Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Build it and they shall come / Parshat Terumah

It is time to clean out my office. There is too much clutter here. How many times, opening a closet or drawer, or simply looking around your home, have you said that? We live a very material existence. Stuff matters to us. Madonna, the Material Girl, explained it for herself this way: “You are attracted to men who have material things because that's what pays the rents and buys you furs. That's the security. That lasts longer than emotions.” 

 Two things jump out at me from that quote: first, rent and furs lie at opposite ends of a spectrum from need to luxury; Madonna says she needs both for security; and second, her claim that stuff outlasts emotion.

The Israelites have just received God’s Torah at Mt. Sinai, an immensely powerful spiritual experience. They immediately turn to constructing the Mishkan, a portable Tabernacle (or, if you prefer, Sanctuary) to hold tight to the Sinai experience and bring God, Whom they encountered at Sinai, with them wherever they go. Torah puts it this way: And let them make me a Sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst (Exodus 25:8). Both elements of Madonna’s viewpoint are folded into the motivation and building of the Mishkan, but in a manner totally different from the way Madonna sees things.

 First, concerning stuff that is ordinary and stuff that is extraordinary, or the spectrum from need to luxury. Certainly, rent money is in the domain of necessity; no one would call housing a luxury. The Mishkan is constructed of a wide array of materials covering the spectrum from need to luxury. Acacia wood is used to create the structure, but the Mishkan and its accouterments are adorned with gold, silver, tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, lapis lazuli and other semi-precious gems. We might stop and consider that, as the name of our parashah, Terumah, indicates, everything that went into building the Mishkan is a free-will gift, an expression of love, devotion, and gratitude; donations of precious metals, gems, and materials reflect the Israelites’ desire to maintain a close relationship with God. The security Madonna speaks of is, indeed, material, and derives from what is acquired, that is, what is supplied by others. The security afforded the Israelites by the Mishkan is relational and spiritual; as the word korban (“sacrifice”—the root means “near” or “close”) connotes: it draws them close to God. This security comes from giving generously, not receiving.

The second thing that jumps out at me from Madonna’s comment, far more striking than the first, is the claim that stuff “lasts longer than emotions.” The revered Bible scholar, Dr. Umberto Cassuto (1883-1951), explains in A Commentary on the Book of Exodus that the purpose of the Tabernacle is to afford the Israelites the means to bring the Sinai experience with them in their wanderings, an ever-present symbol that evokes God’s presence. (In this regard, Mary Douglas, in her marvelous study of Vayikra, Leviticus as Literature, discusses how the sacred spaces and partitions of the Mishkan map onto Mt. Sinai.) In the equation between Mt. Sinai and the Tabernacle, stuff and emotions are inextricably bound together. Cassuto wrote:

In order to understand the significance and purpose of the Tabernacle, we must realize that the children of Israel, after they had been privileged to witness the Revelation of God on Mount Sinai, were about to journey from there and thus draw away from the site of the theophany. So long as they were encamped in the place, they were conscious of God's nearness; but once they set out on their journey, it seemed to them as though the link had been broken, unless there were in their midst a tangible symbol of God's presence among them. It was the function of the Tabernacle (literally, 'Dwelling') to serve as such a symbol. Not without reason, therefore, does this section come immediately after the section that describes the making of the Covenant at Mount Sinai. The nexus between Israel and the Tabernacle is a perpetual extension of the bond that was forged at Sinai between the people and their God. The children of Israel, dwelling in tribal order at every encampment, are able to see, from every side, the Tabernacle standing in the midst of the camp, and the visible presence of the Sanctuary proves to them that just as the glory of the Lord dwelt on Mount Sinai, so He dwells in their midst wherever they wander in the wilderness. This is the purpose of Scripture (25:8), when it states: 'And let them make Me a Sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst.' (Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, p. 319.)

The Israelites build the Mishkan to keep the experience, emotions, and encounter of Sinai alive and to evoke God’s presence continuously—to insure that revelation continues.

R. Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508, Portugal, Italy) asks why God needs a physical home, a question that paves the way to demonstrating that the Mishkan is about emotions and relationship:

Why did [God] command the construction of the Tabernacle, when [God] said, that I may dwell among them, as if God were an object demarcated and limited in space, which is the opposite of the truth?!... After all, God himself spoke these words through the prophet Isaiah: The heavens are My throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house can you build for Me, and what place could be My resting place? (Isaiah 66:1)

Malbim (Meir Leibush b. Yehiel Michel Wisser, 1809-1879, Russia) picks up Abravanel’s thread, explaining that the physical structure of the Mishkan is not an end in itself, but rather a model of the inner, spiritual sanctuary we should strive to construct in our hearts:

Each one of us needs to build for God a Mishkan in the recesses of our hearts, by preparing ourselves to become a Sanctuary for God and a dwelling place for God's glory… thus it should be for all generations: each person should build a Mishkan in the innermost recesses of the heart, and prepare an altar upon which to “offer up,” as it were, all aspects of oneself to God's service.

We have material needs just to survive. Most of us, however, possess far in excess of what we need to live. If, in the larger scheme of things, our focus is on stuff qua stuff—materialism for its own sake—we miss the opportunity to elevate our relationships, our spirits, our lives, to a level of greater meaning and purpose.

Talmud reminds us that blessing and meaning are beyond the material; they reside in the realm of meaning:

Blessing is not found in something that has been weighed, nor in something that has been measured, nor in something that has been counted, but only in something hidden from the eye. (T. Baba Metzia 42a)

I managed to clean up my office, but much remains that you might consider clutter: gifts from students and congregants, souvenirs from family trips, photos of my kids, and a few art projects they made in elementary school. While little of this has great monetary value, to me they are priceless because they hold meaning and evoke memories. Yet even were I to lose them, the emotions would last.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Self-defense, stand-your-ground, and excessive force / Parshat Mishpatim

When I was very young and growing up in New England, my father jokingly told me that every winter, it snows one more inch than the previous year. My mind went straight to imagining the wondrous winters of my adulthood when the snow would be so deep that people would need to dig tunnels—from house to house and through town—to get around. (I don’t recall thinking about the lighting and oxygen problems entailed in this fantasyland.)

Parshat Mishpatim doesn’t mention snow, but it does mention tunneling. Amidst a compendium of mitzvot in the domain of civil law, and following one specifically concerning theft, we find this:

If the thief is seized while tunneling, and he is beaten to death, there is no bloodguilt in his case. If the sun has risen on him, there is bloodguilt in that case. (Exodus 22:1-2)

If the thief tunnels into my home at night, and I encounter him and kill  him, I have not committed murder; if, however, in the light of day I can discern that has come to steal, but not to kill anyone, were I to kill him, I would be guilty of murder.

Talmud explains the Torah’s temporal distinction. Mishnah Sanhedrin 8:6 tells us:

[A thief] who tunnels his way in is judged on account of its [probable] outcome: If he broke through and broke a jug, should there be bloodguilt for him, he must pay [for the jug he broke], but if there is no bloodguilt for him, he is not liable.

Brief as this two-sentence mishnah is, there’s a lot packed into it, so let’s take it bit-by-bit.

The Rabbis understand that it is difficult to judge another’s motives: A thief who enters at night—let’s call him Shimon—knows that he is likely to encounter the person who lives in the house. We may presume that Shimon is prepared to kill the inhabitant—let’s call him Reuven—if encountered, because Shimon knows that Reuven might well try to kill him if caught by surprise at night. In the dark of night, Reuven cannot identify Shimon or discern his intentions. The householder feels he is faced with a threat to both life and limb, and might kill the intruder to protect himself and his family. If, under these circumstances, Reuven kills Shimon, Mishnah tells us that Reuven bears no “bloodguilt”—that is to say, he has not committed a din nefesh, a capital crime punishable by death.

If, however, Shimon tunnels his way in during the light of day, he is likely trying to avoid encountering the residents. Moreover, Reuven can see that Shimon is merely a thief. Ibn Ezra explains that when the Torah says “if the sun has risen on him” it means: if the matter is as clear and obvious as the light of the sun that Shimon did not come with intent to kill (only with intent to burglarize). Under these circumstances, the house holder (Reuven) may not kill the intruder (Shimon).

What if Shimon breaks a ceramic jug? Must he repay Reuven? If Shimon comes during the day, when Reuven is not permitted to kill Shimon to protect his home, Shimon must pay restitution, as we might well expect. If, however, Shimon broke the jug when he tunneled in at night, thereby effectively forfeiting his life since Reuven is permitted to kill him, he is exempt from repayment, because one who is executed is not required to also pay damages, according to M. Baba Kamma 3:10.

I mentioned that Mishnah seems to base itself on an understanding of human nature that Gemara (Sanhedrin 72a) spells out clearly:

Raba said: What is the reason for the law of breaking in? Because it is certain that no man is inactive where his property is concerned; therefore this one [the thief] must have reasoned to himself, “If I go there, [the owner] will oppose me and prevent me; and if he does I will kill him.”

It is here that Talmud establishes the halakhic right to kill in self-defense, declaring:

Hence Torah decreed, If he come to kill you, forestall by slaying him.

Following the castle doctrine, which designates one’s home as a place one has a right to use force (and sometimes deadly force) to protect from intruders, forty-six states have adopted “stand-your-ground,” or “line in the sand,” or “no duty to retreat” laws. Many of these laws not only afford legal permission to kill someone who enters your premises, including in broad daylight, but also confer immunity to both criminal charges and civil law suits. However, stand-your-ground laws often apply to daytime events, and generally permit one who feels threatened but has an option to run away to stand his ground and use deadly force instead. This is deeply troubling, given how easy it is to claim after the fact that one felt mortally threatened. Florida stands poised to expand its current stand-your-ground law by permitting those who consider themselves under threat to fire a warning shot with a gun in order to ward off their assailant. While one might argue that firing a warning shot could mitigate the situation and prevent the firing of a fatal shot, there is good reason to be concerned that this legislation—indeed all legislation of this sort—encourages people to shoot off their guns long before they consider any other option.

Roman rhetorician Lucius Seneca the Elder (54 B.C.E. ‑ 39 C.E.) famously said, “A sword never kills anybody; it is a tool in the killer’s hand.” 
Lucius Seneca the Elder (54 B.C.E. - 39 C.E.)
The NRA reformulated Seneca’s words into its well-known slogan, “Guns don’t kill people; people do.” This is no more than a slick attempt to argue that a proliferation of guns has no bearing on our ever-increasing rates of gun violence. In claiming that guns are only proximate causes of death, not primary causes, it utterly fails to take into account human nature. But a gun in hand, and legal permission—indeed encouragement—to shoot at the first hint of danger handily unravels the disingenuous claim of this slogan, and threatens us all.

While Jewish law permits killing in self-defense, the use of excessive force is neither countenanced nor justified. Talmud (B. Sanhedrin 74a) makes this point unequivocally clear:

If one was pursuing his fellow to slay him, and [the one pursued] could have been saved by maiming a limb but did not thus save himself [killing him instead], he is executed on his account.

We hardly need encouragement or sanction to commit gun violence. Mass shootings (such as the Westroads Mall in Omaha, Nebraska, or the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado), school shootings (such as Virginia Tech and Sandy Spring), and individual cases most of us never hear about continue to exact an enormous toll on life. The CDC reports that gun violence claims more than 30,000 lives annually in the United States, and another 60,000 are wounded. Every segment of society is at risk. From Seneca to the NRA, the claim that access to a lethal weapon, and widening permission to use it is not a game-changer is fallacious and perilous. Is this the world we want to live in? Is this the society we want to bequeath to our children?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Whose Torah is it anyway? / Parshat Yitro

Whose Torah is it anyway? Parshat Yitro describes the Revelation at Mt. Sinai, beginning with Aseret ha-Dibrot (the Ten Commandments). When the Ten Commandments are displayed in the public square, you can be sure hackles will be raised, and protests will follow. For Jews, there is the additional concern that many people claim Hebrew Scripture as theirs and interpret it outside the framework of Judaism, in another religious setting. In fact, the version of the Ten Commandments usually erected in public places in this country is not as Jews understand them to be. Is this a problem?

With Parshat Yitro, we reach the climax of the Exodus story.

Having journeyed from Rephidim, they entered the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness. Israel encamped there in front of the mountain, and Moses went up to God. The Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel: ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples.’” (Exodus 19:2-5)

The people spend three days preparing themselves to encounter God. Amidst thunder, lightning, and smoke, trumpets blaring, the mountain smoking and trembling, God speaks. Parshat Yitro enumerates the Ten Commandments (they are re-iterated in Deuteronomy chapter 5 in parshat V’etchanan) and closes with God’s instruction to build an earthen altar and offer there a sacrifice.

We might think that God intends Torah to be the exclusive property of the Jewish People. A famous midrash, oft quoted, contends that God sought to give it away to other peoples and only settled on Israel because they were the only ones who would accept it:

When God who is everywhere revealed himself to give the Torah to Israel, he revealed himself not only to Israel but to all the other nations as well.

At first God went to the children of Esau. He asked them: “Will you accept the Torah?” They said right to his face: “What is written in it?” He said: “You shall not murder.” They replied: “Master of the universe, this goes against our grain. Our father, whose hands are the hands of Esau (Genesis 27:22), led us to rely only on the sword, because his father told him, ‘By your sword shall you live’ (Genesis 27:40). We cannot accept the Torah.”

Then God went to the children of Ammon and Moab and asked them: “Will you accept the Torah?” They said right to his face: “What is written in it?” He said: “You shall not commit adultery.” They replied: “Master of the universe, our very origin is in adultery, for Scripture says, Thus were both the daughters of Lot with child by their father (Genesis 19:13). We cannot accept the Torah.”

Then God went to the children of Ishmael. He asked them: “Will you accept the Torah?” They said right to his face: “What is written in it?” He said: “You shall not steal.” They replied: “Master of the universe, it is our very nature to live off only what is stolen and what is acquired through assault. Of our forebear Ishmael, it is written, and he shall be a wild ass of a man: his hand shall be against every man, and every man’s hand against him (Genesis 16:12). We cannot accept the Torah.”

There was not a single nation among the nations to whom God did not go, speak, and, as it were, knock on its door, asking whether it would be willing to accept the Torah. At long last God came to Israel. They said, We will do and hearken (Exodus 24:7). Of God’s successive attempts to give the Torah, it is written,

The Lord came from Sinai;
He shone upon them from Seir;
He appeared from Mount Paran,
And approached from Ribebot-kodesh,
Lightning flashing at them from his right. (Deuteronomy 33:2)

(Sifre Deuteronomy 343)

Given that everyone else rejected Torah, and only Israel accepted it, does it belong to Israel alone?

Midrash Tanna debe Eliyyahu offers a stunning commentary on the Giving of Torah. It begins with part of the verse from Psalm 19:5.

He placed them in a tent for the sun… (Psalm 19:5)

A parable: There was a mortal king who kept precious stones and pearls of purest ray in his palace, and the people of the kingdom offered to buy them for a goodly sum. The king told them: I will let you buy them; not, however, to be hidden away for the exclusive use of one people, but open to all the peoples of the world. Likewise, when the Holy One, may God’s great name be blessed forever and ever, gave the Torah to Israel, God meant it to be left open for all the peoples of the world, as it is said, I have not given it in secret (Isaiah 45:19). (Tanna debe Eliyyahu, chapter 2)

Torah is not to be hidden away in arks and study houses, but brought into the bright sunlight and shared with others. Its wisdom is God’s gift (or, if you prefer, the Jewish People’s gift) to the world. Doing so, of course, opens it to other interpretations, and sometimes they make us uncomfortable. But truth to tell, there is just as much diversity of opinion concern the meaning of Scripture within the Jewish community, and we have learned to see that as machloket l’shem shamayim, argument for the sake of heaven.

Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael goes even further, suggesting that Torah is, in a sense, hefker (ownerless property and hence available to all):

Had the Torah been given in the Land of Israel, the Israelites would have told the rest of the nations that they have no portion in the Torah. Now that the Revelation was given in an open, ownerless, public space which is accessible to every human being, let anyone who wishes to accept it come and take it. (Mekhilta, Bachodesh)

Rather than fighting the interpretations of others, we would do well to join their conversation and share our wisdom with them.

Last month, two people in Cartersville, Georgia got into a heated debate about the proper interpretation of the Ten Commandments that turned into a slugfest when Carolyn Unfricht slammed Daniel Camarda’s face with her Bible. Camarda responded by throwing Unfricht across the room. Police report that both were “highly intoxicated”—apparently not high on “The Word.” In addition to giving them Scripture, perhaps we should teach them the principle of machloket l’shem shamayim, an argument for the sake of heaven.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Steroidal Kvetching / Parshat B'Shallach

Zig Ziglar, author, salesman and motivational speaker said, “Statistics suggest that when customers complain, business owners and managers ought to get excited about it. The complaining customer represents a huge opportunity for more business.” The Israelites complained plenty, and gave God lots of business—or perhaps we should say that for 40 years in the Wilderness they gave God the business. It begins the moment they leave Egypt.

Imagine you are present to experience the greatest miracle of all-time. Coming from one hundred generations of slavery, you have left Egypt, venturing out into the Wilderness of Freedom, led by God’s servant, Moses. You see Pharaoh in your rear view mirror and hear your comrades whine: “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness?” (Exodus 14:11-12) Then the waters part—a wall of water on the left and a wall of water on the right—so you and everyone with you can pass through on dry ground, unencumbered, and escape Pharaoh’s charioteers. Even here people are grumbling and complaining. You hear Reuven say to Shimon: “In Egypt we had clay, and now in the sea again clay. In Egypt we had mortar and bricks, and now in the sea again mortar and bricks.” (Shemot Rabbah 24:1)

Once on the far side of the Sea, the waters close in on the Egyptian army. A watery womb, an impassible Sea, protects you. A watery tomb for the Egyptians. Moses leads you three days into the Wilderness of Shur to Marah. The water has a bitter aftertaste. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” (Exodus 15:24). 

Some weeks later, between Elim and Sinai, in the Wilderness [of Sin], the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.” (Exodus 16:2-3) In short order, manna and quail rained down, nourishing the body, but apparently not the soul, because by the time everyone encamps in Rephidim and finds there is not enough water, they blame Moses. “Give us water to drink,” they said; and Moses replied to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you try the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up from Egypt, to kill us and our childen and livestock with thirst?” (Exodus 17:2-3)

No sooner are they freed from Egypt than the Israelites embark on a 40-year career in complaining. The grumbling and grousing, blaming and bellyaching, whining and whinging continue and continue and continue. Steroidal kvetching. For forty years. That’s a lifetime of complaining.
What do you complain about? Come on, we all do it. You’re not alone. Think of one thing you complained about—either aloud or to yourself—in the past three days. Whom did you blame for your unhappiness? Where did you focus your attention and energy?

The Israelites focus on complaining rather than gratitude. They blame rather than reframe. They invest energy criticizing instead of creating. Some years ago, a funny piece entitled “Zen Judaism” made the rounds on the internet. Among other things, it said, “The Tao has no expectations.  The Tao demands nothing of others. The Tao does not speak.  The Tao does not blame.  The Tao does not take sides. The Tao is not Jewish.”

But there are alternatives to complaining which come from the heart of our tradition and which make us, and those around us, far happier.

The first alternative is gratitude, a favorite topic of the Rabbis. In any situation, even when something is unsatisfying, disappointing, or downright wrong, there is always something to appreciate. Gratitude should have been a no-brainer for the Israelites: they were free, God parted the Reed Sea for them, they were in the Wilderness of Sinai rather than the tar pits of Egypt.

The second, an alternative to blaming, is reframing. The blame game is futile and toxic. It is one-sided, protecting us from seeing any other perspective or our own responsibility in a situation. Radiolab broadcast a fascinating program appropriately enough entitled “Blame” recently that calls into question the legitimacy of blaming, and points out that it often comes at the expense of compassion and forgiveness. Reframing allows us to move from our soapbox of blame and see things from another angle. Everything looks different from another viewpoint.

The third alternative to complaining is creating, changing, and repairing. When we divert out energy from kvetching to constructive change, the negative energy of anger and disappoint dissipates and is replaced by the positive energy of vision and hope. Maya Angelou said, “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”

So, what was the complaint you recalled a moment ago? No doubt there is a grain or more of legitimacy in your complaint. But think about this: What in that situation do you have to be grateful for? If you are blaming someone for the situation, are you able to see things from their perspective, or another angle? And are you able to muster compassion and forgiveness if they are called for? What change is needed to rectify the problem that occasioned your complaint? How will you go about forging that change and whom can you reach out to for assistance and support?

One last thing: Consider that complaining is a symptom of desire. George Bernard Shaw ironically observed, “As long as there is want, I have reason for living. Satisfaction is death.” This is not an invitation to compete for the kvetch-of-the-year award, but the desire for life is wonderful.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman