Posts Tagged 'Justice'

Wake Up Call: Life After the Election

Last Wednesday morning when we woke up Yadid, our 12-year-old, he asked for the results of the election. In response to hearing that Donald J. Trump was elected by the electoral college as our 45th president he said, ” Wake Me Up in Four Years”. At first I encouraged him that we need to open-minded to the president he might yet prove to be and at the same time ever vigilant to ensure that the most vulnerable are not hurt. But then I let Yadid’s words sink in a bit more. I have so many privileges that I have been ignoring those who have been vulnerable for years.  I am a white heterosexual male educated blue-state elite. How long have I been asleep?

I have been living in unconsciously in the bubble of the American Dream.  Yadid’s comments reminded me of something that Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in his moving book Between the World and Me. There he wrote:

That Sunday, on that news show, I tried to explain this as best I could within the time allotted. But at the end of the segment, the host flashed a widely shared picture of a 12-year-old black boy tearfully hugging a white police officer. Then she asked me about “hope.” And I knew then that I had failed. And I remembered that I had expected to fail. And I wondered again at the indistinct sadness welling up in me. Why exactly was I sad? I came out of the studio and walked for a while. It was a calm late-November day. Families, believing themselves white, were out on the streets. Infants, raised to be white, were bundled in strollers. And I was sad for these people, much as I was sad for the host and sad for all the people out there watching and reveling in a specious hope. I realized then why I was sad. When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream. I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option, because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world, I was sad for the host, I was sad for all those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you. (Between the World and Me)

The election of Trump is a real wake up call. But it does not change the fact that for many of us, it is our fault that we have been slumbering through the misery of others.

Interestingly the Talmud deals with a related issue. There we read:

Rabbi Yohanan said: This righteous man [Honi] was throughout the whole of his life troubled about the meaning of the verse, A Song of Ascents, When the Lord brought back those that returned to Zion, we were like unto them that dream. ( Psalms 126:1)   Is it possible for a man to dream continuously for seventy years? One day he was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree; he asked him, How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit? The man replied: Seventy years. He then further asked him: Are you certain that you will live another seventy years? The man replied: I found [ready grown] carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted these for me so I too plant these for my children. Honi sat down to have a meal and sleep overcame him. As he slept a rocky formation enclosed upon him which hid him from sight and he continued to sleep for seventy years. When he awoke he saw a man gathering the fruit of the carob tree and he asked him, Are you the man who planted the tree? The man replied: I am his grandson. Thereupon he exclaimed: It is clear that I slept for seventy years. (Taanit 23a)

In the Talmud’s  version of the goes on to recount the Rip Van Winkle tale Honi is lost in his learning contemplating the 70 diaspora of the Jewish people. What does it mean that our diaspora could pass as a dream? As we have seen with the resurgence of antisemitism this is no dream. But have we been asleep and complacent while people have been targeting of Muslims, Mexicans, people of color, people with disabilities, the LGBT, and women? Like Yadid, I am tempted to roll over and try to sleep through the next four years, but we need to wake up.  I realize that I am somewhere between grumpy and bewildered about the amount of work that needs to be done. And shame on me because it was there to be done before the wake up call while I was sleeping in my cozy bed. Now that I am awake how will we ever bring about justice? As Rabbi Tarfon says,“You are not expected to complete the task, but neither are you free to avoid it.” (Avot 2:21) And as we learn from the grandfather planting the carob tree for his grandson, there is not quick fix for anything that we want to sustain. We must think in terms of generations if we want to do the work of bringing about true justice.

So I tell myself and my children, “Good morning. Wake up. There is much to do. We have to dig in deep and do the good work.”

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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

 

ProcrastiNation: Why We Eat Matzah on Passover

In preparation for Shabbat HaGadol I ask myself, why do we eat Matzah on Passover? As we read in the Haggadah:

Because the dough of our fathers did not have time to become leavened before the King of the kings, the Holy One, blessed be God, revealed God’s self to them and redeemed them. Thus it is said: “They baked Matzah-cakes from the dough that they had brought out of Egypt, because it was not leavened; for they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay, and they had also not prepared any [other] provisions.” (DIY Haggadah)

So when the time came for them to leave they did not delay, but that final plague was not the first time they heard of their pending exodus. Moshe came and told the slaves of the plan to leave Egypt. It seems as though the Israelites were surprised by the exodus. Or is it that they doubted that it was possible? You would think that they would have prepared some provisions. Maybe some bagels for the trip, they travel quite well. Can you even imagine what our Passover brunch spread would have been like? But that is not the case. We are stuck eating Matzah.

It seems that Pharaoh was not alone in doubting that God would redeem the people from their bondage. While we call it the bread of affliction, the affliction in question seems to be procrastination. The slaves procrastinated in getting ready to leave the world they knew. We all can relate. On a mundane level we all run late and wait until the last-minute to get things done. But on a deeper level we are all a little slow in working to be the change that we want to see in the world. As the expression goes, failure to prepare is preparing to fail. As we eat this “bread of procrastination” we should liberate ourselves from habits of being a “ProcrastiNation”. As quoted by MLK in his moving Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” We must believe, plan, and move swiftly to free our world from injustice. Eating Matzah reminds us not to delay.

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.

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?

 

When We Dip: Another Take on Karpas

We have finished the first of our four glasses of wine. We have just sat down after the first of the two hand washings. Now, we partake of a vegetable dipped in salt water or vinegar. With the blessing of borei pri ha’adamah on our lips and the first sign of spring in our hands, we eat our first food of the evening.  Like a reenactment of Persephone’s return from Hades, we connect to this first taste of spring. However, our excitement of this rite of spring is overshadowed by the salty taste reminding us of the sweaty, backbreaking labor of slavery.

But what of those who dip in vinegar? How are they to connect the vinegar to a deeper message about the day or the ritual of dipping? There is a story from the Talmud that seems pertinent to us in this moment. We learn:

Once, four hundred jars of wine belonging to Rav Huna turned sour. Rav Yehudah, the brother of Rav Sala the Pious, and the other scholars—some say: Rav Adda ben Ahava and the other scholars—went in to visit him [Rav Huna] and said to him: The master ought to examine his actions.

He [Rav Huna] said to them: Am I suspect in your eyes?

They replied: Is the Holy One, blessed be God, suspect of punishing without justice?

He [Rav Huna] said to them: If somebody has heard of anything against me, let him speak out.

They replied: We have heard that the master does not give his tenant his [lawful share in the] vine twigs [i.e., fair wages for his work].

He replied: Does he leave me any? He [the tenant farmer] steals them all!

They said to him: That is exactly what people say: If you steal from a thief you also have a taste of it!

He said to them: I pledge myself to give it to him [in the future]. Some report that thereupon the vinegar became wine again; others that the vinegar went up so high [in value] that it was sold for the same price as wine. (Berachot 5b)

Rav Huna, a third-century CE amora, was unwilling to see his misfortune as mere happenstance. As the head of the Academy in Sura, it is clear that Rav Huna wanted to improve himself. After some coaxing, his peers informed him that he was not providing the tenants of his vineyard what was perceived as a fair wage. So, instead of punishing the tenants for stealing from him, Rav Huna paid them a fair wage. The taste of the vinegar was a reminder to Rav Huna to be meticulous in his business dealings, and the ensuing miracle speaks to the significance of his redemptive act.

While there are profound demands on us to see to an end to dire poverty, the very same Rav Huna challenges us to say that this is not enough. We learn:

When he [Rav Huna] had a meal he would open the door wide and declare, “Whosoever is in need let him come and eat.” (Taanit 20b)

It was not just on Passover that Rav Huna opened up his home to the needy. Rav Huna also teaches us that we need to be punctilious in business dealings and not just focus on the most needy or impoverished. Every working person needs to be paid a fair wage, especially those responsible for bringing food to our tables. Rav Huna further teaches us to open our homes and our hearts not only to those who are starving, but to anyone in need. Passover is an occasion for us to reflect on our behavior throughout the whole year. If we allow ourselves to taste the vinegar of the karpas, we will come to taste freedom all year.

Missing the Silence

As a parent it is hard to imagine how I would respond upon hearing the death of one of my children, let alone two of them. In Shemini, this week’s Torah portion, we read of Aaron’s response to hearing the death of two of his sons. There we read:

Then Moses said to Aaron: ‘This is it that the Lord spoke, saying: Through them that are close to Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron was silent. (Leviticus 10:3)

Why would God take his two children? I could imagine many responses, but not one of them is silence. It seems even more peculiar when you continue reading the Torah and Rashi’s commentary which are clearly seeking a rational for the death of Aaron’s sons. Than we read:

The Lord spoke to Aaron saying. Do not drink intoxicating win, you and your sons with you, when you come to the Tent of Meeting, that you not die – this is an eternal decree for your generations.( Leviticus 10:8-9)

Don’t you think this “eternal decree” would have been nice to hear about before his sons got killed at the hands of God? This just seems unjust. I do not understand how Aaron could possibly hold his silence upon hearing this. While I do not ever think I can understand Aaron’s deafening silence, what do I make of Moses attempt at theodicy? How is it that the greatest teacher of Israel has no pastoral skills?

At the end of the very same chapter we read:

And Aaron spoke to Moses: ‘Behold, this day have they offered their sin-offering and their burnt-offering before the Lord, and there have befallen me such things as these; and if I had eaten the sin-offering today, would it have been well-pleasing in the sight of the Lord? And when Moses heard that, it was well-pleasing in his sight. (Leviticus 10:1-20)

On this, Rashi reads in an entire back story in which Aaron and Moses are discussing the finer points of mourning and sacrificial laws. What does it mean that Moses approved of what Aaron said? Rashi interprets it to me mean that Moses admitted that Aaron was right in his interpretation of the law.  Moses was not ashamed to admit” Lo Shamati“- that he had not heard the Law. Aaron was right and Moses was wrong in terms of interpreting these laws.

On another level this comment by Aaron is his first words after the death of his son’s. This is what ended the silence. Above and beyond Aaron’s ability to hold his tongue, his ability to stick to his job and serve in the Temple after such a perceived injustice is truly remarkable. In light of this, I want to offer a drasha on Rashi’s  understanding of Moses saying ” Lo Shamati“.  While Moses saw Aaron doing his job and was happy to see that.  By saying Lo Shamati – Moses admitted that he did not hear Aaron. What did Aaron say? Nothing and that is the point. Moses missed the profundity of Aaron’s silence.

All to often, as a Rabbi and for that matter as an educator,  father, and husband I am reactive and not proactive. I am less of an actor and more of a re-actor in my own life. I know of myself that I do not always know what to do with silence. Often the best response is to recognize it and to just sit with it. It seems that Moses was obtuse to Aaron’s silence, but in admitting his fault  Moses shows us all how we might all strive to deal better with others’ tragedies. Often there is nothing to say. You just have to be present and do a lot of listening.



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