Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Judaism's Top 40 - Summary and Links

Judaism's Top 40: Elul 24 #18 in the countdown – Bal Tashchit – Environmentalism / Shmita – Sabbatical Year

Elul 24  #18 in the countdown – Bal Tashchit – Environmentalism  / Shmita – Sabbatical Year

How astounding it is that the Torah derived its basic value of conservation, the mitzvah of Bal Tashchit, from of all things, the rules of warfare.  Deuteronomy states that when besieging a city we should not cut down trees (“for is the tree a human that you would besiege it too?”).  It’s fascinating also to witness how the rabbis broadened that law’s scope to address all sorts of gratuitous destruction in civilian life.  This mitzvah is particularly relevant as we witness all kinds of wanton ruination perpetrated in our own societies.

 In the words of environmental activist Nigel Savage, “You could argue that the Jewish people have been thinking about sustainable energy ever since God spoke to Moses out of a bush that burned but was never consumed. Moses was perhaps the first environmentalist: He recycled his staff into a snake, got Egypt to turn off all its lights for three days, and convinced an entire nation to go on a 40-year nature hike.  The Maccabees took a small cruse of oil and stretched it out for eight miraculous nights.”

A midrash states that when Adam, on the day of his creation, saw the setting of the sun and was terrified. He said, “Oy Vey! OMG. It’s because I have sinned that the world around me is becoming dark; the universe will now become again void and without form — this then is the death to which I have been sentenced from Heaven!’ So he sat up all night fasting and weeping and Eve was weeping opposite him. When dawn broke, however, he breathed a sigh of relief and said: ‘This is the usual course of the world!’

            From the very first sunset, as darkness enveloped them and Adam and Eve were only a few hours old, they experienced the first pangs of Jewish guilt in recorded history. They sensed that they had somehow let God down, that this darkness thing was somehow their fault, that they had already messed up the marvelous gift that they had been given.

            The Midrash elaborates - God leads Adam around the Garden of Eden, God says, "Look at My works. See how beautiful they are, how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil or destroy My world—for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you."

            That’s what God tells Adam and Eve.  When giving the world’s first garden tour, they are warned:  This is a beautiful world.  But this is it.  Don’t mess this up.  Because if you do, there could come a time when that sun will not rise at the end of a cold, dark night.  And if that happens, it will not be my fault, God says, it will be yours.

            And as if to underscore that point, God creates a sign a few generations later, following the great flood of Noah.  The rainbow is the symbol of the covenant that God made with humanity; that God will never again bring about the kind of massive natural disaster that could destroy humanity.  The implied message is that we not only are the earth’s custodians – but if we break it, we own it.  If we can’t make things work on this beautiful planet, we have only ourselves to blame. 

                  Added to this is the Torah’s concept of a Sabbatical year, every seventh year when the land lies fallow.  While this applies only to the land of Israel, it has global implications.  See hthis guide to Shmmitta by Hazon – as the New Year we are entering, 5775, is going to be a Shmitta year.

                  This Top 40 is being sent to you on the day when throngs will be marching in New York to express concern about Climate Change.  Judaism, on so many levels, connects us to the rhythms of nature.  Rab Nachman’s prayer expresses that deep connection.

Rabbi Nachman’s Prayer

Master of the Universe, grant me the ability to be alone.
May it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and grasses,
Among all growing things,
There to be alone and enter into prayer.
There may I express all that is in my heart,
Talking with Him to whom I belong.
And may all grasses, trees and plants
Awake at my coming.
Send the power of their life into my prayer,
Making whole my heart and my speech through the life and spirit of growing things,
Made whole by their transcendent Source.
Oh!  That they would enter my prayer!
Then would I fully open my heart in prayer, supplication and holy speech;
Then, O God, would I pour out the words of my heart before Your Presence.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Judaism's Top 40: Elul 23 and #19 in the countdown: Havdalah - Separation / Kedusha - Holiness

TODAY, ELUL 23 and #19 in the countdown

Havdalah - Separation   / Kedusha - Holiness

So much of Judaism is based on the notion of forming boundaries or distinctions, and in particular those that separate the holy (Kadosh, Kedusha) from profane.  The havdalah prayer itself (also see this how to guide), which marks the dividing line between the holiness of the Sabbath and the secularity of the new week, helps us to see these distinctions in terms of time (six days of Creation and the Sabbath), nature (light and darkness) and identity (Israel and other nations).  Such distinctions are also drawn in terms of marital relationships and personal ethics - especially in the "Holiness Code" in Leviticus

The notion of separation and drawing boundaries can cause discomfort when determining who gets to be on the "good" side.  It's not such a big deal when talking about days (Shabbat) but is so when talking about people.  Here is an interesting and inclusive Havdalah ceremony that highlights that issue and deals nicely with it.

There are lots of reasons to love the multi-sensual havdalah ceremony. Here are some nice ones, including:  But most of all I love havdalah because even without all of the extra teachings and interpretations we can lay on top of it, it works. It makes a difference. Spending five minutes in a darkened room holding that braided candle aloft, making these blessings, breathing in the sweet spices, and then plunging the candle into the wine -- it does something. You can feel the change in the energy of the room. Something has ended and something else has begun.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Judaism's Top 40: Elul 22, #20 on the countdown: Shalom, Darkhei Shalom, Shalom Bayit

Most know that Shalom means peace, along with hello and goodbye.  It comes from the word shalem, meaning wholeness, perfection, fullness, completeness, contentedness.  Strong's Concordance adds to that list of definitions: health, peace, welfare, safety soundness, tranquility, prosperity, perfectness, fullness, rest, harmony, the absence of agitation or discord. In modern Hebrew the obviously related word Shelem means to pay for - to “make whole” and complete the transaction.  Wikipedia adds that Its equivalent cognate in Arabic is salaamsliem in MalteseShlama in Syriac-Assyrian and sälam in Ethiopian Semitic languages from the Proto-Semitic root S-L-M.  Shalom is also a name of God, a common name for males, and a name of a heck of lot of synagogues.    Jews are big fans of shalom.

Darchay Shalom are “ways or peace” and Shalom Bayit, a prime Jewish value unto itself, means “peace in the home.”

As quoted on MyJewishLearning’s site, according to Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel, three things preserve the world: truth, justice, and peace (Avot 1:18). Peace, however, seems to take precedence even over truth, as the Talmud permits deviation from truth in order to establish peace. In addition, there is a whole category of rabbinic ordinances established mipnei darkhei shalom, in the interest of peace. For example, the Talmud says that Jews are to provide sustenance for non-Jewish poor people mipnei darkhei shalom.

The mezuzah is a symbol of our deep desire for the home to be a place where Godliness dwells, in particular in the interactions between spouses and between parents and children.  This pdf gives some good source material and background. Recent events have prompted a broader discussion of domestic violence. Clearly our society has a long way to go in this area. As Naomi Graetz has written in this summary of Jewish legal views on this topic:

“For many years there has been a myth that domestic violence among Jewish families was infrequent. However, there is much data demonstrating that domestic abuse is a significant and under-recognized behavior in Jewish communities in Israel and the Diaspora. Jewish women typically take a longer time to leave abusive relationships for fear that they will lose their children and because they are aware of the difficulties in obtaining a get, a Jewish divorce document” (Find a more detailed article by Graetz here).

Judaism's Top 40: Elul 21, #21 in the countdown: Seder - Order

In a chaotic world, Jews have always sought an organizing principle, a way to manufacture order, where order seems so elusive.

The Passover Seder is a perfect example of this, as symbolized by the set order and strict requirements of the ritual and most of all by the Matzah, that perfect embodiment of stability and steadfastness, that essence of uniformity and flatness.  Matzah is quintessentially controlled; scrutinized closely from its formative stages through the baking process. And on the Seder table it is handled delicately, uncovered ceremoniously and raised and broken with ritualistic precision.

But the Jewish preoccupation with order only begins there.  To understand it best, we need to view the world through the lens of the great calamities that have come so close to ending the Jewish enterprise.  The destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE was an almost incomprehensible disaster.  Our way of life was gone; our rituals were all centered around that smoldering temple.  A new order was needed.

That order came about over the subsequent generations, crystallized in the Mishna and later the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds.  The six organizing sections of the Mishna are, not surprisingly, called “orders.”  They are described in this article.

Despite the understandable Jewish preoccupation with order, there is much room for spontaneity as well.  Passover may be obsessive – compulsive, but Judaism – not so much.   And even Passover has its wild side, as symbolized on the seder table by the wine.

As I’ve written elsewhere: The wine is there to teach us that Judaism, like life, is infinitely too complicated for human beings to be able to impose total order on it. Judaism breathes through us. Watch how the wine and matzah vie for attention in the Seder’s drama. When one is raised, broken or poured, the other is covered, ignored or left empty. This epic battle between constancy and chance is like a blast of warm weather from the Gulf meeting a cold Canadian high over New England in early spring. And in the end, look which one triumphs. No sooner are we finished with the bread of affliction, finishing the last morsel of the afikoman; then the third cup of wine is poured. Serendipity gets the last word. The wine wins. Maybe the message here is that what’s most constant, even in this world of extreme, superimposed order, is change itself. No matter how much we try to hermetically seal our lives from yeastiness, chametz happens. The perfection of matzah turns out to be the ultimate illusion — but that doesn’t prevent us from striving for it all the more.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Matthew Goodman on Ki Tavo

Shabbat Shalom!

This past summer, during the confrontation between Israel and Hamas, an Israeli soldier named Max Steinberg was killed when he was hit by Hamas explosives.  What made this situation unusual is that Max was a Lone Soldier.  Lone Soldiers are those who have left family members behind in another country in order to live in and fight for Israel.  Max’s family was from California.
 When Max’s parents arrived at Ben Gurion airport they were shocked to find out that their son was being treated like a superhero.  To show their support for him, 30,000 Israelis attended his funeral.
This man did not die in vain.  I think we can learn something from his death, that dying for your country is worth something because it is dying for what you believe in and living for a cause that is bigger than yourself.

That ties into my Torah portion of Ki Tavo.   At the beginning of the portion, the people are instructed to bring their first fruits as a gift to the Temple in Jerusalem.   Soldiers are kind of like our first fruits.  
Let’s say that every person is included in one big family tree.  Soldiers are like our first fruits, because they offer the greats gift and sacrifice of all their own lives for the good of everyone.  Soldiers demonstrate the importance of self-sacrifice and living for a higher cause, even if it means dying for that cause.
This means a lot to me, because my family is filled with people who have made great sacrifices on behalf of our country by serving in the armed forces.

When the ancient Israelites delivered those first fruits, they also recited a special passage that told the story of how the Jewish people began how Jacob and his family went down to Egypt, where we eventually became slaves, and how we were redeemed from slavery and wondered in the wilderness before finally getting to the land of Israel.   For part of my Mitzvah project, I am also telling the stories that need to be told.  I’ve compiled a digest of stories of the service that my relatives and others have given for our country.  I’ll also be including the story of Max Steinberg.

Friday, September 12, 2014

With Great (Solar) Power, Judaism and Domestic Violence; Judaism’s Top 40: Gossip; Shabbat-O-Gram

Shabbat Shalom!

Mazal tov to Matthew Goodman and family, as Matt prepares to become Bar Mitzvah on Shabbat morning.  Join us for services in the lobby tonight, and in the sanctuary tomorrow.  We got off to a great start with Cantor Fishman last week – come tonight to keep things rolling!  And a reminder to get those “Book of Remembrance” blurbs in ASAP.  The deadline is fast approaching.  We have a number of them already.

The Ray Rice Case

The release of the Ray Rice video this week has focused our attention on the issue of domestic violence.  Clearly our society has a long way to go in this area. As Naomi Graetz has written in this summary of Jewish legal views on this topic:

“For many years there has been a myth that domestic violence among Jewish families was infrequent. However, there is much data demonstrating that domestic abuse is a significant and under-recognized behavior in Jewish communities in Israel and the Diaspora. Jewish women typically take a longer time to leave abusive relationships for fear that they will lose their children and because they are aware of the difficulties in obtaining a get, a Jewish divorce document” (Find a more detailed article by Graetz here). 

In England, it’s been documented that one in four Jewish women suffer abuse in the home. Former Stamford Rabbi Mark Dratch established JSafe  to provide resources and assistance to victims in this country.

While this is not a problem that wills simply go away, neither can it be whisked under the rug.  Hopefully the NFL will be able to asset constructive leadership on this subject, once the dust from this week’s revelations begins to settle.  Meanwhile, people in our community who are currently in abusive relationships should know that I am here to help – and that they are not alone.

With great (solar) power comes great responsibility

As you know, we were recently honored nationally  as a “Cool Congregation” for our largest-in-the nation solar panel project.  We can pat ourselves on the back for that one, but we also need to maintain our status as leaders in the religious effort to reverse the tide of Climate Change. With great (solar) power comes great responsibility.   As such,  we will be a host venue for next week’s ”Climate Talk Tour,” a series of talks on faith’s role in this key issue of our times.  That will take place here on Wed. at 7 PM., the day AFTER Ari Shavit speaks here for the Hoffmanm lecture.  Both talks are very important.

And  join me at the Climate March on Sept 21.  You can read more about the march, from a Jewish perspective, here.    You can find out more about the logistics here.  The organizers are expecting an enormous turnout for what could be one of the largest mobilizations of its kind ever.  Special trains from New Haven have been arranged, but my feeling is that they will likely be packed by the time they get here, so we might be best off taking a local, which starts in Stamford.  Based on the current Sunday schedule, the 9:02 seems a good option.  Depending on how many people who want to join me, I might contact Metro North to see if seats can be reserved.  But otherwise, just plan to be there on your own.

Why go through all the bother to march?  See this video clip.

Judaism’s Top 40:
Elul 17, #25 - Shmirat ha-lashon –  Avoiding Gossip

Judaism believes that words have great power.  After all, the world was created through words.  Language is a gift that should be used wisely.  Gossip is dangerous and takes many forms, including malicious slander, unintentional slips of the tongue and even swearing (both in terms of cursing and in taking false oaths).  Long before the invention of email, the rabbis believed that a gossiper in Babylonia can kill someone in Rome.

CURSING:  what does it mean to curse God's name? If, as we read in Genesis, every human being is created in God's image, that divine part of us that is the essence of our humanity.  To insult God is to debase our own innate godliness, our human capacity for goodness and kindness.  Sometimes curses can be a creative way of dealing with powerlessness.  We see that in the colorful Yiddish curses that have sprung up.  And Jews have had good reason to shake their fist at the heavens.  When Job's wife implores, "Curse God and die," Job has every reason to do just that - but he refuses to, recognizing that God's blessings and curses are intertwined.  In fact, the very word translated as "curse" in Job 2:9 is "barekh", which also means to bless.  Job refuses to render God one-dimensional, the source only of evil and not of life's blessings too.  That's what cursing does. It turns God into a stereotype.  Once "bleeping" becomes your only way of express passion, you are unable to communicate creatively, to probe the complexity of deeper feelings. 

GOSSIP: Once on the High Holidays, I challenged the congregation to go from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur without gossiping.  No one could do it.  It’s impossible.  But everyone became much more aware of what they were saying, which is really the goal of the laws of gossip.

It is our good fortune that the greatest champion of sacred speech that the Jewish world has ever known lived only a century ago. Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan was also known as the Chafetz Hayyim, the Seeker of Life, after a book he wrote with that title. Kagan was the first to systematize the laws of gossip for a popular audience. He died in 1933, which is just about when everything began to go awry for the civilized world. Now, as distilled by the Chafetz Hayyim, here is how Jewish law instructs us to clean up our use of language.

• It is considered lashon hara, evil speech, to convey a derogatory image of someone even if that image is true and deserved. A statement that is not actually derogatory but can ultimately cause someone physical, financial or emotional harm is also lashon hara.

• It is lashon hara to recount an incident that contains embarrassing damaging information about a person, even if there is not the slightest intent that s/he should ever suffer harm or humiliation.

• Lashon hara is forbidden by Jewish law even if you incriminate yourself as well.

• Lashon hara cannot be communicated in any way shape or form, for instance through writing, verbal hints, even raised eyebrows. When that person you can't stand turns away and you roll your eyes in disgust to a third party, that is a form of slander known as "Avak Lashon Hara," the residue of evil speech.

• To speak against a community is a particularly severe offense.

• Lashon hara cannot be related even to close relatives, even to your spouse. The columnist Dennis Prager argues that this goes too far, saying, "If you never speak about other people with your partner, you're probably not very intimate with each other." Telushkin suggests that if we are going to gossip we should develop a way of talking about others that is as kindly and fair as we would want others to be when talking about us.

• Even something that is already well known should not be repeated. Even the latest lurid Washington scuttlebutt or Hollywood scandal.  We still can't talk about it unless that information has a direct bearing on the well-being of the person we're talking to.

• Tattling is a no no. This is called Rechilut in Hebrew. The crux is this: if you know that a person has spoken badly about your friend, you don't go to your friend and tell him, because all it does is cause him pain and provoke animosity between the friend and that other person. Well, you ask, shouldn't we have a right to hear what's being said about us? In practice, however, the one small piece of gossip transmitted often provides a totally false impression. Who here has never said a negative thing about the person you love the most? How devastating it would be for a so-called friend to tell our loved one about it. Mark Twain said, "It takes your enemy and your friend, working together, to hurt you to the heart; the one to slander you and the other to get the news to you."

• And finally, not only does Judaism prohibit the spreading of lashon hara, we can't listen to it either. And when we can't help but hear it, we are instructed not to believe it. Imagine how different our lives would be if everybody gave the victim of gossip the benefit of the doubt.

Have a great Shabbat!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Judaism’s Top 40 - Elul 20, #22 in the countdown - Pidyon Shevuyim – Ransoming Captives

When the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was traded for 1,000 Aram prisoners (a number of whom were subsequently recaptured this past summer), it reopened a long standing controversy among Jews.

This ethical quandary is a classic example of the age-old concept of “Pidyon Shvuyim,” the rescue of captives. The Talmud considers it to be among the highest of priorities (Bava Batra 8b) and later legal authorities concur. 

Maimonides writes: “The redeeming of captives takes precedence over supporting the poor or clothing them. There is no greater mitzvah than redeeming captives for the problems of the captive include being hungry, thirsty, unclothed, and they are in danger of their lives too. Ignoring the need to redeem captives goes against these Torah laws: “Do not harden your heart or shut your hand against your needy fellow” (Devarim 15:7); “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed” (Vayikra 19:16). And misses out on the following mitzvot: “You must surely open your hand to him or her” (Devarim 15:8); “...Love your neighbor as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18); “Rescue those who are drawn to death” (Proverbs 24:11) and there is no mitzvah greater than the redeeming of captives.” (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Matanot Aniyim 8:10-11)[

The Shulchan Aruch adds: “Every moment that one delays in freeing captives, in cases where it is possible to expedite their freedom, is considered to be tantamount to murder.” (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De'ah 252:3)[

Medieval Jewish communities often were called upon to pony up big bucks to redeem kidnapped kin. In contemporary Israel, it has become standard practice to swap busloads of prisoners for one captive soldier, or even for his remains.

There are limits. Medieval jewish communities never had as high a stake in this as modern Israelis do.  In a detailed responsum on the subject that predates Shalit’s capture, Rabbi David Golinkin concludes, “We do not pay excessive ransom… In other words, the public takes precedence over the individual, even if this endangers the individual. Exchanging hundreds or thousands of terrorists for one Israeli encourages kidnapping of Israelis, and frees hundreds or thousands of terrorists who will pick up their weapons and attack Israel. In other words, it endangers the public and should not be done.”

What’s most clear here is that every human being is considered of infinite value – and that Jews will go to great lengths to save their brothers and sisters,

Judaism;s Top 40 Elul 19, #23 in the countdown - Lo Ta’amod al Dam Re’echa – Don’t Stand Idly By

According to American law, there is no legal obligation to rescue a person in danger. Jewish law, however, provides a different answer. Passivity does not become us.  Resonsibility does. Leviticus 19:16 states it clearly, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”  It evokes the scene where Cain claims to have no idea where Abel is (he just killed him) and God says, “The blood of your brother is crying from the earth.”

Elie Wiesel once claimed to be able to condense the entire ethical teaching of the Bible into that one sentence, “Thou shalt not stand idly by.”  Indeed, it’s been his life’s work.  And it applies equally to Jews and non Jews.  Wiesel, speaking at the Darfur Emergency Summit in July 2004, interpreted the ancient verse to highlight its contemporary global implications:

"Lo ta'amod al dam re'echa" is a Biblical commandment. "Thou shall not stand idly by the shedding of the blood of thy fellow man."  The word is not "achi'cha," thy Jewish brother, but "re'echa," thy fellow human being, be he or she Jewish or not. All are entitled to live with dignity and hope. All are entitled to live without fear and pain.

An interesting nuance, from Rabbi Dorothy Richman: Lo ta'amod al dam re'echa literally means, "Do not stand on your neighbor's blood."  Normally, the verb "to stand" is associated with courage and activism: we value "standing up" for human rights or "standing" against oppression. Yet the language of our verse is "standing on" – being close to the action, yet ineffectual, perhaps even causing harm. Perhaps the phrase lo ta'amodbrings a subtle warning against causing well-intentioned injurywithin the imperative to respond. The potential for well-meaning, misguided interventions is present in seemingly innocent interactions.

The verse also applies in other areas. For example:  If you hear informers plotting to harm someone, you’re obligated to inform the intended victim. If you can somehow stop the perpetrator from acting, but you do not, you have broken the law, “Do not stand by while your neighbor’s blood is shed.” –Shulkhan Arukh Hoshen Mishpat 426:1