Sunday, August 25, 2013

The panorama and the close-up / Nitzavim-Vayeleich

Do our lives really matter? In the long term, and in the broad picture of the universe (or even of this planet) do we really matter? The year 5773 is winding down, and we are gearing up to usher in 5774 next week. Spiritual preparation for the High Holy Days has us looking both backward and ahead — assessing the year gone, planning the year to come. What have we accomplished? Where have our lives, our efforts, our energies made a difference?

Moses asks himself the same questions. In our lives, Yom Kippur is a rehearsal of death, an opportunity to ask ourselves in advance each year the questions we will wrestle with when our lives draw to a close, so that we can redirect our lives now in the hope of finding rewarding and comforting answers to those sticky questions when our time comes. For Moses, it is no rehearsal.

The combined Torah portions of Nitzavim and Vayeilech we read this week recount the last “chapter” of Moses’ life before he ascends Mt. Nebo, where he will die and God will bury him. His summing up and final words are addressed to the entire Israelite nation, and we hear in them the poignant strains of any parent who has poured his life’s energy into his offspring and now ponders their future without his guidance. Will they follow his advice, or will everything he has tried to teach them evaporate? Will they live by the distinctive moral values he taught them, or operate by the values of others around them? Will they be loyal to the tradition he passed down to them?

Torah tells us that at the last moment of life, Moses was robust and powerful, the exemplary leader he had always been. Torah will report that in his last moments on Mt. Nebo:

Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated… Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses — whom Adonai singled out, face to face… (Deuteronomy 24:7, 10)

Torah is saying that when he died, Moses was a youthful and vigorous 120 years old.

At this particular moment in time, however, Moses’ self-experience is utterly different. He feels depleted and worn out, incapable of leading the people any longer:

Moses went and spoke these words to all Israel. He said to them: I am now one hundred and twenty years old. I can no longer be active (Deuteronomy 31:1,2)

We can sense Moses’ anxiety. He knows things will break down after he dies because God has told him as much. He orchestrates an inspiring ceremony to reaffirm the covenant made at Mt. Sinai. Everyone participates — your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer (Deuteronomy 29:9-10). Moses reminds the people that God brought them into the Land to open up your heart and the hearts of your offspring to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, in order that you may live (Deuteronomy 30:6) and that they now stand at a crossroads: See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity (Deuteronomy 30:15). If they obey God, life and prosperity will be their reward; if they turn away from God, death and adversity will be their lot.

Yet Moses knows, because God tells him, that no sooner will he die than Israel will make the latter choice:

Adonai said to Moses: You are soon to lie with your ancestors. This people will thereupon go astray after the alien gods in their midst, in the land that they are about to enter: they will forsake Me and break My covenant that I made with them. Then My anger will flare up against them, and I will abandon them and hide My countenance from them. They shall be ready prey; and many evils and troubles shall befall them. And they shall say on that day, “Surely it is because our God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us.” (Deuteronomy 31:16-17)

No wonder Moses feels drained and diminished! Has it all been for naught? Did Kohelet get it right when he wailed:
Utter futility! All is futile!
What real value is there for a person
In all the gains he makes beneath the sun?
One generation goes, another comes,
But the earth remains the same forever.
The sun rises, and the sun sets —
And glides back to where it rises…
Only that shall happen that has happened,
Only that occur that has occurred;
There is nothing new beneath the sun! (Ecclesiastes 1:2-4,9)
Will we, some day in the future, bemoan our futility and irrelevance the way Moses and Kohelet did theirs? Muriel Rukeyser, in her poem The Place in the Ways, expresses the on-going struggle to see our lives as meaningful:
Having come to this place
I set out once again
On the dark and marvelous way
From where I began:
Belief in the love of the world,
Woman, spirit, and man.

Having failed in all things
I enter a new age
Seeing the old ways as toys,
The houses of a stage
Painted and long forgot;
And I find love and rage.

Rage for the world as it is
But for what it may be
More love now than last year
And always less self-pity
Since I know in a clearer light
The strength of the mystery.

And at this place in the ways
I wait for song.
My poem-hand still, on the paper,
All night long.
Poems in throat and hand, asleep,
And my storm beating strong!
Will we, too, look back and say, “My life didn’t really matter; I didn’t really make a difference; the world is no different”? It helps to focus our Yom Kippur-induced “year-end review” or “life review” not on a global, panoramic view that attempts to encompass everything. Even Moses had trouble with that perspective.

Rather than the panoramic, let’s aim for a close-up, granular view of our lives. Consider your individual relationships, the “small” accomplishments, and the (no doubt many) deeds of chesed that you have performed during this past year. They are most reflective of who you really are. Whom have you loved, helped, taught, and supported in the past year? Whose life is better because of you?

Even more, if we can enter the chagim, and especially Yom Kippur, fully conscious of the good we have done (and therefore our potential to do more), the spiritual work of assessing, repenting, and confessing will be far less painful and far more productive.

In preparation for the chagim, take some time to look at the trees and you’ll see that they make up a significant and beautiful forest. A close-up view will reveal that we do matter and we do make a difference.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Entering Israel and entering Elul / Parshat Ki Tavo

If "timing is everything," it seems somewhat ironic that we read the iconic formula associated with Pesach now, at the end of summer, during the month of Elul, as we prepare ourselves for the upcoming High Holy Days, which focus on repentance, renewal, and reconciliation. But so be it, that’s how the cycle of Torah readings works, right? Perhaps there’s something more here than initially meets the eye.

Poised to enter Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) after four long decades in the Wilderness, not to mention four centuries in Egyptian bondage before that, Moses instructs the people:

When you enter the land that the Adonai your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that Adonai your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the Adonai your God will choose to establish His name. You shall go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him, “I acknowledge this day before Adonai your God that I have entered the land that Adonai swore to our ancestors to assign us.” The priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down in front of the altar of Adonai your God. You shall then recite as follows before Adonai your God: “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to Adonai, the God of our ancestors, and Adonai heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. Adonai freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Adonai, have given me.” (Deuteronomy 26:1-10)

At the very moment the Israelite people are looking forward to a future ripe with possibilities for becoming a people living out God’s covenant in freedom, a nation in their own land, Moses tells them to look backward: Remember where you came from. We are in the middle of Elul, poised to enter the High Holy Days. We are looking forward to a new year of blessings for us, for our families, for our people, for the world. Our hopes are high. Yet this is also our time we are called to look backward: Remember where you came from.

Moses exhorts the Israelites to look back not only to their recent past, but also further back, as well. He tells them: You were slaves in Egypt, but before that your ancestors were fugitive Arameans. Why do the Israelites need to look this far back? Perhaps it is in order to gain self-understanding, appreciation for how far they have come, and a sense of their purpose. Some people feel they need to turn their backs on the past in order to move forward. They believe that the past will anchor them, as indeed it can. This double-edged sword can cut both ways, however. There exists the danger that in looking back, we become caught in the trap of blaming others and thereby evading responsibility for our behavior and choices. If, however, we look back to appreciate our blessings (as the Israelites did), and also to understand, learn, accept, and then let go where appropriate (which the Israelites also needed to do), then looking back can be productive and helpful. Slavery was a terrible thing, but in looking back and remembering the horror or servitude, the Israelites could accomplish three things:
  • Appreciate God’s redemption and their freedom.
  • Empathetically recognize the importance of assuring freedom for others, especially those in their midst.
  • Let go of any remaining vestige of slave mentality anchoring them to the worst experiences of their past.

When we do teshuvah (repentance), we engage in a spiritual looking back at the past year — what we have done, what we have failed to do, how we have affected others — and we often look further back, as well. There is much encouragement today to look back to childhood and family of origin to understand ourselves more fully; that is, why we are the way we are and why we do what we do. The double-edged sword exists here, too: There is the danger of becoming enmeshed in blaming others for our failures and mistakes, but there is also the opportunity to let go of anger, resentment, and the conviction that we are enslaved by our early experiences.

When we can look back in this way, we can see the coming year as the Promised Land of possibility in our quest to become the people we wish to be and were meant to be, just as Israel entered the Promised Land to become the nation she sought to become and was meant to become. As Israel entered Eretz Yisrael overflowing with possibility and dreams, so can we enter the New Year brimming with potential and direction.
May Elul bring us closer to God, closer to those we love, and closer to ourselves.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, August 11, 2013

A Monstrous Mitzvah Defanged / Parshat Ki Teitzei

Phyllis Trible coined the term “texts of terror” nearly 30 years ago to describe four biblical narratives that feature women suffering rape, expulsion, murder, and dismemberment at the hands of patriarchal men. In all cases, the anonymous narrator is coolly unconcerned with the suffering and fate of the women, and later misogynistic readings have certainly not redeemed them.

These are not the only troubling texts in Torah, of course. There are, too, what I would call Monstrous Mitzvot, commandments conceived by an ancient society whose moral sensibilities on some subjects are far from ours today.

Exhibit A: In parshat Ki Teitzei we learn the fate of a mamzer. The usual English translation is “bastard,” and while mamzer is used pejoratively in common parlance, its technical meaning is a child born of an incestuous or adulterous relationship.

A mamzer shall not be admitted into the congregation of the Lord; none of his dependents, even in the tenth generation, shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 23:3)

The stigma of being branded a mamzer was severe indeed. A mamzer was forbidden from marrying any but another mamzer, and his/her progeny carried the taint as well — in perpetuity. This is a classic case of punishing a child for the sins of the parents, even though in the very same parashah we read:

Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for parents: a person shall be put to death only for his own crime. (Deuteronomy 24:16)

Is this verse meant to be read narrowly: to specify only cases that are din nefesh (capital offenses liable to the death penalty), or rather should it be understood to say that in general children should not be punished for the sins of their parents, and vice versa?

Regardless, every fiber of my being tells me that branding a human being a mamzer and denying him and his progeny full access to marriage in the community is a horrendous evil, a violation of that person’s dignity and very humanity — values that surely ought to trump Torah’s aversion to incest and adultery.

The prophet Nathan confronts King David and Bathsheba who have produced a mamzer through their adulterous relationship. Bronze bas-relief on the door of La Madeleine in Paris.

The Rabbis struggle with the law of mamzeirut. Talmud defines the law as pertaining to incest and adultery (Kiddushin 3:12, 69a; and Yebamot 4:13, 45b). The Sages themselves recognized the gross injustice of the law. In Vayikra Rabbah 32:8, we find this breathtaking midrash:

I further observed all the oppression that goes on under the sun: the tears of the oppressed, with none to comfort them; and the power of their oppressors — with none to comfort them (Ecclesiastes 4:1). Chanina the tailor interpreted this verse as pertaining to mamzerim. “The tears of the oppressed” means: their mothers transgressed and these poor ones are excluded; this one’s father committed incest, but what has [the offspring] done and why should [the offspring] be affected? “None to comfort him” refers to Israel’s Great Sanhedrin, who come at them with Torah’s power (authority) and exclude them, applying [to them] “No mamzer shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 23:3). [Concerning] “None to comfort them,” the Holy One says: It is for me to comfort them. Yes, in this world some are spurned, but as for the future, Zechariah has said, I see people all of gold (Zechariah 4:2).

I don’t know who Chanina the tailor is. Perhaps that is the point: he represents any thinking, feeling human being, and here speaks for the Rabbis when he gives unequivocal moral voice to the implicit cruelty of the law of the mamzer. He makes no effort to justify it, or work around it. He attacks it head-on as nothing less than “oppressive.” His utter contempt is not limited to this Torah law; it encompasses any Jewish court that enforces it, inflicting suffering so deep that only God can provide comfort. The attempt to provide solace at the end — in olam haba (the world-to-come) where the mamzer’s suffering will be recompensed, or at least the taint will be erased — rings hollow. Who would make that choice?

In a strange and initially troubling discussion of how many generations retain the taint, and why, we find this:

R. Zeira said: It was explained to me by Rav Yehudah that publicly known mamzerim live; unknown mamzerim do not live, and those who are partly known and partly unknown live for three generations but no longer. A certain man once lived in the neighborhood of R. Ammi, who made a public announcement that he was a mamzer. As the [exposed man] was bewailing his outing, [R. Ammi] said to him: I have given you life!

The presumption seems to be that God will bring about the death of mamzerim, so there is no need to worry about their marriages; since they won’t live long enough to contract a marriage, the community is safe from the taint. R. Ammi goes so far as to say that in outing the mamzer in his community, he has prevented the necessity of God intervening and expunging the life of the closet mamzer. All the warmth and compassion of an ice floe.

But perhaps that’s not the only way to read the passage.  R. Zeira tells us that we can trust God to take care of the problem of mamzerim; we don’t need to go on a witch-hunt. R. Ammi, whose words sound incomparably cruel, in a strange way reinforces the notion that God takes care of mamzerim and we needn’t go looking for them. The message is: leave well enough alone. This is not your problem. Leave it to God. And that is a fine message.

Nonetheless the problem arises in any community, that there is always one sniveling tattletale. What if that person outs someone who is a technical mamzer? The Rabbis are keenly aware of this possibility. They tell us:

[Even if] it is rumored that [a woman] has been unfaithful to her husband, and everyone's tongue is wagging about her – her children are not suspected of being mamzerim. [This is so because we presume that] most of [the married woman's] acts of intercourse are with her husband. (Sotah 27a)

We can take encouragement from this Talmudic statement, and additionally from Rabbi Moses Isserles (1520-1579, known as the Ramah). In the Ramah’s gloss to the Shulkhan Arukh (Even ha-Ezer 2.15) he writes:  
[In the case of] one who is unfit has become mixed in a particular family, once it has become mixed it has become mixed and whoever knows of the disqualification is not permitted to disclose it and must leave well alone since all families in which there has been an admixture will become pure in the future.
And there it stands. The monstrous mitzvah of punishing a child (and his progeny for generations to come!) for the sin of a parent is effectively dismantled and set aside. Human dignity and compassion in the face of human suffering trumps an ancient taboo foisted on innocent children. We can breath a collective sigh of halakhic relief.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman