Archive | July, 2013

#TieBlog #Re’eh

31 Jul
Parashat Re'eh--Look and see

Parashat Re’eh–Look and see

The “eye chart” tie relates to the very first word of this week’s portion: Re’eh/ Look/See. As Moses addresses the Israelites throughout the book of Deuteronomy, he appeals to multiple senses. Many of us are well familiar with Deuteronomy 6: 4, Sh’ma Yisrael/ Listen up, Israel! Adonai is our God. Adonai is one. In the opening to this week’s Torah portion, Moses appeals to the sense of sight in laying out the choice faced by the Israelites: Re’eh/ Look (folks)! I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced.

In search of personal and communal integrity

26 Jul
Ryan Braun (top left) and Anthony Weiner (bottom left) are confronting their personal scandals, while Yeshiva University (right) confronts a communal scandal

Ryan Braun (top left) and Anthony Weiner (bottom left) are confronting their personal scandals, while Yeshiva University (right) confronts a communal scandal

There’s a story about a group of people who made a wager with a notorious liar that they could trip him up in an untruth. They said, “We’ll give you a hundred dollars on condition that you tell a lie. He responded, “I would gladly take the hundred dollars, but I am sorry to say that I cannot meet the condition. In my entire life, I have never told a lie” (Stanley Schachter, Ed. “Laugh for God’s Sake: Where Jewish Humor and Jewish Ethics Meet,” p. 108).

This week, unfortunately, we have encountered a nexus of three stories in the news involving Jews and deceptive practices. First, Ryan Braun, the slugger for the Milwaukee Brewers also known as the Hebrew Hammer, admitted to using performance enhancing drugs and is suspended for the rest of the season.

In New York City the mayoral race is heating up, and Anthony Weiner is once again mired in controversy. He resigned in disgrace from Congress two years ago after revelations of lewd encounters he had with women over the Internet. After two years of trying to convince the public that he got help and had cleaned up his act, it was revealed this week that his lewd Internet postings have continued.

The news story of greatest concern in recent days is the lawsuit brought against Yeshiva University by 19 former students of YU High School who were allegedly sexually abused by two rabbis and a former student who was not on faculty allegedly known to be a danger to children who was, nonetheless, allowed in the school’s dorms by administrators.

Rabbi Norman Lamm, former YU President, under whose watch the alleged crimes took place, resigned his honorary position of Chancellor earlier this month acknowledging his mistakes in not cracking down on the pedophilia. His long and distinguished career is now tarnished by what appears to be a decades-long cover up.

Many of us might be thinking, “How can this happen? How can Jews do this?” The simple answer is that Jews are people subject to the same human frailties as anyone else. The confluence of these three stories merely reminds us of this fact. David Ben Gurion, first Prime Minister of Israel, understood well the notion that Jews are humans like anyone else. A famous quotation attributed to him is “We Jews will finally have ourselves a ‘normal’ state when Jewish policemen arrest Jewish prostitutes.”

We may be as normal as anyone else. Nevetheless, we can and do cringe when scandal taints our community. This is not an accident.

In this week’s Torah portion, Eikev, Moses says explicitly, “Yet it was to your fathers that the Lord was drawn in His love for them, –vayivhar b’zara’am ahareihem bachem mikol ha-amim–so that He chose you, their lineal descendants, from among all peoples — as is now the case.” If we are chosen, we must be worthy of choseness. Moses himself warns the people not to take choseness for granted. The second paragraph of the Sh’ma that is taken from this parashah (Deut. 11: 13-21), stresses that for adhering to the mitzvoth, the people will be rewarded. If they stray from the mitzvoth, they will be punished.

The second paragraph of the Sh’ma describes a sense of national accountability. We are all responsible for one another. If we give harbor to individual wrong-doing in our midst, we are all liable in some way. While calling for national accountability, each one of us is also personally accountable for our actions. In Chapter 10 (v. 12), Moses says, “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God, b’khol levavkha uv’khol nafshekha, with all your heart and with all your soul. The great Hasidic master R. Naftali of Ropshitz commented on this verse: “What makes Him the Lord your God? What good deeds have you performed that you may be worthy of having God referred to as your God? That is the question God asks of you (Torah Gems, Vol. 3, p. 220).

This statement is a call for personal integrity. Each one of us must answer for our own actions. These three stories in the news this week all involve egregious breakdowns in personal and communal integrity. Ryan Braun cheated in a game, taking performance enhancing drugs that gave him an unfair physical advantage. Moreover, he lied about it. One might say, it’s baseball, it’s only a game. However, if such behavior is tolerated in baseball, where do you draw the line?

Anthony Weiner’s case is interesting because here too, thank God, no one was physically hurt. But a married man sending lewd photos of himself over the Internet to other women would be inappropriate for anyone, let alone a public servant. Weiner may claim he has no sex addiction, but do you and I actually believe it? It’s clear that he is a reckless person unfit for public office, and I hope for his sake that he steps out of the public spotlight and gets the help he needs. If our society tolerates his behavior, where do we draw the line?

As for the Yeshiva University scandal, here, tragically, young men were hurt by a few sick individuals who were then given cover for their actions by administrators who wanted to keep things quiet. There are striking parallels to similar scandals that have plagued the Catholic Church. The actions were bad enough but the institutional cover up is a great stain on a prestigious institution.

Parashat Eikev articulates the importance of personal and communal integrity. The parasha also articulates accountability. There are both personal and communal consequences for straying from a path of integrity.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “A religious man is a person who holds God and man in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair.”

The Torah and our tradition call upon us at all times to see the tzelem Elohim, image of God in our fellow human beings. These include people with whom we play ball, exchange email and attend school. We are responsible not only for our own actions but for the effect our actions have on the entire community.

May God grant us the strength and courage to live up to personal and communal integrity so that we may be worthy of choseness.

#TieBlog #Eikev

24 Jul
Moses breaking tablets

Moses breaking tablets

The rabbinic term for the fifth book of the Torah is Mishneh Torah, repetition of the Torah. This is because the book is a collection of Moses’s sermons that he gave to the people on the banks of the Jordan River shortly before his death. The Greek term “Deuteronomy” is synonymous with “Mishneh Torah.” In Moses’s sermons he reminds the Israelites of their history and exhorts them to stay true God’s law. In recounting 40 years in the desert, our Torah portion this week contains Moses’s recounting of the sin of the Golden calf and his breaking of the tablets of the Decalogue. The original account is from Exodus Chapter 32, Parashat Ki-Tissa. As you read the selection below from Parashat Eikev, it will be clear how this week’s tie connects to the portion.

Deuteronomy Chapter 9
8 At Horeb you so provoked the Lord that the Lord was angry enough with you to have destroyed you. 9 I had ascended the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, the Tablets of the Covenant that the Lord had made with you, and I stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights, eating no bread and drinking no water. 10 And the Lord gave me the two tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God, with the exact words that the Lord had addressed to you on the mountain out of the fire on the day of the Assembly.
11 At the end of those forty days and forty nights, the Lord gave me the two tablets of stone, the Tablets of the Covenant. 12 And the Lord said to me, “Hurry, go down from here at once, for the people whom you brought out of Egypt have acted wickedly; they have been quick to stray from the path that I enjoined upon them; they have made themselves a molten image.” 13 The Lord further said to me, “I see that this is a stiffnecked people. 14 Let Me alone and I will destroy them and blot out their name from under heaven, and I will make you a nation far more numerous than they.”
15 I started down the mountain, a mountain ablaze with fire, the two Tablets of the Covenant in my two hands. 16 I saw how you had sinned against the Lord your God: you had made yourselves a molten calf; you had been quick to stray from the path that the Lord had enjoined upon you. 17 Thereupon I gripped the two tablets and flung them away with both my hands, smashing them before your eyes. 18 I threw myself down before the Lord — eating no bread and drinking no water forty days and forty nights, as before — because of the great wrong you had committed, doing what displeased the Lord and vexing Him. 19 For I was in dread of the Lord’s fierce anger against you, which moved Him to wipe you out. And that time, too, the Lord gave heed to me.

Teaching Our Children to Create a Better World

19 Jul
President Obama on aftermath of Zimmerman acquittal

President Obama on aftermath of Zimmerman acquittal

Over the past week, there has been much news coverage in all the media devoted to the acquittal George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin. For a year and a half, the case produced headlines on a range of hot-button issues: racial profiling and race relations, gun control and due process of law. We are all familiar with the basic tragic facts of the case. A teenage African-American boy was killed by gunshot in a confrontation with a white volunteer patrol officer. At the same time, Americans of good faith have drawn different conclusions about what the case means, particularly in the aftermath of the verdict. The court trial dealt with legal questions such as criminal intent and self-defense. The court of public opinion is wrestling with larger moral questions that transcend the case itself. We as Jews need to wrestle with these questions as religious challenges. What role do racial stereotypes play in our personal and collective decision making? What are appropriate boundaries of self-defense? By extension, is “stand your ground” an acceptable Jewish principle? As one rabbinic colleague wrote in a blog post: When two people stand their ground, you have a stand off where only 1 person can win. There’s always a loser. Since nobody wants to lose, each person raises the stakes. In this case, the stakes were raised so high that only one of them would come out alive. Nobody felt an obligation to stand down, to de-escalate, to walk away, which was what the dispatcher had told Zimmerman to do. It was a tragic inability to de-escalate.

I am pleased that during the trial and over the last week, demonstrations have been peaceful and that Americans of all perspectives are airing opinions in ways befitting a democratic society committed to the rule of law. We have grown a lot as a nation in over 200 years of American history, but we still have a lot of healing to do. One possible path to healing is found squarely in our Torah reading this Shabbat.

In Parashat Vaetchanan, we read the most central passage in Jewish consciousness: the Shema: Shma Yisrael Hashem Eloheinu Hashem Echad. And you shall love… V’shinantam l’vanecha v’dibarta bam. You shall teach them diligently to your children. This passage, which was lifted from the Torah and made the centerpiece of Jewish prayer, emphasizes teaching our children the mitzvoth, the commandments, that God has bestowed upon us.

The Rabbis in Midrash Sifrei comment on this verse to say that the Torah is not only referring to one’s own biological children. Of course any parent should teach Torah values to their children. Why would the Torah take the trouble to say something so obvious? Instead, the midrash says, ata motze b’kol makom she’ha talmidim kruyim vanim—students are always referred to as children. And since we are all students of one another, “You shall teach them diligently to your children” refers to anyone whose impression of Judaism is likely to be shaped by their contact with you. We are all students or potential students of one another. We all have responsibility as both teachers and pupils. How we act towards people sets an example for others. This is a high responsibility.

I follow a Facebook page by Susan Cain, author of the acclaimed book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” The book itself is worthy of a full discussion on another occasion, something I plan to do. In the meantime, Cain posted a powerful piece by another author on her Facebook page that for me is so appropriate this week.
Children Learn What They Live
By Dorothy Law Nolte, Ph.D.

If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.
If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.
If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.
If children live with pity, they learn to feel sorry for themselves.
If children live with ridicule, they learn to feel shy.
If children live with jealousy, they learn to feel envy.
If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.
If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.
If children live with tolerance, they learn patience.
If children live with praise, they learn appreciation.
If children live with acceptance, they learn to love.
If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves.
If children live with recognition, they learn it is good to have a goal.
If children live with sharing, they learn generosity.
If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness.
If children live with fairness, they learn justice.
If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect.
If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and in those about them.
If children live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.

In creating a decent community and society, we are all responsible for teaching and role modeling Jewish values for everyone of all ages, including and especially for the youngest among us. By adhering to v’shinantam l’vanecha, we cultivate a culture whereby we deal with conflicts that stand down and de-escalate conflict, rather than “stand your ground” and escalate conflict.

During the 1960s, amidst much turmoil in our society, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said: “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.” In the case of the killing of Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman was found not guilty in a court of law. Among America’s great blessings are that a person is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law and that guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. If the jury had reasonable doubt that Zimmerman committed a crime, then he should be a free man, and he is. He will not go to jail for the death of Trayvon Martin, and no one will. Yet, in some sense, we are all responsible for his death. We are responsible to teach and model patience, to teach and model loving kindness, to teach and model peace.

V’shinantam l’vanecha, you shall teach the values of Torah diligently to your children. The Torah calls on each of us to be a teacher so that we may together create a better world.

#TieBlog #Vaetchanan

18 Jul


I love my Ten Commandments tie because there are three occasions during the year when I can wear it in connection with a public reading of the Decalogue. They are read in Parashat Yitro, which falls in the winter. They are also read on Shavuot at the beginning of summer. Both of these readings are from Exodus Chapter 20. Parashat Vaetchanan is the one time during the year when we read the version from Deuteronomy Chapter 5. Believe it or not, there some subtle differences. Exodus instructs, “Remember (Zakhor) the Sabbath day….” Deuteronomy instructs “Observe (Shamor) the Sabbath day….” Exodus explains the Sabbath in spiritual terms, invoking God’s initial Sabbath following the creation of the world. Deuteronomy appeals to social justice, reminding the reader that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt and that all human beings and animals that serve them must have a day of rest each week. The Friday night hymn, Lekha Dodi reflects the midrashic view that God gave both versions of the Decalogue in a single utterance. Shabbat, therefore, is simultaneously a time for spiritual renewal and reflection on social justice in the world.

12 Jul

Yeshayahu Leibowitz, 1903-1994

A boat laden with a cargo of wine was attacked by a huge whale. The beast rammed the boat repeatedly and tossed it every which way. The Captain of the vessel feared that the boat might capsize. He ordered the crew to cast overboard the entire cargo. The cartons broke apart in the water and many bottles ended up in the belly of the whale. During the attack, a number of passengers, a Jew among them, were swept over the side and swallowed by the whale. The story has entered the annals of the legends of the sea because of its strange ending. Sometime after the attack on the boat, the body of a huge sea creature was washed ashore. Fishermen rushed to the carcass and began to cut it open. Inside its belly they found the Jewish man selling wine to his fellow passengers (From Rabbi Stanley Schachter, Laugh for God’s Sake: Where Jewish Humor and Jewish Ethics Meet, KTAV, 2008, p. 128).

The contrast of destruction and rebirth, implied in this story, is particularly poignant at this time of year. The period of the three weeks between 17 Tammuz and 9 Av is a solemn time that recalls the siege of Jerusalem and the subsequent destruction of the Temple by both the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the Romans in 70 CE. We are now in the climactic third week, having entered the month of Av this past week. The Mishnah in Tractate Taanit teaches: mi-shenichnas Av me’maatin b’simchah, whoever enters the month of Av reduces his or her joy. This is because of the prominence of Tisha B’Av and the various disasters associated with that day throughout Jewish history.

The late philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903-1994, pictured above), notes that precisely at this time of year, we experience one of the great ironies in Jewish tradition. Namely, despite the somber tone set by the Jewish calendar at this time of year, the Torah reading during these three weeks deal largely with themes of promise and hope, particularly the settling and building of the Land of Israel.

Let us look for a moment at today’s reading, Parashat Devarim. The opening phrase of the first verse sets the scene: “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan” (Deut. 1:1). The Israelites have arrived to the banks of the Jordan and are prepared to enter the Promised Land. The entire book of Deuteronomy is essentially a series of sermons and laws that Moses addresses to the people before he dies. While many of Moses’s parting words are rebukes, chastisements, or curses, the underlying message is that the Israelites are about to start a new chapter. If they remain true to God, they will prosper in their new land. If they go astray, they will be punished. This theology of reward and punishment is one of the cornerstones of the book of Deuteronomy. Even as Moses warns the Israelites of the consequences of going astray from God’s path, they gaze upon their new homeland looking forward with high hopes for the new chapter in their lives. And yet, even as our Torah reading projects a message of hope for the future, we are marking this Shabbat as Shabbat Hazon, the Shabbat in which our Haftarah contains Isaiah’s vision of desolation and destruction.

The juxtaposition of hope and despair extends throughout the three weeks. Going back to Parashat Pinchas, we read two weeks ago about the apportionment of the land to the tribes and the petition of the daughters of Tzelofhad to inherit the land from their father in the absence of sons. Last week, in Parashat Matot, we read about the efforts of the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe to settle the eastern side of the Jordan River and their pledge to fight in Israel proper for the right to do so. The parshiot of the last two weeks have devoted significant space to describing the borders and territories of Israel and the tribes poised to inhabit them.

And yet, precisely during this season, when we read in the Torah about the great promise of the Israelites building a homeland, our tradition bids us to recall the unraveling of that promise and the shattering of the dream. Prof. Leibowitz notes that the dream is fragile, and it is up to us as individuals and as a nation to make sure that we merit the fulfillment of the dream. At the same time, as the Jewish calendar bids us to recall the destruction of Jerusalem and other calamities in our history, our Torah reading remind us of the promise and the hope of building and maintaining a vibrant nation in the Land of Israel. The Jewish calendar and the Torah reading cycle, therefore, provide us with a healthy tension—a dialectic—between recalling destruction and maintaining hope for the futre.

Without our hope for the future that things can always get better, we never would have survived as a people. There was never any justification for our suffering and persecution; however, after every dark moment in our history, there was an opportunity to rebuild, even as the bitterness of our suffering has not been forgotten.

Dr. Ismar Schorsch, former Chancellor of JTS, writes that our sacred literature was key to our survival. Quoting David Ben-Gurion, he notes: “For 2000 years the Jewish people preserved the Book, even as the Book preserved the people.” Indeed many of the dark moments of our history resulted in the writing and compilation of the most important books of our tradition. The book of Deuteronomy, written as scholars believe in the late 7th century BCE, was a response to the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE. The destruction of the First Temple and the fall of Judah in 586 BCE led to the promulgation of the Torah by Ezra in the fifth century BCE, as the Jewish nation began to reconstitute itself in the land of Israel. The fall of the second Temple in 70 CE spawned the canonization of the entire Tanakh (Hebrew Bible); the Bar Kokhba debacle of 135 CE brought about the editing of the Mishna around the year 200 and paved the way for the further development of Rabbinic Judaism.

From the abyss of destruction, arose great creativity. This theme has been repeated throughout Jewish history. The terrible Khmelnitzky pogroms in the Ukraine in the 17th century were followed by the development of Hasidism and new spiritual creativity in Jewish life. Of course, in the 20th century, the calamity of the Shoah was followed by the founding of the State of Israel. We sing in “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem, od lo avdah tikvateinu, our hope was never lost. This captures the essence of the resiliency of the Jewish people.

Both Leibowitz and Schorsch note in various writings that our observance of Tisha B’Av is much greater than a mourning of the destruction of the Temple. If it were solely about the Temple, Tisha B’Av would be almost irrelevant for a religion that has thrived for 2,000 years without a Temple. Rather, Tisha B’Av encapsulates our mourning for all of the dark periods in our history. It provides a focal point of catharsis after which we can—indeed must—get on with our lives to continue building, dreaming and creating.

On this Shabbat Hazon, we hear the harsh words of Isaiah in the haunting melody of Eicha (Book of Lamenations). We brace ourselves for Tisha B’Av when we mourn so many of the dark periods in our history. And yet, we also read about the Israelites standing me’ever l’Yarden, on the banks of the Jordan River, ready to jump in and begin a new chapter of life. This juxtaposition reminds us that we should not be so distraught over our difficult times that we cannot get on with our lives. We must always strive to create a better future. At the same time, even at the peak of our creativity, we must remind ourselves of how fragile life is so that we may work harder to preserve it.

May God give us the strength to meet the challenge of Tisha B’Av and remember that despite the darkest days of our history, we will continue to thrive in our creativity and constant efforts to bring more justice and compassion into the world.

#TieBlog #Devarim

11 Jul


“These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on this side of the Jordan in the wilderness, in the Arabah opposite the Red Sea, between Paran, and Tophel, and Laban, and Hazeroth, and Dizahab” (Deuteronomy 1:1).

When Moses is first called upon by God to lead the Israelites out of Egypt he tries to get out of the task by saying he can’t speak. Now, 40 years later, Moses delivers to the people a long succession of speeches that are compiled in the book of Devarim/Deuteronomy. Moses has found his groove as a speaker, and he spends the fifth book of the Torah reminding the people of their sacred mission. His facility with Devarim/ words inspires this week’s crossword-themed tie.

#TieBlog #Matot-Masei

3 Jul

Journeys around the world

“These are the journeys.” The last Parashah of the Book of Numbers, Masei, enumerates 42 stations in the desert where the Israelites stopped along the way. Rashi asks the obvious question, why? Aren’t these superfluous details? The answer he provides, derived from the Midrash, is that it was a sign of God’s compassion. No one should say that God decreed the Israelites wander for 40 years without rest. This week’s tie shows travel around the world in slightly more luxurious environs than those experienced by our ancestors in the desert. Summer is a time many people travel. If you are, enjoy the oases God has provided wherever you go.