Sunday, August 26, 2012

"Why, Mommy, why?" / Ki Teitzei

Young children famously trill the mantra “Why?” to the exasperation of the adults around them. Many child-rearing books provide clever advice for deflecting the question. But it’s a reasonable question, and answering it directly -- as best one can -- nurtures a child’s inquisitive mind and desire to learn.

Parshat Ki Teitzei imparts a mitzvah (commandment) that leaves us scratching our heads and asking, “Why?” Rabbi Milton Steinberg, in his magnificent book, As a Driven Leaf, made this commandment famous:

If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledgling or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life. (Deuteronomy 22:6-7)

This mitzvah is known as shiluach ha-ken (dismissal of the nest). Torah instructs us to send the mother away before taking eggs or fledglings from a nest, and makes the most unusual promise of long life as the reward. Why?

The Mishnah tells us:
If [in prayer] one says: “May Your mercies extend to a bird’s nest,” “May Your Name be mentioned for well-being,” or “We give thanks, we give thanks,” he is silenced.

What’s wrong with saying these prayers? Gemara explains why “May Your Name be mentioned for well-being” and “We give thanks, we give thanks” are problematic, and then takes up “Your mercies extend to a bird’s nest.”

But what is the reason for silencing him if he says, “May Your mercies extend to a bird’s nest”? Two Amoraim [sages in Babylonia] in the West, R. Jose b. Avin and R. Jose b. Zevida, give different answers. One [R. Yose b. Zevida] says it is because [saying this prayer] creates jealousy among God’s creatures. The other [R. Jose b. Avin explains that the reason is] because he presents the actions of the Holy One Blessed be God as arising from compassion, where in fact they are decrees. (Berakhot 3b) 

R. Jose b. Zevida is concerned that jealousy not erupt in God’s creation since Torah specifically states a commandment about birds and their nests, but not about every animal. But he is overruled. Shiluach ha-ken is a decree (gezeirah): it a commandment we cannot understand rationally; we are to simply obey it, and by doing so prove our loyalty to God.

Many find this explanation deeply unsatisfying. They want a reason. They want to know why. I concur.
Other sages in the Talmud offer an alternative interpretation. They understand from these verses that we are obligated in the mitzvah of tza’ar ba’alei chaim, to avoid causing unnecessary pain and suffering to animals (Baba Metzia 32). This is to say: animals have a right to decent treatment, and Torah speaks to this right. Rambam (Moses Maimonides, Spain, 1135 – Egypt, 1204) affirms this interpretation. He tells us that the purpose of shiluach ha-ken is to spare the mother the pain of seeing her offspring or eggs taken from her.

Targum Yerushalmi (erroneously attributed to Yonatan b. Uzziel) claims that to earn God’s mercy, we must act mercifully toward other creatures that dwell on earth. He thereby suggests that the mitzvah of shiluach ha-ken is intended to instill in us the habit of the middat-rachamim (the attribute of mercy). Ramban (Moses b. Nachman - Nachmanides - Spain, 1194 - 1270) concurs; if we learn to treat animals with compassion, how much more compassion will we show other human beings?

Rabbi Don Isaac Abravanel (Portugal 1437 - Venice 1508), in his commentary to Deuteronomy 22:6 suggests a third, and very different purpose behind shiluach ha-ken (dismissal of the nest). He writes:

The Torah’s intention is to prevent the possibility of untimely destruction and rather, to encourage Creation to persist as fully as possible… [the end of the verse] in order that you may fare well and live long, means that this mitzvah (of sending away the mother bird) has no intended purpose for the sake of the animals, but rather that it shall be good for humankind, because when the birds will be perpetuated, we will be able to eat from them many additional times… and that is how you will live longer…”

In other words, destroying two generations of a species risks lowering the population to below the level required to serve as food to sustain a human population. While Abravanel is the first to express concern for the population of the species affected, and we might have wished that his concern was for more than a source of food for humans, we nonetheless see his awareness of the essential interplay between humans and our environment, and the importance of sustainability.

If we accept the Rabbis’ first response to “Why?” we are left only with an opportunity to be obedient without any sense that our action itself is meaningful or good. But if we refuse to accept the Torah “on faith,” closing down our minds, we find fascinating discussions are launched by these verses:
1.     The principle of tza’ar ba’alei chayim, the importance of protecting animals from pain and suffering.
2.     The lesson that compassion is a learned attitude and behavior.
3.     Protection and sustainability of species.
Taken together, the common thread is the importance of compassion for all those affected by human behavior: compassion for the mother bird, compassion that can be learned and exhibited in human relationships, compassion for the larger picture of the environment. How much richer and more meaningful this mitzvah is now!

We tend to think that searching for rational explanations, and demanding reasons for requirements made of us, is a modern trait of rational thinkers. Not so. Just look at the dates of the commentators I cited who did just that: the dates range from the third century to the 15th century.

R. Yose b. Avin’s response suggests that God is the parent who says, “Do it because I told you so.” Not a great parenting technique. Best to follow those who stretch their minds, open their hearts, and exercise their morality. They teach us how to live better lives.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Constitutions and their interpreters / Shoftim

On occasion, the Constitution of the United States is displayed in the rotunda of the National Archives in Washington, DC. On these occasions, the line to catch a glimpse of it stretches down (appropriately enough) Constitution Avenue and curls around the block. The Constitution shapes the structure, function, and operation of our government, yet few can recite it. To fully understand and apply it, we have legions of constitutional scholars and a Supreme Court. We need interpretation and commentary to explain and apply it.

So, too, Torah, which is the constitution of the Jewish people. Like the Constitution of the United States, it requires interpretation and commentary. That process begins with Talmud.  

Torah is certainly our foundational sacred text, the core of Judaism. At so many junctures Torah is remarkably progressive and enlightened, but even at some of these junctures, we experience a sour aftertaste. In this week’s parashah, Shoftim, we find several examples of this sweet-and-sour cuisine. I’ll share with you three examples in this drash.

The parashah begins by instructing the Israelites to establish a system of courts presided over by judges who

govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (Deuteronomy 16:18-20)

The prohibition against judges taking bribes is indeed admirable, but when you live in a small community, everyone has done favors for everyone else. What is the meaning of bribe? Does it apply only to money? Here the sour aftertaste is what appears to be Torah’s narrow understanding of what may lead to corrupt judges.

My second example concerns the use of witnesses. Numbers 35:30 and Deuteronomy 17:6 have already stipulated the need for two witnesses in order to convict someone of a din nefesh (an offense punishable by execution). In parshat Shoftim, Deuteronomy 19:15 seems to expand that standard to encompass non-capital cases, as well: A single witness may not validate against a person any guilt or blame for any offense that may be committed; a case can be valid only on the testimony of two witnesses or more. What are we do to with all that we have learned from neuroscientists about human observation and memory? We now know that people often provide the worst evidence in crimal cases. Here, the sour aftertaste concerns a standard that appears trapped in the ancient, pre-scientific world. 

My third example concerns the rules of warfare:

When you approach a town to attack it, you shall offer it terms of peace. If it responds peaceably and lets you in, all the people present there shall serve you at forced labor. If it does not surrender to you… when the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, you shall put all the males to the sword. You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, the livestock, and everything in the town… (Deuteronomy 20:10-14)

Little explanation is required here. Is this a prescription for future -- and current -- military encounters? The “sour aftertaste” is more a toxic mouthful. Enslaving or exterminating a conquered people is simply barbaric and immoral.

All three examples -- judicial bribes, witnesses, and rules of warfare -- highlight an important point: Torah, as our constitution, is the starting point for our values and beliefs. It is our jumping off point for conversations about crucial issues of justice, crime, and warfare (as well as dozens of other topics) but the conversation is fleshed out and shaped by Talmud and continues beyond with extensive and on-going discussion, interpretation, and commentary.

Concerning the acceptance of bribes, our Sages perceive the “sour aftertaste.” In Talmud b.Ketubot 105b we find:

Rava said: “What is the reason for [the prohibition against a judge accepting] a gift? Once he receives a gift from someone, his opinion draws closer to his, and he becomes like him, and a man cannot see guilt in himself.

What is shohad [the term for “bribe” in Deuteronomy 16:19]? [We can understand it as] she-hu chad -- he is one/unified [with the one who gave the bribe]. Rav Papa said: “A person should not judge a case of someone he loves, nor of someone he hates, for one does not see the faults of a loved one and one does not see the merits of a hated one.”

Talmud examines the issue in the bright light of Torah’s morality. Thanks to Rava, we understand Torah’s underlying concern: justice depends upon judicial impartiality, and gifts sway a judge’s judgment. Rav Papa takes us even further. In the pursuit of justice, we cannot stop with forbidding judicial bribery. Close relationships, intimate knowledge of someone -- either because you love or hate that person -- render a judge incapable of delivering blind justice.

Concerning the use of witnesses in a din nefesh to convict someone of a crime punishable by execution, Talmud teaches us by its own example to take into serious consideration what is known through secular sciences. The Sages frequently cite what they have learned outside the bet midrash (House of Study) and integrate it into their arguments. Their standard is our standard: use the best information available in rendering legal decisions.

Concerning the disturbing rules of warfare described in parshat Shoftim, the Rabbis tackle this problem by first neatly creating categories of wars in Mishnah Sotah 8:7. They distinguish between discretionary wars (milkhemet reshut), commanded wars (milkhemet mitzvah), and obligatory wars (milkhemet chovah).

When is this the case [that men may return from the battle front to their homes]? In the case of a milkhemet reshut (discretionary war). But in a milkhemet mitzvah (commanded war) all must go forth, even the bridegroom from his wedding chamber and the bride from her chupah. Rabbi Yehudah said: When is this the case? In the case of a milkhemet mitzvah (commanded war). In a milkhemet chovah (obligatory war), however, all must go to the front, even the bridegroom from his wedding chamber and the bride from her chupah. (m.Sotah 8:7)

The comments in the mishnah, and the discussion in the Gemara that follows, center around the various conditions Torah stipulates (see Deuteronomy 20:5-8) that exempt one from fighting. What gradually becomes clear is that “commanded wars,” such as our passage in Deuteronomy describes, are limited to the conquest of the Land in the time of Joshua, and are therefore a one-time event of the past. Hence the requirement to enslave or slaughter can no longer pertain. It is now forever impermissible.

A constitution without commentary cannot function in a living society. The legal scholars in this country continue to study, debate, and explicate the Constitution; the Supreme Court is a living organ of interpretation. So, too, the Jewish constitution: Talmud begins the process of asking questions, debating difficult issues, and formulating responses to the issues raised by Torah. The process continues to this day.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, August 12, 2012

"They even offer up their sons and daughters" / Re'eh

A young woman I know was an excellent student in high school. She now attends an excellent university. Yet her parents harangued her -- complete with screaming and invectives -- because she was not accepted to the university they wanted her to attend. Alas, such parents are not rare.

Parshat Re’eh is packed with warnings to the Israelites to scrupulously avoid the idols and idolatrous practices of the people living in the land of Canaan. Moses tells the people:

You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshiped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree. Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site. (Deuteronomy 12:3)

And then we come to this shocking verse about child sacrifice practiced by the people then living in the land of Canaan:

You shall not act thus toward the Lord your God, for they perform for their gods every abhorrent act that the Lord detests; they even offer up their sons and daughters in fire to their gods. (Deuteronomy 12:31)

This has me pondering the connection between idolatry and child sacrifice. The Tana”kh records three cases of child sacrifice: Abraham offers up Isaac at God’s command (Genesis 22); King Mesha of Moab sacrifices his firstborn son to assure military victory (II Kings 3:4-40); and Jephthah makes a rash vow to offer the first thing coming out of his house if he returns home in victory; his daughter is the first to emerge from the house to greet him.

It’s easy enough to say that child sacrifice was the premier reprehensible idolatrous practice of ancient peoples. But it’s not clear to me that it ended long ago. I see vestiges of it -- if not downright instances -- today. I began this drash with one of those instances. It often looks like this: Parents whose lives revolve around their children don’t just advantage their children. They enroll them into afterschool classes that occupy their every waking hour. They talk about their children’s grades and awards at every opportunity. They groom them to attend particular universities and push them to become involved in activities that will look good on their college applications. Once in college, these parents require their children to major in only a select number of academic disciplines that they believe will insure prestige and financial success. Their children’s passions are not taken seriously.

“Tiger Moms” on steroids come from every ethnic and religious group. There are, of course, gradations of the Tiger Mom syndrome: parents who are excessively involved in their children’s life decisions, but not to the degree the diehards are. Often these are helicopter and lawnmower parents.

In a drash on Genesis 22 about Abraham and Isaac entitled “The Unbinding of Abraham,” psychotherapist Esther Ticktin writes:

Abraham became idolatrously attached to the inner re-presentation of this child and heir of his. He had had a long time to build up this inner image of what this son was going to be like, and since this son took so long in coming, Abraham had no chance to check his fantasy image with the real person who was his son. And, knowing what we now know about internal fantasy relationships, we may assume that he experienced his son as an extension or a replica of himself, and that fantasy became the center of his life. But, as usually happens, life does not follow the fantasy script, and Abraham’s son turned out to be very unlike his father. Where Abraham was bold, courageous, self-assertive, Isaac was a shy, timid, and passive child. Ishmael would taunt him and Isaac would not defend himself. Chances are that Abraham, for whom nothing had been too difficult up to now, became involved in a single-minded struggle to remake his son in the image of his fantasy -- as have countless other fathers and mothers before and after him. Isaac thus became an obsession with his father. The son who was to have been the symbol of God’s promise to Abraham became, instead, the focal point of all of Abraham’s thoughts, feelings, and energies. He became, in fact, a substitute for God in his life.”

I have come to a slightly different understanding of the phenomenon Ticktin describes so well. Over the years, I’ve seen many of these parents. They appear to worship their kids, but in reality, they view their children as a reflection of them. It’s themselves that these parents worship. They sacrifice their children’s individuality, sensibilities, passions, and independence on the altar of their egos, all the while maintaining they “want the best” for their children. Child sacrifice and idolatry are sadly alive and well.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Sharpen your #2 pencils / Ekev

A physics student entered the lecture hall to take his exam, picked up the test, and read the first problem: "Describe how to determine the height of a skyscraper using a barometer."

The student wrote: "Tie a long piece of string to the barometer, lower it from the roof of the skyscraper to the ground. The length of the string plus the length of the barometer will equal the height of the building."

His exam was returned three days later and this problem was marked wrong. The student went to see the professor, who explained that the answer was wrong because it did not entail using the barometer as an instrument to measure air pressure. “The problem didn’t require that the barometer be used that way,” the student replied.

The professor conceded that this was true and asked, “Your answer did not demonstrate a knowledge of physics. Do you know what answer I was looking for?”

“Certainly,” the student said. “You could use the barometer to measure the air pressure on the roof of the skyscraper and on the ground, and convert the difference into a height of air. But your question didn’t require that I demonstrate a knowledge of how a barometer is designed to be used.”

“So you have other answers?” the professor ventured.

“Absolutely, plenty of them,” the student replied. And he began:

“First, take the barometer up to the roof and drop it off the side. Time how long it takes to reach the ground, and from this calculate the height of the building.

“Or, if the sun is out, measure the length of the barometer and, setting it on its end, the length of the shadow it casts. Then measure the length of the shadow cast by the building. By similar triangles, you can calculate the height of the building.

"Then again, you could tie a short piece of string to the barometer and swing it as a pendulum, first at ground level, then on the roof of the skyscraper. The difference in the pendulum’s period can be used to calculate the height of the building.

“Is that all?” asked the professor.

“No,” replied the student. “You could enter the stairwell and climb to the top using the stairs, marking off the height in barometer lengths. But probably the easiest and quickest would be to knock on the door of the janitor and say: ‘I have this nice, new, valuable barometer. I’ll give it to you if you tell me the height of this building.’”

Since all the students’ responses were legitimate, the professor gave him full credit for his initial answer.

Parshat Shelach-lekha (in Numbers 14) records that the Israelites’ forty-year ordeal in the wilderness is punishment for succumbing to fear and disregarding the favorable report brought by Joshua and Caleb.

Your carcasses shall drop in this wilderness, while your children roam the wilderness for forty years, suffering for your faithlessness, until the last of your carcasses is down in the wilderness. You shall bear your punishment for forty years, corresponding to the number of days -- forty days -- that you scouted the land: a year for each day. Thus you shall know what it means to thwart Me. (Numbers 14:32-34)

Here in parshat Ekev, however, we find a second tradition explaining the four-decade sojourn in the Sinai Wilderness: the Israelites are being tested:

Remember the long way that the Lord your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that He might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts; whether you would keep His commandments or not. (Deuteronomy 8:2)

This is the not the only occasion that God tests people. Genesis chapter 22 describes the Akedah (the Binding of Isaac) as a test of Abraham. God demands that Abraham offer his beloved son Isaac as a sacrifice. What kind of test is this? It sounds cruel, doesn’t it?

I want to propose that both Akedat Yitzhak (the Binding of Isaac) and the forty years in the wilderness are indeed tests, but not in the way we generally think of tests.

Four decades in the wilderness, facing trials and tribulations, teaches the Israelites what they are made of. It teaches them their strengths and weaknesses. It reveals their fears and priorities. To enter the land and claim their inheritance, they must know themselves. There’s nothing like adversity to do that.

Similarly, God could not be testing Abraham to see if he will truly slaughter his son. That would be a reprehensible thing to do regardless of whether Abraham believes it to be God’s will or not. My colleague, Rabbi Howard Apothaker, makes a brilliant and innovative argument for another viewpoint: The test is whether Abraham has come far enough in his relationship with God to trust that God will stop him. Abraham’s test is to learn about himself: how deeply does he trust God?

It is a truism that “life is a test.” If forty years in the wilderness is a test -- enough time for one generation to die and another to be born -- then all of life is a test. Every challenge thrust into our laps reveals our true selves -- to us. Every decision we make illuminates for us, in the dazzlingly bright light of reality, who we are and what we are made of.

Thinking about life as a test has served me well at the most difficult and painful times of life, when I think the well is empty and I have no more reserves, or when my patience or good will is worn to a thread. I try to remind myself that this is a test: what am I truly capable of? That thought brings a new perspective, a measure of objectivity, and sometimes enough distraction to rally. God administers the test because that is the nature of life in this universe, all of which is contained in God. You know the bumper sticker: It happens. As people say, “Life is a deck of cards, and you have to play the hand you are dealt.” This is not to say that the world is random and without meaning. We control far less than we think and hope; a great deal of life is good fortune or a lack of it. When it’s the latter, it helps to frame the situation (at least in part) as a test for me to learn what I am truly made of and what I am truly capable of.

It means that God is present and potent. At the most difficult times, facing the most difficult decisions, we can call on God, who is the source of existence itself, the animating force of life, for patience, strength, and courage. There is more of each in each of us -- embedded in the divine spark that vitalizes each of us. When we call on God, we call on the best in ourselves and might be surprised to learn that the well is far from empty.

When we took tests in school, there was almost always “the right answer” and everything else was wrong. But life tests are nothing like school tests. In life, there are often multiple legitimate answers -- as the clever student demonstrated to the physics professor in the joke I began with. It helps to keep that in mind. A “right” answer is one that preserves human dignity and avoids causing pain and suffering. This is a much harder test than the worst physics exams we took in school, but for this, you can leave your #2 pencil at home because there are no circles to bubble in.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman