Friday, May 22, 2015

Trivial Pursuit - Reflections on Shavuot 5775

I like coffee. It is one of the few bad habits I have left (he says with tongue firmly lodged in cheek).  So you won’t be surprised to learn that every week I teach a parsha class at a local coffee house. It’s a lot of fun actually; a bunch of us drink tea or coffee and talk about the weekly Torah portion and its relevance to everyday life and current events.

Talking Torah. At Starbucks. How convenient. [smile]

Anyway, one of the people that attends these classes is a real live farmer. With an actual farm. And barnyard animals. The real McCoy. This fact never ceases to fascinate me, because let’s face it: as a group, Jews are pretty…urban.

My farmer friend was telling me about how incredibly busy he is this time of year – getting all the seeds in the ground at just the right time, animals being born, etc. And as he was sharing all of this, I had a blinding flash of insight on a curiosity of the Jewish calendar that we will experience this weekend.

I refer to Shavuot, aka Pentecost, aka the Feast of Weeks, aka the Feast of the First Fruits. It is the day we received the Torah from Gcd at Mount Sinai. And it is the second of the three annual pilgrimage festivals (along with Pesach and Sukkot) when the entire Jewish People would ascend to Jerusalem and Gcd’s Holy Mountain to commune with the A-lmighty in the Holy Temple. (And will do so again very soon, probably in our lifetimes.)

But there is a difference: Passover is a seven day holiday; Sukkot is eight. On these pilgrimages, the entire Jewish People hung out and celebrated in Jerusalem for over a week.

However Shavuot, equal to the others in import and gravity, is only a one day event. A quick in-and-out to Jerusalem, as it were. Why should that be the case? Why isn’t Shavuot a week long affair like all the other pilgrimage festivals?

Here's the insight: we were once a nation of farmers, and Shavuot falls smack in the middle of the busiest time of the agricultural year. It is as if Gcd is saying to the Jewish People, “We need to meet because I have something extremely important to give you. But I also appreciate how busy you are, so we’ll make it quick.”

Think about that: Gcd is being considerate of us. (Isn't supposed to be the other way around?) Like a doting parent, Gcd cares about what is important to us, takes note of ostensibly trivial and random details in our lives. 

In Hebrew it's called Hashgachah Pratit, Gcd's involvement and concern with the trivialities of our individual lives, guiding us towards our own highest good. 

That Shavuot is a one day holiday is a testament to hashgachah pratit. The Torah is sensitive to our needs, and the mitzvot were designed for our ultimate good. And all year long, Gcd's Knowing Hand guides our affairs in ways that always ultimately accrue to our benefit, even if we can’t understand it in the moment. 

And so often, that guidance comes through the "random event."

How many times do we do things that we think are good but turn out bad? Or we experience bad things from which good things ironically emerge? 

Or sometimes people do things to us that really hurt at the time, but turn out to have been fortuitous in hindsight. Like getting fired from a job. 

Or the opposite: you win the lottery (sounds good) and it destroys your life (just read the studies on the effect of the lottery in peoples’ lives.)

Or we experience a chance meeting with someone on a plane or a hotel lobby that proves to be...providential. Or the things we thought were really important in the moment fade in relevance, while some seemingly unimportant and random fact of your life turns out to be huge?

On Shavuot, the Torah was given to the Jews on the most unassuming, unimportant and seemingly random of mountains, Mount Sinai. The most important event in human history occurred in a place no one would have thought to look, in a no-man's land.

People who grab the headlines and constantly call attention to themselves are less likely to be the conduits of Gcd's will. But keep your eye on the quiet ones, the humble ones, the people no one pays much attention to; for it is through them that Gcd manifests His Will in the world.

Lastly, I suggest that this is another reason why we read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot. 

Ruth, the destitute outsider, is introduced to the Jewish People through a series of bad choices and unfortunate circumstances. The verse states that she "happened" to "randomly" choose Boaz's estate from which to glean barley. Thus it is through Ruth (this most unlikely of women) and under the most unlikely of circumstances that David (the most unlikely of Jesse's seven sons) becomes the Savior of Israel and the paragon of Jewish Leadership and Nobility for all generations. 

Gcd's Will is often done in places where we least expect it, in ways in which we least expect it. That is Hashgachah Pratit. That is the message of Ruth, and that is the message of the Torah to which we recommit this Shavuot. 

Your prayers will be answered, and everything will work out OK in the end...just probably not quite the way you expect it to.  "The stone the builders rejected as inferior will become my cornerstone." (Psalms 118:22)

Shabbat Shalom & Chag Same'ach.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Springtime's Bustin' Out All Over - Reflections on Sefirat HaOmer 5775

(Advance apologies to Rodgers & Hammerstein.)

Sefirah is the seven week period between Pesach and Shavuot. During part of this time in early spring, for 33 days, Jews observe a period of mild mourning. Primarily, we avoid live concerts, we put off weddings, and (if you're a guy) you grow a beard like a mourner.

The reason is to be found in the Talmud, Tractate Yevamot 62b:
It was said that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples from Gabbatha to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect...A Tanna taught: "All of them died between Passover and Shavuot". Rabbi Hama ben Abba (or it might have been Rabbi Hiyya ben Abin) said: "All of them died a cruel death." What was it? Rabbi Nahman replied: "Askarah."
In my ill-spent and dissolute youth (smile), I must confess that I just couldn't get into the mode of mourning. I mean it's springtime - springtime! The world is coming alive again! Birds are a-twitter (back when 'twitter' only meant a melodious avian articulation.) Trees are in blossom, love is in the air, everything is fresh and new and vivid and just breathtakingly beautiful. 

And every spring I am reminded of a line in Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King: “Every twenty years or so the earth renews itself in young maidens," a renewal that undoubtedly occurs, as do the crocuses, daffodils and tulips, in the spring.

So, as I say, I didn't understand. To compound my confusion, the reasoning of the Talmud was very obscure. 24,000 students? What does that even mean, for one guy to have 24,000 students? How does one teacher relate in a meaningful way to 24,000 disciples? (Even today, the Mir Yeshivah in Jerusalem, one of the largest in the world with hundreds of rabbis on staff, only has about 7,500 students.)

And what does it mean that they died because they dissed one another? We're talking about the disciples of Rabbi Akiva here, arguably one of the greatest rabbis in all of Jewish history. And they all died of a cruel death called "askarah?" And the plague magically stopped on one specific day? And why do we traditionally celebrate that day, the 33rd day of the count, with picnics and bonfires and archery?

None of it made any sense to me. How could it be that the Sages of Israel were so out of touch with the palpable, vital reality of springtime that they ordained a period of sadness and mourning? Didn't they look out the window? The incongruity of sefirah and spring was screaming at me. 

And then my wife's only brother was killed by a drunk driver. 

Michael Allen Ziegler, z"l, was killed during sefirah. He was only 24, single, in the springtime of his life. And to compound the pain, he was killed by his best friend, who walked away from the twisted wreck uninjured.

And then I began to understand.

I began to understand the futility of trying to comfort an inconsolable wife. I began to understand how the blossoming flowers that spring held no solace; indeed, in their very beauty they seemed to mock Michael's death. 

I began to understand how the beauty of spring is fleeting when weighed against the inevitability, the permanence, of death. 

The Sages, in their wisdom, were counseling temperance in enjoying the beauties of spring. 'Soak up the loveliness of spring,' they seemed to be saying, 'but don't be overcome by the seductions of youth, by fleeting beauty, no matter how immediate or palpable it may seem in the moment.'

The historical fact is that Rabbi Akiva's "students" were actually the warriors in Bar Kochba's rebellion. Like Uncle Mike, they were in the prime of their lives - youthful, idealistic and beautiful. The "cruel death" his disciples suffered was the decisive military rout by the Roman Legions in the fields of Beitar. Those brave young men died in battle, and the battle - and their lives - ended on a single day in 135 CE. Also ended was any hope of Jewish political sovereignty for the next 18 very long and dark centuries.

So that explains the archery and bonfires used to commemorate Lag B'Omer, the 33rd day of the count (which is this coming Thursday, BTW.)

But the Gemara couldn't tell the real story, could it? Not with the Roman censors looking on and the fears of reprisal against the pockets of remaining Jews. So it speaks in hints and ambiguities. 

With wiser eyes, it must be said that the loss of our national sovereignty and personal freedoms are indeed things worth mourning over.

So yeah, go sit under a tree in the park and enjoy the gifts of spring...but tuck a Pirkei Avot (Wisdom of the Sages) under one arm, too.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Mission...Possible - Reflections on Parashat Shmini 5775

I am about to ask you the scariest question in Judaism.

It's brazenness may shock you. It may come across as being irreverent - maybe even sacrilegious. 

It is the question that scares the socks off Jewish educators, because most don't have a compelling answer to the question. It is also the most important unasked question in the atherosclerotic Jewish Establishment.

The question itself is quite simple: Why...Be...Jewish? 

From the outside looking in, living a Jewish life is demanding: keeping kosher (covered in our parashah, BTW); keeping Shabbat; getting up at the crack of dawn every day for prayers; daily Torah study; giving significant sums to charity; and committing hundreds of thousands of dollars to a private Jewish education for the kiddies, when the public school around the corner is free. (And that's just for warm-ups.)

Not only that: we look around and see lots of people who were born into Jewish families who have blown all that stuff off, with no apparent ill effects. They lead pleasant enough lives; so why shouldn't I eat what I want, do what I want, whenever I want? 'Don't hassle me with your rules, I just want to be happy. Give me one good reason to stick with it.'

And goodness knows there are lots of exits, no waiting.

This is where many parents and educators get stuck. How would you answer the question?

Let me come to your rescue: the Torah in this week's parashah provides a pretty good answer. 

In it we read of the eighth day of the investiture ceremonies of Aaron and his sons as the priestly clan (in Hebrew, priest = Cohen) for all of the People of Israel. For seven days, they had been purified in body and spirit. They had intensively trained in the various forms of offerings - the sin, elevation, peace and guilt offerings - and in the many specific details regulating how each of them is to be dealt with.

Now, at the end of the training week, they are given their unique charge: they and they alone are empowered to present the offerings on Gcd's Altar. The celebrant can bring the offering as far as Gcd's doorstep, as it were, but the Cohen must take and offer it in the inner sanctum. It is through the ministrations of Aaron and his sons - Aaron being the archetypal peacemaker - that peace is restored between Gcd and his frequently wayward people.

As we read through the book of Leviticus, the Cohanim had many special duties, and as a consequence, they had many extra rules that applied only to them and not to a garden-variety Jew. But the relationship between the Jew and the Cohen was an interdependent one; without the Cohanim, the Jews could not make Temple offerings, and without communal and private offerings the Cohanim were out of business.

Brilliant. But how does all this address our question?

When we received the Torah at Mount Sinai, the entire Jewish People were called upon by Gcd to be a Kingdom of Priests and a Hallowed Nation.

A Kingdom of Priests.

We learn how priests are to behave (and not behave) by the lessons of Aaron and his sons as presented in this parashah. But what does this parallel language actually mean in the real world?

In the same way that the Cohanim ministered to Gcd on behalf of the Jewish People, the mission of the Jewish People is to minister on behalf of all the other Peoples of the world. In the same way that the Cohanim were the teachers of the Jewish People, so, too, are the Jews the light-bringers to the Nations. And in the same way that the Cohanim had specific mitzvot that were not incumbent upon other Jews, so, too, do the Jews have mitzvot that are not incumbent upon the other Peoples.

Were the Cohanim “better” than other Jews by virtue of their of their service? No. They simply have a different role to play; a different voice in the complex fugue that is the Jewish Mission. Are Jews intrinsically “better" human beings than other people? We are not. But we have a different role to play; a role that requires the careful and enthusiastic observance of the Torah's 613 mitzvot. 

The Jewish Mission is to agitate for a world where all people come to recognize that all good emanates from Gcd/Hashem, Creator of heaven and earth, the Eternal One, Gcd of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the One who wants for us only good. It is to sensitize people to the idea that the natural state of the human soul, the spark of the Divine, is to connect with its Source and be at peace with it.

The Jewish Mission is to unite mankind in the recognition that the One True Compassionate Gcd created us all, Who loves us all, has assigned each to one of us a specific task in the great and holy work - our common goal - of perfecting the world together. It is a clarion call to genuine goodness and compassion; it is the shofar's penetrating call to the heart that melts the layers of cynicism and pain. It is a call to truth and to service and to love; a call to reflection and to self-improvement and to humility.

The Jewish Mission proclaims the inclusive, universal message that Gcd loves us all and welcomes all good people in heaven irrespective of race, creed, or color. (This is in strong contrast to faith systems that threaten eternal damnation for non-believers.)

The very survival of this sliver of a people, the Jews, the nation that bears His name within its own, is tangible proof that Gcd exists. 

And Gcd apportioned the land of Israel to the people of Israel. The return of the Jews to this mere sliver of a land, our ancestral homeland Israel, in fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, proves that He keeps His word, and that His Torah is true. The Torah is our deed.

We must answer "Why Be Jewish" by speaking of mission, of a life of purpose, a life of destiny; if we can ignite the fire of youthful passion in the dissemination of all that is holy and good, of priesthood and of leadership, then it is virtually assured that our children and our children’s children will remain faithful to Judaism for all time. 

How do we light that fire in them? By rekindling it in ourselves first.

We must shatter our own apathy and complacency; we must perform our mitzvot with passion and dedication, and strive to perceive the mission behind the mitzvah. We must read the words of the Siddur, the daily prayerbook, as if reading them for the very first time, every time, pregnant with impact and layered in meaning. 

Lastly, we must take a stand in the culture wars, and be the voice of Truth in a world of lies and falsehood. Wake up brothers and sisters! Why do we yet sleep? The world burns around us and we dither.

To rise to our calling as the Kingdom of Priests is to live for a far higher purpose than the craven pursuit of a comfortable life; of self-gratification and the next buzz. To be Jewish is nothing less than to have hand in, and to make a signal contribution to, the salvation of the world.

And that is an answer worthy of the question.

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Redeeming Ourselves - Reflections on Passover 5775

There is an oft-quoted Zohar which states that Hashem redeemed the Jewish People from the Egyptian bondage prematurely because we had sunken to the 49th level of tumah; had the Jews sunken one more level, to the 50th and final level, we would have been irredeemable. So Gcd hastened the Redemption in order that the Children of Israel not be lost to history forever.

In thinking about this the other day, my very perspicacious daughter Elisheva asked me, "Abba, why did Hashem wait until the last possible moment to save us? What was He waiting for?

It's a splendid question, don't you think? (And yes, I'm braggin' on my brilliant kid.)

As I have written ELSEWHERE, Taharah/Tumah represents the spectrum between the Source of Life and the utter absence of life, and that it is a part of the human condition to cycle between these poles. The 50th degree of tumah mentioned in the Zohar represents death itself. 

But not just physical death, the quantifiable absence of heartbeat or brain waves. Death in this context can be defined more broadly as the state in which we are no longer able to exert any power and influence in the world. 

In this sense, poverty is akin to death, because the poor do not have the means to affect the world in which they live. Thus says the verse: "Precious in the Eyes of the Lcrd is the death of His chasidim, His dear ones." (Psalms 116:15) Not martyrdom, but poverty. "The A-lmighty looked at every attribute and could find none better for Israel than poverty." (Chagigah 9B) Why? Because in their sorrows, the poor look constantly Heavenward. 

For the same reason, victimhood is death, because victims are objects, not subjects, in their own world. Victims are unable to make any mark or impact on their world; they are but one small step from being literally dead.

The ultimate poor person, the ultimate victim, is the slave. Slaves must focus entirely on imperatives of mere survival; there can be no attention paid to the higher, spiritual callings of life. 

Hashem had to redeem us from Egypt because we were utterly incapable of redeeming ourselves. We were victims, not actors, in the grand drama of our own lives.

I will tell you that many people fill their lives with the "have-to's:" the grocery shopping, the dry cleaners, music lessons for the kids, dropping the car off at the shop, errands, here, errands there - the nuts and bolts of mere survival. The day ends in exhaustion, and what have we truly accomplished? We have made no lasting impact in the world. In 100 years, in 1000 years, no one will remember the salon appointment or the business lunch. When all the dust settles, we have expended ourselves on the hamster wheel of today, for no other purpose than to jump back on the hamster wheel tomorrow.

For many, any residual effort and energy after the "have-tos" is devoted to personal pleasures and recreation. But like the slave in Egypt-land, there is scant little time left for the higher, spiritual callings of life. We are, in a sense, trapped as victims of our own lives, where life molds us, instead of us molding our lives.

We work hard for five so we can play hard for two. What a bleak existence! No wonder people do drugs and alcohol.

But there is a higher Geulah (redemption): V'alu moshi'im behar Tzion..."And the Saviors shall rise from Mount Zion to judge Mount Seir..." (Ovadiah 1:21) Saviors? In the plural? Our Sages understand this verse to mean that the ultimate redemption will come about in one of two ways: the Redemption of Pesach, which was the redemption of the victim, of the aino zochim, a violent, bloody redemption requiring miraculous, Divine intervention; or the Redemption of Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur - the redemption of Teshuvah, the redemption of the Zochim, the bloodless redemption of the worthy.

To answer Elisheva's question: why did Hashem wait until the last possible moment to save us? What was He waiting for? 

Perhaps He was waiting for us to redeem ourselves. 

The Higher Redemption is when we don't behave like victims; when we are proactive in influencing the world around us. That is why matzah has two identities: the bread of poverty/helplessness/affliction and the Bread of Freedom & Redemption. And that is why the Talmud in Tractate Megillah says that, in the Messianic Era, all the Jewish holidays will be abolished save for Purim - because on Purim, we saved ourselves. To be sure, we understood Gcd's Hand in human affairs, but the great salvation arose, not through supernatural miracles, but rather via hidden miracles worked through the agency of great heroes: Esther, Mordechai, and those who took up arms to defend themselves against the enemy. We were actors, not victims; men, not mice.

Gcd was waiting for us to redeem ourselves, and I think He awaits us yet. Based on the actions of Jacob in parashat VaYetze, one of the enduring lessons of Torah is that when we do everything in our power, Gcd takes care of the rest. 
"...the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no (human) could have dreamed would come his way." -Goethe
Listen to Goethe. Commit yourself. Look at the world around you. Use the prism of Torah to understand the rapidly-changing events in the world we inhabit. Trust your intuition;  cultivate the soul-voice that speaks Truth to guide you. You'll know what to do. 

This Pesach, let's not wait to be redeemed. Let's redeem ourselves.

Chag Sameach.

Friday, March 27, 2015

We Didn't Start the Fire - Reflections on Parashat Tzav 5775

OK, all you pyromaniacs out there, this week's parashah is for you. 

Part of the priestly charge was to ensure a sufficient supply of wood for the altar at all times, so that the pyre would burn brightly, day and night, and never be allowed to go out. In fact, the original fire stayed lit for 889 years, from the time of Moses to the reign of the evil king Menasseh at the end of the First Temple period. Interesting historical factoid.

We are also taught that when an offering was placed upon the altar, a heavenly fire descended, lightning-bolt style, to consume the offering in its entirety, indicating Divine favor with the offering.

So...if the offering was consumed by the heavenly fire from above, what was the big deal about keeping the fire lit from below? 

The Ba'al HaTurim helps us out. He points out that the Torah itself is likened to fire, and brings several verses to prove it. 

So let's think that simile through. 

Any idea is but an abstraction, every desire like a flickering flame. Both are ethereal. How is Torah like fire? It reflects Hashem's desire with regard to how we are to conduct our lives, how to treat one another, and the proper ways serve Him. So in that sense, Torah is a tzimtzum - an embodiment, a coalescence - of Gcd's will for mankind. That's what the Talmud means when it says that the "Torah" existed before Hashem created the universe - Gcd's will pre-dates the created universe.

Who got to light the first fire on the altar? Actually, the Divine lightning bolt lit the wood the very first time, during the week-long investiture of Aaron and his sons, as recorded in our parashah. Similarly does Torah, as Hashem's manifest will, come from on high to bring enlightenment to mankind.

But guess what? That fire doesn't stay lit by itself. It takes nurturing, attention and care by the flame keepers. 

We Jews didn't start the fire, but we have the holy charge of keeping Gcd's light burning brightly in this (otherwise) very dark world.

From Haman to the Hellenes to the Romans to the Crusaders to the English expulsion to the Spanish expulsion to Chmielnicki to Kishinev to Hevron to the Grand Mufti to Hitler to Nasser to Arafat to Abu Mazen to Maalot to Mercaz HaRav to Hamas to Hezbollah to Khameni to BDS - they have all done their level best to extinguish that meddlesome Jewish flame.

Occasionally we stare down the rage and the hate. But mostly, we just shrug our shoulders and keep on keeping on. 

Studying Torah. Teaching it to our children. Donning tefillin. Doing unrequited acts of kindness. Pouring our hearts out to Gcd in prayer. Creating new medicines and wonder technologies. Refining our thoughts and behaviors. Sharing a hug or a smile or a kind word. Building another Jewish home in Israel. And another. And another.

Tough work, but somebody has to do it.

The question is: what are you going to do today to nurture the flame?

May all who read this merit to see the Gcd's Supernal Light illuminate Israel; and through us, illuminate and elevate all of mankind, speedily in our days, amen.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Don't Touch That Dial! - Reflections on Parashat Mishpatim 5775

(For an earlier blog post on Mishpatim, click HERE.)

Up till now, the Torah's narrative has been intense, dramatic, emotional: the Creation of the Universe, the Great Flood, the lives of the Patriarchs, the vicious enslavement of Joseph and his meteoric rise to Viceroy of Egypt, slavery and the Ten Plagues, the Parting of the Sea, the Revelation at SInai. Woof! What a ride! It's the kind of heady stuff that captures your imagination and keeps you glued to your seat.

But in Parashat Mishpatim, the Torah abruptly changes gears and deals with dry matters of law. Damages. Torts. Booooring!! Where's the passion? Where's the plot? Where's the conflict? So (true confessions) Mishpatim is where many people sort of...tune out, eyes glazing over. Ready to turn the dial to another channel. 

Consider the first case in our Parasha, the laws of owning a Jewish slave. We moderns shake our heads at these laws. Slavery? The entire civilized world has condemned slavery. A thing of the past, you'll tell me. Barbaric. How can these laws possibly have anything to say to modernity? Moving on.

But hold on to your hats: I'm about to argue that the Jewish laws of slavery are directly and immediately relevant and applicable to our lives, so don't touch that dial quite yet.

It is true that de jure slavery - the institution that permitted a human being to be the property of, and wholly subject to, another - has thankfully passed from this earth, or at least from open view. But there are other, less egregious, forms of slavery. Political slavery, for example. Or economic slavery.

A person working three part-time jobs just to make ends meet, because employers can no longer afford the onerous payroll burden of carrying full-timers - that person is a de facto slave. Part-time employees, in whom only a bare minimum of training or skill development is invested, who are treated as disposable - those people are economic slaves. An employee who can't speak freely for fear of being fired is a slave. 

The working poor are America's most vulnerable underclass, no different than coal miners or piece workers in the needle trades a century ago. (Right now, you are probably wearing clothes make by someone in a third-world country working for about a dollar a day.) And like the slaves of yore, today's workers are grateful for the few crumbs they are thrown, because they are all too aware that many have even less.

The threat of job loss is a form of slavery through economic intimidation, because you are wholly subject to the whims of another human being. Being economically dependent on another is a form of slavery, because your personal autonomy has been effectively stripped from you. "Work or starve" is not a meaningful choice.

Now I'm not going all Che Guevara on you, I'm simply trying to disabuse you of the notion that slavery doesn't exist in the United States of America today. 

And it was to this kind of slavery which Rav Avraham Isaac HaCohen Kook was referring when he said that slavery is part of the human condition. 

Whether we like it or not, slavery exists, and since it exists, the Torah deals with it, insisting that it be humane, limited, regulated; that the slave be given rights under the law; that his servitude is a form of indenture for which he is entitled to compensation. The Torah's conception of limited slavery was a method of economic rehabilitation through which the servant could learn a trade at the side of his master, and upon his emancipation in six years (or less), be self-supporting. 

And how could a Jew become a slave to another Jew anyway? In only one of two ways: either, due to his desperate circumstances, by offering himself into servitude in exchange for room and board, or else a thief who cannot make restitution is sold to his victim to repay his debt through labor. A thief, who stole out of dire necessity. Do you see any passion here? The conflict behind the law? 

The verse later states, "And when you lend money to My people, the poor in your midst, don't constantly dun them for payment..." (Shmot/Exodus 22:24) Rashi states that "Gcd's people" are defined by the next phrase: the poor, the oppressed, the widow, the orphan, the disadvantaged. "Gcd is close to the brokenhearted, and those who have had their spirits crushed, He saves." (Psalms 34) "The outcry of the poor You surely hear; the moans of the indigent You pay close attention to, and save them."

The grand, unifying theme throughout all the 53 laws laid down in our Parasha is how we, as individuals, must treat the poor. We dare not avert our eyes to their plight, or leave it to others to deal with it. Not to be treated as pitiable charity cases, but whenever possible, helping them grow out of slavery and into more productive, more enriching, more ennobling work.

That is why the Parasha opens with a case deliberately designed to shock us out of our complacency: a person so desperate, he is willing to ransom his very liberty for a mere crust of bread. 

It's easy to profess love of Gcd, to declare from the mountaintops your belief in the Ten Commandments which immediately precede our verses. But if you truly wish to "Seek out Gcd where He is to be found," Parashat Mishpatim gives you a pretty strong hint where to look. 

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

A Horse Named Shabbat - Reflections on Parashat Yitro 5775

(To view earlier blog posts on this parasha, click HERE and HERE.)

The story is told about a very special horse named Wildfire (my apologies in advance to Michael Martin Murphey). Wildfire had won the Triple Crown, and almost every other race in which he had ever competed. Wildfire was in the prime of his career, and the talk of the sports world; the kind of horse with a storied history that only comes around once a century. Understandably, Wildfire was worth untold millions of dollars.

But Wildfire loved to run and needed lots of space. So Wildfire's owner built a huge enclosure just for him, a broad, treeless field, 39 miles around the perimeter. And every day, that rancher would spend hours inspecting that perimeter, never taking his careful eye off that fence. He would be out there at first light, rain or shine, snow or blistering sun, scrutinizing fence posts, cross bars, wires, barbs, fasteners - he would stop and repair even the smallest breach right there on the spot with an expertise born of long experience. After all, even one small break and Wildfire, the culmination of his life's work, his multi-million dollar investment, could be gone forever. 

The neighbor boy, a clever ten year old, had been watching this strange fence ritual for many months with growing curiosity. On day, that bright young feller and the rancher happened past each other on the path. The boy said, "Mister, you must sure love that fence."

The rancher thought about that for a second and burst out laughing.

This week's parasha describes in vivid detail the Ten Commandments, or more accurately rendered from the Hebrew, the Ten Utterances. For these were the Ten Categories of Torah Law, spoken by Gcd Himself to the Jewish People, as they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai in the presence of Almighty Gcd.

Number Four is about Shabbat, the Sabbath Day:
Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it distinct/separate/holy. For six days you should work and engage in all manner of creative endeavor; but the Seventh Day is Sabbath to the Lcrd Your Gcd: do not do any creative work - you, or your son or daughter, your manservant or maidservant, your animals or even the resident alien who dwells in your gates. For in six days did Gcd create the heavens, the earth, the seas and all that dwell therein; and He Himself rested on the Seventh Day; therefore, Gcd blessed the Seventh Day and made it holy. (Shemot/Exodus 20:8 - 11)
Shabbat is a big deal in Judaism. Shabbat is our frame of reference in all things: either we are savoring the lingering essence of the Shabbat that just was, or we are anticipating the Shabbat that approaches. It is our guiding light; the brightest star in the Jewish constellation.

But the specifics of how to do Shabbat right, with all the attendant "do's" and "don'ts" in Gcd's Book, can be quite detailed, and take up a significant hunk in Jewish Lawbooks. And understandably, many people not schooled in Shabbat observance from an early age are intimidated and overwhelmed by its minutiae. Like the little boy, people tend to focus on the fence and lose sight of what it protects.

So what is inside the fence exactly? What is this horse called Shabbat? Is it merely a day off from the J-O-B? A day of leisure? recreation?

Although I have never seen it framed in quite this way, in my view Shabbat has five key components:

1. Communion with Gcd: Six days a week, we assemble for daily prayers for a few minutes before and after work. However, we are mere mortals, and the reality is that many of us are often only half awake, rushed, harried, distracted.  As we mumble the proscribed prayers, we worry about catching the 7:37 or traffic or the big meeting or the shopping list or the car repair.

Comes the Shabbat! and all the "have-tos" are put on ice. We can focus on our prayers without the distractions of the work week. Indeed, we add extra psalms to our Shabbat devotions because we have the luxury of time to revel in the poetry and timelessness of the liturgy.

2. Torah Study: Six days a week, we struggle to spend sufficient time drinking from the vivifying waters of Torah. Comes the Shabbat! and we have the luxury to spend extra time learning Torah in depth, studying with our kids, sharing our insights with our families, and in turn, turning them on to the beauty of Torah study.

3. Family: Six days a week, the brushfires of our lives deny us the time with those most precious to us. Comes the Shabbat! and we gather about the sparkling table dressed in our finest clothes, enjoy long, lovely meals together, singing songs, telling stories - but mostly, enjoying each other's company; saying, in effect, that there's no place in the world I'd rather be than spending time with you. 

4. Physical rest: Shabbat is indeed a day of rest. Six days a week we burn the candle at both ends, but comes the Shabbat! and we can sleep in a little, or grab a little afternoon kip as one of the delicious joys of the day.

5. Introspection: Shabbat provides a regular opportunity to reflect on the week that was, on the week that lies before us, and the general path of our lives. Shabbat encourages us to take stock, to make sure that are lives are headed in a meaningful direction, and provides the context for the course corrections we may need in coming week.

These five elements of Shabbat can't be achieved at the movies or on the golf course or playing video games. And I suggest that true Shabbat observance is not in the punctilious performance of the minutiae; the particulars must of course be observed, but with a constant eye on what they are intended to protect. There's no way around it: without careful maintenance of the fence, the horse - that ethereal, delicate, precious Spirit of Shabbat - is sure to escape. 

There is also little doubt that the devotion of the Jewish People to Shabbat observance has been one of the defining factors in our miraculous, 4,000 year old survival story. Jews can no more survive without Shabbat than a fish without water. And Shabbat observers will tell you that the sublime, restorative spiritual high of Shabbat cannot be shared or described, it can only be experienced. 

Yet today, as in many generations past, well-meaning but misguided thinkers have attempted to construct a fence-less Shabbat, more suitable, they argue, to modernity. Predictably, all they have accomplished is the destruction of the greatest Jewish diaspora since the Golden Age of Spain. For the vast majority of American Jews, Shabbat is but a dim memory.

The only way to be a part of the Jewish future is to 'Remember the Shabbat and keep it holy.'

So if you're not a regular Shabbat observer, what to do? where to start? First of all, take a deep breath, don't be overwhelmed, don't be intimidated by supposed "experts", those who are three pages ahead of you in some method book. 

Begin by making the commitment to keep Shabbat, and start integrating Shabbat into your life gradually, in doable doses. It takes a little time, but once you get the hang of it, it's not that hard; any ten year old with twenty years of experience can do it.

Here are a few suggestions:

- Go to and register to be hosted for a Shabbat meal;
- Call your local rabbi and arrange for an invite or ask for a reading list;
- Drop in to shul on a Shabbat morning;
- Start lighting Shabbat candles on Friday before sunset;
- Contact me directly and I will help get you started on the path to Shabbat observance.

Shabbat Shalom - may you truly experience the transcendent peace and tranquility of the Holy Sabbath Day.