Archive for the '5.04 Re'eh' Category

Bring Down and Lift Up

In Re’eh, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the upcoming shmita, Sabbatical year. There we read:

For the poor shall never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, saying: ‘You shalt surely open your hand unto your poor and needy brother, in your land.’ If your brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold to you, he shall serve you six years; and in the seventh year you shalt let him go free from you. (Deuteronomy 15:11-12)

Here we see a connection between the remission of loans and the freeing of the slaves on the seventh year. If some one is down on their luck regarding a loan or having been in slavery, the Torah commands the community to take responsibility to help them . Here we are called to look out for the needs of our fellow citizen. But what does it mean that, “poor shall never cease”? Why can we not imagine a time when poverty is over?

It seems that this question is answered in Isaiah’s Messianic vision in our Haftarah . There we read:

Ho, every one that is thirsty, come you for water, and he that had no money; come you, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Wherefore do you spend money for that which is not bread? and your gain for that which satisfied not? Hearken diligently unto Me, and eat you that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness.( Isaiah 55:1-2)

The ideal for the future is a time in which our needs are met without the disparity inherit in a society that is built around privilege, debt, and the imbalanced nature of currency. I am not foolhardy enough to think that our world can survive without the forces of capitalism, we just need to recognize that inherent in that system is perpetual poverty. It is also possible that our approach to poverty cannot be limited to any single community looking out for their own.

These ideas came home for me when you look at what happened in Charlottesville last weekend. There we saw the painful reminders of a country still ravaged by its history in slavery. There we saw the ugly display of White Nationalist, Alt-Right, and neo-Nazis spewing their hate. It seemed to reach a horrific nadir when one of those white terrorists plowed his car into a crowd of counter-demonstrators killing one and injuring many others. And if we thought it could not get any worse the President lent legitimacy to this world view. Clearly the current administration does not have a path forward, so what can we do?

We need to dig in deep to our prophetic tradition. We can leave no room for hatred, but at the same time we need to try to find a space of empathy. There is no room for bigotry, racism, or ant-Semitism, but we need to find other ways to hear the pain in the voice of these white men. Listening to their voices does not make them right or even legitimate, but there is no doubt they are experiencing difficulty. Do any of honestly believe that the current administration will do anything substantive to support poor white America?

What would it look like to live in a society our Torah portion is describing? What would it look like to live in a place where we all looked out for those who are less fortunate? What would it look like if every seven years we rebooted the economic structures of society and gave everyone a fresh start? This is a complicated process of rewriting our collective story and who is part of “us”, but surely it is worth it. Yes we might have to bring down some statues, but in the process we would lift up a lot of people.

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Cut Ourselves: Re’eh and an Argument for Competition

The continuity conversation seems to occupy most of the communal conversations. Be it the Jewish communal servant or the volunteer, we often sound like conspiracy theorists looking for the magic bullet that will save our community. In fact there is not ever going to be one solution. If we hope to make it into the 22nd Century a nation we will need a wide array of different approached to ensure our collective vitality.

I was thinking about this where reading Re’eh, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

You are the children of the Lord your God: you shall not cut yourselves, nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead. For you are a holy people unto the Lord your God, and the Lord have chosen you to be God’s own treasure out of all peoples that are upon the face of the earth (Deuteronomy 14:1-2)

The plain meaning of this prohibition is tattooing our bodies because this represents our holiness to God. On this Rashi comments:

You shall neither cut yourselves: Do not make cuts and incisions in your flesh [to mourn] for the dead, in the manner that the Amorites do, because you are the children of the Omnipresent and it is appropriate for you to be handsome and not to be cut or have your hair torn out. ( Rashi on Deuteronomy 14:1)

Rashi emphasizes the issue of imitating our neighbors with these tattoos. In the Talmud we see a completely different read on these prohibition. There we learn:

Reish Lakish said to Rabbi Yochanan: Read the verse “you shall not cut yourselves”, which means do not form separate groups. (Yebamot 13b)

It is not about cutting our corporeal bodies, but rather dividing our national corporation. What is the fear of cutting the people of Israel into different groups?

In our era we have seen a wonderful proliferation of different expressions of Jewish life. While this might give cause for a sense of hope, still others like Reish Lakish  fear that we are losing a sense of a common Jewish life. While I too have that fear, I know collectively we will be better off continuing to differentiate creating many niche forms of Jewish life. While this will put certain stress on our resources it will foster a healthy competition for the nature of Jewish life. This regression to Reish Lakish’s point of view makes Judaism stale and not relevant (see suburban big top synagogue) and gives rise to the corruption and being ineffective (see the Rabanut in Israel). In our era it might be that cutting in different competing units itself is what makes us as a collective so holy.

 

Enduring Commitment: Tattoos and Jews

Years ago when I was a Hillel Rabbi I had students come to me on different occasions asking for help creating Jewish content for their tattoos. They either wanted to know the spelling of a word in Hebrew,a Hebrew word for a central value of their lives, or even the meaning of Jewish symbolism of a tattoo they wanted emblazoned on their bodies.

A tattooed Jew.

As we learn in Re’eh, this week’s Torah portion, it is prohibited to get a tattoo. There we read:

You are the children of the Lord your God: you shall not cut yourselves, nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead. For you are a holy people unto the Lord your God, and the Lord have chosen you to be God’s own treasure out of all peoples that are upon the face of the earth (Deuteronomy 14:1-2)

Rashi explains Lo Titgodedu– you shall neither cut yourselves” to mean:

Do not make cuts and incisions in your flesh [to mourn] for the dead, in the manner that the Amorites do, because you are the children of the Omnipresent and it is appropriate for you to be handsome and not to be cut or have your hair torn out.

As an Orthodox Jew I know that it is prohibited to get a tattoo. Since the Holocaust, the tattooing of numbers on the arms of Jews at the hands of the Nazis has taken the taboo of tattooing to new levels in the larger Jewish community.  But it is interesting to weigh this value against my role as a community Rabbi helping people make enduring commitments that are personally meaningful, universally relevant, and distinctively Jewish. I would argue that a tattoo in its nature is distinctively not Jewish, but I see how someone getting a Hebrew word permanent printed on their flesh might disagree. Regardless one cannot argue that it surely an enduring commitment.

In the Gemara Reish Lakish said to Rabbi Yochanan: Read the verse Lo Titgodedu– not as “you shall neither cut yourselves”, but rather you should not form separate groups (Yebamot 13b). In the years since that time I have seen a spike in tattooing in the larger society. What are the implications for Jewish life? Is it possible that in terms of how we are making enduring commitments to Jewish life we are forming separate groups?

– Link to article about Jews and Tattoos

Hard Reset- Shmitta and Socialism

In Re’eh, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the upcoming shmita, Sabbatical year. There we read:

For the poor shall never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, saying: ‘You shalt surely open your hand unto your poor and needy brother, in your land.’ If your brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold to you, he shall serve you six years; and in the seventh year you shalt let him go free from you. ( Deuteronomy 15:11-12)

Here we see a connection between the remission of loans and the freeing of the slaves on the seventh year. If some one is down on their luck regarding a loan or having been in slavery, the Torah commands the community to take responsibility to help them . Here we are called to look out for the needs of our fellow Jews. But what does it mean that, “poor shall never cease”? Why can we not imagine a time when poverty is over?

It seems that this question is answered in Isaiah’s Messianic vision in our Haftarah . There we read:

Ho, every one that is thirsty, come you for water, and he that had no money; come you, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Wherefore do you spend money for that which is not bread? and your gain for that which satisfied not? Hearken diligently unto Me, and eat you that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness.( Isaiah 55:1-2)

The ideal for the future is a time in which our needs are met without the disparity inherit in a society that is built around privilege, debt, and the imbalanced nature of currency. I am not foolhardy enough to think that our world can survive without the forces of capitalism, we just need to recognize that inherent in that system is perpetual poverty. It is also possible that our approach to poverty cannot be limited to any single community looking out for their own. But, as a Jewish person I can say that I am looking forward to the new year. It seems that we all could use a reset.

Slow Choices

Recently I read a wonderful article by Atul Gawande, author of  The Checklist Manifesto, in the New Yorker. In this piece Slow Ideas, he discusses how in the medical field some ideas spread quickly while other ones languish. One might assume with our highly networked digital world good ideas would spread seamlessly and evenly throughout the field. Evidently being informed about the best ideas is not enough to get people to change their habits. In his article he gives a lot of medical examples to prove this, but seeing that I am a Rabbi I will spare you all of the examples. One of the most telling factors that led to change in medical habits was the perception of causality. Where doctors could see the impact of anesthesia sedating the patient right away, they did not directly see the consequences of washing their hands. In the case of anesthesia the surgical experience changed right ways. They did not perceive a direct causal link between the infections caused by germs and their lack of sterile surgical practices. It is not that doctors were lazy or ill-willed, they just were slow to wash their hands because they did not see its impact.

I got to thinking about this article in the context of Re’eh, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

See, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you shall hearken to the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you this day;and the curse, if you shall not hearken to the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn aside, out of the way which I command you this day, to go after other gods, which you have not known. ( Deuteronomy 11: 26-28)

The Torah is asking us to see the impact of all of our choices. Sight is central to the human conception of causality. Before us are always choices to be made between blessings or curses. At the same time we are empowered to make choices we are held responsible for the consequences of these choices. The Torah does not leave open the possibility of a pareve , neutral, choice. We are being asked to have the vision to realize the consequences of all of our choices.

There in his article Atul Gawande wrote:

The key message to teach surgeons, it turned out, was not how to stop germs but how to think like a laboratory scientist. Young physicians from America and elsewhere who went to Germany to study with its surgical luminaries became fervent converts to their thinking and their standards. They returned as apostles not only for the use of antiseptic practice (to kill germs) but also for the much more exacting demands of aseptic practice (to prevent germs), such as wearing sterile gloves, gowns, hats, and masks. Proselytizing through their own students and colleagues, they finally spread the ideas worldwide. ( Slow Ideas)

I do not think this conception is limited to surgeons. If more of us saw our lives in the context  of a laboratory we would be seeking out evidence to evaluate all of the choices we make every day. But do not worry I am not about to hand in my Tallit for a lab coat. Gawande is pointing out that often it is not what we know, but who we know that makes the biggest impact. As he writes, ” We yearn for frictionless, technological solutions. But people talking to people is still the way that norms and standards change.” It is the people that we see that influence our habits.  What Gawande calls apostles, we call hassidim. While Gawande is focused on medical practices, the Torah is asking us to think about in regard to all of our practices. We need to develop communities of vision that empower us to see the positive impact each of us can have on the world and stay focused.

Happiness Beyond Words

The news these days is really tough. There are so man bad things going on. It is hard to read the news without getting really down. For that reason is particular hard to read the end of Re’eh, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

13You shall keep the feast of tabernacles seven days, after that you have gathered in from your threshing-floor and from your winepress. 14 And you shall rejoice in your feast, you, and your son, and your daughter, and your man-servant, and your maid-servant, and the Levite, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are within your gates. 15 Seven days shall you keep a feast unto the Lord your God in the place which the Lord shall choose; because the Lord your God shall bless you in all your increase, and in all the work of your hands, and you shall be altogether joyful.( Deuteronomy 16: 13-15)

While everything around us is telling us to worry, the Torah is telling us to be happy. While it seems that law can command you to do actions, it seems hard to charge someone to have a certain disposition. What might it mean to mandate happiness or joy?

What is happiness and how do we obtain it? There seems to be proximate factors and ultimate factors. A quick list might include money ( see Goldman Sacks), power ( see Nietzsche), sex ( see Freud),  a combination of these (see Scarface),  meaning  (see Frankel), or flow ( see Csikszentmihalyi). Seeing that many of us are sharing in the bad news of the day I want to think about the idea of joy being the experience of joining something bigger than ourselves.

Often our lives seem trivial. But joining in with others helps us think that we just might be part of something bigger. On Succot it has to do with joining in the national experience of the Temple. Today we join in by helping out, communicating that we care ( usually in its food form),  or just showing up. In many ways we can see the joy of belonging in the simple act of singing which transcends words in bringing joy to people’s lives. It seems only appropriate to learn this Torah from the Rebbe of not worrying and being happy, Bobby McFerrin . Even if you cannot get into the news I hope that you will enjoy this video.

Certain happiness is beyond words.


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