Posts Tagged 'Social Justice'

Beyond Mountains: Behar and Paul Farmer

This week’s Torah portion, Behar , starts:

God spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall observe a Sabbath rest for God. For Six years you may sow your field and for six years you may prune your vineyards and you may gather your crop. But the seventh year shall be a complete rest for the land, a Sabbath for God, your field you shall not sow and your vineyard you shall not prune. ( Leviticus 25:1-4)

Rashi asks the oft quoted question, ” What is the issue of Shmitah doing juxtaposed Har Sinai?” Or in other words, why is this Mitzvah getting top billing at Sinai? Was not the whole Torah given at Sinai?  I think there is yet another even simpler question that can be asked. What is the significance of talking about Shmitah on a mountain?

This question reminds me of a classic story of the mythic town of Chelm. There we read:

Once upon a time, in the little village of Chelm, the people decided that they needed a new cemetery.  The population of the city had expanded, people had begun to build larger homes, and the need to find a new location for the townspeople’s eternal resting place.  They looked, and looked, and could not find a suitable location.  They called a meeting of the wise people of the town and for seven days, debated the issue.

At the end of the seven days, the people reached a conclusion: they would move them out and that was on the southern side of the city and utilize the space created by moving the mountain as the new cemetery. This of course, raised a new question for the people: how does one move a mountain?  They debated the issue for another seven days.  Finally, the wise man of Chelm came up with an idea. “we will all rise, all men of the town as one – united in spirit and body – and together we will move the mountain.” The townspeople quickly accepted this “wise” advice. Quickly, all able bodied men – young and old, rushed to the mountain on the southern side of the city.

A crowd quickly gathered and surrounded the mountain.  The men pushed and shoved and leaned and tried as hard as they could, but they could not move the mountain. 10 minutes went by, allowing the participants to catch their breath before they strenuously tried again.  Again, they pushed and strained and shoved but could not move the mountain.  At this point, the menfolk of Chelm were drenched in sweat and beginning to get uncomfortable.  The men removed their shirts, depositing them on the side, in preparation for their next try. As all the men struggled, a group of petty thieves watched the men in earnest.  They quickly came with small carts and as the men of Chelm  strained to move the mountain, the thieves stole all the shirts and quickly disappeared from the town.

After an hour of straining, one of the wise men discovered that his shirt was missing.  Soon, all the men discovered that their shirts were missing.  They began to wonder what was going on.  The wise man of Chelm surmised the answer. “We must have been successful” he told them. “We must have moved the mountain so far that we cannot even see the place where we left our shirts.” Upon hearing the explanation, the people began to applaud, cheer and even break out into dance over their success.

( As retold by Rabbi Shabsi HaKohein Yudelovitch)

They were foolish to think that losing their jackets were a sign of their success, but they were not foolish in looking for a metric for success.  Where in Chelm they were looking for room for their cemetery in Behar through the institution of shmittah we are looking to create room for the underprivileged and economically marginalized parts of our society. But still I ask, why is this message delivered at a mountain?

When I think about the unending issue of addressing the needs of the poor I think about Dr Paul Farmer z’l. Farmer, who tragically passed away this year, heroicly worked to bring health care to rural Haiti. In is the award-winning book Mountains Beyond Mountains by Pulitzer-prize-winning author Tracy Kidder he described Farmer as “the man who would cure the world”. There he writes:

And I can imagine Farmer saying he doesn’t care if no one else is willing to follow their example. He’s still going to make these hikes, he’d insist, because if you say that seven hours is too long to walk for two families of patients, you’re saying that their lives matter less than some others’, and the idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that’s wrong with the world.

Mountains Beyond Mountains)

The book’s title comes from a Haitian proverb, which is usually translated as: “Beyond the mountains, more mountains.” According to Farmer, a better translation is: “Beyond mountains there are mountains.” The phrase expresses something fundamental about the spirit and the scale and the difficulty of Farmer’s work. The Haitian proverb, by the way, is also a pretty accurate description of the topography of a lot of Haiti.

To return to Rashi’s  question, ” What is the issue of Shmitah doing juxtaposed Har Sinai?” What we learn from Farmer in terms of health care is the same as in terms of access to food and other issues of poverty, beyond this mountain there are more mountains. In the words of Rabbi Tarfon, ” It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it.” ( Avot 2:16) Shmitah is an approach to dealing with poverty. The revelation of need in society is an opportunity to enact Torah in this world and therefore its own revelation like that at Mount Sinai. This is similar to Rabbi Yehoshua the son of Levi when he said “ Every day, an echo resounds from Mount Horev (Sinai)” ( Avot 6:2) This is to say that beyond this mountain ( Sinai) there are more mountains. May Dr. Paul Farmer’s memory be for a blessing.


Weight of the World

In parshat Tetzaveh, this week’s Torah portion, , we read about the sacred clothes made for Aaron and his sons who are going to be the priests. It says that these vestments provide them glory and splendor (Exodus 28:1). It is clear that there are many layers of meaning behind all of the layers of the clothing of the priest, but this week I want to focus in on the Ephod. There we read:

And they shall make the Ephod of gold, of blue, and purple, scarlet, and fine twined linen, the work of the skilful workman. It shall have two shoulder-pieces joined to the two ends thereof, that it may be joined together. And the skilfully woven band, which is upon it, wherewith to gird it on, shall be like the work thereof and of the same piece: of gold, of blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine twined linen. And you shall take two onyx stones, and grave on them the names of the children of Israel: six of their names on the one stone, and the names of the six that remain on the other stone, according to their birth. With the work of an engraver in stone, like the engravings of a signet, you shall engrave the two stones, according to the names of the children of Israel; you shall make them to be inclosed in settings of gold. And you shall put the two stones upon the shoulder-pieces of the ephod, to be stones of as a remembrance for the children of Israel; and Aaron shall bear their names before the Lord upon his two shoulders for a memorial.  (Exodus 28:6- 12)

I have a pretty good imagination as to what the Ephod looked like, but what is the meaning of the two shoulders memorials? For whom is this a memorial? Quoting the Midrash  on this Rashi comments:

“As a remembrance”  So that the Holy One Blessed be God should see the names of the Tribes written before God’s self and give thought to their righteousness.  ( Shmot Rabbah 38:8)

The shoulder gems are not for the High Priest, but rather for God. But, why does God need these? Does God need a cheat sheet to remember our righteousness? What is the purpose of these memorials? And why on the shoulders?

These questions made me think about the story of Heracles and Atlas. As one of his Twelve Labors  Heracles had to fetch some of the golden apples which grow in Hera’s garden, tended by Atlas’ daughters, the Hesperides, and guarded by the dragon Ladon. Heracles went to Atlas and offered to hold up the heavens while Atlas got the apples from his daughters. Upon his return with the apples, however, Atlas attempted to trick Heracles into carrying the sky permanently by offering to deliver the apples himself, as anyone who purposely took the burden must carry it forever, or until someone else took it away. Heracles, suspecting Atlas did not intend to return, pretended to agree to Atlas’ offer, asking only that Atlas take the sky again for a few minutes so Heracles could rearrange his cloak as padding on his shoulders. When Atlas set down the apples and took the heavens upon his shoulders again, Heracles took the apples and ran away.

We learn in the Talmud:

While they are clothed in the priestly garments, they are clothed in the priesthood; but when they are not wearing the garments, the priesthood is not upon them. (Zevachim 17b)

What did it mean for a the High Priest to decide to put on the priestly garb? If they did not put on the garments they would be just like you and me. In choosing to put on the attire they were undertaking the weight of the nation. Seeing what they have undertaken on their shoulders God is reminded of the merit of Tribes of Israel. The question for us is if we are willing to fulfill our role. Will we run away with the golden apples or stand strong and choose to take responsibility for the world around us? The weight of the world  will not be so crushing if each of us does our part.

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.

“Just” Affiliate

In 2004 when I started my years of being a Campus Rabbi I spent a lot of time trying to understand Hillel’s mission. In Hillel’s own memory it seems that at the outset Hillel was the pluralistic synagogue on campus. That eventually turned into the precursor to the “synaplex” on campus still only serving the needs of proto-synagogue Jews. In this Hillel enjoyed a certain movement from the sanctuary to the social hall, but it was caught in the grips of authenticity as defined by synagogue-centered Jewish life. Eventually Hillel tried to be a place in which Jewish students would do Jewish with other Jews. While this benefited from getting beyond the synagogue shadow, it lacked definition, rigor, or a clear drive to follow students’ passions. By the time I got there Hillel’s new mission had evolved into working toward “the significant survival of the Jewish people”.  While this clearly speaks to people’s passions, it does not speak to mine. For me survival is never good enough. The question for me was and still is, “What will be our contribution to the world as Jews”? This question is not limited to Hillel.

Looking at Miketz and VaYigash, last week’s and this week’s Torah portions, we are left with an interesting model for a Jew making a universal contribution in the character of Joseph. Last week Joseph contributed to the larger society by organizing them in preparation for the famine. Millions would have died if it was not for his insight and leadership. Once he meets his brothers who are driven from their homes in search of food, he is faced with a number of choices. Will he help them or not? This seems pretty obvious, they are his family and how else will he fulfil his childhood dream of having them bow down to him? But just because he saves them, it does not necessarily mean that he will disclose his identity. Joseph could have helped them and remained anonymous.  This week the drama is played out. Will Joseph’s contribution be as an individual or will he choose to be identified with his people?

The text reads, “Then Joseph could not refrain himself before all those who stood by him; and he cried, Cause every man to go out from me. And there stood no man with him, while Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he gave his voice in tears; and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard.”(Genesis 45:1-2) At the outset we assume that Joseph is trying to come out to his brothers while stay closeted with his identity. He is an Ivri, descendent of Avraham, but the Egyptians do not need to know. When he finally opened up to his brothers, his voice knew no limits, and everyone found out about his identity.

If you contribute to the world around you, I would love to talk with you about finding a more articulate voice and to investigate how being Jewish is meaningful to your efforts. I have no hopes that you fit into some prefigured box. On the contrary I would love to imagine a Judaism that would meet your passions. For many of us, we identify with Judaism despite and not because of a prayer-centered synagogue Judaism. Working for social justice need not be marginalizing as a mere affinity; I believe being a Social Justice Jew could be an authentic affiliation.

Community is not something that you have to join; it is something you can choose to build. There is no doubt that this takes a lot of work, but think of the reward of connecting your passions to your personal and communal identities. My assumption is that connecting with other people to form community will make your contribution more sustainable. At first Joseph’s brothers did not recognize him. Similarly I have no doubt that it will take some time and effort for the organized Jewish community to see past the shadow of the synagogue and recognize contributing to the world as a Jew as a legitimate affiliation. At some point connecting this way to the Jewish community will be seen on par with affiliating with a religious or Zionist movement. So roll up your sleeves and make a sustainable gift to the world in the context of our community. Like Joseph, it is as important to identify as to be identified.

Contribution Beyond Continuity

It is astounding to me how much money we spend as a community on Holocaust education. Yes, I know we can never forget, but do we need to pay for other people’s children to remember? Let them pay for their feelings of guilt. As for our own children, I appreciate that the Holocaust is a part of our memory and history, but so too is the breadth and depth of Jewish literature, art, and culture. It saddens me to think how much we educate our children about how we died, over and above teaching them how we live. You can disagree with me, but I doubt that this victim’s mentality is compelling to a generation who grew up in affluence and safety. No matter what we teach our children they will have to decide for themselves how they want to live. So what will drive our children?

In this week’s Torah portion, Terumah, we read that God tells Moses to tell the Israelites, “Let them take for Me a portion, from every man whose heart motivated him you shall take My portion“(Exodus 25:1). The Israelites communicate their devotion to the Jewish project by contributing to the building of the tabernacle. Out of their own free will they all gave to build a “home” for God on earth. But, what can we hope to do now that the taberbacle and subsequent temples have been destroyed?

We need to find more places for God to come into our lives. I think that we need to educate our children to see simultaneously the tremendous beauty and harsh reality of God in the world . While there is poverty, violence, and destruction, there are also everyday miracles. If we want to find a place for ourselves and God in this world, we are going to have to get our hands dirty in rebuilding it. What have we given of ourselves and of our communities to make the world a better place? Once we master the art of contribution, we will have no problem with continuity.

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