Archive for the '5.05 Shoftim' Category

The DNA of Responsibility : Ending the Story of Racism

I recently watched momondo‘s video about ” The DNA Journey“. The video shares interviews with a broad cross-section of British society. In the first half they ask these individuals their feelings about their own group identity and their thoughts on other cultures/ nationalities/races and groups. The researchers then offer each of them free travel to visit their ancestral homes as determined by a DNA test. In the second part of the short film they share the DNA reports with the participants. It is worth watching to see the impact of these reports in challenging their assumptions about themselves and the world.

On their website momondo says:

We only have one world, but it’s divided. We tend to think that there are more things dividing us than uniting us.

It is fascinating how personal narratives rarely align to the stories told by our DNA. Race and other social groupings are clearly just a construct and not as “real” as we have been led to believe.

I  was thinking about this when talking to my friend Adina Konikoff this morning at the bus stop. She is giving a Dvar Torah at her Minyan on Shoftim, this week’s Torah portion,  race relations in the country, and the story of the Egel Arufa, the heifer.  There the end of Shoftim we read:

1If, in the land that the Lord your God is assigning you to possess, someone slain is found lying in the open, the identity of the slayer not being known, 2your elders and magistrates shall go out and measure the distances from the corpse to the nearby towns. 3The elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall then take a heifer which has never been worked, which has never pulled in a yoke; 4and the elders of that town shall bring the heifer down to an ever-flowing wadi, which is not tilled or sown. There, in the wadi, they shall break the heifer’s neck. 5The priests, sons of Levi, shall come forward; for the Lord your God has chosen them to minister to Him and to pronounce blessing in the name of the Lord, and every lawsuit and case of assault is subject to their ruling. 6Then all the elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi. 7And they shall make this declaration: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. 8Absolve, O Lord, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel.” And they will be absolved of blood-guilt. 9Thus you will remove from your midst guilt for the blood of the innocent, for you will be doing what is right in the sight of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 21: 1- 9)

It is untenable in the Torah for a murder to happen without fault and someone taking responsibility. The ritual of the Egel Arufa, the heifer, is an effort to reconcile  society’s responsibility for that murder. It has profound implications in modern society in which almost the entire world is inhabited and we are more interconnected than ever online. If we have this level of responsibility of the Egel Arufa when the victim is not connected to us, how much more responsibility do we have today?

I was thinking about this anew since watching the The DNA Journey video. We often resort to our tribal identity to define the sphere of responsibility. But these identities and narratives are just a social constructs. The story told by our DNA is that we all intermingled and truly responsible for each other. The surge of racially motivated violence needs to stop. In the The DNA Journey video in response to getting her report one woman replied saying, “I’m going to go a little far off right now, but this should be compulsory… There would be no such thing as extremism in the world if people knew their heritage.” How will we eradicate the scourge racism? We might need to sacrifice our old narratives, but we are responsible to tell a new story. This story is already in us, right there in our very DNA.

Revisiting Stammering Justice

As I have explored in the paststuttering, also known as stammering, is most commonly associated with involuntary sound repetition, but it also encompasses the abnormal hesitation, blocks,  or pausing before speech. Stuttering is generally not a problem with the physical production of speech sounds or putting thoughts into words. Despite popular perceptions to the contrary, stuttering does not affect and has no bearing on intelligence. Apart from their speech impairment, people who stutter are normal. Anxiety, low confidence, nervousness, and stress therefore do not cause stuttering, although they are very often the result of living with a highly stigmatized disability.

Although the exact etiology of stuttering is unknown, both genetics and neurophysiology are thought to contribute. A variety of hypotheses and theories suggests multiple factors contributing to stuttering. Here I want to forward two theories as to the cause of stuttering. There is evidence that stuttering is more common in children who also have concomitant speech, language, learning or motor difficulties. Auditory processing deficits have also been proposed as a cause of stuttering. The evidence for this is that stuttering is less prevalent in deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals, and stuttering may be improved when auditory feedback is altered. Although there are many treatments and speech therapy techniques available that may help increase fluency in some stutterers, there is essentially no “cure” for the disorder at present.

So, what is my sudden interest in stuttering? In Shoftim, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the establishment of the court system. There we read:

Tzedek Tzedek-Justice, justice shalt you pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you. ( Deuteronomy 16:20)

Why the repeating word, “Justice”? Most commonly it translated to assume that it is emphatic. As to say, “Justice you will surely pursue”. But, maybe this reading overlooks the speaker.

When Moshe is called to be God’s messenger, he resists saying, “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words…. I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.” (Exodus 4:10). From this the Rabbis concluded that Moshe had a stutter.  Rashi  explains k’vad peh, “heavy of mouth,” and k’vad lashon, “heavy of tongue,” by which Moshe describes himself, as stuttering. Rashi translated it into medieval French word balbus, stuttering or stammering (from which comes the modern French verb balbutier, to stutter).

Moshe had a unique relationship with God and surely the voice of God. In this you can also say that he had an auditory processing issue.  It does not seem the Moshe has a problem communicating with people when God is not around. Maybe it the presence of God that causes Moshe to have this auditory processing problem and this stutter.

Last year when dealing with this idea I left this line of  questioning with asking why is this the one time the Torah represents Moshe’s stuttering in print? Maybe it has something to do with the pursuit of justice itself. Beholding true justice would mean seeing the world from God’s perspective. If you truly pursue justice you will achieve being in the presence of God. This would cause anyone to stammer.  Surely there is no shame of pursuing justice.

Perhaps there is another reason that Moshe had difficulty with his speech. In a well-known Midrash Moshe is depicted as a toddler growing up in Pharaoh’s house ( Shmot Rabbah 1:31). Playing on King Pharaoh’s lap little Moshe saw the shining crown, studded with jewels, and reached for it and took it off. Being superstitious Pharaoh asked his advisers the meaning of this action of the infant. They said Moshe was a threat and he should be put to death. One of the king’s counselors, however, suggested that they should first test the boy and see whether his action was prompted by intelligence, or he was merely grasping for sparkling things as any other child would.  Pharaoh agreed to this, and two bowls were set before young Moshe, one contained gold and jewels and the other held glowing fire coals. Moshe reached out for the gold, but an angel redirected his hand to the coals. Moshe snatched a glowing coal and put it to his lips. Moshe burned his tongue, but his life was saved.

 

If you made it this far in my argument maybe you will go to the last question. If all this is true, why is the one time in the Torah represents Moshe’s stuttering in print? Maybe it is something about the pursuit of justice itself.  We can pretend that wanting justice in this world is about children being attracted to shiny things because it allows us to keep the status quo. Alternately we can recognize that justice is always about power. The pursuit of justice is actually Moshe reaching for the crown of power. The pursuit of justice is inherently revolutionary and means that people in power need to share it. We can either ask the next generation to burn their mouths or actually share power in bring about a more just society.

 

-Last year’s piece on Stammering Justice

 

Stammering Justice

Stuttering, also known as stammering, is most commonly associated with involuntary sound repetition, but it also encompasses the abnormal hesitation, blocks,  or pausing before speech. Stuttering is generally not a problem with the physical production of speech sounds or putting thoughts into words. Despite popular perceptions to the contrary, stuttering does not affect and has no bearing on intelligence. Apart from their speech impairment, people who stutter are normal. Anxiety, low confidence, nervousness, and stress therefore do not cause stuttering, although they are very often the result of living with a highly stigmatized disability.

Although the exact etiology of stuttering is unknown, both genetics and neurophysiology are thought to contribute. A variety of hypotheses and theories suggests multiple factors contributing to stuttering. Auditory processing deficits have been proposed as a cause of stuttering. Stuttering is less prevalent in deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals, and stuttering may be improved when auditory feedback is altered. Although there are many treatments and speech therapy techniques available that may help increase fluency in some stutterers, there is essentially no “cure” for the disorder at present.

So, what is my sudden interest in stuttering? In Shoftim, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the establishment of the court system. There we read:

Tzedek Tzedek-Justice, justice shalt you pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you. ( Deuteronomy 16:20)

Why the repeating word, “Justice”? Most commonly it translated to assume that it is emphatic. As to say, “Justice you will surely pursue”. But, maybe this reading overlooks the speaker.

When Moshe is called to be God’s messenger, he resists saying, “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words…. I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.” (Exodus 4:10). From this the Rabbis concluded that Moshe had a stutter.  Rashi  explains k’vad peh, “heavy of mouth,” and k’vad lashon, “heavy of tongue,” by which Moshe describes himself, as stuttering. Rashi translated it into medieval French word balbus, stuttering or stammering (from which comes the modern French verb balbutier, to stutter).

Moshe had a unique relationship with God and surely the voice of God. In this you can also say that he had an auditory processing issue.  It does not seem the Moshe has a problem communicating with people when God is not around. Maybe it the presence of God that causes Moshe to have this auditory processing problem and this stutter.

If you made it this far in my argument maybe you will join me in this last question. If all this is true, why is this the one time the Torah represents Moshe’s stuttering in print? Maybe it has something to do with the pursuit of justice itself. Beholding true justice would mean seeing the world from God’s perspective. If you truly pursue justice you will achieve being in the presence of God. This would cause anyone to stammer.  Surely there is no shame of pursuing justice.

The Other Gate of Justice

I recently read a compelling article by Prof.  Chaim Saiman in Cross Currents.  In his piece If Trayvon Were Tuvia: The Orthodox (Non)response to the Zimmerman Verdict Prof. Saiman lays out a compelling thought experiment. If Trayvon was a Tuvia would the Orthodox Jewish community have reacted the same way?  He concludes that while he thinks it is legitimate for the Orthodox community to start with our own interests showing some concern for this case would have gone a long way in the larger community. Saiman writes, ” Orthodoxy creates a community that is strong enough to reach beyond its comfort zone and empathize with the Other—even when the Other is distant indeed.”

I was thinking about this while I was looked at this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim. There we read:

You shall make judges and officers in all your gates, which the Lord your God gives you, tribe by tribe; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. “(Deuteronomy 16:18)

We all understand the importance of law and its enforcement. In the wake of the Zimmerman case we are all hard pressed to overlook the issues with law enforcement in maintaining social order and the inherent issues of the lack of justice with our existing social order. What is the significance of the Torah having these judges stationed at the gates?

It seems that elsewhere in the Bible we see the gate as the sight of law.  For example, Boaz took Ruth to the gate to announce their getting married (Ruth 4:1). In the world before websites, the city gate was the best sight to communicate information to the masses. But, it also seems that the Israelite judges were philosopher kings who were charged to not only to know the law, but to administer it. In the book of Judges, the judges seem to be better warriors then jurists. In light of this we might think that the judges were stationed at the gates to protect the people inside the city walls. We might conclude that the role of the judge is to stand his or her ground and protect the city. Is the job of today’s judge to keep the denizens of the law safe from the outsiders? Prof. Saiman’s comments stir us to ask who is the insider and who is the outsider to the law. In our society is Tuvia included in the same ways that Trayvon is excluded from the law? For so much of history we were the outsiders to the law. How could we stand idly by as others are excluded?  In the seeking of justice, the judge cannot pervert the law, but how can s/he do so without seeming judgmental?  In my mind, today’s judges should stand there at the gate trying to wave down passers-by and to usher them into the law.

With the advent of Elul, I believe we all need to be thinking about how to include more people in the law and not exclude them. It is the time when  Ha Melech B’Sade- the King is in the field  (Likkutei Torah, Re’eh 32b). God is not in God’s castle , hiding behind the gates of the law, or even standing guard at the gate. God has gone out beyond the gates welcoming us back . In order for us all to do teshuvah, and return, we need to figure out ways in which we can help include everyone equally under the law even or especially the Other.

Passing Judgement

In this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, we read, “You shall make judges and officers in all your gates, which the Lord your God gives you, tribe by tribe; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. “(Deuteronomy 16:18) We all understand the importance of law enforcement in maintaining social order. But, what is the significance of having these judges stationed at the gates?

It seems that elsewhere in the Bible we see the gate as the sight of law.  For example, Boaz took Ruth to the gate to announce their getting married (Ruth 4:1). In the world before websites, it seems that the gate was the best sight to communicate information to the masses. But, it also seems that the Israelite Philosopher Kings were charged to not only to know the law, but to administer it. In the book of Judges, the judges seem to be better warriors then jurists. In that light, they might have been stationed at the gates to protect the people inside the city walls.

Who plays the role of the judge today?All too often today’s rabbi is cast into the role of the gate-keeper. S/he is charged to serve as the keeper of the faith in a time of an ever-diminishing number of Jews who live their lives within the confines of Jewish law. Is the job of today’s judge to keep the denizens of the law safe from the outsiders? Today many Jews are outsiders, should today’s judges stand there trying to wave down passers-by and try to usher them into the law? Or maybe part of the issue is assuming that the synagogue or JCC is still the gate of the city. It is also interesting to see how many rabbis have transformed their role as a warrior into a seeker of social justice. This gate is an interesting place for  him/her to sit.  The want to pass judgement and stand for something, and not just be passed by as they sit at their gate. Can today’s judge fight for the law without seeming judgmental?

 

Egel Arufa Now

A the end of Shoftim, this week’s Torah portion, we learn about the Egel Arufa, the heifer.  There we read:

1If, in the land that the Lord your God is assigning you to possess, someone slain is found lying in the open, the identity of the slayer not being known, 2your elders and magistrates shall go out and measure the distances from the corpse to the nearby towns. 3The elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall then take a heifer which has never been worked, which has never pulled in a yoke; 4and the elders of that town shall bring the heifer down to an everflowing wadi, which is not tilled or sown. There, in the wadi, they shall break the heifer’s neck. 5The priests, sons of Levi, shall come forward; for the Lord your God has chosen them to minister to Him and to pronounce blessing in the name of the Lord, and every lawsuit and case of assault is subject to their ruling. 6Then all the elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi. 7And they shall make this declaration: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. 8Absolve, O Lord, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel.” And they will be absolved of bloodguilt. 9Thus you will remove from your midst guilt for the blood of the innocent, for you will be doing what is right in the sight of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 21: 1- 9)

It is untenable in the Torah for a murder happen without fault. The ritual of the Egel Arufa, the heifer, is an effort to reconcile  society’s responsibility for that murder. It has profound implications in modern society in which we are at once more interconnected than ever online and more isolated than ever in our cubicles.

I would like to enjoin you to consider Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece Apocalypse Now as a modern perush, commentary on this Torah. The film opens, introducing Captain Benjamin L. Willard (played by Martin Sheen); a deeply troubled, seasoned special operations veteran. Willard is sent on mission deep into Cambodian jungle to find Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando), a member of the US Army Special Forces feared to have gone rogue.

After his long journey up the river, away from society, and into the heart of darkness Willard arrives to terminate the Kurtz’s command “with extreme prejudice.”  The climax of the movie is when Willard enters Kurtz’s chamber  with the machete in hand. This entire sequence is set to “The End” by The Doors and juxtaposed with a local ceremonial slaughtering of a water buffalo.

Lying bloody and dying on the ground, Kurtz whispers “The horror… the horror…” before expiring.

Where as in the Torah the sacrifice of the heifer seems to restore justice, Coppola asks us to see the death  of the stranger far from society (Kurtz) at the same time as the society is “fixing it” through the bloody sacrifice of the water buffalo.  In the wake of Vietnam Coppola was asking us to build a society in which we really take responsibility for everyone. It is hard not to hear Kurtz’s comments come as a critique of the society that send Willard to hill him. The horror… the horror.

Today, in light of what is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan and the many senseless deaths that are all around us today, we have to ask ourselves what will clean our hands of these deaths? Who is responsible? How will we restore justice?  What is the Egel Arufa Now?


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