Friday, June 28, 2013

Parshat Pinchas

Pinchas: Loving God, too much of a good thing?
            I can remember clearly, one Friday afternoon a few years ago, as I was in the sanctuary of the synagogue practicing my sermon for the upcoming shabbos, a man walked in looking for the rabbi.  It’s not so uncommon for people from all different backgrounds and faiths to walk into Sherith Israel looking for help.  This was one of the more interesting parts of being the assistant Rabbi there for 2 years.  The man seemed excited or agitated, and since I was the only Rabbi around at the time, I sat and talked to him.   The beginning of our conversation jumped all over the place, at first I didn’t know where he was going; he spoke to me about how wonderful he thinks the Jewish people are, and how much respect he has for the children of God, but eventually it became clear that he was working his way up to telling me about certain passages in, what he refers to as the old testament, which maybe I wasn’t aware of, that proved that his candidate for the Messiah was the real one.  He didn’t work for any missionary organizations or anything like that, It was very clear that what motivated him to walk into the local synagogue was an extreme love for his religious beliefs.  He was truly concerned that I was missing out, he couldn’t help himself.  He was overcome with an absolute feeling of certainty and love, he needed to share it, but he was oblivious to the disrespect he was showing my beliefs and way of thinking. 
            In Judaism, nothing is black and white.  Zealotry has its place as we see in the namesake of this week’s Parsha, Pinchas..  But throughout the corpus of Jewish literature and ideas, the topic of Zealotry is broached with great caution.  Extreme zeal is not something to emulate. 
            There is a midrash that says Pinchas is Eliyahu.  The man in last week’s Parsha who took the law into his own hands and slew a prince of Israel and Midianite princess for their immorality and idol worship is the prophet who defeated and slew the prophets of Ba’al after the famous showdown on Mt. Carmel.  This is quite shocking because these two biblical characters lived hundreds of years apart.  What causes our sages to make such a startling claim?  The early 16th century Italian scholar known as the Seforno quotes an earlier translation and commentary which explains how Pinchas and Eliyahu are literally the same person.  Seforno puts forth the idea that the Torah brit shalom, covenant of peace, Given to Pinchas by God as reward for his act of zealotry is a gift of immortality.  But others are uncomfortable with the literal interpretation of the Midrash.  They understand the Midrash as teaching us about a symbolic parallel between the personalities of Pinchas and Eliyahu.  Both Pinchas and Eliyahu were zealots, and they both committed egregious sins in the service of God.  In their defense of God and Judaism, both Pinchas and Eliyahu violated commandments which would normally make them liable to receive the death penalty according to Jewish law. 
            Killing Zimri was not a clear cut case of right and wrong.  Our sages are clearly uncomfortable with Pinchas’ actions as they teach us in Masechet Sanhedrin that had Zimri, the victim, turned around and killed Pinchas first in self defense, he would be innocent of any crime; that had Pinchas killed him at any moment other than the exact moment that he was involved in the sin, Pinchas would be a murderer; and that if Pinchas had asked permission from a beit din, he would have been denied. In the end, God tells us that Pinchas was right in doing what he did, but we needed God to tell us that, it wasn’t obvious.  Eliyahu, in his showdown with the prophets of Ba’al on the mountaintop, built his own altar and brought a sacrifice on it.  During this period of time, it was categorically forbidden for a Jewish person to build a private altar and bring a sacrifice on it.Despite the fact that both Eliyahu and Pinchas are considered religious heroes, they were heroes in times of need, but not role models.
            The evidence for this is although Pinchas was given a brit shalom, he would never be a normal cohen.  As a result of his violence, he would never be permitted to participate in the usual Priestly duties of the tabernacle.  To be valid for the Priestly service, a person must never have shed blood, regardless of whether the circumstances were accidental or if the violence was justified. 
Pinchas acted on God’s behalf, ending a plague of idolatry amongst the Jewish people in the desert, but the manner in which he did it led him to lose his Job.  Similarly, Eliyahu’s theatrical showdown with the priests of Ba’al may have been successful in stamping out the rampant idolatry of the time, but in doing so he violated a commandment not to bring sacrifices on an altar outside of the Temple.  Shortly following this incident Eliyahu is instructed by God to command his disciple to continue his work after him and he is whisked away to heaven in a fiery chariot.  Eliyahu did a great service for God, but shortly after he also lost his job. 
            What motivated Pinchas and Eliyahu, what led them to violate commandments in the name of Heaven?  It was their love of and devotion to God.  In our Parsha, God describes the actions and motivation of Pinchas using the words בקנאו את קנאתי בתוכם, while he was zealous for my sake.  The same language is used by Eliyahu in the way he describes his own motivations.  Eliyahu says, קנא קנאתי לה, I am very zealous for God.  Their love was of a clear and absolute truth; to them it was so black and white that when they saw something wrong, they acted.  Their actions were the extreme manifestation of this certainty.  We can see a similar experience to a lesser extent in aspects of our own lives. 
            We all have moments when we feel something powerful; something we know to be right.  It’s hard to control ourselves when we are overcome with this feeling.  We are so excited that we want to scream from the rooftops and let everyone know!  To a much lesser extent, but still the same drive, when we discover an amazing tv show, movie, or book, most of us can’t help but at least recommend them to all of our friends and family or even try to force them to enjoy the same thing we did.  We want to share the beauty that we find.  Though these things are trivial matters, we often have a hard time listening to someone talk negatively about one of these things that we have enjoyed. 
            If this is true with our favorite pastimes, think about how much more true it is with regard to decisions about our lifestyles and our religious practices.  When it comes to the matters of deep seated belief, this need to share can sometimes be at best, offensive, and at worst, rather dangerous.  There are manifestations of other religions who happily adopt this need to share, to spread the good word.  But many times in history it has led to great crimes and violence against the Jewish people as well as many others.  With our own religion, although Pinchas and Eliyahu are the rare examples of when this type of behavior was justified, there are some dark, little known, periods in Jewish history when Jewish armies were converting people by the sword.  It is human nature to feel the certainty of our convictions and act upon them, but doing so in a way that causes harm to other people or violates the Torah is not the Jewish way.
            Judaism treads very lightly with regard to the way in which we influence others and show them truth.  A Mishna in Masechet Eduyoth records certain arguments of Hillel and Shamai.  We often hear about the schools of Hillel and Shamai having famous disputes.  But the arguments listed in this Mishna are different, they are the ones where they initially disagreed on the interpretation of a law, but in the end one of the great sages changed his mind and adopted the law according to the other.  The Mishna asks, if in the end they agreed on the interpretation of the law, why bother recording that they once disagreed.  The Mishna responds it is to teach us that even our greatest fathers were never so confident and certain in their own words that they were unable to see the truth of another approach.
            The real lesson here is to be humble.  No one is always right, our greatest sages were willing and able to face the possibility that they might be wrong, and it led them to be able to respect and see truth in opposing perspectives.  To go through life allowing for the possibility of being wrong requires great humility, but it is the model that our tradition wants us to learn from and emulate.  Zeal, on the other hand, is the negation of this humility.  It leads us to act, or more often than not, react with absolute confidence in ourselves and devalue the perspective of other people.  It is hard to really make a positive impact on another person when everything we do shows a lack of respect of who they are and where they are coming from. 
It is difficult shame someone into truly agreeing with you, it is rare to successfully convince someone of anything by beating them up. 
            How do we make a lasting positive impression on another human being?  Our tradition uses Aaron as the archetype of this character trait.  The Mishna in Pirkei Avot teaches, “Hillel would say, be of the disciples of Aaron - a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace, one who loves all creations and draws them close to Torah.” First you have to love and respect people before you can bring them close to your way of thinking.  In the midrashic work, Avot d’Rebbe Natan, we are shown more clearly how Aaron would achieve his lasting impact on others.  It says, “If Aaron would see someone acting improperly, he would not go over and rebuke or criticize the fellow directly. He would rather *befriend* him, pretending not to be aware of his faults. The person would eventually grow ashamed and think to themselves: "Aaron is such an amazing person and role model and he wants to be my friend.  What would my friend Aaron think if he knew I acted this way? How can I act in a way that is more deserving of his friendship?" Sooner or later the person would repent his or her ways.
            This lesson goes further back; in fact God teaches us something very similar in something he says to Eliyahu.  Following the showdown on Mt. Carmel where Eliyahu successfully defeats the prophets of Ba’al, he runs from the evil Queen Jezebel.  While on the run he is led by an angel of God to a cave in the wilderness.  While he’s in the cave, God comes to him and says, “What are you doing here Eliyahu?”  This question isn’t just, what are you doing in the cave?  God knows what he’s doing in the cave, he led him there.  God is asking Elijah an existential question; what are you doing here on Earth?  What is your purpose?  What drives you?  It is at this point that Eliyahu says, “I have been very Zealous, קנא קנאתי for you God.  The children of Israel have forsaken your covenant, killed your prophets, I’m the only one left who sees the truth and they are after me.”
            God tells Eliyahu to go out and stand on the mountain, and God will pass by him.  Immediately a strong wind which tore the mountians and broke apart rocks passed by Eliyahu, This was followed by an earthquake, then a great fire.  After each of these cataclysmic events, the text reminds us that God is not in these awe inspiring displays of force.  In the end God was in a קול דממה דקה, a small still voice which followed all the noise. 
            It is human nature to beat our chest and to try to get our way by use of force.  Godliness is more subtle.  Aaron got it, he embodied this behavior, which is why he is the partriarch of the Priest caste in Judaism.  The role of the priests, is to enrich and deepen the people’s relationship with God.  It has to be done in a Godly way.  This is symbolized in the law that a priest who has shed blood is disqualified from being able to serve in the temple.  Violence, even when it happens by accident or with perfect justification, still has an impact on the person who did it. In our lives, violence, whether it is the physical kind or the emotional kind - as an attempt to force our will on others - is rarely effective, it harms us in the process and it should only be used as a last resort in times of great need. 
            Pinchas did not act priestly, what he did may have been necessary, but as a result he would never participate in the Priestly rituals.  God protected him from the people in Israel who wanted to harm him for his actions by telling us in our Parsha that he is protected by a brit shalom, covenant of peace.  The covenant of peace is very fitting; the following verse tells us that it was for him and for his offspring after him.  Meaning, for the future Pinchas life should be about peace, his offspring shouldn’t learn from and emulate his violent behavior.  Pinchas, we are told, often accompanied the Israelites into battle.  Because in the macho lead up to war and in the heat of battle men often lose some of their humanity, Pinchas was a safeguard to remind them that our ways are of peace and pleasantness, we don’t put violence on a pedestal, in war sometimes violence is necesary, but it is only a necessary evil.  Pinchas learnt his lesson.
            After hearing the small still voice which is symbolic of God, Eliyahu was again asked the same question that he was asked before, what are you doing here Eliyahu?  Word for word, Eliyahu says the same thing he answered before, קנא קנאתי, I am zealous for you.  Immediately following this, he is commanded to anoint his successor and that is almost the last we hear about Eliyahu for the rest of the book of kings until he is taken away on a fiery chariot.  It doesn’t seem like Eliyahu got the point.  His way of doing things, fire and brimstone has a very limiting effect and it is usually not God’s ways.
            The Torah describes the Jewish people as a Mamlechet Kohanim, a kingdom of priests.  To deserve this title, we need to act like the model priest, Aaron.  Who, first and foremost loved humanity and peace. So often we are tested in this regard.  We are faced with people close to us and just in passing who live vastly different lives than us and make extemely different choices than we would make or approve of.  Or world events challenge our sense of right and wrong, there are extremely divided opinions out there, and I’m sure in here, on issues varying from Peace in the Middle East, abortion, or the ethics of same sex civil marriage.  To be students of Aaron we need to disagree on all matters in a way that is not disagreeable. 
            During this time period between the fasts of שבעה עשר בתמוז and תשע באב, we are called upon to fix the sins which led to the spiritual decay and subsequent destruction of the Temple, the sin of hatred of one another.  We learn to hate when we demonize the things we are uncomfortable with and disagree with.  May we all be blessed to live like Aaron to love and pursue peace by being lovers of humanity. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

Parshat Balak: Making the right choices.

God says to Moshe: don’t cook a kid in its mother’s milk.  Moshe responds: Ohhhhhh! So you are saying we should never eat milk and meat together.   God says: No, what I said was, never cook a calf in its mother's milk.  Moshe responds: Oh, Lord forgive my ignorance, What you are really saying is we should wait six hours after eating meat to eat milk.  God responds: No, what I'm saying is, don't cook a calf in its mother's milk!!!   Moshe says: Ok I get it, what you mean is we should have a separate set of dishes for milk and a separate set for meat .  God says: Oy! Moshe, do whatever you want....
            It’s funny, but this joke almost parallels a back and forth between Balaam and God from this week’s Parsha.  The Parsha begins with King Balak of the nation Moab observing the oncoming Jewish nation and fearing them.  Balak sends messages to the local magician and prophet, Balaam, asking Balaam to use his sorcery to curse the Jewish nation in the hopes that this would grant him some protection.    
            Balak’s messengers beseech Balaam and offer him ample reward for coming with them to curse the Jews.  Balaam says to them, “let me sleep on it and I’ll tell you if God will allow me to go or not.”  That night, God comes to Balaam and says, “Don’t go with these Moabite messengers to curse the Jewish people, because they, as a nation, are blessed.  In the morning, Balaam sends the messengers away. 
            But Balak persists, and he sends Balaam more messengers of higher stature with larger bribes to entice him.  Balaam tells them that it just won’t work no matter how much they pay him.  Nevertheless, despite already being commanded by God not to go, he tells the messengers to stay with him for the night and they will see if God will speak to him again on this matter.  And that night, God came to him and said, "If these people have come to call on you, you can go with them, but you may only speak the words that I will tell you."Early the next morning, immediately upon arising, Balaam gets up to go with these messengers and the Torah tells us that God is angry at Balaam for going.
            First God says no, then it seems like God gives permission, and then God is angry at Balaam for going.  At first glance this is all seems very strange, but if we look deeper, we will see that we are not so different than Balaam was in this situation.  Clearly Balaam wanted to curse the Jews.  The only thing holding him back at first was the word of God.    But, Balaam kept asking and eventually, he got an answer which led him to believe that God was on board with his plan. 
            Our sages are disturbed by the inconsistencies they perceived in God's behavior.  They draw from this episode a life lesson, in tractate Makkos (10b) the Talmud says, "A person is guided down the path that he or she chooses," citing this incident as a proof-text.  The Talmud uses this as an example of free will, and it even seems to suggest God's tacit permission or even assistance for the choices we make, whether those choices are good or bad.  Therefore, it is strange that God was angry with Balaam for going with the messengers. 
            If God guides us down the path that we choose, and in the case of Balaam, God even seems to give permission for him to go, then why is God angry at him for his decision to go?  This inconsistency in the text is something which Bible commentators have struggled with for generations.  In his book, Meshech chochma, the late 19th-early20th century sage, Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk describes the difference between the two conflicting messages that Balaam received from God. He explains, that the first message from God was very clear, "don't go."  While the second prophecy he received from God was much more convoluted:  "If these people have come to see you...then you can go...but only say what I tell you to."  When choosing between something clear and something less clear, Rabbi Meir Simcha tells us, a rational person should always prefer clarity.  Yet Balaam chose to ignore the earlier, clear, message of God not to go, in favor of the more convoluted message which supported his own desires.  It is for this reason that God is angry at him.
            Balaam is considered to be one of the wisest people and greatest prophets to ever live, he wasn't an irrational person.  So what led him to prefer the unclear and begrudging permission of God over the explicit command, not to go?I would like to suggest that it is at this point that the lesson of the sages from makkot takes becomes more significant for us.  The statement, "A person is guided down the path that he or she chooses," is not a description of the nature of God; it is not saying that God is the one who guides us down the path we choose.  Rather, it is a description of human nature.  Our minds have an extremely powerful ability to lead us down any path that we choose; we can convince ourselves of anything, regardless of what evidence is available to the contrary.
            Psychologists often refer to this phenomenon as confirmation bias, which is a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs.  People display this bias in the way they subconsciously gather and remember information selectively, or when they interpret information in a biased way. Think of it as a scientific term for selective hearing.  The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.  Which means, that the more we want to need to see something a certain way, the more likely it is that we will find reasons to support our belief.  Confirmation bias manifests itself in every aspect of life. 
            Our brains have the spectacular ability to convince ourselves that we’re right.  Did you ever wonder how there could be so many scientists, both religious and atheist, whose understanding of science either confirms their own faith that there is or isn’t a God?  How can the same facts prove opposing point of views?  The answer is that all people interpret the world around them to support their own points of view.  This is what happened with Balaam.  He so badly wanted to hear that he could go, that he placed more significance in God’s reluctant and limited permission, than in the earlier explicit command not to go.  
            We all do it. We do it to support our religious beliefs, our political opinions, and most importantly in our arguments with our friends and relatives.  Just to give a silly but true example.  Sometimes, our son Yonah, who’s almost 3, will ask to play outside when it's raining. I’ll say, "Yonah you can’t go outside, it’s raining."  And Yonah will respond with conviction, “No, it’s not raining.”  This is an extreme example, but I’m sure each and every one of us can think of someone that we’ve spoken to, or have had a heated discussion with, where we just can’t understand how this normally rational person can be so irrational.  And you know what?  The other person was most likely thinking the same thing about you. 
            It is a unique person who can always see both sides of any argument; it takes a special gift to be able to consistently overcome our need to be right.  Most of the time, it doesn't really impact us in a negative way.  We disagree with someone, but we don't let it bother us, we go through our day secure in the knowledge that we're right.  Or we make a significant decision without a second thought, comfortable in the wisdom of that choice. But the greater the emotional investment, the more this effect comes into play.  The more we care about a given issue, the harder it is for us to see the faults with our own way of thinking.  Or the more we care about the person we are in disagreement with, the more difficult it can be to really listen to and understand their perspective.  When we really want our spouse or our child to see our way of thinking, it’s harder for us to listen to what they’re saying and respond to their needs. 
            The choices we make when there is the highest likelihood of negative fallout are the ones that require the most humility, introspection and reconsideration, but they are so often the ones that are the most likely for us not to give further thought to, because of our own over-confidence.
            Balaam reinterpreted the data that he was receiving to reinforce his desire to do what he wanted.  He was so blind to an alternative reality that his donkey needed to wake him up.  There was angel blocking Balaam’s path with a drawn sword, the donkey that he was riding on immediately swerved to the side, scraping Balaam’s knee to avoid it, and Balaam is so oblivious that he hits the donkey for scraping his knee rather than noticing the dangerous path he is going down.  The miraculous needed to occur, Balaam’s donkey needed to speak to him, for Balaam to see the error of his ways.  Ultimately, Balaam’s bad decisions didn't cause the harm he was intending.  The only negative impact his self serving obliviousness had was on his own reputation and his scraped knee.    
            The reality is, that we have ability to interpret and justify and really see as clear as day whatever we want.  But being blind to reality, oblivious to the counter-point, hurts us at least as much as it hurts the people around us.  Confirmation bias isn't inevitable.  The simplest way to correct for it is to be aware of it. Once we are aware of it we can ask ourselves if we’re truly doing what’s best or are we simply choosing what’s easiest for us.  Any time that we find ourselves dug in deeply on one side of an issue or an argument, all it takes is for us to take a step back look at where we might be experiencing this bias, then we can grow, we can listen more sensitively to the other side, and then we can make better, more informed decisions. 

May we all learn the ability to go beyond ourselves in order to be better friends, spouses, parents, siblings and children, and ultimately learn to be searchers of truth and pursuers of peace in all of our relationships and interactions.  

Friday, October 26, 2012

Parshat Lech Lecha

I think that most of us take it for granted that we have free will, without ever thinking about what free will really means.  There are so many factors that influence our thinking and decision making that its hard to identify where, exactly, we exercise our total free will.  We are influenced by our families, friends, upbringing, schooling, work, society, culture, commercials, celebrities, etc. When you consider all of the factors that influence us, it seems pretty clear that to make a true act of free will would require a great deal of exertion on our part.  Without proper introspection in order to identify the factors that influencing the way we act and make decisions, then we just float through life without truly acting out of free will.

In this week's Parsha, God tells Avraham that he needs to remove himself from all the things that influence him, for his own sake.  The verse says, "Go for yourself, from your land, from your birthplace, from your father's house..." If we dissect the parts of this verse we will learn an important lesson about free will.  God didn't have to spell out all the places from where Avraham was supposed to leave, the verse could have just said, "go to where I'm going to show you."  By adding those superfluous words, it is indicating to us that there is a lesson to be learned.  The three places mentioned, your land, your birthplace, your father's house, are all places with a great deal of influence upon a person's identity.  People often identify with their country, their community, and their father/parent's home.  Having these identities are not inherently bad, but it's sometimes difficult to identify where the person ends and where the identity based on that external factor begins.

God is telling Avraham, that sometimes, in order to have a spiritual awakening we have to remove ourselves from the influence of external factors.  That is the nature of the words in the verse saying, "go for yourself."  The statement for yourself is also unnecessary.  But when we consider all the seemingly unnecessary parts of the verse, the idea emerges that acting in one's own best interest with true free will sometimes requires a reconstruction of our own identity separate from external influences.  Once we know where we stand on certain issues at our core, we can begin to think with our own free will, then we can go back and consider the potential impact our decisions will have for good or bad on our family, communities and larger society.

The beginning of the Parsha deals with a lesson to Avraham about removing oneself from external influences in order to make decisions based on our own free will.  If that were the end of the story, then we would be forced to conclude that the ideal way of life, would be to live in a cave away from all of society's influences and only think about ourselves.  But thankfully that is not the end of the story.  Avraham is the model of consideration for others and the champion of social justice in the ancient world.  He does go back to his family and homeland in order to find a spouse for his son.  The lesson is that in order to fully engage in the world as an individual acting on our own free will, it is necessary that we identify who we are and what we believe in, and then re-insert that image back in to society.

Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Parshat Ki Tavo

The beginning of this week's Parsha describes the mitzvah of bikkurim, the commandment to bring your first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem.  This commandment was carried out with a lot of fanfare, and effort.  It is hard to explain why it was so important for people to travel all the way to Jerusalem just to bring the first fruits that grew on their land.  It seems like a somewhat trivial detail, yet there is a whole ritual that revolved around this practice.  The Mishna in the third chapter of bikkurim describes how the people and local leaders would gather around like at a parade when a person bringing their fruits to the Temple would travel through their town.
Many commentators have wondered about this ritual, what was the big deal?  I'd like to share with you one of the common themes that emerges in response to this question.
The message that I'd like to share is that this ritual is teaching us that details really matter.  The fruits of someone's land seem like no big deal at all, but to be able to elevate the trivial experience of experiencing a first fruit into a religious experience makes an impact on a person.  It would be easy to absent mindedly eat the first fruit, or to get so excited that the tree had finally grown fruits and just eat it without thinking where the fruit really came from.  So when a person consciously ritualizes the experience of anticipating their first fruits, and dedicates the experience to acknowledging that the fruit comes from God, it's a big deal.
This experience educates the person participating in it that everything comes from God.  We are not the true masters of the world around us, we need to acknowledge the role God plays in our lives, even in the small details.  When we have an appreciation for the Godliness of the small things, we can influence ourselves to put more thought into the details, and to pay better attention to details.  The details matter, when someone pays attention the details in our lives, we feel cared about and appreciated.  When we learn to pay attention to the details in the way in which we do everything, work, religion, relationships; we are showing that we care.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Parshat Vaetchanan

At the beginning of this week's Parsha Moses implores God one last time to allow him to enter the land of Israel.  Moses begins his request by saying אתה החלות להרות את עבדך את גדלך ואת ידך החזקה אשר מי אל בשמים ובארץ אשר יעשה כמעשיך וכגבורתך - You have only begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand, for what power is there in the heaven or on the earth that can perform according to Your deeds and according to Your mighty acts?

The way in which Moses says, "you have only begun..." has always had an impact on me.  Moses, the person who our tradition says spoke to God face to face, the person who knew all the mysteries of the Torah, the greatest man to ever live, has only begun to understand God's greatness?!?!  I would imagine, that if anyone in the world has ever understood God's greatness, it would be Moses.  Yet, Moses himself admits to his own inadequacy in being able to fully grasp the greatness of God.

How often do we assume that we understand something, or really know the way things work, and as a result approach a given situation with less humility.  When we come from this perspective we get angry at other people (or God) much more easily, and we fail to achieve our own potential greatness because of our own inability to absorb life lessons with a humble heart.  Moses serves of an example of humility in his ability to recognize that even he doesn't know everything, and he has not seen everything, this is what makes him so great!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Behar Bechukotai

This week’s Parsha, the double portion Behar-Bechukotai, begins with the laws of Shemitah.  “…the land shall observe a Sabbath of the lord.  Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield.  But in the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest... (Leviticus 25:2-4).
This idea of of working for 6 years in order to take care of our needs, but resting on the seventh is a direct parallel to the idea of Sabbath.  With the weekly Sabbath, we are told that for six days you may work, but the seventh day of the week we must cease to work.
In regards to Sabbath, in order to have a pleasant/restful day, a lot of work has to be done in preparation.  We have to prepare our food before the seventh day begins, prepare the house, prepare ourselves; all this work needs to be done in order for a positive Shabbat experience to occur.  Once the seventh day begins, we are no longer permitted to do any work.  Similarly, with the shemittah laws, in order for the people to survive the sabbatical year, they had to have been preparing for it the six previous years.
The notion of working for a designated amount of time in order to be prepared for something later becomes a very important idea in Jewish mysticism and how the mystics understand the idea of the relationship between this world and the world to come.  Some Jewish mystical traditions understand the duration of the world to be 7000 years long.  For 6000 years the world is preparing itself, and during the 7000th year, the world will reap the benefits of the work done in the previous 6000 years.  Whether we understand these years to be literal or not, the idea is a direct parallel to the Sabbath of the week and the Sabbath of the land.
Our job in this world is not to be primarily focused on the short-term, instant benefit of our work.  Everything we do should be viewed as an investment for the long-term benefit of the world, and ourselves as inhabitants of that world.  As you reap, so shall you sow.  The way in which we view the purpose and benefit of the work we do in our lives should always reflect the idea that we need to prepare the future, and not just be motivated by our own selfish short term benefit.  This idea is integral to the Jewish experience of space and time, as reflected in the laws of how treat the land (the shemittah – agricultural sabbatical), and how we treat the working week (the weeky Sabbath).  Judaism teaches us to think about preparing ourselves and our world for long term sustenance.   

Friday, May 4, 2012

Parshat Acharei Mot - Kedoshim

This week, since this year is not a leap year, we read two torah portions, Acharei-Mot and Kedoshim.  In the second portion, Kedoshim, God directs the Jewish people to be holy, and the rest of the Parsha is a list of the laws which make us holy.  One verse that I would like to discuss (19:11-12) reads, “You shall not steal, and you shall not deny falsely, and you shall not lie to one another.  And you shall not swear falsely by My Name, thereby desecrating the Name of your God – I am the Lord.”  Rashi, the medieval commentator suggests: “If you have stolen, your end will be to deny falsely; and then your end will be to lie; and then your end will be to swear falsely.”
This idea that one negative action will lead to another negative action is prevalent in Jewish thought and moral literature, not just in reference to the effects of stealing.  The idea being, that once you do something that is wrong, you have become desensitized to the inherent negativity of that act.  Initially, one’s ability to sense the wrongness of the behavior acts as a deterrent, but when that deterrent is no longer effective, the boundaries of acceptable behavior have moved for that person. When we habituate ourselves to negative acts, we no longer see them as being negative.  And, when we are habituated to doing negative acts, the human psyche needs to justify that behavior.  Eventually, we start to see the negative act as something positive, thereby negating the possibility of change.  This verse is teaching us the important impact our actions have on ourselves.  We are defined by what we do, therefore we should be careful that we are comfortable with the statement that our actions make about us.  There is a relevant rabbinic statement from Pirkei Avot (4:2), “A mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, and a sin leads to another sin.”  Nothing that we do happens in a vacuum.  This is true with regard to the way in which our actions affect others as well as ourselves.  
It is for this reason why the verse ends with the words, “I am the Lord.”  This phrase repeats itself throughout this week’s Parsha.  Its purpose in almost every case is to remind us that even when no one else sees what we will do, we still need to be honest with ourselves about our actions and their consequences.  In this case, it is often hard to see where we have convinced ourselves (and sometimes others) that what we are doing is right, simply in order to justify the behavior for our own conscience.  Nevertheless, no matter how many other people we fool with those justifications, when we fool ourselves, we end up the loser.