaching his goal, this is not the case because our iniquities (in the words of the prophet Isaiah) serve as a barrier between us and God.

It is likely that R. Akiba has in mind the sins that brought about the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. and the subsequent disastrous historical events including the failed Bar Kochba Rebellion of his own generation.

From our vantage point in the 21st century, however, we might take a broader view: One who fasts in a cemetery hoping to contact the spirits of demons or the dead seeks to foretell or control the future. The nature of soothsaying, divination, sorcery, and magic is to tap into presumed powers in the universe outside God and gain control of them for one’s own purposes. In contrast, one who fasts in synagogue hoping to experience the presence of the Shechinah seeks to do God’s will to the benefit of self, family, community, and the world. The “iniquities that have been a barrier between [us] and God” (Isaiah 59:2) derive -- at their core – from misplaced priorities. This is a perennial concern and especially germane as we usher in Rosh Chodesh Elul this week and begin the process of sorting through our behaviors of the past year and the priorities that engendered them.

© 2009 Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Parshat Re'eh

In the space of only eight verses, Parshat Re’eh tell us:
  • There shall be no needy among you – since the Lord your God will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion – (Dt. 15:4)
  • If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. (Dt. 15:7)
  • For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land. (Dt. 15:11)
At first glance, these verses appear to contradict one another, but upon closer examination, they provide a cogent and coherent Jewish perspective on the scourge of poverty.

Deuteronomy 15:4 speaks of the institution of shemittah (the sabbatical year) which cancels all debts so that those who have fallen into poverty due to debt are given the opportunity to begin anew, unencumbered. Torah seeks to even the economic playing field, recognizing that the exigencies of life are often uneven and unfair, and the nature of human economic systems is for those who fall into debt to fall deeper into debt. Remitting debts every seventh year affords the poor the opportunity to wipe the slate clean so that, There shall be no needy among you… (Dt. 15:4).

But of course, those living near the margin will frequently fall into debt. Perhaps a drought will be the cause, perhaps another misfortune. Compassionate people living in a society grounded on justice cannot ignore suffering souls in their midst, and wait for the seventh year to erase debt. Hence, Torah tells us, If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman (Deuteronomy 15:7). Torah instructs us to respond to the need when it arises.

Lest we think that our generosity, because it is righteous, is sufficient, Torah reminds us that the obligation to look out for those with less, those who suffer, is an ever-present Jewish obligation. We are to give in response to need, not only in response to how giving makes us feel about ourselves. And so Torah reminds us of the unhappy reality, For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land (Deuteronomy 15:11).

Rabbi Moses Maimonides (the Rambam) extends this teaching in his Mishneh Torah (Gifts to the Poor 7:3) in a direction that at first glance might raise eyebrows:
According to what the poor man is lacking you are commanded to give to him. If he has no clothing, they clothe him. If he has no household goods, they buy it for him. If he has no wife, they arrange for his marriage. And if it be a woman, they arrange for her marriage to a man. Even if the way of a certain poor man had been to ride a horse while a servant runs before him and he became poor and lost his possessions, they buy him a horse to ride on and a servant to run before him, as it is stated, "Enough for his lack which he is lacking" (Deuteronomy 15:8). And though you are commanded to make up for what he lacks, you are not commanded to make him rich.
A person accustomed to riding a horse with a servant running before him must be restored to that level of living? Is the Rambam serious? Yes, he is quite serious. Rambam is telling us that tzedakah is not only an act of economic restoration; it is also an act of rehabilitating human dignity. While we are not required to impoverish ourselves on behalf of others –in halakhah #5 Rambam sets limits to our giving to prevent this – the business of tzedakah is fundamentally about human dignity. This is something for all of us to keep in mind in these challenging times.

© 2009 Rabbi Amy Scheinerman