Thursday, February 25, 2010

Feel the Light / Parshat Tetazveh

Although the Egyptians discovered how to fashion candles of beeswax 4000 years ago, in Eretz Yisrael during the biblical period clay oil lamps and olive oil provided illumination. Antiquities shops throughout Israel today offer such lamps for sale and many people I know display them in their homes. No doubt, every home in ancient Israel sported such lamps and, as Torah tells us, the menorah in the Mishkan (wilderness Tabernacle) was composed of seven oil lamps.

Our Torah portion begins:
You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of crushed olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly. (Ex. 27:20)
The eternally burning lamp stand is the model for the Ner Tamid (eternal light) that hangs above the ark of every synagogue, symbolizing our eternal covenant with God and reminding us that every synagogue is a mikdash m’at (a Mishkan in miniature).

The verse quoted above tells us that clear oil of crushed olives was required for lightning the menorah. Why does Torah bother with these details? Would we not have known that oil is made by crushing olives and must be clear and pure?

Concerning the requirement for clear, refined oil to fuel the menorah, traditional commentators tell us this teaches that just as the oil must not be contaminated, neither should we allow ourselves to be contaminated by selfishness, pride, and avarice. We should seek to refine ourselves through patience, chesed (loving kindness), and tzedakah (righteousness).

Midrash Exodus Rabbah 36:1 learns another lesson from the clear, refined olive oil about preserving a strong Jewish identity: “Even as the oil of the olive does not mix with other liquids with which it comes into contact, so has the people Israel kept its own identity when it came into contact with other nations.” The best way to preserve our unique values, worldview, and sacred texts is to cultivate in ourselves and in our children a strong and vibrant Jewish identity.

What about the crushed olives? Rashi interprets these words katit l’ma-or v’lo katit la’menuchot (literally: “for the menorah and not for the meal offering”). Rashi’s words have been understood (out of context) to be a psychological message: “crushed for light, and not for depression.” Life deals crushing blows to us. Sometimes these crushing blows affect us as individuals. Certainly loss and death are the most staggering. At many times in history, we as a people experienced crushing blows. Yet our response – Rashi tells us – should be to look for the light, and to be a light to others. The response to darkness is to light a candle. The response to loss is love. The response to despair is to kindle hope.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, February 15, 2010

Nuggets of Gold in the Ark / Parshat Terumah

What did the wilderness Tabernacle look like? What was it made of? How was it constructed? A myriad details of the Tabernacle, as well as its furnishings and vessels are contained in parshat Terumah. Sages and scholars have poured over this parashah in an effort to understand every detail of the complex structure our ancestors built in the wilderness and regularly dissembled and moved to a new location where they reassembled it. The material list alone gives us pause to consider the project with awe: fine twisted linen, cloth woven of goats’ hair, dolphin skins, acadia wood planks (some overlaid with gold), silver sockets, an acacia wood altar overlaid with copper, pails, scrapers, basins, hooks and firepans of copper, and much more.

Here’s a broad view: the wilderness Tabernacle consisted of a Ohel Moed (Tent of Meeting), and within that the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The Mishkan consisted of two chambers: the Kodesh (Holy) and the inner sanctum, the Kodesh ha-Kodashim (Holy of Holies). In the Holy of Holies the aron (ark) containing the tablets Moses brought down Sinai rested.

Parshat Terumah’s details, like the aron itself, contain treasure. Here are two nuggets of gold:
Overlay [the ark] with pure gold – overlay it inside and out – make upon it a gold molding round about. (Exodus 25:11)
Why cover the inside of the ark with gold? No one will ever see it because the ark is sealed and never opened. The Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 72b comments, “Any Torah scholar whose interior is not like his exterior is no Torah scholar.” Yoma’s message applies to scholars, to be sure, but to us all, as well. We all seen people whose slick fa├žade covers a lack of integrity or morality; we see them in positions of leadership, in business, in the community. They use the world and others for their purposes, taking far more than they give. Talmud reminds us to be sure it doesn’t describe us.

Another nugget of gold:
Make for it [the ark of acacia wood] a rim of gold round about (Exodus 25:24).
Again, the Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 72b comments: “R. Yochanan said: There were three crowns: of the Altar, of the Ark, and of the Table. The one of the Altar [representing the priesthood], Aaron deserved and received. The one of the Table [representing royalty], David deserved and received. The one of the Ark [representing Torah] is still available, and whoever wants it, may come and receive it.” We can continually receive Torah as we continually increase our learning. As Hillel taught (Pirke Avot 2:5): Fix a time for study. Thus the Talmud continues: “R. Yochanan pointed out a contradiction. It is written zar yet we read it zir [crown or wreath]: If he deserves it, it becomes a wreath for him; if not it remains alien to him.”

Talmud is reminding us all that Torah study is essential to a full Jewish life. The Talmud doesn’t prescribe precisely what or how to study, only that we should all be involved in the process. These days, with all the resources available to us in adult education classes, the shelves of bookstores and on the internet, it is easy to earn the crown of Torah and through it broaden our horizons and deepen our understanding of life’s purpose. It’s never too late to start, and always rewarding.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, February 7, 2010

An eye for an eye / Parshat Mishpatim

The Torah is filled with passages that have been misunderstood and misinterpreted, sometimes due to ignorance and sometimes out of malice. One such passage occurs in parshat Mishpatim, which is also known as Sefer haBrit (“the Book of the Covenant”), a collection of civil, criminal, moral, and religious laws following on the heels of the account of revelation and the Eser Dibrot (Ten Commandments) of parshat Yitro.

The first section of Sefer haBrit (Exodus 21:2 – 22:16) deals with civil and criminal matters. There it is stipulated that if two men become engaged in a brawl and one of them shoves a pregnant woman, causing her to miscarry, the man responsible must pay the husband of the woman compensation to be determined in court that will take into account the demand of the husband. In contrast (and here comes the oft-misunderstood passage):
But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. (Exodus 21:23-25) (See also Leviticus 24:19-20.)
The term for this legal formulation is Lex Talionis (the law of retributive justice). A similar formulation is found in the Code of Hammurabi, who ruled Babylon in the 18th – 17th century B.C.E. The Code calls for death and disfigurement on the basis of an “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.” (At the same time, it also calls for a presumption of innocence – the earliest example on record – and the presentation of evidence in court.) We do not know if the Lex Talionis of Hammurabi’s Code was carried out literally in ancient times. There are scholars who believe that the Code itself was not the law code by which the society operated, but rather the fulfillment of a divine mandate by the gods to the king: a law code to prove he was divinely ordained to rule, but not one which was operative in ancient Babylon.

In the Torah, however, “an eye for an eye…” was never understood literally. Leviticus 18:9 is very clear on this point:
You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Lord.
Talmud is also clear: “eye for an eye” means that one who causes physical injury pays compensation in proportion to the extent of the injury, no more and no less. Torah’s laws apply to all equally, and so the notion of literal physical retaliation is absurd: if a blind man put out the eye of a sighted man, how could the law be fulfilled if understood literally? The actual monetary amount to be paid was determined by a court.
It was taught [in a baraita]: R. Shimon b. Yochai says: "Eye for eye" means pecuniary compensation. You say pecuniary compensation, but perhaps it is not so, and actual retaliation [by putting out an eye] is meant? What then will you say where a blind man put out the eye of another man, or where a cripple cut off the hand of another, or where a lame person broke the leg of another? How can I carry out in this case [the principle of retaliation of] "eye for eye" seeing that the Torah says, You shall have one manner of law, implying that the manner of law should be the same in all cases? (Baba Kamma 84a)
Those who insist that Torah mandates physical retribution either do so out of ignorance or malice. In the case of the latter, they wish to paint the God of Israel as permitting barbaric vengeance, and Jewish law is inherently cruel and savage. In fact, the law of “an eye for an eye…” renders bodily injury in retribution impermissible. Rather, the case must be adjudicated by a judge who determines fair monetary compensation to settle the matter and hopefully prevent the possibility of future violence.

Far from testifying to a “cruel God” or sanctioning vigilante justice and violent retribution, the biblical law of Lex Talionis is the law of a compassionate God who seeks to mitigate the human propensity for vengeance and violence. Recourse and compensation are found in the courts, a place of justice and peace.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Path to Holiness / Parshat Yitro

We read the Eser Dibrot (the Ten Commandments) this week. In congregations throughout the world, people will rise to hear them read. The Eser Dibrot were also recited in the Temple in Jerusalem, in early synagogues, and in some synagogues in the modern period, as well. In reality, the Eser Dibrot do not stand alone in Jewish tradition; they are a gateway to the rest of halakhah. But just what is halakhah? Usually translated “Jewish law,” I would argue that this is an unfortunate misunderstand with wide-ranging repercussions.

Two questions arise: Is the purpose of Torah to convey law? Is law the essence of Judaism? I would answer “no” to both questions.

We live today in a secular society tinged with antinomianism. We object to externally imposed behavioral restraints, moral standards, and what we consider unnecessary rules. At the same time, there is a movement in the Jewish world toward Judaism-through-law, as if living Jewishly is all about intense focus on what is permitted and what is forbidden – a pushback against secular distaste for rules? Increasingly restrictive and absurd kashrut standards are a prime example of this movement.

Torah is about our people’s experience of, and relationship with, God. It is about life immersed in the Divine. Therefore, it speaks to our individual, and collective, relationship with God. Every deep and abiding relationship obligates. My relationships with my husband, children, friends, congregants, and colleagues all impose obligations on me. That is the nature of a committed relationship. It is the nature of the specific relationship that determines the parameters of those obligations.

In our tradition, commitment is expressed as halakhah, which as I mentioned is incorrectly understood as “Jewish law” and more accurately translated “a path one walks.” Torah is not “Law” but “Guide.” There is a world of difference between “Law” that begets “Jewish law” and “Guide” that gives rise to “a path one walks.” The latter is active, dynamic, evolving, because it reflects an active, dynamic, and evolving relationship with God. To calcify halakhah or use it as a battleground for establishing the authority of one group over another, is to miss the beauty, love, and spiritual nature of our tradition, and to bury opportunities for experiencing holiness beneath a mountain of permitted-and-prohibited regulations. Jewish practice should be an opening to experience holiness in our lives, not a matter of holier-than-thou.

There is an allegory: The doves complaint to God that they are defenseless because their beaks are weak and they cannot run. God provides them with wings so they can fly, but they then complain that with wings they are even more burdened. “Fools!” God says, “If you use them correctly, you’ll take flight and command the skies.”

So it is with us. If we use our tradition correctly, we too can soar spiritually. Shabbat can free us from work and the pressures of daily life to enjoy our families, reconnect with God, and consider what is most meaningful to us. Regular prayer can help us gain control over our lives, directing our efforts toward that which is purposeful and monitoring the relationships in our lives that are so important. Kashrut can help us attune our lives to the environment and world beyond our homes and workplaces, a way to connect at the most elemental level to God’s universe. Closing shabbat with Havdalah can help us recognize and appreciate that not all time is the same qualitatively and that holiness is something we bring to the times, events, and relationships in our lives.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman