Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Better Angels of Our Nature - Reflections on Parashat VaYishlach 5775

Angels are to Jacob what fast food joints are to I-95. Whenever the Torah paints a portrait of Jacob, angels are photobombing in the background. It's like he can't get away from those things.

He leaves home and has a vision of angels going up and down a ladder that stretches to heaven. Later, he follows his path and encounters angels of Gcd, and then calls the place Machanaim, the double encampment of angels. 

He sends angels to appease his hot-headed brother Esav. Then he wrestles with an angel, Esav's angel/advocate, who, according some opinions, was none other than Sama-el, the Angel of Death himself.

And at the end of his life, he blesses his grandsons Menashe & Ephraim by invoking the protections of the angel that had rescued him at every crisis in his incredibly crisis-ridden life.

So what's the deal with the angels, and why do they figure so prominently in Jacob's life? 

The answer depends on one's understanding of what angels are and what their function is in the unseen world which exists beyond our senses.

The Jewish view on angels is derived from the Hebrew word malach, which means both emissary and angel. Basically, angels are Gcd's messengers. Each one is created for a specific task, and ceases to exist when that task is completed. Some angels have ongoing missions and thus exist for eons; other exist for a fleeting moment. The Rambam, based on a careful examination of angelic verses throughout the Torah, organized the types of angels into a ten-level hierarchy. They are, to use a cytology analogy, the messenger RNA in the great cytoplasm of the universe.

There is, though, another view of angels in the Torah. "Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov said: A person who fulfills one mitzvah (commandment) acquires for himself a single defending angel. A person who commits one transgression acquires a single accusing angel." (Avot 4:13)

What a beautiful idea! Normally, we think of angels flitting hither and thither in Gcd's created universe rushing about to do His will. But when we mortals do Gcd's will by performing His mitzvot, we ourselves create an angel; an advocate that will accompany us through life and stand up for us on that inevitable day when we must give a full accounting for our deeds: the good, the bad and the ugly. 

We have the power to create angels. Our good deeds become angels that surround us, protect us, nurture us. 

Prior to his encounter with Esav, Jacob prays to Gcd: "I am 'smallified' by all the kindness and truth with which you have dealt me..." (Genesis 32:11) The simple sense of 'smallified' (Heb.: katonti) in the verse is 'humbled', but Rashi suggests otherwise: Jacob was afraid that, measured against all of the abundant kindnesses that Gcd had showered on Jacob, his good deeds would seem paltry by comparison, and Gcd might decide to give him over to the hand of the enemy. 

Here we see expression given to the idea that our good deeds are our advocates. Jacob is surrounded by his angels, his good deeds, that he had accumulated throughout his life. In his humility, he was worried that he had not accomplished enough good; but in the end, he had nothing to fear.

We are but the sum of our deeds, our mitzvot. Gcd doesn't care how much money we pile up, what kind of car we drive, what timepiece dangles from our wrists. Ultimately, our actions will speak more eloquently for us than any image consultant, epitaph or autobiography.

The newspapers are littered with stories of people, once thought to be great, once looked up to and admired as leaders, being dragged away in handcuffs, indicted by their actions. I won't repeat the litany of names or the various lesser self-aggrandizing rasputins and faith-healers who, wrapped in tallitot (prayer shawls) and righteous attitudes, rape, defame, assault and embezzle. Some have already been exposed; it's just a matter of time for the others.

Let us all join together to flood the world with angels. Take the mitzvot seriously! Unplug your devices on Shabbat. Give a homeless person an Andrew Jackson. Call your mother. Put on tefillin. Pick a mitzvah - any mitzvah - and create an angel.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Put It There - Reflections on Parashat Chayei Sarah 5775

Holding up a Rorschach blotch, the psychiatrist asks, "What do you see here?" 

""That's a couple having sex," replies the patient.

Switching cards, the psychiatrist asks again: "And in this one?"

"That's another couple having sex," replies the patient.

"OK, last one," says the psychiatrist.

"Sorry doc, but that's more people having sex."

The doctor puts down the cards and says, "Sir, you have an obsession with sex."

"Me!" the outraged patient blurts. "You're the one with the stack of dirty pictures!"

****

We live in a pornographic society, where innocence is lampooned and everything is sexualized, from toothpaste to four-year-old girls. So it should come as no surprise that certain rakish biblical pseudo-exegetes have suggested that Father Abraham was gay, based on a purposeful misreading of a verse in this week's parasha.
"And Abraham was getting on in years, and Gcd had blessed him in every way. And so Abraham said to his senior servant, the one to whom he entrusted all his affairs: Place your hand under my thigh, and swear by the One True Gcd of heaven and earth, that you will not take a wife for my son (i.e., Isaac) from the Canaanite girls among whom we dwell." (Gen. 24:1-3)
Abraham asks his servant, Eliezer, to touch the scar of his circumcision, the physical symbol of his covenant with Gcd, in taking this very important oath. The purpose of this act is to impress upon Eliezer the seriousness of the promise he is making.

This act of oath-taking would not have been surprising in antiquity. The English word "testify" comes from the same Latin root as "testicle"; it was customary in ancient Rome to have the oath-taker hold the testes of his master. This was an act of servility and submission; by touching the place of his virility, the servant was acknowledging that the master had the power to enforce the oath. 

The Ibn Ezra, who lived in the 12th century, records that this was the legal form of taking an oath in India in his time. And in Mr. Sammler's Planet, Saul Bellow describes a related incident in which a mugger exposes himself to Sammler, an expression of brute power and cowering submission.

There is no sexual component to this act, any more than getting a hernia exam or a prostate exam or a gynecological exam. Yet these same geniuses also argue that Abraham was a sexual predator, exploiting his wife Sarah's sexuality for his own gain. This is nothing less than the malicious and deliberate character assassination of one of Judaism's most cherished role models.

Perhaps most disturbing of all is that the thinkers of these deep thoughts are a certain group of nominally orthodox rabbis, whose open agenda is to lay the foundation for the mainstreaming of homosexuality in Orthodox Judaism. 

In a certain sense, this is understandable: the gay lifestyle is very trendy these days, and weak people always go with the flow. It seems that there is hardly an American family that isn't touched by it. There is also a lot of social and legal pressure to not only destigmatize homosexuality, but to affirm that it is morally equivalent, if not superior to, heterosexuality (after all, heteros have children, who contribute to overpopulation, overflowing landfills and global warming. Ewww.)

And there is clearly a lot of money up for grabs in capitulating to the mob - let's not deny it.

The problem (for them) is that the Torah prohibits the homosexual act in the strongest possible terms, and with the harshest possible penalties. (It is critical to note that the Torah does not recognize homosexuality or gayness as a lifestyle or a genetic predisposition. It recognizes only the act. And like every other act, the moral agent must make a choice - to act or not to act; to fulfill the mitzvah or to violate it. The choice rests squarely upon the conscience of the individual.)

Their solution is to undermine the authority of the Torah prohibition. Not completely at first, but just to weaken it a little. Camels are not allowed inside the tent, but it wouldn't hurt to allow the poor camel to stick his itty bitty nose under one corner of the tent? 

Before long, you will most assuredly be sleeping with a camel. 

Now, in and of itself, this is nothing new; gentiles and free-thinking Jews have been deconstructing the Torah with gay abandon (pardon the pun) for 200 years or so, since Herr Professor Wellhausen expounded his rippingly brilliant Theory. What is troublesome is that nominally orthodox rabbis are now adopting these positions (again, no pun intended).

The sine qua non of Orthodoxy is the belief in the Divine Authorship of the Five Books of Moses. This belief defines the gaping philosophical chasm between the Orthodox and the Movements of Jewish Dissent - the Conservative and the Reform (and their various lesser splinters and offshoots). For an orthodox rabbi to espouse such views is like a lawyer who rejects the basic principle of the rule of law, or a doctor who doesn't believe in cell theory. They may still have their sheepskins, the doctor may even wear a white lab coat and stethoscope, but can you  - would you -  dare entrust your health to that guy?

Here are some of the unvarnished facts about homosexuality:
  • Homosexuals more likely to suffer from depression: "A new study in the United Kingdom has revealed that homosexuals are about 50% more likely to suffer from depression and engage in substance abuse than the rest of the population, reports Health24.com . . . the risk of suicide jumped over 200% if an individual had engaged in a homosexual lifestyle . . . the lifespan of a homosexual is on average 24 years shorter than that of a heterosexual . . . While the Health 24 article suggested that homosexuals may be pushed to substance abuse and suicide because of anti-homosexual cultural and family pressures, empirical tests have shown that there is no difference in homosexual health risk depending on the level of tolerance in a particular environmentHomosexuals in the United States and Denmark - the latter of which is acknowledged to be highly tolerant of homosexuality - both die on average in their early 50's, or in their 40's if AIDS is the cause of death. The average age for all residents in either country ranges from the mid-to-upper-70s."(onenewsnow.com/Culture/Default.aspx?id=255614)
  • Breast Cancer higher among Lesbians: "Breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed among women and is the leading cause of cancer death among women in the United States, following cancers of the skin and lung. Recent research has identified risk factors for breast cancer that may differentially affect lesbian and bisexual women, including nulliparity and higher rates of alcohol consumption and overweight, that may place this population at greater risk than heterosexual women of developing breast cancer." (Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, glma.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=feature.showFeature&FeatureID=319&E:\ColdFusion9\verity\Data\dummy.txt)
  • "In their study of the sexual profiles of 2,583 older homosexuals published in Journal of Sex Research, Paul Van de Ven et al. found that "the modal range for number of sexual partners ever [of homosexuals] was 101–500." In addition, 10.2 percent to 15.7 percent had between 501 and 1000 partners. A further 10.2 percent to 15.7 percent reported having had more than 1000 lifetime sexual partners. Paul Van de Ven et al., "A Comparative Demographic and Sexual Profile of Older Homosexually Active Men," Journal of Sex Research 34 (1997): 354."
  • 2% of U.S. population is gay yet it accounts for 61% of HIV infection:  "Men who have sex with men remain the group most heavily affected by new HIV infections. While CDC estimates that MSM represent only 2 percent of the U.S. population, they accounted for the majority (61 percent; 29,300) of all new HIV infections in 2009. Young MSM (ages 13 to 29) were most severely affected, representing more than one quarter of all new HIV infections nationally (27 percent; 12,900 in 2009)."  (Center for Disease Control, cdc.gov/nchhstp/newsroom/HIVIncidencePressRelease.html)
  • "Gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men (MSM) represent approximately 2% of the US population, yet are the population most severely affected by HIV and are the only risk group in which new HIV infections have been increasing steadily since the early 1990s . . . ” (Center for Disease Control,  http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/topics/msm/index.htm)
  • Gay men lifespan shorter than non gay men: "The life expectancy for gay and bisexual men is 8 to 20 years less than for men in general. Robert S. Hogg et al., "Modeling the Impact of HIV Disease on Mortality in Gay and Bisexual Men," International Journal of Epidemiology 26 (1997): 657." (Exodus Global Alliance, exodusglobalalliance.org/ishomosexualityhealthyp60.php)
  • "In 2007, MSM [Men Sex with Men] were 44 to 86 times as likely to be diagnosed with HIV compared with other men, and 40 to 77 times as likely as women." (Center for Disease Control, http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/topics/msm/index.htm)
  • Domestic Violence higher among homosexuals: "'the incidence of domestic violence among gay men is nearly double that in the heterosexual population.'(Gwat Yong Lie and Sabrina Gentlewarrier, "Intimate Violence in Lesbian Relationships: Discussion of Survey Findings and Practice Implications," Journal of Social Service Research 15 (1991): 41–59." (exodusglobalalliance.org/ishomosexualityhealthyp60.php)
  • Sex of women with women at greater health risk than women with men: "For women, a history of sex with women may be a marker for increased risk of adverse sexual, reproductive, and general health outcomes compared with women who reported sex exclusively with men." (American Journal of Public Health,  ajph.aphapublications.org/cgi/content/abstract/97/6/1126

These stats, heartbreaking as they are,  speak only to the immediate health of the individual, and do not even begin to touch on the long-term social and ethical precedents that widespread homosexuality establishes.

Here's the thing: the Author of Life gives us this Owner's Manual, called the Torah, in which He describes the proper care and maintenance of this crazy and complicated thing called LIFE.

Do you think maybe the Torah anticipated these negative consequences when it enacted the prohibition? "If you will diligently hearken to the voice of Hashem, you Gcd, to do what is right in His eyes, to listen and observe all fo His laws; all of the diseases that I placed upon Egypt I will not put upon you, for I am the Gcd that heals you." (Ex: 15:27)

Does no one see that by conducting one's interpersonal affairs within the guidelines of halachah (Jewish Law), one can have a deeply fulfilling and rewarding intimate life with a ZERO PERCENT chance of contracting STDs, and the concomitant reduced risk of the associated uro/gynecological cancers? 

All of that misplaced compassion defining homosexuals as a discriminated class should be more properly directed at encouraging people to make better, less destructive, choices about their sex lives.

One last point: Judaism has never been a populist movement. It has been our historical role to stand against the prevailing social morays, not to give religious sanction to them. Judaism was the original counter-culture.

Abraham was a pain in the tush to Nimrod and the Sumerian pagans; we Jews were a headache to the Greeks, and to the Romans after them. Today, radical feminism and militant gay advocacy are enjoying their 15 minutes of fame; tomorrow it will be something new and more provocative. To be sure, in every generation there have been Jewish hellenizers, appeasers, reformers, modernizers. But in every generation they fall away, largely forgotten by Jewish history. 

A feel-good Judaism defined by what is popular or trendy or lucrative is not Judaism, it's mob rule. History has taught us again and again that only the Torah and its adherents endure. "Etz chaim hee lamachazikim bah," the Torah is a Tree of Life to those who choose to cling to it.

Today as always, guided by Torah, Jews stand alone as the conscience of the world. The Jewish universalist vision of an ethical, compassionate monotheism has much to contribute to the ongoing social dialogue and to the ethical refinement of humankind. And if, by teaching an authentic, unadulterated Torah message, rabbis must speak in opposition to the newest cultural verities, must even risk sitting in jail, then so be it; there is ample historical precedent for that as well. 

"Trust in Gcd; take heart and have courage; and above all, trust in Gcd."

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Avraham Rocks! - Reflections on Parashat Lech Lecha 5775

(To view other posts on this parasha, click HERE.)

In this week's Torah portion (Lech Lecha, Genesis Ch. 12 - 18), we are introduced to Avraham and his wife Sarah. But who is this guy Avraham? What lottery did he win to get to chit-chat with Gcd and merit all the Divine blessings we read about in these chapters?

The Torah itself seems to simply assume he's exceptional. The narrative begins with almost no preface, picking up the thread of his life when he's 75 years old. In fact, way back in Genesis Chapter 2:4, the Midrash states that, based on an unusual Hebrew construction there, that Gcd created the world in order that there should have existed an Avraham; in other words, the entire universe was created for Avraham's sake. That's pretty fat talk. So again: What is so extraordinary about this guy?

The standard answer that is given, and the reason he is credited with being the progenitor of the Jewish People, is that he was the first person to utilize his intellectual faculties to noodle through to the idea of the First Cause. 

...and that's great as far as it goes. But could that be the extent of it? 

Lots of people find Gcd. The newspaper is full of people who, after a dissolute life of booze and drugs and burning through enough toxic relationships, finally wise up and "find Gcd." (I am especially entertained by the ones who discover their spirituality just after they're being led away in handcuffs for some perfidious deed or other.)

Avraham rocks, and the key to understanding his greatness and remarkable contribution to humanity lies in a nuanced reading of the Torah text, as well as some assistance from a Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (The Wisdom of the Ancients). "There were ten generations between Noah and Abraham; each one angered Gcd more than the previous one, until along came Abraham and got the reward for them all." (5:3)

The Mishnah is telling us that the key to understanding Abraham is rethinking the generation of Noah, the Great Flood, and the generations that followed.

The world that greeted Noah when the Ark settled on Mount Ararat was very different world than the one he left. Not just physically, but spiritually, psychically. This was because humanity had diffracted into the three distinct faculties that make us human.

Noah had three sons, Shem, Cham and Yafet, whose descendants were to repopulate the world after the flood. They are broadly understood to represent the Asiatic, African and Caucasian branches of the human family, respectively. But these three branches of humanity also represent the three primary human faculties that dwell within each of us.

Shem means 'name' in Hebrew; the Shem branch of the family valued intangibles: the honor of a good name, ideas, ethics, intellect. They emphasized the intellectual/spiritual side of our nature at the expense of physical and emotional human needs.

Cham means 'hot,' and in that branch of the family emotions and passions dominated.

Yafet means 'beauty,' and this branch of the family focused on the physical: aesthetics, corporeality, pleasure.

For ten generations humanity fought a pitched battle against itself, head versus heart versus soul.  One or the other always prevailed, stifled the others, ran to extremes; and so humanity consistently made choices which aggravated Gcd.

It was Abraham who learned to rein in and and harmonize his faculties. Not only that, he harnessed them in the noble pursuit of fixing the world. He utilized them in the service of Gcd and of others, rather than in the venal pursuit of petty self-gratification. He was intellectual/spiritual without being withdrawn; emotional but lacking pathos; physical yet without narcissism. He was the world's first Renaissance Man, a Man for All Seasons.

We see many proofs to this idea throughout the parasha. We see physical bravery, courage and strength in his successful guerilla war against the mighty Four Kings. He demonstrates intellectual prowess in successful diplomacy with the local Amorites. 

He is a spiritual/ethical role model in refusing to profit from the captured riches of Sodom, and the Covenant between the Parts. 

And passion? Witness his unshakable bond to Sarah, despite decades of barrenness. He would have been within his rights to have taken another wife or divorced her, but his dedication to Sarah never wavered. It's clear from the verses that he deeply respected her and her opinions and it is just as clear that they loved each other intensely, understanding that their destinies were intertwined. 

And lastly, the verse states, "...you have walked before Me and have been perfect." (17:1) The Hebrew word 'tamim/perfect' denotes wholesomeness, completeness, balance, simplicity.

It took ten generations of human development to create an Abraham, who succeeded where the earlier ones failed. He and he alone was able to put the human Humpty Dumpty back together again. And so the Midrash states that Gcd said (so to speak), "that's the kind of guy I created the world for!"

What was the key to Abraham's success? His path began by his using his intellectual faculties to noodle through to the idea of the First Cause. 

As the first Patriarch and Matriarch of the Jewish People, Abraham and Sarah blazed a trail for us. But each one of us has the potential to be an Abraham or a Sarah in our own day, to heed the Voice of Gcd; to employ our unique gifts and talents in the service of Gcd and the service of others, and so doing, leave the world a little better place than the way we found it.

Shabbat Shalom.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Up on the Roof - Reflections on Sukkot 5775

Mizrachi Family Sukkah 5775
Sukkot fast approaches, and it is anticipated with giddy glee around here. For the uninitiated, Sukkot (meaning huts; singular sukkah = hut) is the most joyous festival on the Jewish calendar. For seven days in mid-autumn, we leave our comfortable, climate-controlled, carpeted homes, and domicile ourselves in a rickety hut with a "roof" that the stars peek through. Crazy, huh? Crazy brilliant.

Woven into Sukkot is an extremely rich tapestry of symbolism. The sukkah represents the divine cloud that enshrouded the Jewish People in the desert for 40 years; it represents the Holy Temple itself; it reminds us that our notions of security are ephemeral, that real security comes only with our complete reliance on the A-lmighty; it makes us look skyward, constantly on watch for rain, and rain/water play an integral role in the meaning of Sukkot.

Our Bubbe and Zayde loved Sukkot, positively reveled in it. (Of course they called it "Sookis" in the European pronunciation.) They had this goofy octagonal aluminum gazebo with a domed roof on the patio in the back yard. Come Succot time, Zayde would pry the roof panels off and heave the pine boughs on. Bam - instant sukkah. Then came the decorations: stringing popcorn and cranberries, pictures made by the kids in school, and the strings of little colored twinkle lights (they're Sukkah lights, don't even start...)

We grew up in the Pine Barrens of central New Jersey, where pine was abundant, so we used pine for the roof of the sukkah (the sukkah roof material is called "schach", and has to be done right to make the sukkah kosher). For our family, Sukkot just wasn't Sukkot without the fragrant aroma of the pine; without both noodles - and needles - in the soup. To this day, when I walk by a Christmas tree lot, to me at least, it's the smell of Sukkot.

Bubbe and her lieutenants were bustling back and forth from the kitchen in the house, ferrying all the delicacies of the holiday meal: the gefilte fish, steaming chicken soup, stuffed cabbages, Shake-n-Bake chicken (Zayde loved that stuff), compote. Tea. Cakes. Drinks. It just never ended. Somehow, 15 or more of us squeezed in around the picnic table shoehorned into that little sukkah. 

I think most people today go with purpose-built bamboo mats for schach. They're convenient enough, and they roll up for storage and reuse. But to me (apologies) they're a little...sterile.

For us, it's just gotta be pine schach. So every year, we go to the trouble to source fresh pine - cut it, haul it, heave it up there, and then dispose of it after the holiday passes. It's sticky work, makes a mess of the truck, and is an overall hassle. But it just wouldn't be Sukkot without it.

Why do I bother? Why not hit the "Easy Button" and cave like everyone else with the bamboo schach?

For me, at least, there's three reasons. First, it reminds me of the Lakewood I grew up in, a Lakewood that doesn't exist anymore; the Lakewood before Lakewood became LAKEWOOD, the holy bastion of chareidut.

Second, I stand in quiet opposition to the juggernaut of rigid external conformity, to the "chumra-zation" which has swept over the Torah observant world. I remember great rabbis, tremendous talmidei chachamim, who, back in the day, didn't wear the current de rigueur "uniform" - shloompy black suit, crumpled black hat, tzitzit worn out, long beard. I remember when people focused more on their pnimiut - their personal character traits, and far less on the external manifestations of frumkeit (observance).

Don't get me wrong: if your family tradition is chareidi, good on you. But that's not the only way to live a Torah life. I know of people today who escape to smaller Jewish towns like Allentown for a Shabbat or two, just to get away from the suffocating, oppressive environment of Brooklyn and Lakewood, where any deviation in behavior can brand a person an outcast, an outsider. 

Sorry. I refuse to compete in the frum Olympics, where everyone, it seems, is trying to prove to the world how religious they are, to out-frum the next guy with new and ever more clever chumras (legal stringencies). 

I don't need to demonstrate my religious credentials to anyone. I wear a (knitted) kippah srugah, not a black velvet yarmulke. And I put blue jeans on when I change the oil on the truck. (And shhh...don't tell anyone but I don't even own a black hat.) And I go with pine schach, because it's "hiddur mitzvah" - it beautifies our experience of the sukkah, and is a poke in the eye of bamboo conformity.

The last reason is because that's how Bubbe & Zayde did it. The Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, guides us unfailingly in the conduct of our everyday life. But overlaid on the Shulchan Aruch is a mesorah, a tradition, that we receive from our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.

I didn't have to look it up in the book how to make a kiddush on Friday night; I had a Zayde to teach me. I didn't have to look up how to daven (pray); I had a Zayde to teach me. It was Zayde who taught me to bring flowers home to my wife on Friday. We learned what we lived. And among the myriad other things, Zayde taught me how to build a sukkah. With pine it was, and so with pine it shall remain.

There is a tradition that each night of Sukkot, a mystical guest visits the Sukkah. Father Abraham the first night, Isaac the second night, then Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, David. But we have two other unseen guests. When I sit at the table, looking up at the pine and around at the magical glow the twinkling lights cast around the sukkah, I know, to the core of my being, that Bubbe & Zayde visit our sukkah, and get as much joy from it as we do.

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Basket Weaving 101 - Reflections on Parashat Ki Tavo 5774

This week's Torah portion, Ki Tavo, opens with a description of the ritual of the bikurim, the offering of the first fruits of the season to the priests. 

Briefly, here's how it goes down: the first, best clusters of grapes, the choicest olives, the fattest sheaves of wheat and barley, the plumpest pomegranates, dates and figs - all these are collected, thrown into a basket and taken to Jerusalem. Before the Temple priests, the citizen-farmer makes a grandiloquent declaration that broadly consists of two parts: (1) an awareness of the portent of the moment; that all of Jewish history reaches its apotheosis today in these, the fruits (literally) of our collective labor; and (2) that he, Old MacDonaldberg, has been scrupulous all year in observing Gcd's Law, especially as it relates to caring for the Levite, the needy, the disadvantaged in society. He then withdraws to the embrace and blessings of his family and the others whom his table supports.

But...what's with the basket? Did you catch the basket? We know that the Torah doesn't waste words, so why does it explicitly mention the basket? Why not bring the bikurim in any old box, crate, or wagon?

'Cause I'm thinkin'...it's really all about the basket.

First, the verbiage: the word for basket, טנא/'teneh' stands out as a fairly uncommon word in the Torah. Why use an obscure word in place of more common alternatives? (Things that make you go 'hmmm.')

Next, the Ba'al HaTurim points out that 'teneh' has a gematria** of 60. The modern Hebrew letter corresponding to 60 is 'samech', which is round, like the mouth of a basket. What's even cooler is that the ancient Hebrew samech sort of looks like a woven basket:
So let's weave a basket.

We begin with the node at the core of our metaphorical basket - that would be you. You are, naturally and properly, at the center of your own world. 

Projecting vertically from this core node is an axis that represents your relationship with Gcd above.

The first, innermost ring of weaving is your closest, most intimate earthly relationship  - your marriage. The next weave represents the relationship with your children. The next, your relationship with extended family. Then friends, co-workers, community, nation, world; something like this:



Unlike a real basket, in the metaphorical basket of relationships that constitutes our lives, the woven rings are in motion - constantly spinning around us, renewing themselves, expanding here, contracting there. All the relationships are in dynamic equilibrium in relation to the core; when one relationship spins out of control, it affects each of the other relationships as well.

And we can see graphically that the most fundamental relationship in our lives is between ourselves and Gcd. It is the central axis upon which all of our relationships revolve. If we're right with Gcd, all our other relationships can be healthy; but if our connection with Gcd is in trouble, no other healthy relationship is possible for long.

With this schema in mind, let's re-examine the  bikurim and the basket which contains them. 

The bringing of the bikurim is an act of gratitude to Gcd; small gifts to acknowledge the great gifts He has bestowed upon us. The Land of Israel. Our family's stake in the Land as an ancestral heritage. Our families, our health, our prosperity. All the goodness that is manifest in our lives.

No relationship can endure unless it is built upon the bedrock of thankfulness.The surest way to destroy any relationship is to focus on what's missing, what it lacks. 

For us Jews, thankfulness forms the center of our worldview. With every little act that we do, we make a brachah, whisper a prayer, say a thank you, amounting to hundreds of times a day. Thankfulness is embedded in our very name, Yehudi, Jew. It is a mindset in which we are in an almost constant dialogue of 'thank yous' with the A-lmighty. 

Thus, the first fruits must be delivered in the basket that represents our lives, constituted of the complex weave of relationships that define us. If you reread Deuteronomy 26 carefully, those relationships are all mentioned: self, spouse, family, community, nation. And, we declare, those relationships have been tended to and nurtured, no less than the bikurim offering itself.

Perhaps now we can understand why the bikurim must be brought in the basket. It's the fruit that protects the basket, not the other way around. 

Shabbat Shalom.

** Gematria is a Greek loan word from the same root that gives us the English word 'geometry'; basically, every Hebrew letter has a unique numerical value, and numerologists like the Ba'al HaTurim produce some amazing insights by comparing the number values of different words and phrases. But be forewarned: there are gematrias that will blow your mind, and others that are as weak as water.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Of Prophets and Prestidigitators - Reflections on Parashat Shoftim 5774

A charismatic preacher comes along and says, "The 'Lawt' hath spoken unto me, and I speak unto thee in His name." Should we believe him? How do we know if he's telling the truth? What proof should we demand? Is he merely psychotic (like the disheveled soapbox 'messiahs' that roam the streets of Jerusalem)? Is he a crass opportunist like Shabbetai Zvi, or...is he really the conduit of Gcd's Word, like a Moses or a Nathan or a Samuel, a person who demands our attention and respect? 

Intriguing question.

This week's Torah portion, Shoftim, deals with this very problem. But, whoa, horsey, let's back up a bit.


In Shoftim, Moses lays out the basic framework of Jewish leadership. He deals with the Cohanim/Levi'im, the priestly tribe, administrators of the Temple and the trustees of the sacred treasures of Judaism; with the king, whose power is delimited and whose high station never places him above the law; with the Judge/Rabbi, through whom justice is administered and Torah law applied to novel situations; and with the prophet, the holy soul through whom Gcd speaks to Israel and functions as the conscience of the nation.

As an aside: there is an interesting balance of powers between these positions of leadership. Two are hereditary, and two are meritocracies. Two deal with matters spiritual, and two deal with matters temporal. They are all interdependent and yet exclusive. Think of it - 3,000 years before the drafting of the US Constitution, the Torah understood the need to diffuse and balance power among different "branches" of government.

In the gestational period of our national being, we had, in the person of Moses, all four leadership duties rolled in to one man: Moses was king, prophet, judge/rabbi and High Priest. In his lifetime, he delegated the Office of High Priest to Aaron and the priesthood to Aharon's descendants. He also established the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of 71, as well as the system of lower and appellate courts. But here Moses, as he nears death, is telling us that in the future, these four poles of leadership would be distinct and separate.

Let's return to the question of our prophet. The verse states: 
And when you shall ask in your heart: how do we know if the prophet really speaks in Gcd's voice? Here's how you know: when the prophet claims to speak in Gcd's Name and the matter doesn't happen or come to pass - then you can be assured that Gcd didn't say it, that the 'prophet' willfully lied to you. Don't be afraid when he threatens doom. (Deut. 18:21,22)

We must say that the Torah's answer (wait and see) is not terribly helpful. It could take decades to vindicate this guy; great for the judgement of history, but pretty darn useless for practical decision-making in the here-and-now. Furthermore, the commentators bring cases where genuine prophets predicted things that didn't come to pass: the famous case of Jonah prophesying the destruction of Nineveh. The Ninevites did teshuvah and their city was spared. Or Jacob, whose death-bed prophesies were not fulfilled (according to some) because his children were not deemed worthy enough.

OK, what about performing miracles, signs and wonders? Ooh! That's impressive. Sorry, the Torah is not thrilled, as we learned earlier in Chapter 13. The performance of miracles, taken on their own, signifies nothing about the veracity or the divine favor of the miracle worker. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. A cheap trickster, a master of prestidigitation. Don' be a sucker.

What about the sine qua non of Judaism, the performance of the 613 mitzvoth? Perhaps a good predictor of the trustworthiness of our prophet and the source of the sounds in his head is his encouragement to the Jews to keep the mitzvoth? Ah, now we're getting somewhere. 

But sadly, this yardstick is also not absolute. We see later in the Torah that at moments of great national crisis, verified prophets have deviated from the 613. Elijah the Prophet established a private altar on Mount Carmel to confront the priests of Baal, in violation of an explicit commandment not to do so. Abraham, after a lifetime devoted to uprooting human sacrifice and other monstrous pagan rituals, wakes up one morning intent on offering his only son as a crispy burnt offering.

The commentators struggle mightily with this question, and the answers are all over the map.

I would like to suggest my own approach to the problem.

First, we are being shown what not to seek out in a prophet of Gcd: don't be conned by skillful orators, dynamic personalities and charismatic leaders. Louis Farrakhan is one of the most spellbinding and electrifying speakers that I have ever heard. His ability to hold an audience of thousands on the edge of its seat for three or fours hours is freakishly Hitlerian. And I make that comparison deliberately. Given the chance, he would impose his view of black supremacy on America like Hitler's Aryan supremacy myth on Germany. He is a dangerous man.

(If you've never heard him speak, here is a three minute clip of Farrakhan on the recent race riots in Ferguson, MO.)

In contrast, a true prophet of Gcd will be quiet, unassuming, humble; pious and modest in their personal behavior. No G5s, no mansions, no stretch limos or celebrity meet-and-greets. As the conscience of the nation, the true prophet will speak truth to power in a still, quiet voice, connecting only with those who are spiritually sensitive enough to hear it. 

The second lesson is that sometimes there is no ready-made answer: we have to start thinking things through for ourselves.

For forty years in the desert, Moses did all the cogitating for the Jewish People, all the intellectual heavy lifting. Have a question of law? Ask Moses. Need a dispute resolved? Find Moses. Missed offering the Paschal Lamb for reasons out of your control? Moses will ask Gcd for the answer.

Moses is saying; Look, I can't give you a simple rule on how to know who is a true prophet and who is a charlatan. You're going to have to noodle it through on your own. You can't rely on me to solve all your problems anymore; I'm not going to be around to pack your lunch and wipe your nose. There is a reason the very first blessing in the weekday amidah is "You graced humanity with knowledge, and instructed mankind in discernment; please continue gracing us with your wisdom, discernment and knowledge."  Your head is not merely a hat rack - think! Open your eyes and your ears. Use your head and your heart. 

What's his track record? That's one factor. How are his character traits? Another factor. Miracles? Another factor. Weigh all the factors. Don't be seduced by bling. And depending on the time and place, different factors may weigh differently.

In Moses' cryptic answer is a profound truth: Don't abandon reason at the doorstep of belief. The Torah says that the prophet's predictions must come true. Truth - capital "T" truth - has many facets, but they must somehow all fit seamlessly together. 

In providing a non-answer, Moses is demonstrating his abiding faith in our ability to eventually figure it out on our own.

Shabbat Shalom.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Rickety Rope Bridge - Reflections on Parashat Eikev 5774

Several people have asked that I post the drash I gave yesterday in shul. Here it is. - Y/

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There is something very special about Sefer Devarim, the Book of Deuteronomy.  Unlike the other books of the Chumash, where we find Gcd speaking to - and through - Moshe to the Jewish People, this book is Moshe’s last will and testament. It is Moshe unchained – Moshe in his own words, his own living legacy; a series of orations delivered over the final weeks of his life to that eager and impatient generation, standing as they were on the east bank of the Jordan, chafing at the bit to begin the conquest of the Land of Israel.

If you listen closely during the Torah readings, this difference in voice can be heard in the ta’amei hamikrah, the cantillations used to sing the Torah verses in public. Devarim just plain sounds different. The difference is nuanced, but it’s there.  

And just as the rest of the Torah was written not for only for the generation that received it, but for all generations, in all times and in places, so, too, is Moshe’s last will and testament directed not only at the specific generation of Joshua. Its wisdom is transcendent, independent of time and place; and that’s why Gcd wanted Moshe’s words appended to His own.

Moshe’s message in this week’s parasha is as timely today, this week, right now, as it was 3286 years ago when he first spoke it. The words jump off the page and grab you by the lapels. He’s so on the ball you’d think Moshe had a current subscription to the New York Times.

Moshe’s message resonates with us precisely because of troubled times in which we live.

In Europe, we are witnessing an emboldened Jew-hatred at levels not seen since the 1930s. England, where Jew-hatred used to be more subtle and refined, now openly boasts “Israel-Free” cities. And here in America, Judaism is under a threat of a different kind: we are euthanizing ourselves, committing spiritual Hari Kiri.  It seems that the good-hearted American Jew will champion every cause under the sun - every cause, that is, except his own survival and self-interest.

And then we have the situation in Israel. For the last two months, the entire Jewish world was united – first in worry and angst, then grief and anguish – over the abduction and murder of our three teenaged sons and the Gaza War against Hamas which followed. But all of that was against a generalized backdrop of worry about Israel.

Israel, the first sprouting of the promised Messianic redemption, is under siege in international forums around the world. Israel has been in a state of war since 1948. The Home Front Defense Ministry estimates that Israel has some 200,000 rockets and missiles of various ranges and capabilities aimed at her.    

Then we have the Syrian crisis. The bloody and intractable Syrian civil war threatens to spill over to the Golan at any time.   

And ISIL. Having conquered large swaths of Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State threatens the stability of the Kingdom of Jordan on our eastern border.

And then there is the over-arching existential threat of a nuclear Iran.

Many of us are understandably scared and worried about these developments.

To us, Moshe conveys a message of hope and encouragement in this week’s Torah portion:

Vchi Tomar Bilvavcha/Perhaps you will say in your heart: my enemies are more numerous than me; I’m overwhelmed and worried about how we will survive their attacks. Hamas. Hezbollah. Islamic Jihad. Fatah. ISIL. Iran.

Do not fear them! (Moshe says.) Remember what Hashem did to the most powerful military machine on the planet, to Pharaoh and to all of Egypt. In the same way that Hashem miraculously delivered you from their hand; in the same way that Hashem miraculously delivered you from Og king of Bashan, and Sichon king of the Amorites; in the same way that Hashem miraculously delivered you from the Syrian Greeks; in the same way that Hashem fought for you in 1948 and in 1967, and again in 1973, against all odds and against all the prevailing wisdom; so shall Hashem your Gcd do to the people whom you now fear.

Don’t cower before them; for Hashem our Gcd is in our midst, the Great and Awesome Gcd.

OK, so maybe I paraphrased a little…

But the intent of Moshe’s words are clear. Don’t fear; to the contrary, take heart. Don’t be overwhelmed by the troubling news, for there is also much good news, and much to be grateful for.

I was blown away this week by news of a social media campaign organized by StandWithUs.com.  Individuals from all over the world have taken to writing the words I Stand With Israel on the palm of their hand and then taking a picture of their hand together with the passport of their respective country. To date, thousands of people from 136 countries Stand with Israel. (There are only 196 countries on the planet.) Even people in Pakistan and Iran sent in pictures. May Gcd bless them and strengthen them.

Wow. So don’t be afraid, take heart. Yihyeh tov – it’s going to be OK, it’s all going to work out.

Like the famous teaching of Rebbi Nachman of Breslov: Kol HaOlam Kulo Gesher Tzar Meod, VehaIkar Lo Lefached Klal.  "The whole world is a narrow bridge; but the main thing  is not to fear." We find ourselves walking a dangerous rope bridge over a gaping canyon, but the trick is not to look down. Keep moving forward and look ahead; Gcd is saying: ‘keep your eyes glued on me’ - look up to the mountain tops – as the verse in Psalms 121 famously says, whence our help will come.

The seven weeks between Tisha B’Av & Rosh Hashanah are called the shiva d’nechemta – the seven weeks of consolation. The consoling, inspiring message of this week’s parsha to us is: Don’t despair! Keep your chin up! Blessing and salvation beyond our wildest imaginings are in the offing.

May we all here today merit to see the day when Gcd’s supernal light floods the world with radiant goodness, with abundant love and with the blessings of peace.


Shabbat Shalom.