Archive for the '5.05 Shoftim' Category

Free Press: The Menschen at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

We learn in  Shoftim, this week’s Torah portion, the basic elements of what the Torah says about giving testimony. There we read:

One witness shall not arise against a man for any sin or guilt that he may commit; according to two witnesses or according to three witnesses a matter shall stand.(Deuteronomy 19:15)

Thus, two witnesses provide conclusive proof of reality, but one witness does not. With two or three witnesses we can enter something into the public record.

I was thinking about this today when reading this particularly moving piece in the JTA article on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. As reported there, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette donated the $15,000 they won for their Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the deadly anti-Semitic shooting to the Tree of Life synagogue. On Aug. 29, in the Post-Gazette newsroom, Executive Editor Keith Burris presented a $15,000 check to Rabbi Jeffrey Myers and Samuel Schachner, president of the congregation. As reported by Cnaan Liphzhiz

“We feel bound to you and your congregations – by memory and duty,” Burris said in a speech. “And we offer you, in humility, our service – as scribes and witnesses.”

 

What a menschy thing to do? What a profound thing to say? In a time when people are disregarding the press as “Fake News”, it is important to recall the critical role a free press plays in preserving  a democratic society. The news is our  public record. Burris is right, the members of the press need to be  our “scribes and witnesses”. Without the humble service of a free press our society would not have justice and we would not maintain our freedom.

 

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Taking Responsibility: Emmett Till and Egel Arufa

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.

This year when reading about the Egel Arufa my attention went to the wadi. What is the significance of the sacrifice of this heifer being on a wadi “which is not tilled or sown”?  What is the meaning of the location being untouched?

I was thinking about this recently when listening to an NPR program on Emmett Till. Emmett Till (July 25, 1941 – August 28, 1955) was a 14-year-old African American who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, after being accused of offending a white woman in her family’s grocery store. The brutality of his murder and the fact that his killers were acquitted drew attention to the long history of violent persecution of African Americans in the United States. The Till case lives on in our national memory for all of the reasons that we have the ritual of the Egel Arufa in our Torah portion. No one has truly taken responsibility for the death of this young black child. Till posthumously became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement. The legacy of this case has become symbolic for all of the thousands of people who have been killed in this country due to systemic racism.

The Till case was back in the news recently when fraternity brothers of Kappa Alpha Order, an organization that glorifies the Confederate South, at the University of Mississippi posed with guns at the bullet-pocked marker of the sign by the river where Till’s body was found.

Three college students posed in front of the Emmett Till memorial sign in Tallahatchie County, Miss. Instagram/Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting

Instagram/Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting

The symmetry was too poignant to not point out. They wanted wanted to uproot Tills memory by shooting at the sign. While they have been suspended from the fraternity, still no one ever stood on the “non tilled” wadi to take responsibility for the death that happened 64 years ago.

So, why does this ritual of the Egel Arufa need to be done on land “which is not tilled or sown”? Rashi comments on this that the land is hard. It sounds like we needed to do this ritual on bedrock. We needed to strip everything else away, take responsibilty for a death, and from there we will have a sound foundation to rebuild society. It is clear from the case of Till in America, that we have never truly done the work of getting down to the “not tilled or sown” foundation of racism in this country. Until we get to the bottom of this injustice will fester. Until we do this “hard” work and take responisilbity for what has happened we will never build a just society.

-for another reading of the Egel Arufa check out this blog post on Apocalypse Now

One of Us: Heathens

Two years ago my kids and I could not get in the car and listen to the radio without listening to the song Heathens by 21 Pilots Just like Desposito, Heathens was all the rage. I must warn you before you listen to it that this song is a bit of an earworm. Please just remember that you have been warned.

 

 

The song plays with the idea of being an insider or an outsider to this group of a misfit group of heathens. But what is a heathen? A heathen is a person who does not belong to a widely held religion. Today people feel like they are outsiders to faith and are in turn skeptical of people who want to join them. As the song goes:

Why’d you come, you knew you should have stayed
I tried to warn you just to stay away
And now they’re outside ready to bust
It looks like you might be one of us

The song tells the story of an outsider to a group of outsiders and how that person becomes an insider.

This reminds me of three successive stories told in the Talmud of three heathens who come before Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shamai ( Shabbat 31a). Each of them hoped to join the Jewish people, but came with a unique stipulation. In each case Shamai pushes them away and Hillel finds a way to meet them where they are. With Hillel’s help they join the Jewish people. In the process they relented on their stipulation and they were transformed. The outsider becomes an insider of this group of outsiders. In someone way, at least by this story being shared in the Talmud, we as a people were also changed by their joining us. This leaves me with the question in these three stories as with the song Heathens, were the outsiders accommodated or included?

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

If there be found in your midst, within any of thy gates which the Lord your God gives you, man or woman, that does that which is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, in transgressing God’s covenant, and has gone and served other gods, and worshiped them, or the sun, or the moon, or any of the host of heaven, which I have commanded not; and it be told you, and you hear it, then shalt you inquire diligently, and, behold, if it be true, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought in Israel; then you shall bring forth that man or that woman, who have done this evil thing, unto your gates, even the man or the woman; and you shall stone them with stones, that they die.( Deuteronomy 17:2- 5)

These are some harsh words for the heathen. They are supposed to be excluded in the most severe way, being stoned to death. Do we still want to maintain such a harsh disposition to the “heathens” in our midst? Maybe we should be more like Hillel and strive to meet people where they are. I appreciate the fear of Shamai, we are a group of outsiders to history. We have a lot at risk of losing our identity by compromise in any way shape or form. At the same time I feel that we have what to gain from real mutual engagement with people different than ourselves. I do not think that Hillel was just accommodating, if we actually include these outsiders we might just realize that they “might be one of us.”

Judging A Tragic Cycle

In Shoftim, this week’s Torah portion, we learn about the nature of the Israelite law system. There we read:

18 Judges and officers you shall make yourselves in all of your gates, which the Lord your God gives you, tribe by tribe; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. 19 You shalt not wrest judgment; you shall not respect persons; neither shall you take a gift; for a gift does blind the eyes of the wise, and pervert the words of the righteous. 20 Justice, justice shalt you follow, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you. ( Deuteronomy 16:18-20)

It seems pretty clear that for a judge to be successful they need to be beyond reproach. I was thinking about the role of the judge in the Torah which looks a lot like our aspiration of the Western justice system as compared to the role of the judge in the book of Judges. There in the book of Judges we see divinely inspired leaders whose direct knowledge of God’s will which allows them to act as champions for the Israelites against oppression by foreign rulers, and models of the wise and faithful behavior required of them. They seem more like military leaders then sitting bench judges from the Torah or our legal system. The stories in the book of Judges follow a consistent pattern:

  • The people are unfaithful to God
  • God therefore delivers them into the hands of their enemies
  • The people repent and entreat God for mercy
  • God sends in the form of a leader or champion
  • The judge delivers the Israelites from oppression and they prosper
  • Soon they fall again into unfaithfulness
  • The cycle is repeated.

Both the image of the just judge from our Torah portion and the leadership judge from the book of Judges shed light on harrowing time we are in today.

We will see what comes out of Mueller’s investigation, but it is likely to exhibit that the current administration is not beyond reproach. There is mounting lack of confidence in the leadership of our country. Since Charlottesville people doubt the administration’s moral leadership. When we look at their “accomplishments” in total since the start of their administration we have to ask if they have any type of leadership needed to govern? In response, Trump has been playing to his base. It is scary to realize that he has been casting himself in the image of the judges from the book of Judges and that his base is locked into living out that tragic cycle again and again. It is even scarier to realize that he does not have what it takes to pursue justice. History will judge Trump poorly.

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.


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