Thursday, August 30, 2012

Being The Light

Ki Tetzeh
14 Elul 5772 / Aug 31 – Sep 1, 2012

In this week’s portion, Ki Tetzeh, Moses offers continued guidance on how to wipe out evil from the nation.  Aside from controversial passages regarding stoning rebellious children and what happens in situations of rape, we are taught the following:

If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow… you must not remain indifferent.

You must not remain indifferent.

We learn this week that not only do we have an obligation as Jews to take care of others, but their property as well.  Simply put, we are obligated to act.

This past week at Michigan State University, a young man allegedly was the victim of a hate crime due to being Jewish.  He says that he was knocked unconscious at a house party, had his jaw broken and his mouth forcibly stapled shut by two men who made a Hitler salute and claimed KKK affiliation before doing so, and who only acted after he shared that he was Jewish.  You can find the Detroit Free Press article here.

There are bigots everywhere in this world.  People will always find ways to be divisive and to hate those whom they perceive as different.  But it’s not the bigots that have me frustrated this week.  Rather, according to the young man’s report, there were at least 20 people on hand who witnessed this incident, and who stood there, doing nothing to help.  They were indifferent.  They did not think it appropriate to speak out, to physically intervene, or even to call the police.  This, to me, is the true tragedy.  And this, to me, is where we need to be the light.

Whether this particular incident took place the way the victim described it or not, the lesson remains, and the charge is the same –

Do not stand idly by.

Speak out against injustice.

Do not be indifferent.

Be the light.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Jews Are Tree Huggers

7 Elul 5772 / August 24-25, 2012

In this week’s portion, Shoftim, Moses continues his final speech to the Israelites on the banks of the Jordan River before they enter the Promised Land.  In addition to finding the well-known phrase “Justice justice you shall pursue,” we are reminded in Shoftim that the death penalty may only be carried out if there are two witnesses who provide testimony (remember: to bear false witness is a transgression of one of the ten commandments and is a serious offense).  We are taught that the witnesses should be the first ones to have a hand in carrying out the death penalty – certainly a strong way to help dissuade an individual from lying on the witness stand…

One of the more poignant instructions Moses elaborates on this week is that when the Israelites are besieging an enemy city, they are not permitted to destroy fruit-yielding trees.

Fruit trees hold a special place in our tradition.  They are a source of sustenance for sure, but as you’ll recall in the beginning of the Book of Genesis, it was eating from a fruit true (the “tree of knowledge”) that resulted in Adam and Eve being kicked out of the Garden of Eden.  One of the more intriguing commandments, there are still plenty of Jews today who take conscious steps to avoid the destruction of fruit trees, even outside the context of war (see, for example, this recent NY Times article).

The ancient rabbis were able to glean a fundamental precept from this commandment, which they called “bal tashchit” – namely, that we are to avoid the wasteful or pointless destruction of property and resources.  In many ways, this is a Jewish call for environmentalism and the conscious consumption of resources.

As Jews, we are commanded to not destroy things simply for the sake of destroying them.  We are charged to find value, beauty, and utility in the world around us, and to consciously go out of our way to do so.  This search goes beyond the mundane, and is applicable and essential to the future of Judaism itself.

How fitting it is that the Torah comes to teach us this overarching value in the specific case of a fruit-bearing tree.

Eitz chayim hi l’machazikim bah…

“It [the Torah] is a tree of life to those that hold on to it…”

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Sweeping Out Evil

30 Av 5772 / August 17-19, 2012

In this week’s portion, with just a month until the High Holidays, we have a strong directive:  “You will sweep out evil from your midst.”

Evil can mean a number of things in this context.  I want to focus on one example given of evil in this week’s portion, and then point to another, even greater underlying evil.

In this week’s portion, as justification for wiping out enemy nations once the Israelites enter the Promised Land, and as a mechanism for pointing out how evil their enemies are, Moses says to the Israelites: “[The other nations] even offer up their sons and daughters in fire to their Gods.” 

While I think we can all agree that child sacrifice is bad and surely is grounds for criticism, are the Israelites truly in a position to be the ones sitting in judgment of other nations for their inhumane child sacrifice practices, given that Abraham, our forefather, was prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac at God’s request?  To many throughout history, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac is viewed as a supreme statement of faith and as laudable.  Thus, who are the Israelites to sit in judgment of other nations who might perform the same offering?  To do so, frankly, is hypocritical – the underlying evil referenced above.

Hypocrisy.  We find it everywhere today.

We jump straight to judging others, without first making sure that our own internal affairs are in order (and even if they were, in most cases, I’m not sure that judgment would be ours to render).

People haughtily point to a verse in the Book of Leviticus that condemns a particular homosexual act while happily eating shellfish, condemned in the same Book.

Regularly, Jews criticize the failure of other Jews to perform certain mitzvot, while failing to fulfill certain mitzvot themselves.

We criticize the lack of charity that others give, while we ourselves give nowhere near enough.

It is taught in Pirkei Avot, the section of the Mishna (the original rabbinic code of Jewish law) dealing with the Ethics of our Ancestors, that you should “judge every person favorably” (Avot 1:6), and that you shouldnot judge your fellow until you have stood in his place” (Avot 2:5).

Can we take this wisdom to heart?  Can we truly give people the benefit of the doubt and cease from needlessly criticizing them?  Can we recognize that we may not always have all of the information necessary to make an informed judgment?  In reserving judgment, we ensure that we avoid the evils of hypocrisy, and beginning with ourselves, can focus on “sweeping out the evil in our midst.”

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Hunger Games?

23 Av 5772 / August 10-11, 2012

In this week’s portion, Moses continues his speech to the Israelites and emphasizes their potential rewards and punishments for following the commandments.

Moses shares that the Promised Land is one that is flowing with milk and honey (from dates – not bees – a common misconception!), and that “when you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Divine…” [Deuteronomy 8:10]

Our Christian brethren often do a much better job than we do of expressing gratitude around mealtime by saying grace (which is usually done with a bit more reverence than Ricky Bobby’s “Dear Lord Baby Jesus” offering in Talladega Nights).  While we have a quick prayer we are meant to say before our meal (if eating bread, we would say the “hamotzi” which is a single line), our major proscribed blessing is made after the meal (“birkat hamazon” – the Grace After Meals), in accordance with the chronology in the verse.  Eat your fill, and then give thanks.

Saying our major prayer after eating, as opposed to before, poses some interesting challenges.  For example, it’s often easier to be thankful for food while it is still visible and we’re anticipating consumption.  We have the ability to inspect the food, smell it, see the vibrancy of its colors, and be grateful for the meal we’re about to partake in.  After eating, many of us would be quite content taking a nap, let alone trying to remember the beauty of the meal.  Taking the extra few minutes to reflect on the meal we’ve had and to offer our thanks is an appropriate and powerful way to express gratitude.

Why should we be grateful and take the time to express our gratitude?

Because, simply put, there are people in the world who are starving.

According to Ban Ki Moon, Secretary General of the United Nations, six million children die of hunger every year.  Many more are malnourished.  Lest you think hunger is not an issue in the United States, in 2010, almost 15% of U.S. households were food insecure.

The United States has the highest obesity rate in the world, and still has citizens, many of them children, that don’t have enough to eat.

Our ancestors, overwhelmingly living in poverty in Eastern European villages, knew what hunger was.  My grandmother, who survived numerous concentration camps, knew what starving was. 

Nobody should go hungry. 

Children should not need to worry about where their next meal is coming from, and should not be going to bed wishing they had something to eat. 

These are not political statements – these are human statements.  Regardless of your politics, from the Jewish perspective, you are not permitted to stand by as people starve to death when you have the ability to help.

How can you help?

A couple of ideas:

Donate your time and dollars to a food rescue organization, such as Forgotten Harvest (, which rescues surplus, prepared and perishable foods and donates them to emergency food providers rather than having them end up in dumpsters.

Each time you host a Shabbat dinner or other festive meal in your home, make it a point to invite a family (or individual) that you know is struggling to put food on the table.  The ability to connect with such families certainly exists through your local Jewish Family Services, kosher food bank, etc.  Make it a point to have everyone in attendance take home leftovers of some kind, so that the family can have some additional food for their home without being self-conscious or ashamed.

Be grateful for what you have, and take the time to express that gratitude.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Blog The Chosen People Choose

16 Av 5772 / August 3-5, 2012

In this week’s portion, Moses continues his speech to the Israelites, and shares quite a bit of content-heavy material.  He recaps the 10 commandments (changing a couple of words in the process – yikes!), he shares the “Shema” and “V’ahavta,” which Jews traditionally say in their daily prayers, and he shares that when our children ask us why we follow the various laws, that we’re to respond that we were slaves in Egypt, and with Divine intervention, we were able to go free to the Promised Land (Sound familiar? This passage is traditionally read at the Passover Seder!).

Moses also emphasizes that the Israelites are the Chosen People:  

“You are a people consecrated to God.  God chose you from the peoples of the world to be treasured.  You were not chosen because you are the most numerous of peoples - indeed, you are the smallest of peoples.  But because God kept a promise to your ancestors, you were freed from Pharaoh and Egypt.”
(Deuteronomy 7:6-8) (paraphrased)

Most of the world’s major religions believe that their adherents are the Chosen People.  If they didn’t believe such, then they’d have a really hard time recruiting members, as they would be admitting that they possessed no special covenant with God, and that others had a more direct connection.  Not an easy sell!

The idea of being the “Chosen People” is one that Jews have embraced for millennia.  In the Friday night kiddush (the blessing over the wine), we say “ki vanu bacharta v’otanu kidashta mikol ha’amim” – “because you chose us and made us holy from amongst all of the nations.”  As a more contemporary example of the embrace of the designation, the advertising slogan for He’Brew beer is “The Chosen Beer.”

However, as many Jews have started to embrace a Western universalistic worldview, and as many Jews question and wrestle with believing in any sort of interactive God who would be in a position to “choose” one nation for special designation, this concept of “Chosenness” is one that makes many contemporary Jews uncomfortable.  Frankly, it makes me uncomfortable.

How do we deal with such discomfort?

First, we need to be honest about it.  We need to be comfortable saying that we struggle with parts of our tradition.  Certain pieces, as initially conceived, may not speak to our currently held beliefs.  And that’s okay!

Also, we should commit to not simply rejecting our tradition because pieces of it don’t speak to us in their current form.  Rather, we should strive to find meaning, adopting contemporary interpretations as necessary.  Even if we struggle with the concept of Chosenness, we can ask the following:

“Hypothetically, if we were Chosen, how would we utilize that status in order to set an example for others as to what it means to lead meaningful, compassionate, love-filled lives?” 

In other words, whether we believe we’re Chosen or not, we should strive to be held in such esteem that people of the world look at us and assume we must be Chosen as a result of the way we live our lives and the good deeds we do.

This Shabbat, reflect on what Chosenness means to you.

Think about, and then try to answer the hypothetical shared above.

And then, commit to living your life in that way.