Posts Tagged 'Shoftim'

Stuttering Club: Empathy and Leadership

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.

I was thinking about this last night when watching the Democratic National Convention. There thirteen-year-old Brayden Harrington  spoke to millions of people tuning into the convention. In February Brayden met Vice President Joe Biden at a rally in New Hampshire. When Biden, a fellow stutterer, learned about Brayden’s speech difficulties at the rally, he invited him backstage. There, Biden showed him the speech he had just delivered and the annotations he used to signal when to breathe, and gave him advice and exercises for overcoming his stutter. Watch this video:

“It was really amazing to hear that someone like me became vice-president. He told me about a book of poems by Yeats he would read out loud to practice,” Brayden said. “He showed me how he marks his addresses to make them easier to say out loud. So I did the same thing today. And now I’m here talking to you today about the future, about our future.” As Dan Rather described, Brayden’s speech as “pure, unvarnished courage.”

In Brayden’s address, the teenager said that “without Joe Biden I wouldn’t be talking to you today,” and that during their first meeting, Biden had told him they were “members of the same club”. This amazing story of courage of thirteen-year-old conquering his fear and talking to millions of people made me think of another very important leader in history who is part of that club- Moshe.

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).

This issue is particularly interesting to me this week due to Brayden’s story and the timely reading of Shoftim, this week’s Torah portion. There we read about the establishment of the court system and the most famous quote:

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, I think this reading overlooks the speaker. As we know, Moshe was a member of the club and had a stutter, and this is the text recording his stammer.

If this is true, why does the Torah represents Moshe’s stuttering in print at this moment? Maybe it has something to do with the pursuit of justice itself. In the past I have explored other ideas , but this week Brayden’s story inspired a different reading. As we heard in his story and many other’s shared at the DNC, Biden’s leadership is founded on his empathy born out of personal hardships. We all know bullies prey on people who are different or weak. To truly pursue justice we need to connect to our own experiences of being marginalized. Like Moshe before him, Biden’s commitment to pursue justice is founded on his own experience of stuttering.  There is a profound strength of leadership founded on vulnerability.

We should never make fun of people just because they are different than us. To work for justice we need to have empathy for those who are experiencing hardship.  Let’s surely vote out the bully on November 3rd.

-Also see Stammering Justice

-Also see Revisiting Stammering Justice

 

Just Judges: Shoftim and Kamala

Last week Joe Biden announced Kamala Harris as his running mate. Soon after President Trump attacked Harris for being “extraordinarily nasty” to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings. It is true, Harris did aggressively question Kavanaugh’s sexual misconduct allegations during the justice’s heated 2018 confirmation hearings. In her line of questioning she also touched on abortion laws and Trump’s reaction to the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. Trump said, “She was extraordinarily nasty to Kavanaugh, Judge Kavanaugh, now Justice Kavanaugh. She was nasty to a level that was just a horrible thing the way she was, the way she treated now-Justice Kavanaugh. And I won’t forget that soon.” I am curious why Trump thinks her line of questioning of Judge Kavanaugh was a bad thing.

Brett Kavanaugh Struggles To Answer Kamala Harris' 'Simple ...

I was thinking about this in the context of him proudly holding a Bible.

The Bible is not a prop': Religious leaders, lawmakers outraged ...

Has Trump ever read the it? It is not just a prop, something to bring into class for show-and-tell, or a weapon to brandish.

I do not bring it up not just because Kamala Harris’s nomination was an important moment in our country’s history or that this week is the DNC, but because this week we read Shoftim, this week’s Torah reading. And yes the Torah, Five books of Moses, is in that Bible in the President’s hands.

Here in Shoftim Moses instructs the people of Israel to appoint judges and law enforcement officers in every city. There we read:

You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not set up a ashera– idolatrous tree —any kind of pole beside the altar of the Lord your God that you may make—or erect a stone pillar; for such the Lord your God detests. (Deuteronomy 16:18-22)

The Bible takes the appointment of judges and the human process of pursuing justice very seriously. But what do we make of the juxtaposition of the idea of creating a justice system to this ashera tree by the alter?

To answer this question we go to the Rabbis of the Talmud. There we learn:

Reish Lakish says: With regard to anyone who appoints over the community a judge who is not fit, it is as though he plants a tree used as part of idolatrous rites [ashera] among the Jewish people, as it is stated: “You shall make judges and officers for yourself” (Deuteronomy 16:18), and juxtaposed to it, it is written: “You shall not plant yourself an ashera of any kind of tree” (Deuteronomy 16:21). By implication, appointing unfit judges is akin to planting a tree for idolatry. (Sanhedrin 7b)

In Jewish thought the pursuit of justice and selection of good judges is central to our religious expression.

Why complain about Kamala Harris? As a former prosecutor she was doing her job and doing it well. She was faithfully fulfilling her mandate from the Bible to grill of Kavanaugh.

The Trump administration wants to hide behind a book. Those who support him because of the Bible are no different than Trump himself. What is the difference between devotion to a book made of wood and never opened and planting the ashera tree? They are all idol worshipers.

I wanted to invite all of the God-fearing Trump supporters to break from Trump’s doctrine of bullying and realize the religious importance of law. We must uproot the idolatry in our midst. Kamala Harris has proven that she will make sure that we have the right judges. We need to vote for Biden and Kamala. They will get our country back on track.

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.

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?

 


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