Archive for the '3.07 Behar / Behukotai' Category

Hard Work: Some Thoughts on Uncle Ernie z”l

With the recent passing of my Oma’s brother I have been thinking about the importance of my German ancestry. For as long as I can recall Uncle Ernie z”l exuded a certain nobility, honor, impeccable style, and German accent. In his 98 years of life he saw the worst and best of humanity. His Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story was exemplified by the joy he took in driving his Jaguar. For the longest time Ernie served was a link to the long gone mythic European world of my family. This was not just a romantic notion of the alte heim, but also connection to a greater generation. Much has been written about the shift from the generation that lived through the horrors of World War II to the world we live in today, in reflection I am interesting in a shift in work ethic.

My mother’s first language was German, but sadly not that much was passed on to me of the language.  In writing this piece I had to call my mother to get clarity on as expression I recalled from my youth. When referring to a worker engaged in heavy physical labor she would say Schwerarbeiter- heavy worker. From a young age it was burned into my consciousness that there was a value of working hard. I have internalized this as cultural  devotion to the idea and value of working hard.

I was thinking about this when reading Behukotai, this week’s Torah portion.  There we read:

I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt from being slaves to them; and I broke the pegs of your yoke and led you upright. Leviticus 26:13

On this idea of breaking the pegs Rashi says:

A plowing yoke consists of a bar that is placed over the animal’s neck and reins that are placed under its neck and threaded through two holes at each end of the bar. This term מוֹט refers to a type of peg, which is inserted into the two [holes at the] ends of the yoke. [These pegs therefore jam the reins tightly through the holes,] preventing the reins from coming off the ox’s head and [preventing the] undoing of the knot. ( Rashi on Leviticus 26:13)

So when the peg that tethered the yoke to load is removed the animal is free. But just removing the peg does not make you stand “upright”. As Prof. Dan Dennett said, “The secret of happiness is: Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.” We were redeemed from slavery in Egypt to serve a higher cause. Yes we were free from Egypt, but more importantly we were free to go to Sinai. The issue with slavery was not the hard work, but rather the lack of connection to the cause of that labor.

Recently a dear friend Rabbi Dan Utley shared a meaningful poem with me. In her poem “To be of Use“,  Marge Piercy wrote:

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.  (To be of Use)

No one wants to be a slave. We all want to be the ones to put in the peg and drive home the work that we want to get done. Even if it seems old worldly I want to work hard along side of others for a common and noble cause. So yes I am tired, but when my days come to an end, like Uncle Ernie, I too want to be known as a Schwerarbeiter.

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Staying Grounded

This week’s Torah portion, Behar, starts,

God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall observe a Sabbath rest for God. For Six years you may sow your field and for six years you may prune your vineyards and you may gather your crop. But the seventh year shall be a complete rest for the land, a Sabbath for God, your field you shall not sow and your vineyard you shall not prune. ( Leviticus 25:1-4)

Rashi asks the oft quoted question, ” What is the issue of Shmitah doing juxtaposed Har Sinai?” Or in other words, why is this Mitzvah getting top billing at Sinai? Was not the whole Torah given at Sinai?  What is so special about a Sabbath for the land?

God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. We are instructed to imitate God. We are supported to work for six days and rest on the seventh. So, now I am sure that we are all Shomer Shabbas. How many of us have created a universe on Shabbat? In making the world, God made a place for us to live. In making the Mishkan, we made a place for God to live with us. We keep Shabbat by not doing the work involved in building the Mishkan. It would make sense that we would keep Shabbat when we get into the land of Israel in that we would have built God a permanent home there in the Temple. But this still does not answer why the land itself should have a rest? It seems at some level we are asked to think that the land is animate. People rest, how does the ground rest?

While on Passover we were slaves, by the time we reach Shavuot we ascended to the level to receive the Torah at Har Sinai. At this stage we might have thought that we could actually be like God. While we were traveling around in the desert as refugees it is hard to forget that we were a band of lowly liberated slaves. It is actually God’s world and we were just drifting through it. The challenge is how we would maintain the right balance when we enter into the land. We might actually mistakenly think we are truly gods in a home that we built for ourselves. I believe the laws of Shmitah are to remind us of our humble beginnings. This is not just as guests in the house that God made for us, but as dirt itself.  As we read at the start of the Torah, “Then the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”( Genesis 2:7) The laws of Shmitah personify dirt to remind us that we ourselves are just that, animated dirt. Adam and Adama are both God’s creation. The Voice from Sinai rings out that we have divine potential, but the law of Shmitah reminds us that we need to stay grounded.

Areivim Zeh B’Zeh – Jerusalem Unity Day

In Behar Behukotai,this week’s Torah portion we read:

They will stumble , each man over his brother as if from before a sword, but there is no pursuer; you will not have the power to withstand your foes (Leviticus 26:37)

The plain meaning of this is that they will live in fear unable to help each other. Rashi interprets it that they are living in religious and not existential fear. He writes that:

“they will stumble, each man over his brother” means one stumbles through the sin of another, for all of Israel are guarantors for one another. (Rashi on Leviticus 26:37)

The Gemara in Sanhedrin sites our Torah portion to prove that we are each others guarantors. There we read, “Kulan Areivim Zeh B’Zeh– All of Israel are each others guarantors.”(Sanhedrin 27b)

How will we go about trying to protect each other? It seems that the plain meaning speaks to Jewish peoplehood and our being bound up in each other in our very being. Rashi in quoting the Gemara transforms this bond into a conversation about faith, sin, and religion.

Last summer Eyal Ifrach, Gil-ad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel were kidnapped by terrorists on their way home from school. Jews from around the world came together to support their families by searching, praying, and just reaching out. The sense of unity reached its peak 17 days later as the three boys were found and ultimately laid to rest side by side. Now, one year later, the families of the boys are asking the Jewish people to come together again.  Together with, Nir Barkat, the Mayor of Jerusalem and Gesher, we can honor the teens’ memory by joining in ‘Unity Day’ to bring back that sense of togetherness, hope, and being  Areivim for each other. Unity Day programs will be held across the globe on the 16th of Sivan 5775 – June 3rd, 2015. To get involved check out this link.  Being Areivim is not just an idea, it needs to be a practice.

Mountains Beyond Mountain

This week’s Torah portion, Behar , starts,

God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall observe a Sabbath rest for God. For Six years you may sow your field and for six years you may prune your vineyards and you may gather your crop. But the seventh year shall be a complete rest for the land, a Sabbath for God, your field you shall not sow and your vineyard you shall not prune. ( Leviticus 25:1-4)

Rashi asks the oft quoted question, ” What is the issue of Shmitah doing juxtaposed Har Sinai?” Or in other words, why is this Mitzvah getting top billing at Sinai? Was not the whole Torah given at Sinai?  I think there is yet another even simpler question that can be asked. What is the significance of this happening at a mountain.

This question reminds me of a classic story of the mythic town of Chelm. There we read:

Once upon a time, in the little village of Chelm, the people decided that they needed a new cemetery.  The population of the city had expanded, people had begun to build larger homes, and the need to find a new location for the townspeople’s eternal resting place.  They looked, and looked, and could not find a suitable location.  They called a meeting of the wise people of the town and for seven days, debated the issue.

At the end of the seven days, the people reached a conclusion: they would move them out and that was on the southern side of the city and utilize the space created by moving the mountain as the new cemetery. This of course, raised a new question for the people: how does one move a mountain?  They debated the issue for another seven days.  Finally, the wise man of Chelm came up with an idea. “we will all rise, all men of the town as one – united in spirit and body – and together we will move the mountain.” The townspeople quickly accepted this “wise” advice. Quickly, all able bodied men – young and old, rushed to the mountain on the southern side of the city.

A crowd quickly gathered and surrounded the mountain.  The men pushed and shoved and leaned and tried as hard as they could, but they could not move the mountain. 10 minutes went by, allowing the participants to catch their breath before they strenuously tried again.  Again, they pushed and strained and shoved but could not move the mountain.  At this point, the menfolk of Chelm were drenched in sweat and beginning to get uncomfortable.  The men removed their shirts, depositing them on the side, in preparation for their next try. As all the men struggled, a group of petty thieves watched the men in earnest.  They quickly came with small carts and as the men of Chelm  strained to move the mountain, the thieves stole all the shirts and quickly disappeared from the town.

After an hour of straining, one of the wise men discovered that his shirt was missing.  Soon, all the men discovered that their shirts were missing.  They began to wonder what was going on.  The wise man of Chelm surmised the answer. “We must have been successful” he told them. “We must have moved the mountain so far that we cannot even see the place where we left our shirts.” Upon hearing the explanation, the people began to applaud, cheer and even break out into dance over their success.( As retold by Rabbi Shabsi HaKohein Yudelovitch)

They were foolish to think that losing their jackets were a sign of their success, but they were not foolish in looking for a metric for success.  Where in Chelm they were looking for room for their cemetery in Behar through the institution of shmittah we are looking to create room for the underprivileged and economically marginalized parts of our society. But still I ask, why is this message delivered at a mountain?

When I think about the unending issue of addressing the needs of the poor I think about the heroic effort of Dr Paul Farmer in bringing health care to rural Haiti. In is the award-winning book Mountains Beyond Mountains by Pulitzer-prize-winning author Tracy Kidder he described Farmer as “the man who would cure the world”. There he writes:

And I can imagine Farmer saying he doesn’t care if no one else is willing to follow their example. He’s still going to make these hikes, he’d insist, because if you say that seven hours is too long to walk for two families of patients, you’re saying that their lives matter less than some others’, and the idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that’s wrong with the world.( Mountains Beyond Mountains)

The book’s title comes from a Haitian proverb, which is usually translated as: “Beyond the mountains, more mountains.” According to Farmer, a better translation is: “Beyond mountains there are mountains.” The phrase expresses something fundamental about the spirit and the scale and the difficulty of Farmer’s work. The Haitian proverb, by the way, is also a pretty accurate description of the topography of a lot of Haiti.

To return to Rashi’s  question, ” What is the issue of Shmitah doing juxtaposed Har Sinai?” What we learn from Farmer in terms of health care is the same as in terms of access to food and other issues of poverty, beyond this mountain there are more mountains. In the words of Rabbi Tarfon, ” It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it.” ( Avot 2:16) Shmitah is an approach to dealing with poverty. The revelation of need in society is an opportunity to enact Torah in this world and therefore its own revelation like that at Mount Sinai. This is similar to Rabbi Yehoshua the son of Levi when he said “ Every day, an echo resounds from Mount Horev (Sinai)” ( Avot 6:2) This is to say that beyond this mountain ( Sinai) there are more mountains.

 

 

Revelation and Sustaining Our Community

When I was a Hillel Rabbi I had the fortune of helping a bunch of students apply to Rabbinical school. In my time on campus students went to almost all of the major schools. It is interesting to reflect that in one way or another each school’s application asked the potential student his/her perspective on Shavuot. OK, not the holiday, but his/her perspective on Revelation. This seemed to be based on an assumption that asking the applicant this epistemological question would clarify if the school was a good match.  With maybe one exception I would say that all of these students did not approach their interest in the Rabbinate in these terms. Rather, each one was drawn to the Rabbinate because s/he believed that becoming a Rabbi would help him/her make change in the Jewish community and contribute to the larger world. The idea of religious movement really came in as an afterthought to this broader vision. It seemed in almost all of the cases that this narrow idea of a specific movement was solely the trappings of the schools and not particularly relevant the student.

I was thinking about this when I started to read the beginning of  Behar Behukotai, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

And the Lord spoke to Moses in Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When you come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath to the Lord. Six years thou shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in the produce thereof. But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath unto the Lord; you shall neither sow your field, nor prune your vineyard. ( Leviticus 25: 1-4)

In this portion we learn about the laws of Shmita. In this cycle the land is left to lie fallow on the 7th year and all agricultural activity, including plowing, planting, pruning and harvesting, is forbidden. Rashi asks an insightful question, ” Why are we talking about the matter of Shmita at Sinai?” Which is to say that the entire Torah is given at Sinai, why is this Torah portion outlining an ancient technique of creating a sustainable agriculture introduced as the laws that God “spoke to Moses in Mount Sinai”? It seems strange to single this law out. And maybe even more strange in that the Torah was given in Diaspora and this law was only going to be applicable in the Land of Israel.

When I think about these students I realize that many of them have already becomes or are about to become my peers. We were all drawn to the Rabbinate to create a more meaningful and sustainable Jewish community. I hope that all of us are contributing to the world in meaningful ways. But I am still worried. In the name of sharpening our skills, how has Rabbinical education dulled our initial visions to help the world? Has the lens of movement clouded our capacity to see the larger Jewish community and larger world?

In this sense I want to ask Rashi’s question in reverse. Why are we talking about the matter of Sinai when we are learning about Shmita? Do our understanding of what did or did not happen at Sinai really matter when it comes to making this world a better place? To what degree are the different understandings of Revelation or different movements of Jewish life still  relevant? So yes, I have fallen into the same trap of movement.  I call myself an Orthodox Rabbi.  But when asked what I am I will say that I am an Open Orthodox Rabbi.  And to a great degree I am still waiting to meet more Open Reform, Open Conservative, Open Reconstuctionist, Open Haredi, and Open Humanist colleagues. Repairing our fractured community scarred by a history of fighting movements might feel like moving mountains, but I hope it will make our community more sustainable.

Commitment Zeh B’Zeh

In Behar Behukotai,this week’s Torah portion we read:

They will stumble , each man over his brother as if from before a sword, but there is no pursuer; you will not have the power to withstand your foes (Leviticus 26:37)

The plain meaning of this is that they will live in fear unable to help each other. Rashi interprets it that they are living in religious and not existential fear. He writes that:

“they will stumble, each man over his brother” means one stumbles through the sin of another, for all of Israel are guarantors for one another. (Rashi on Leviticus 26:37)

The Gemara in Sanhedrin sites our parsha to prove that we are each others guarantors. There we read, ” Kulan Areivim Zeh B’Zeh– All of Israel are each others guarantors.”(Sanhedrin 27b)

How will we go about trying to protect each other? It seems that the plain meaning speaks to Jewish peoplehood and our being bound up in each other in our very being. Rashi in quoting the Gemara transforms this bond into a conversation about faith, sin, and religion. But at the core of the Gemara is the language of Areivut, itself is a monetary term. 

I think these different approaches are interesting given some current discussions of the accessibility of Jewish Day School Education. No matter how we cut it we are stumbling all over each other trying to figure out how to make Jewish Life sustainable. This was brought into focus this week by a great article by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper. In his article The Moral Costs of Jewish Day School he wrote :

 …parents receiving day school financial aid have no guarantee, and often no idea, of how they will be affected by tuition hikes or whether the school will take account of a job loss, a new baby, a car’s breakdown—or, on the other hand, a gift from a parent or extra income from a second job.  They cannot make future plans; they are chronically dependent on other people’s decisions.  They are deprived of economic dignity. 

For some day school education represents their commitment to our people and others it is a religious rite, but for all but the very wealthy it is a crushing burden of expense. Rabbi Klapper shares a model in which there is a restoration of dignity by creating a flat 15% cap to the amount that any one family would pay. He noted that this did not take into account other schools. And it does not take into account all of the other positive Jewish life choices that cost money like trips to Israel, camp, synagogue membership, JCC membership, and of course the smachot. I am curious to see it work, but I am concerned about who will pick up the tab. 

In light of the Gemara I want to put forward another option. What about a guarantor? I like the predictability and transparency of a cap, but what if we offered a free loan for the remainder. This would eliminate the scholarship culture for the middle class. Hopefully this would remove the stigma of the mandated handout and encourage more families opt into Jewish life. We would need to amortize a loan sensibly and sensitively over the course of their lives with their other expenses in mind. Eventually they would deal with this debt and eventually we would recoup the money. The question comes down to who will step up to be the guarantor. And if we are afraid that people will not be committed to pay back their loans, then this is just a bad investment. If nothing else our schools should be teaching commitment Zeh B’Zeh.

In the Details

From reading the Torah it seems that the foundation of Jewish living is the fact that God freed us from slavery in Egypt. It is clear that Egypt was not the end of our slavery. While it is clear that there is still slavery, the end of it is never the goal. And this is not just for the poor. All of us transition from being the slaves of Pharoah to the slaves of God. What kind of freedom is that?

In Behukotai, this week’s Torah portion, we read;

I am the Lord your God, who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, that you should not be their bondmen; and I have broken the pegs of your yoke, and made you go upright. ( Leviticus 26:13)

The image of this yoke is compelling. The slave like the ox is just schlepping along carrying the weight of his owner’s burden. While God removes that yoke, it seems like a temporary respite from God’s yoke which we are still schlepping along. But when you go back to this passage we read that God just removed the peg that held it all together. The yoke did not change from, God just removed the lynch pins. The divine is truly in the details. There is a world of difference between having to do something and wanting to do something.

The lynch pin of religion is belief. Without it we are  still just schlepping along. We have to acknowledge that religion cannot claim credit for transforming the world. God did not destroy the yoke, just make it lose enough to transfer masters. For better and for worse religion might just be holding it all together. In this sense maybe the ” devil” is in the details.


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