Posts Tagged 'Shma'

Unconscionable : On Capital Punishment, Law, and Identity

The Shema is a Jewish statement of creed that serves as a centerpiece of the morning, evening, and pre-bed prayer services. After the Shema we see the VaAhavta which spells out some of the central practices of this faith statement. I was thinking about these statements in that they are both found in Va’etchanan, this week’s Torah portion. Here we read:

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.Take to heart these instructions with which I מְצַוְּךָ֛- charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. ( Deuteronomy 6:4-7)

The charge – מְצַוְּךָ֛ is to keep the Mitzvot– Commandments. In this sense traditionally Jewish identity is defined as how we live our live by these laws. This is interesting in juxtaposition to Christian’s identity which often is defined around love and not law. For Judaism our commitment to law is our expression of our love. 

I was thinking about this idea of identity recently when watching an extraordinary TED talk by Byran Stevenson. It really is a must watch:

The topic of how we need to talk about an injustice is very compelling. For me the most brilliant part of his talk is how he framed the conversation about the legal system in America around the idea of identity.

Once Stevenson was giving a lecture in Germany about the death penalty. There he said:

It was fascinating because one of the scholars stood up after the presentation and said, “Well you know it’s deeply troubling to hear what you’re talking about.” He said, “We don’t have the death penalty in Germany. And of course, we can never have the death penalty in Germany.” And the room got very quiet, and this woman said, “There’s no way, with our history, we could ever engage in the systematic killing of human beings. It would be unconscionable for us to, in an intentional and deliberate way, set about executing people.” And I thought about that. What would it feel like to be living in a world where the nation state of Germany was executing people, especially if they were disproportionately Jewish? I couldn’t bear it. It would be unconscionable.

In America we clearly disassociate ourselves from the law. It is unconscionable how these laws are radically unjust to people of color.  And for many of us who are not subject to this discrimination we have the luxury of being unconscious about the impact of this legal system. Our laws should manifest our attempt to bring about justice in the world. What would it look like if we identified ourselves by our laws? It seems that our laws are mostly punitive. What would our laws look like if they were framed as an expression of love?

These questions come to a head when we discuss capital punishment. About this Stevenson says:

In many ways, we’ve been taught to think that the real question is, do people deserve to die for the crimes they’ve committed? And that’s a very sensible question. But there’s another way of thinking about where we are in our identity. The other way of thinking about it is not, do people deserve to die for the crimes they commit, but do we deserve to kill?

Our faith in law needs to be an identity that is wrapped up in seeing the infinite worth of every human being. It is unconscionable to abide a law that falls short of recognizing this fact. In each and everyone of us is an element of the divine. We need to express our love to God by how we write and live out our legal system.

Out of Sight

In  Va’Etchanan, this week’s Torah portion we read the first paragraph of the Sh’ma -the Jewish credo. There we read:

Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up. And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them upon the door-posts of your house, and upon your gates. (Deuteronomy 6: 4- 9)

These words are familiar to many of us. We rarely stop to think about what they mean. Surely we are even less likely to stop to ask why we cover our eyes when we say the Sh’ma?

One explanation is that for the Jewish creed, there is a presumption that God has no form. It follows that our deepest faith is in something that we will never experience with our eyes. In covering our eyes it is as if we are saying, “I believe in You/you even when I do not see You/you”. To what degree is this true for us in other relationships in our lives? Do we feel like we are part of this community even when we do not see each other?

On Monday we are sending our eldest child to overnight camp for the first time. Do we trust him even when we do not have an eye on him? Do we trust the staff of the camp to take care of him? The answers are yes and yes. And further, camp is an amazing place in which he will be able to explore “these words” at all points of the day and in all media of expression. It is important  that our son has the space to explore Judaism and his role in the  community  beyond our watchful eyes. I am confident that giving him this own space at camp will ensure his commitment to the Jewish project. The only question is how he will he keep connected with his camp friends after the summer when he can no longer sees them.

Get the Message

There are a lot of familiar parts to VaEtchanan, this week’s Torah portion. First of all we see the rehashing of the 10 Commandments and then of course we have the Shma.There is the Shma we read:

4 Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6 And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart; 7 and you shall teach them diligently unto your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up. (Deuteronomy 6: 4-7)

There is a huge amount one can say on this short section which has become the central credo of the Jewish People. Today I want to focus in on a small section. What does it mean when it says,  ” which I command you this day”? About this Rashi explains:

They should not be in your eyes like an old edict to which a person does not attach importance, but rather , like a new one, towards which everybody runs. This notion of an old edict denotes an order of the king which comes in writing.  ( Rashi on Deuteronomy 4:6)

In simple terms, Rashi is saying that we are commanded to keep the words of Torah relevant to our lives. But how?

It is hard to imagine Jewish life without Rashi. Similarly it is hard to  imagine contemporary Jewish life without Franz Kafka. In many ways Kafka’s An Imperial Message is a super-commentary to Rashi’s comment here. Kafka’s parable reads:

The Emperor—so they say—has sent a message, directly from his death bed, to you alone, his pathetic subject, a tiny shadow which has taken refuge at the furthest distance from the imperial sun. He ordered the herald to kneel down beside his bed and whispered the message in his ear. He thought it was so important that he had the herald speak it back to him. He confirmed the accuracy of verbal message by nodding his head. And in front of the entire crowd of those witnessing his death—all the obstructing walls have been broken down, and all the great ones of his empire are standing in a circle on the broad and high soaring flights of stairs—in front of all of them he dispatched his herald. The messenger started off at once, a powerful, tireless man. Sticking one arm out and then another, he makes his way through the crowd. If he runs into resistance, he points to his breast where there is a sign of the sun. So he moves forwards easily, unlike anyone else. But the crowd is so huge; its dwelling places are infinite. If there were an open field, how he would fly along, and soon you would hear the marvelous pounding of his fist on your door. But instead of that, how futile are all his efforts. He is still forcing his way through the private rooms of the innermost palace. Never will he win his way through. And if he did manage that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to fight his way down the steps, and, if he managed to do that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to stride through the courtyards, and after the courtyards through the second palace encircling the first, and, then again, through stairs and courtyards, and then, once again, a palace, and so on for thousands of years. And if he finally burst through the outermost door—but that can never, never happen—the royal capital city, the center of the world, is still there in front of him, piled high and full of sediment. No one pushes his way through here, certainly not someone with a message from a dead man. But you sit at your window and dream of that message when evening comes.– Translation by Ian Johnston

It is said that Rav Nachman and Kafka were cut of the same cloth. Rav Nachman was a believer and for Kafka the King is dead.  It is a struggle in the modern era to imagine that were were handed anything other then an “old edict”.  If we seek meaning in our Jewish lives we need to hear the message and transform ourselves, our life styles, and our homes. I do not believe that Judaism will last if we are just sitting at home waiting by the window. That Judaism is never going to be relevant.

We need to re-imagine ourselves as divine partners bringing the message out to the world.  It is living the life of the messenger and raising our children to be messengers after us that the Torah is alive and is not just an old edict. In my moments of doubt I often think about this message that I have been schlepping around this whole time. Who wants to be just a postal worker? But, the message is not for me.  We are couriers of a love letter spending our days looking for the home of the lover.  This letter might bring love and comfort to the intended recipient. For that person I feel an urgency, how ever futile it might be, to get the message there. That is my daily duty. Who am I not do my job?


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