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