This week’s parasha, Chayye Sarah, begins and ends with acts of kindness around burial. Death prompts kindness. The parasha begins with Abraham searching for a burial plot for Sarah. It ends with the formerly estranged Isaac and Ishmael coming together to bury Abraham. The middle of the parasha is also a story of incredible kindness: Rebecca greets Abraham’s servant with the sort of greeting all of us likely desire - and likely rarely get - when entering a new space or location. The two acts of kindness bookending our parasha are laudable, but likely not surprising. Death is an act which tends to make people more conscious of their behavior and act with kindness towards one another. However, it is the act of kindness separated from loss and grief, which truly define who we are and make us worthy. Here Rebecca excels and becomes a model for the Jewish people and our relationship with God.
After the death of Sarah, Abraham approaches the people of Chet to purchase a burial plot for Sarah. Until the exchange between Abraham and the people of Chet and then Ephron, no person in Breishit is referred to as “adoni,” meaning, “my master.” In Abraham’s negotiations for a burial plot, he is called, “adoni,” three times. Abraham, who is a stranger in the land, is called, “my master,” by the locals. The midrash in the Mekhilta (Pascha 18) explains that the land of Canaan was named after the Canaanites because of the kindness the children of Chet - who are Canaanites - showed Abraham, particularly in referring to him as, “adoni.” Since this is the first use of that term and also the first public burial we have in the Torah, I assume the two go together: the death of Abraham’s wife prompts extra kindness.
The death of Abraham prompts unusual kindness as well. Ishmael and Isaac, who up until now seem to have been apart and non-interactive, come together to bury Abraham. The Rabbis teach us that Ishmael repented for his previous sins (though what those sins might have been is itself confusing). This explanation displays shock that Ishmael and Isaac, of all people, would come together. Perhaps, like the generosity of the people of Chet in the wake of Sarah’s passing, death motivates kindness between brothers who were previously estranged.
Which is where most of us, Jews and non-Jews, stand one week after the horrific murder at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh. At the moment, we are showing incredible kindness to one another. I am moved by the massive number of people who came to the memorial on Monday night and the incredible words of the many speakers. That night, ministers of different cloths and politicians put aside their differences to show solidarity. In this, we all followed the model of the people of Chet, of Isaac and Ishmael. It is a laudable model. I wish everyone in the world would show such kindness in response to tragedy.
But we need a model for continuing to show kindness one week from now, one month from now, one year from now when the pain of Pittsburgh begins to fade. For this our parasha presents us with Rebecca. Abraham’s servant comes to Aram Naharaiim, knowing no one and praying to God for a person to show him incredible kindness. Rebecca arrives and shows the exact kindness he requests: she offers water to him and his camels. She goes further: her offer of water to the camels comes unprompted. She does not walk back and forth to the well; she runs. She never asks the servant to help her. The servant never reveals his name and does not reveal his origin until after she has invited him to her family for room and board. The servant responds to Rebecca’s kindness by giving her gifts, including two gold bracelets weighing ten shekel. The Rabbis see these two bracelets and their weight of ten units as an allusion to the two Tablets and the Ten Commandments engraved on them (Genesis Rabbah 60:6). In response, several commentaries attempt to explain why Rebecca, as opposed to any of our other ancestors, is given a gift that alludes to the central piece of a contract between God and Israel.
Perhaps Rebecca receives a gift which alludes to the Ten Commandments because she most deeply embodies the characteristic necessary for receiving the Ten Commandments. Israel merits receiving the Torah (and the revelation at Sinai) because, unlike the other nations, it accepts the text unconditionally without reading it first (Mekhilta Chodesh 5). Israel willingly creates a relationship with God without preconditions or asking questions. Similarly, Rebecca creates a relationship with Abraham’s servant with no questions asked or preconditions. This is the ultimate kindness, and it exemplifies the quality necessary to inherit Torah.
Which is what we need to show one week, one month, one year, and one generation from the tragedy at Tree of Life. Let us not only show the kindness we have shown already, the kindness of Ishmael, Isaac, and the people of Chet immediately following death. Let that kindness lead us to the kindness of Rebecca, kindness shown with no preconditions and which appears both at times of good and times of bad. Kindness which makes us truly worthy of Torah and God’s covenant.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום
In this week’s parasha, Vayera, both Abraham and his nephew Lot are visited by angels. In both cases, the angels are served meals which include bread. Abraham served his guests some sort of cakes. Lot, however, served his angelic guests matza, the unleavened bread we traditionally eat at Passover. Lot seems to be a less good version of Abraham, so it makes sense that he would serve his guests cheaper food. However, the great 11th century French commentator Rashi explains Lot’s serving of matzah in a different vein: it was Passover. That is, Lot served his guests matzah because it was the appropriate food for the time of year.
However, Rashi’s comments are strange in at least two ways. First, why is Lot celebrating a holiday which commemorates the Israelite exodus from Egypt several hundred years later?! Further, the Israelites are distant cousins of Lot’s offspring. If anyone should be celebrating Passover, it is Abraham. Indeed, some midrashim explain that the angels visited Abraham on the eve of Passover. Abraham had to ask Sarah to make cakes for the angelic guests because they were busy with Passover preparations (which I assume means they were out of other bread). But Rashi makes no such comment regarding Abraham. The only person he associates with Passover in our story is Lot in his serving of matzah.
The contemporary Israeli Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun points out several literary parallels between Lot’s escape from Sodom and the Israelite escape from Egypt. Matzah, in his view, is merely a flag for the careful reader to pay attention to the similarities. Both stories begin with hiding in houses. In Lot’s case, the angels pull him inside his own house to protect him from the Sodomites. In Egypt, the Israelites lock themselves inside with blood on their doorposts to protect them from the plague of the first-born. New nations emerge from both stories. For Lot, it is the nations of Amon and Moab, which begin with a horrific sexual encounter created between Lot’s daughters and their father. (I hope to compare this to the Levite experience in Egypt when we get to parashat Sh’mot). The Exodus from Egypt, of course, results in the creation of the Israelite people, from whom we inherit our traditions. So the escape from Sodom did not necessarily occur during our Passover. Instead, when Rashi says it was Passover, he means that it was Lot’s Passover: the time for him to escape and begin a new nation.
I noticed a few other parallels not included by Rabbi Bin Nun. Both of these stories end away from civilization: for the Israelites in the desert, for Lot in the mountains. In both stories, the people involved must move forward at all cost -- even into the sea, rather than look back and become a pillar of salt, as happens with Lot’s wife.
By teaching us that Lot served matzah because it was Passover, Rashi points us towards the literary parallels. His comment illuminates for us the similarities between the national creation stories and the lessons conveyed about the creation of separate identity and peoplehood. If the Torah’s paradigm is taken seriously, the creation of a nation begins in an oppressive environment where all food must be baked quickly. It means having to hide inside, away from the outside environment, and an eventual escape to a frontier where a new people can begin to (re)build. Both stories also teach us that nation-building involves an attempt to include outsiders who might want to join the project. In Lot’s case, the angels urge him to collect anyone else who might be with him in the city (Genesis 19:12). Everyone refuses him, but the sentiment is still there. In the Israelite case, a mixed-multitude (Exodus 12:38) joins the Israelites in leaving Egypt.
This gives us a reason why the Israelite nation does not emerge directly from Abraham and instead needed to spend time in Egypt. While Lot hideS in his house before emerging from Sodom, Abraham sits outside his tent waiting for visitors, to whom he serves a banquet in the open air, away from the tent. Abraham is an accomplished person with little to fear in his world. Even his greatest fear, having Sarah stolen by a man in power, results in his enrichment and adding new allies. Lot’s life, like the Israelites in Egypt, is one that must happen in hiding until a final, miraculous moment of emergence into the wilderness -- and the creation of a new people. The Torah teaches us that new nations usually do not emerge from positions of comfort, but instead from positions of subjugation. And for those lucky enough to be part of an exodus (but unlucky enough to need one), the Torah reminds us that such an endeavor involves including others who might also be committed to the project. Like Lot, however, sometimes we may find no one else willing to join us. We build the nation anyway. And above all, it reminds us to charge forward -- not looking back, like Lot’s wife, but plunging into the sea and the future, like the Israelites under Moses. שבת שלום.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום
The story of Abraham is one of the more detailed, personal stories in the Torah. However, most of what we learn in the Torah only covers the last one hundred years of his life (may we all be blessed to have a last one hundred years). Which leaves a curious question: why did God choose Abraham in the first place? Other than the names of his family members, all we know about him before this week’s parasha, Lekh Lekha, is that his wife is barren and that his father intended to take the family from Ur Kasdim (maybe southern Iraq) to Cana’an (the land of Israel). His father stops short of Cana’an and settles in Charan (maybe in Turkey), although the Torah never explains why. The Rabbinics present Abraham as the first monotheist, attempting to explain why Abraham was chosen by God. However, other Rabbinic sources make it clear that several other monotheists existed in Abraham’s day, many of whom were his elders. The Rabbis teach that Shem and Ever, Noah’s son and grandson, ran a yeshiva in the ancient world. Therefore, Abraham (and Sarah, as we will see) must have done something special beyond being monotheists, which compelled God to choose them.
In Lekh Lekha, the Torah may hint as to why God chose Abraham and Sarah. The retinue which accompanies Abraham on his trip to Cana’an includes the “people that they made in Charan,” (Genesis 12:5). Onkelos, in his traditional Aramaic translation of the Torah, translates “people that they made” as, “Abraham and Sarah pledged the people to Torah.” The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 9a) suggests that Abraham marks the beginning of an era of Torah. However, what Torah looks like in Abraham’s time is unclear. Sarah and Abraham long predate God’s giving the Torah at Sinai. While some sources see it as an innate ability to perform Torah (see, for instance, Babylonian Talmud Yoma 28b), it seems more likely this means a concept of Torah. It might be that the method Abraham and Sarah use to teach to others is an understanding of what Torah is and that which sets them apart from both their predecessors and their contemporaries, even those who are monotheism. This may even be what makes Judaism, the religion of Torah, unique.
Maimonides suggests (Mishneh Torah Laws of Idolatry Chapter 1, Laws 2-3) that Sarah and Abraham are different in that they teach publicly, to the masses, about God. Other monotheists at their time kept to themselves, or maybe had a few select students. Maimonides suggests that Abraham wrote books and passed them on to his children. However, this fails to explain why those before Abraham did not teach publicly or did not write their own books. Nor does this explain what sets Torah apart from other traditions.
When God instructs Abraham to move to the land of Cana’an, God tells him, “Go, yourself, from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you,” (Genesis 12:1). God’s instruction that Abraham leave his father’s house is confusing. Abraham’s father, Terach, was himself headed to Cana’an (Genesis 11:31). God essentially says to Abraham, “Separate from your father by doing exactly what your father was planning to do.” How can Abraham break from his father by following in his father’s footsteps? This break without a break is heightened by the claim of the Tosafot (on Shabbat 10b) that Abraham first went to Cana’an, then back to Charan, then back to Cana’an, the second time at God’s command. That is, Abraham completed his father’s journey on his own and when he abandoned it, God asked him to repeat it.
Perhaps, God chooses Abraham because he knows Abraham is capable of simultaneously breaking from the path of his father and following it at the same time. After all, Abraham already did this on his own. Which might be what separates Sarah and Abraham from Shem and Ever and also what convinces others to follow Abraham and Sarah. While others can teach about God, maybe even publicly, Sarah and Abraham do so while cloaked in tradition. Their message is more palatable because it delivers a radical message, to follow God, while making it seem completely unradical. They make monotheism seem like a natural continuation of Abraham’s father’s path. Which is what makes him the start of Torah. For Torah is an ability to break from the past while making it seem like it is merely a continuation at the same time. Every good change made in Torah is always grounded in a past tradition—a saying, Biblical verse, or the like— as if the Torah always supported this new path. Perhaps it has. May we all merit to inherit such a Torah: where we forge new paths as we, at the same time, make those paths continuations of what always was. In doing so, we inherit the Torah of Abraham.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום
In this week’s parsha, Noah, God makes two promises to Noah after the flood. The first occurs after Noah sacrifices all of the pure animals he brought with him in the ark as offerings to God. God then promises to no longer curse the earth because of humanity. This manifests in God promising to allow the natural cycles of the world to cycle through their appropriate periods. “For the rest of the days of the Earth, the time for planting and harvesting, winter, spring, summer, fall, day, and night will not cease,” (Genesis 8:21-22). The second promise, which is perhaps more famous, is symbolized by the rainbow. God promises to never again wipe out humans and other life on earth, and uses the rainbow as a reminder to God to keep the promise. After some genealogies, the Torah tells the story of the Tower of Babel where the people, all of one language, get together to build a tower. God responds by introducing different languages and scattering the people. The choice of a rainbow as symbol of the covenant gives us insight to the cause of the flood. It also explains God’s motivation for punishing the builders of the Tower of Babel by making them speak different languages.
The Torah teaches us that the sin of the generation of the flood was thievery. The Talmud of the land of Israel explains that people would steal small amounts from one another: so small that the thievery was not contestable in a court (Talmud Yerushalmi Bava Metziah 4:2). Phrased differently, they would disrespect the individual property of another, assuming the boundaries between individuals were not important.
A different sin associated with this generation, midrashically, is that different species, including humans, were engaged in cross species sex (Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 108a). Again, we see a disrespect of boundaries and difference, here between species. In the parasha, we learn that Noah took one pair of every impure animal and seven of every pure animal. There is a midrash (Tanchuma, Buber edition, Noah 11) which explains that the pure animals are those which did not engage in cross species sex. These are the animals which Noah later sacrifices to God, which then prompts God’s first promise to no longer destroy the earth and its cycles. To be clear, this is not a story which promotes segregation of types. After all, the ark is the ultimate example of bringing together every type. Rather, it is a story which warns against the destruction of unique identity, culture, and species.
The story of the Tower of Babel contains parallels to the flood. The entire world comes together with one language and one set of words (Genesis 11:1). This is despite God’s blessing (Genesis 9:1) that people should fill the entire world: that is, to spread out and create individual identities. Instead, the people build up instead of out, creating one national identity, and removing unique qualities of culture and language. God punishes, so to speak, the generation by giving them different languages and different locations. Here the people did not mix inappropriately, but, rather, failed to form differences in the first place. However, those sins seem to be similar, as mixtures are not a category if there are not differences in the first place. And the creation of differences is a fundamental part of God’s creation in Genesis, creating each thing according to its type.
In response to the sins of mixing inappropriately and failing to create difference, of violating identity, God violates the identity of the world. God remixes the separated waters of above and below, as well as the separation between land and water. The punishment matches the crime. When the punishment is finished, God promises to never destroy the cycles again. God is prompted to make this promise when Noah offers those animals that never violated their identities by mixing across species. The rainbow becomes a perfect symbol of this. A rainbow is the result of taking a mixture of frequencies of light (i.e. white light) and separating them spatially. It is a return of colors to their individual identities. The rainbow reminds us that as much as we might which to blend individual identities between people, species, times, and cultures, and languages, there is also a value to maintaining difference and individuality.
However, the Torah teaches that the rainbow primarily serves a reminder to God. While a rainbow is a separation of identity, it is not as discrete as we may originally suspect. It is a actually a spectrum, where the borders between colors are fuzzy. It is a reminder that even in maintaining unique identity, some blurring of boundaries is also a value to be upheld. This reminds God to not be so quick to destroy the world on the basis of identity blending, just as it reminds us to not be too casual with knocking down boundaries. May we all appreciate and keep those qualities which keep us as, both as individuals and groups, different. But may we, and God, also recognize and appreciate those places where differences can and should be blended like the colors of the rainbow.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום
This week’s parasha, B’reishit, famously gives the Jewish view on the creation of the world. Whether or not this is meant to be a scientific accounting, it does seem to be a statement of our tradition’s thoughts on the goals, aspirations, and ideals for the world. While the initial creation story in the first chapter contains many instances of God’s approval, the Rabbis see at least two places where God alters our reality in relationship to God’s original plan. The first change was to insert mercy and compassion into a world initially created based solely on justice. A world based on justice alone, God realized, would be unsustainable. God’s wisdom (as it were) is shown by the first two generations of humanity, both of whom engage in disobedience of God. The second, Cain, goes so far as to undo God’s creation by committing murder. If the world had been created strictly based on justice, God would have needed to wipe out humanity for its crimes rather than forgive Adam, Eve, and Cain. The insertion of mercy into God’s judgement of the world gives all of us a chance to survive and come back from our mistakes. But it also means that sometimes people are not properly punished for their crimes.
A second change in God’s plan was in how God creates people. Two verses, in the first and fifth chapters of Genesis, have a contradiction in describing God’s creation of humanity. The Torah teaches that God created him - the first man - in God’s image, but God created them as male and female (Genesis 1:27). Genesis 5:1-2 similarly states that God created man in God’s image, but created them as male and female and named them “Adam”. More confusingly, the second chapter of Genesis describes God as forming man and then creating woman from man’s side. Rabbi Don Isaac Abarbanel (15th century Portugal) suggests that God created a single person and later created woman from that person’s side. Rebbi Abahu (3rd century Israel) explains, however, that God thought to create two separate people, but in the end only created one.
Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (16th and 17th centuries Poland) writes that, like creating the world only based on justice, creating two separate people with wholly individual identities was the ideal. However, the world would not be sustainable if separate people were created simultaneously. People have a tendency to quarrel, to the point of violence and destruction, over the smallest differences. God thus decided to create one initial person in God’s image so that everyone would be forced to admit to the same origin -- and God hoped that this would lead to more peace in the world. The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) explains that, because we all descend from the same initial person, no person can claim greater ancestry than anyone else. Further, this also leads us to aspire to close relationships with others -- knowing that we were once meant to be together, we yearn for the recombination of two people into the original one.
As God anticipated, and as we can see in our world today, too often the existence of individual people leads to dominance by one type of person over another. But holding onto the idea of fundamental human unity can be dangerous, too. If we see ourselves only as one person, we can’t draw boundaries, even healthy ones, for ourselves -- or recognize those boundaries in others. If everything came from one original person, someone could abuse this by assuming that others must not have personal space or autonomy. This becomes even more dangerous due to the second chapter of Genesis. Since gender differentiation happens by taking something from the side of the first person - who becomes a man - some people see this as permission for men to encroach on women’s physical space. It is at this point we should remember God’s original plan for the world in our tradition. Rabbi Yitzchak Silberstein (in Chashukei Chemed Eruvin 18a) explains that the idea was for people to have two independent identities not reliant on one another in any way: physically, materially, emotionally. In believing that God created the world with an intention of individuality but with the reality of unity, we should be inspired to find an appropriate balance between these two poles.
However, finding a balance between unity and individuality, as well as finding a balance between justice and mercy, is difficult. We often swing too far one way. Sometimes our society is too inclined to be merciful towards people who violate others’ boundaries -- we are too quick to forgive such transgressions. In such times, we must remember that our tradition teaches that God’s original plan for the world was true justice. In the same way, people can be too inclined towards the results of a creation story where people were created from a single individual. People are too lax with others’ individuality and personal space. This is particularly and often seen in men’s treatment of and dominance over women and women’s bodies. When the world swings too far to that side -- and I believe it has -- we should recall our tradition’s claim of God’s original plan for the world: multiple people with independent and equally valid identities and separate bodies, owned exclusively by themselves and created by God.
We must find the appropriate balance between respecting individuality and union -- we must make up for giving too much weight to the side of allowing the violation of personal privacy and individuality. I hope we can have both the respect of individual worth, which comes from God’s original plan for the creation of person, and the appropriately timed and desired intimacy and friendship, which comes from God’s eventual choice to create us all from the same person. In the same way, I hope we can find the right balance between God’s original plan for a world of justice, with all the fairness it brings, and the actual world God created, which is one where we eventually learn when it is appropriate to be compassionate and forgive.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום
This week’s parasha, Ki Tavo, explains the laws of bringing first fruits to the Temple. “Then you will take from the first of every fruit of the earth that you brought forth from your land which Hashem your God gives to you; then you shall place it in the basket and go to the place that Hashem your God will choose for God’s name to reside there,” (Deuteronomy 26:2). The basket and the fruits are taken by a cohen and placed in front of the altar. The midrashic collection on Deuteronomy, the Sifrei (parashat Ki Tavo, no. 300), reports that rich people would bring their first fruits in gold or silver vases, while the poor would bring them in wicker baskets. It also reports that the baskets themselves were given to the priests along with the fruit, “in order to increase gifts to the priests.” This implies that, unlike the baskets, the vases brought by the rich were returned. Rabbi Ovadiah from Bartenura (15-16th Century Italy) comments that this supports the folk saying that, “Poverty follows the poor.” The rich get to show off without losing anything, and the poor look bad and lose out financially. The statement of the midrash is also nonsensical. If the Torah really wanted to increase the gifts given to to the priests, it would direct them to keep the gold and silver vases brought by the rich.
Allowing the rich to be financially ostentatious around first fruits stands in contrast to the Rabbinic approach to food brought to houses of mourning. The Talmud teaches (Mo’ed Katan 27a) that, originally, people would bring food to a house of mourning differently depending on their wealth: the rich in gold and silver vases, and the poor in wicker baskets. However, this embarrassed the poor; for the sake of their honor, the Rabbis decreed that everyone should bring food to a house of mourning in wicker baskets. That is, in order to protect the dignity of the poor, the Rabbis decreed that everyone should act like a poor person when bringing food to a house of mourning. Rabbi Menachem Meiri (13-14th Century Catalonia) explains that a person is constantly required to examine their actions to ensure they do not embarrass the poor. Further, a rich person should make themself equal to the poor in order to not cause shame.
The tension between laws around bringing first fruits to the Temple and bringing food to mourners leads many commentators to attempt a resolution. In my humble opinion, a resolution may be found in a different version of the midrash from Sifrei, brought by the Vilna Gaon (Eliyah ben Shlomo, 18th Century Lithuania). Instead of ending the midrash with, “in order to increase gifts to the priests”, his version ends, “in order to give merit to the poor.” The Torah Temimah (Barukh HaLevi Epstein, 19-20th Centuries Lithuania) suggests that the reason the poor give their baskets to the priests is because they actually made the baskets out of the first fruits, so the baskets themselves are due to the priests as well. This makes the baskets both a merit to the poor and a true gift to the priests. Perhaps the rich also desired to give their baskets to the priests. But the priests have no interest in a gift that was merely a purchase, made with the money one happens to have. While that may seem like a beautification of serving God, just like a present wrapped in beautiful wrapping paper that came from the store, it is too easy. The rich might have nicer fruit to bring to the Temple than the poor, but they merely wrap it in what their money can buy; and money, to them, is easily disposable. However, the poor person, whose fruit is likely inferior to the rich person’s, uses their own hand and effort to beautify God’s gifts. They may not have anything great to offer, but they make it into something great. That is, their own poverty gives them motivation to create something truly worthy of a gift to the priests. This is why the priests only take the baskets from the poor, and this is why this practice gives merit to the priests.
My explanation does not immediately solve the initial problem. If delivering the first fruits in hand-made baskets is more meritorious, then the rich should also bring first fruits in hand-made baskets, just like when they bring food to mourners. Second, if bringing handmade baskets is more meritorious when bringing first fruits, why would it suddenly become more embarrassing for the poor when they bring food to mourners?
In the case of the Temple, the two methods of bringing first fruits - in precious vases or in wicker baskets - are empowering to a person’s station in life. This is strengthened by the statement made when bringing the first fruits. “My father was a wandering Aramean; then he descended to Egypt in small numbers, but he became there a great nation, strong and numerous,” (Deuteronomy 26:5). The rich and the poor have a common story, a story of both poverty and wealth. The great ancestors of the Israelites went through periods of each. Therefore, both being rich and being poor have an anchor in our heritage; neither is a position that should bring shame. In the current time, when they are giving their first fruits to their Temple, they are permitted to do so in a way that gives them pride in their place in life - for the rich, using their wealth for beauty, and for the poor, using their work for beauty.
However, the case of death and mourning is different. I have heard people discuss how equalizing death is. But the Talmud relates that before the Rabbis made decrees to equalize how the dead and their mourners were treated, it was anything but equalizing. The reason we bury bodies in closed caskets is because poor people who died tended to look famished, while rich people looked well cared-for (Mo’ed Katan 27b). The size of the crowd at a funeral or the number of eulogies were often related to a person’s fame or wealth. Funerals and mourning created an inequality of pride, which necessitated Rabbinic interference to equalize how people acted.
We need to ask ourselves about whether the institutions we build and activities we hold are more like bringing first fruits to the Temple or more like bringing food to mourners. Do they create an environment where everyone can be proud of their station in life, or an environment which gives pride to some at the expense of others? If we can build the former, we are doing well. But when we fail to do so, we might wish to take lesson from the Rabbis. In such cases, those who have power and wealth should take heed of the Meiri’s injunction: they should humble themselves, ensuring no one is ashamed due to lack of wealth or power. May we merit to build a world where all of our spaces are like the Temple at the time when first fruits were brought. Then we can fulfill the vision of Rabbi Akiva, who sees everyone, even the poor of Israel, as equally deserving of pride - as befits the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום
This week’s parasha, Shof’tim, teaches us the laws about witnesses who conspire to testify falsely against a defendant. “You shall do to him as he conspired to do to his fellow,” the Text instructs (Deuteronomy 19:19). The Rabbis read this in an incredibly literal manner, summarized by Rashi as follows: “As he conspired - and not as he did. From here they said, if he [the accused] is executed, they [the witnesses] are not executed.” That is, if the conspiring witnesses are successful in convincing the court to falsely punish a defendant, they themselves are not punished, even though their testimony was false. They are only punished if they are caught before the punishment of the defendant is completed. Here, the Rabbis actually limitthe window for catching conspiring witnesses to between the time of the guilty verdict and the time when the punishment is executed. If the witnesses are found to have conspired falsely, but outside of that time, they cannot be tried and punished for it. This means that if the conspiring witnesses fully succeed in their plan to have the defendant punished - including via capital punishment - they are rewarded with immunity.
Traditional commentaries are flabbergasted by this and come up with a number of justifications. Nachmanides (13th Century Spain) suggests that while the witnesses may indeed have testified falsely, the fact that God allowed the accused to be executed must mean that the accused was actually guilty. The witnesses lied, but the punishment was warranted. I find this explanation incredibly difficult to accept, given how easily it can justify any kind of unfair suffering and death. People use such excuses to justify all sorts of personal and global tragedies. This includes Jewish sources that attempt to justify acts of evil by claiming that, while the perpetrators were horrible people, the fact that God still allowed the victims to die is proof that they deserved it. Such rhetoric tends to cause pain to those who loved the deceased more than it helps anyone relate to God.
Equally difficult for me to accept is the explanation of the Kesef Mishnah (Yosef Karo, 16th Century Turkey and Israel). He explains that conspiring witnesses who are successful in having the accused executed have committed such a heinous crime, death at the hands of people is too good for them. Since, in our tradition, punishment by the court atones for a person’s sins, we do not want these witnesses to gain atonement. Therefore, we leave their punishment in the hands of Heaven. This is unsatisfying to me. It calls into question whether we need courts in the first place, and lets us solely trust God to take care of the world’s evils. Considering that another commandment in this week’s parasha instructs us to set up a court system (Deuteronomy 16:18), this explanation flies in the face of the Torah’s own theology.
Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura (15th Century Italy) brings a third explanation that, unsurprisingly, I also find difficult. However, I think it does explain the thinking behind the Rabbinic interpretation of conspiring witnesses, and I find that it makes Nachmanides’ and Yosef Karo’s commentaries more palatable. Rabbi Ovadiah says that, if the accused is executed and the false witnesses are executed, there would be no end to the matter. It takes two additional witnesses to condemn witnesses who have falsely conspired. If we executed the conspiring witnesses, their families would bring other witnesses to testify against the witnesses who testified against them, claiming that the second set of witnesses were actually the ones conspiring. This will continue with no end. While Rabbi Ovadiah does not say this directly, I think he means that to say that, in order to limit unending feuds of testimony, each court case gets a maximum of one punishment per case. The system is unfair, but that is the limitation of a human system. We try for maximum fairness, but at the end of the day, we have to accept the system’s limitation rather than leave an unending trail of bodies. Fairness should be the goal in solving disputes, but fairness is also an asymptote we can never reach. The Torah’s court system certainly sees fairness as a goal. It explains that conspiring witnesses are punished so harshly in order to prevent others from testifying falsely (Deuteronomy 19:20). But as much as we may strive for fairness, we need to ensure that the quest to get there does not leave too much damage in its wake. Sometimes, no matter how frustrating, it is better to have a limited system than one which becomes an arm for ongoing personal feuds.
The idea which underlies Rabbi Ovadia’s explanation also helps to explain Nachmanides and Yosef Karo. Both of them create stories that make an unfair part of our legal system more palatable by trusting that, at some point, God will step in. They accept that human legal systems cannot be truly fair. Whether or not God does act, they still both recognize that human systems on their own are limited - and that fairness should not come at the expense of considerable damage.
While Jewish religious courts no longer have the ability to judge cases outside of monetary and religious status disputes, the principles here apply to person-to-person interactions as well. We should strive for fairness in life, and we should not allow people to report falsely about others. However, our determination for fairness must not come at the expense of an unending cycle of pain. Life is occasionally unfair; as difficult as it may be, sometimes our best bet is to move on. As the High Holidays approach and people who wronged us in the last year show remorse, we should all keep in mind that the goal of the season is not to right wrongs, but to repair relationships. For the person who makes t’shuva, this means laboring to fix those wrongs that they committed. But for those who have been wronged, that can mean accepting that while some things cannot be fixed, forgiveness is better than an unending grudge or quarrel. And even if our wrongs are not righted - even if, in the end, those who hurt us get away with nothing but an apology - we must sometimes accept imperfect justice. Of course, the Torah teaches that there should still be consequences for people who act inappropriately. When possible, such people should attempt to right their wrongs, even when their wrongs are so grievous they cannot be righted. However, the Rabbis understood that perfect fairness is sometimes not worth the human cost. Hopefully, even as we strive for fairness in our courts, communities, and relationships, we can understand this too.
Shabbat Shalom - שבת שלום
My Grandfather did not smoke. When he served in the US Army during World War II, this had the potential to isolate him socially. However, instead of isolating him, it became his social outlet. He would exchange his cigarette rations with other soldiers for more food. Rather than refrain from camaraderie with those whose views on smoking differed from his, he used those differences to create social bonds. (Actually, he exchanged the cigs for chocolate!)
This week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, forbids Jews from eating certain types of meat (such as pig), as well as from mixing meat and milk (Deuteronomy 14:1-21). Food practices create identity and friendship--sharing a meal is a great act of social exchange. We see this numerous times in our tradition. The Mishna (Chullin 8:1) teaches that two lodgers--one eating meat and one eating cheese--may eat at the same table, even though we are forbidden to mix the two foods. The Rambam explains that this only applies if they are strangers, since they are less likely than friends to share food. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 31b) bans non-Jewish beer because of “marriage,” likely meaning, more broadly, social exchange. Here, Jewish law affirms that the exchange of food is an act of friendship. Prohibiting Jews from eating foods common in non-Jewish spaces appears to discourage intense social bonds between Jews and non-Jews.
There are two places in the Torah which list the animal species that Jews are not supposed to eat. One is in this week’s parasha, and one is in parashat Sh’mini in Vayikra. Both lists are connected to our holiness as a nation (Leviticus 11:45, Deuteronomy 14:2). However, the list in Sh’mini is also connected to God raising (מעלה) us out of Egypt, while in our parasha, it is connected to our being a treasured nation from amongst all the nations.
The language of the Torah in Sh’mini is unusual and therefore noteworthy. Usually, the Torah says that God took us out of Egypt - הוצאתי or המוציא. There, it says God raised us out of Egypt - מעלה. The Talmud in Bava Metziah (61b) notices this and explains that had God only taken us out for the sake of not eating certain creatures, and insects in particular, it would have been a sufficient reason. I think this means that a single food prohibition would have been sufficient to distinguish us from the Egyptians--to make us a separate nation.
But the set of food laws in our parasha ends differently. After listing forbidden animals, we are taught not to eat animals who die a natural death; instead, we should economically exchange them with non-Jews (Deuteronomy 14:21). The Torah gives us two choices. Either we should give them to the non-Jew living amongst us (the ger), presumably as gifts, or we should sell them to non-Jews living apart from us. Here, while dietary laws distinguish us from others, they also allow--and, in fact, encourage--intercultural interaction and exchange. They continue to set us apart as a nation, but they also create camaraderie with others. This might be why, in this week’s parasha, the Torah compares us to all the nations, not just the Egyptians. In Leviticus, soon after becoming a free and separate nation, we needed to define ourselves apart from the Egyptians specifically. Now, as a developed nation soon to be in our own land, we need to maintain our uniqueness; but unique does not mean isolated. We should be distinct from all the nations, but involved with them at the same time. This should be a goal of our observance of dietary restrictions and, likely, many other areas of Jewish law: figuring out how we can use those restrictions to simultaneously set us apart and still create cultural exchange. My Grandfather--of blessed memory--kept his differences regarding smoking, but used those differences to be a part of a larger group. In the same way, we should allow our dietary laws to establish our uniqueness while also motivating us to form connections outside of our community. May we all merit to maintain our distinctions--and to create friendships and relationships beyond them.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום
Reb Joel Goldstein
Getting credit for work can be important, contentious, humbling, and telling about the nature of the work itself. It is important because people should be recognized for their time, efforts, and initiatives. It is sometimes contentious because work often involves multiple people, and choosing to give credit to only some, or even sharing credit can sometimes diminish the effort by all involved. It is potentially humbling because lack of credit, or muted credit, can remind us that the work we did was actually quite ordinary and any number of people could have performed it. It tells us about the nature of the work itself, in that choosing how people are credited often tells which part of the work is most important. Sports provide a good example of this. In baseball, a hitter who moves a runner from first to third gets less credit than the batter who moves the runner home, even if the former contributed more overall bases. In basketball, a brilliant pass through a tight defense to a wide open player standing under the basket merely gets an assist. The player who makes the easy basket is credited with the actual points.
This week’s parasha, Eikev, teaches, “You shall observe all of themitzvah that I command you today, so that you may live, multiply, arrive, and inherit the land that Hashem promised to your forefathers,” (Deuteronomy 8:1). Reading the phrase, “all of themitzvah,” carefully, the midrash Tanchuma concludes that only one who completes a mitzvah receives the credit. It does not read “all of the mitzvah” to mean that performing the mitzvah from start to finish is necessary for credit. Rather, credit goes for merely completing themitzvah. Its proof is the story of Moses taking Joseph’s bones out of Egypt. Joseph died in Egypt and adjured the Israelites to take his bones out of Egypt when, in the future, God would lead the people out of the Egypt. During the Exodus, the Torah specifically states that Moses took Joseph’s bones out of Egypt (Exodus 13:19). However, since Moses never enters the land of Israel, the completion of the task falls to others. When the book of Joshua describes the burial of Joseph’s bones, it credits all of the Israelites with taking the bones from Egypt and burying them in the land of Israel. Even though Moses alone took the bones, since he did not complete the task, he gets no credit in the end. This is additionally strange because Joseph only asked to have his bones removed from Egypt, not necessarily to have them buried in the land. Moses could have buried Joseph in the desert and received full credit. However, he passes the task on to others, allowing Joseph the honor of a burial in the land of his forefathers. According to this midrash, when deciding where to give credit for a task, one should look to those who completed it and not those who began it.
Our tradition also includes a contrasting midrash to the Tanchuma. Psalm 30, which we say at the beginning of P’sukei D’zimra, begins, “A Psalm, a song for the dedication of the Temple, of David” (Psalms 30:1). Mekhilta D’Rebbi Yishmael (another, earlier collection ofmidrash) notes that this Psalm ought to be “of Solomon,” not “of David,” since Solomon dedicated the Temple. The Midrash resolves this by suggesting that since David gave so much of himself towards the building of the Temple, it was dedicated in his name, not Solomon’s. So too, any time a person gives much of themselves towards a task, that person is credited for it, even if someone else completes the task. From the perspective of this midrash, we should honor the effort over the completion.
Rabbi Yiztchok Zilberstein (may he live for many more good years) suggests a solution to the competing midrashim (Chashukei ChemedRosh Hashana 11a noted 30). In Moses’ taking Joseph’s bones out of Egypt, Moses was a replaceable person. Had Moses not taken the bones, someone else would have. Taking the bones was a routine play. However, if not for the sheer will of David in beginning the project of building the Temple, it would never have been built. For an exceptional move like David’s, credit is due, even if he did not see the task to completion. Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (20th Century Israel) makes a similar suggestion (Notes of the GRI”SH to Sotah 13b), based on the world of matchmakers. He deals with a case where a successful match is made through the work of two matchmakers. Rabbi Elyashiv explains that if the efforts of the first permit the second to be successful, the first receives ⅓ of the reward (presumably monetary, not just in Heaven). Otherwise, the credit is given entirely to the second matchmaker, and the first receives nothing.
It is important to note the conduct of both Moses and David. Moses takes up a task that anyone can do. In fact, Moses could have strictly completed the task by burying Joseph in the desert - a task any Israelite could have started and completed. Yet Moses humbles himself to begin the task and shows even more humility by not completing the task. Instead, he gives up credit and also gives greater honor to Joseph by allowing others to complete the burial in the land of Israel. He displays the humility for which the Torah describes him as, “More humble than any [other] person” (Numbers 12:3). David gives his heart and soul to a task, even though he risks never seeing it through. He displays incredible faith and dedication, even though, in his lifetime, his efforts will fail. Moses and David should both be models for us in our own lives. May we all find the humility to begin and attempt to complete the mundane tasks in life, as Moses did. May we all be willing to give up credit to see a task completed with more honor than we ourselves are capable of giving it. May we all be like David, willing to pour our souls into projects which may not be completed in our lifetimes and from whose success we will never truly reap the benefits. Finally, may we always give proper credit where it is due.
Reb Joel Goldstein
In this week’s parasha, Va’Etchanan, Moses reminds the Israelites of the laws and statutes that God has commanded them to follow. Special emphasis is placed on the importance of continuing to perform them after Moses’ death and after the conquest of the land of Canaan. Without Moses’s charismatic leadership, our people would need to find other motivations for obedience to God’s laws. Moses gives us one: “You shall keep them and perform them, for it is your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the nations, that they will hear all of these statutes and they will say, behold a wise and discerning people is this great nation” (Deuteronomy 4:6). That is, God’s laws are wise, and if we follow them, other people will consider us to be wise. ...Of course, “You Jews are so wise for not eating pork,” said no one, ever. The Torah’s claim does not seem to match reality. Further, how, many Jews have ever said, “Every fall, I am commanded to march around the synagogue with leaves and a citrus fruit. God’s laws are so wise!”?
One way to resolve this apparent contradiction is the Talmudic approach. The Talmud (Shabbat 75a) asks, “What is wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the nations?” and answers: learning astronomy (my apologies to Humanities people). Learning to calculate the motions of the sun and moon is in fact a commandment, or at least a necessary preparation for performing the commandment of counting the months and leap years. The context, and especially the use of “them” implying multiple commandments, makes it difficult to accept that our verse is only about the commandment to learn astronomy.
Maimonides (12th Century Spain and Egypt), in his Guide for the Perplexed (3:31), says that all of the commandments are wise and beneficial. It is on us to figure out how. However, this explanation seems lacking--the verse says that the other nations will hear our statutes and laws and consider us wise. It doesn’t say that they will read the 613 PhD theses written by Jewish professors on the wisdom of each of the commandments and then say, “Oh, yes, those are wise, and the Jews must be such a wise and discerning people.” So how do the commandments themselves demonstrate their (and our) wisdom?
The Rashba (Solomon ben Aderet, 13th Century Spain), has a third solution which, I think, helps to make sense of the Talmud’s solution as well as Maimonides’. The Rashba teaches that we must trust that all of the Torah’s laws are wise. However, only some appear wise. Neither we, nor others observing us, have the infinite intelligence to understand the reasoning behind every last commandment. But some commandments do seem obviously wise, and he lists four examples: charity, honoring parents, refraining from theft, and praising God. When we perform these commandments properly, both others observing us, as well as our own doubting inner monologue, will notice that some of the laws are wise. After recognizing that some laws are wise, we may then come to trust that the other laws must be wise as well. Taking the Rashba’s perspective, the Talmud is not claiming that Moses is simply motivating us to learn astronomy.
Rather, the Talmud suggests that Moses is instructing us that, when we establish ourselves in the Land and are observed by outside nations, we should emphasize those commandments which line up with the values and actions that the other nations consider to be wise. In Talmudic times, it was astronomy. In the Rashba’s time, it was charity. Perhaps, in Maimonides’ time, it was learning Torah by turning it into a philosophically complete system. If we focus on emphasizing the commandments which are obviously wise in our own day and age, and use our appreciation of those commandments to motivate us to perform the other commandments with vervor, the people around us will begin to trust that all of the commandments are wise.
Of course, as the Rashba points out, this is also effective against our own internal doubts (our yetzer ha’ra). Personally, I do not have the intelligence to see the wisdom in every commandment. But I do have the wisdom to see it in some. Following the Rashba, I can start by trying to perform those commandments, and through them, begin to create a relationship with the Torah. From there, I can learn to grow and trust the system, so much so that I come to assiduously perform more and more of the commandments, knowing that they too must be wise, even if I have not yet come to understand the wisdom. Over time, I will come to see wisdom in parts of the Torah I previously thought lacked it. Of course, it can go the other way too: over time, I might stop seeing wisdom in parts of the Torah where I originally saw it. However, once I have developed trust for the Torah, I will eventually come to embrace all of it, even as I continue to try--and sometimes fail--to see the wisdom in all of it. Hopefully, so too will the people who see me practicing Torah. Of course, in order to convince myself and others through my actions that the Torah is wise, I must approach the Torah not with the haughtiness of practicing a system I trust to be wise, but with the humility of not having the wisdom to yet fully understand the system. And when a part of Torah continually fails the wisdom test both for myself and others, I must be open to assuming I was not understanding the Torah correctly. With such a relationship with Torah, I pray others can one day look at me and say, “What a wise and discerning person he is.” May we all merit to find parts of the Torah we find to be wise, and may we use those parts to help us develop a relationship with the entire Torah.
Shabbat Shalom - שבת שלום