Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Giving of Yourself Parshat Terumah

Giving of Yourself   Parshat Terumah 
Do you know the story of the pig and the cow?
One day the pig and the cow went for a walk and they passed a supermarket. Please note that this was not in a Jewish neighborhood. The cow suggested to the pig,” Why don’t we go inside? After all we could be useful.”
The pig said, “ Oh, no! You can go in there. From you, they only want a contribution. From me, they want total commitment!”
All joking aside and this is really a kosher topic even if the pig made the comment, contributions and commitments have always been an important part of Jewish life. It’s very clearly goes back to our Torah portion of today, Terumah, in which Moses is to ask the people “asher yidveno libo” to give as his or heart wishes to give. The key word here is based on Nadav, which means to give something freely. Moses asks the people to provide the key supplies needed for the building of the sanctuary the desert: cloth, dyes, building supplies. That is in the sense of giving an object. The word also lends itself in the sense of “mitnadev”, volunteering, that is giving of one’s own energy and efforts.
That is very much in line with the ideal of Gemilut Chasadim, deeds of lovingdkindness, in which we give of our actions to others, as opposed to Zedakah where we give of our possessions, usually a nice check.
This idea of giving of ourselves freely, not only of our property, is as old as the hills. Indeed the first reference in the Bible and in Jewish history to people volunteer in mass for a cause takes place in the hills. Deborah, the woman prophet and the judge, as well as political leader, calls out from her hilltop to the people to the length and breadth of the land to rise up voluntarily to meet the challenge of defeating the oppressive Cannanite King and his general Sisera. We read this just three weeks ago at Shabbat Shira.
At the conclusion of the decisive battle when the enemy has been defeated she sings out praise of those who have thrown their lot in with the combatants, “ My heart is for the leaders of Israel and, “hamitnadvim b’Am”, the volunteers among the people. Bless the Lord!”
See this emphasis she places on volunteering, “my heart is with you” and “bless the Lord”.
Why such exuberance? Could it be that volunteers were hard to get in her day?
Look at what she says about those refused to volunteer! She did have problems. For example of the great tribe of Reuben the leader of the tribes at that time she said:
“in the ranks of Reuben, greater resolutions of the heart. Why then did you sit back among your she folds to hear the bleeding of your sheep!?”
Of the tribes of Dan and Asher, she complained “Why are you off sailing your boats? You spend the days by the seashore!”
You see how modern her problems were: too busy, couldn’t break away from sailboats or surfing on the waves.
She then let sit in for the passive bystanders ,” for they did not come to the aid of the Lord to the aid of the Lord against the mighty.”
So it is clear that volunteers are ancient and passive bystanders are just as ancient. No wonder the Devorah is so thrilled when she finally sees her volunteers to say “Boruch Hashem”.
To where would we be without volunteers? Devorah couldn’t do without them and Jewish communities could do without them. One of our ancient prayers is on behalf of just such people, which we chant right after the Torah service, is the Misheberach for the congregation it goes back almost 1500 years ago . In this prayer, we seek Divine protection for those who establish the synagogues of worship, those who provide the light for use in the synagogue and the wine for the Kiddush and Havdalah, those who care of food for the wayfarer and charity for the poor and those involved in the needs of the community. All of these tasks fell not upon government officials or anonymous bureaucrats but on volunteers.
A group of volunteers in Jewish law had a special name, a Chevra, a group of committed friends. To this it was appended the word Kadisha, holy, and then it would be a specialty, like Chevra  Kadisha  Chayatin, the sacred society of Tailors, for example.
Eventually Chevre Kadisha came to be associated with one voluntary society in particular the burial society. Remember that was a volunteer society that organized the burials, not a business. That’s a new development as we no longer live in tight cohesive communities.
Was very important to see that all these groups considered “ kadisha”, sacred. This embodied the Jewish idea of sanctity is been found not in meditating on one’s navel and not escaping to the hills to avoid the contamination of society. Sanctity means being physically involved in the day-to-day needs of our fellow human being.
So what kind of society’s did our old Jewish news have. They were specialties. Some specialized in davening, praying, so there were societies of those who prayed through the night and societies of those who prayed early in the morning. Keep in mind that it is old Jewish belief that is our prayers that keep the world going especially as we  pray for others. There were bikur cholim societies, members visited and look for the ill,Ner Tamid societies whose members made sure the temple lights were lit. There was Chevra Talmud Torah, whose members supported children and adult education.
It is said that in Amsterdam alone the year 1801 man left money in his will for some 210 organizations. Based on the Jewish population in Amsterdam at that time I assume it meant one society for every 40 adult Jews or more probably one society for every 20 adult Jewish males.
Why did our people join up and pay the dues?What was that the club or organization offered its members?
First as I said each was a sacred society. These were religious groups even while they were taking care of mundane matters such as free loans or matchmaking. As a religious group the members frequently prayed together and pray for each other. This was an outstanding source of comfort to the numbers for the sense that the care they receive extended far beyond their mortal lives.
Let’s also be practical. There were benefits to be reaped from belonging to a society: honors prestige of the community, choice Aliyot at the Torah on Shabbat. Finally the societies helped us keep ourselves in shape; they served as an extension of our inner police force.
Keep in mind that we Jews did not have police the lens of our dispersal, the Jews generally followed Jewish law. One of the functions of the societies was to support the average Jew and living up to his personal obligations. It served as a wonderful means of balancing and regulating society as a whole based entirely on volunteer commitment.
It is on this emphasis on voluntary society the Jewish culture and American culture greatly overlapped.
It has long been noted that Americans are society of joiners. It is sometimes  said as a put down, yet it is or was at one time the great strength of America. The various fraternities, clubs, social groups and the like in American culture and the nation were its warp and woof that held together over course of two centuries in ways that few other societies have,  certainly never before in a society as varied and mixed as ours.
This was remarked upon great amazement by the French scholar Alexis de Tocqueville came to these shores the beginning of our history to see where young nation gained its internal power and forcefulness. This is his description, in short: in no other country in the world has the principal of Association been more sparingly applied to a multitude of different objects than in America.
That this congregation is still stand is an example of that historic spirit of volunteerism of the ancient Jewish communities, of the chevra kadishas, of the example of community built churches, Moose and  Elks lodges, and home gardening clubs.
However in the past decades the whole idea volunteerism has been under great attack not by anyone’s dictation or by any official policy. We know however that we come to rely on official government organizations and private companies to do the things that we should ourselves be doing. We also know that this is a world in which our young people find themselves in virtual communities, dealing in virtual realities, and living virtual lives.
The Torah has a lot to say about official giving. We have half shekel, we have the tithing that supported the temple and the priests. Therefore, it is so fitting that we are introduced to the building of the sanctuary by a call for a contribution of the heart. It is so fitting also that Devorah would bless those who volunteer to come to the aid of the people. We need that spirit giving of ourselves to make our country flourish.
I want to close with the story that reflects our need:
A certain man is allowed a visit to the next world. He is taken on a grant to. He comes to an enormous banquet hall which thousands are seated. They are in an elegant and lavish surroundings, he is sumptuous food on the table. There is only one peculiarity, namely that their forks knives and spoons are too long there is no way they can put the food in their mouths with them. However the rules of the banquet that one can only eat with utensils given and no one can use their fingers to hold the food!
The guests are miserable, starting, and that sorts with each other, because no one has been able to have a single bite to eat of all the delicious food. This visitor understands is hell.
He is then taken to another banquet hall. The is the same lavish array of food and drink, the same exquisite d├ęcor and in the same stupid oversize utensils. Yet here everyone is smiling and having a good time and eating to their hearts content. How so? They have simply discovered that they can feed each other! They enjoy themselves and feel heavenly because each is helping the other to eat. That is heaven!
If you wish our synagogues, our town squares, and our common shared society to look like Dante’s Inferno then we need only to worry about ourselves and about our own little cubicles. If we wish to find Paradise Regained, then we break out of our cubicles, we break out of our shells and we find the opportunities share and care and pitch in together.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Halakhah and Society in the Portion of Mishpatim

Halakhah and Society in the Portion of Mishpatim  Feb 14 2015


            You surely know this old adage; two Jews go into the Rabbi with their case. The first pleads his case. The Rabbi says to the first one” You are Right”. The second pleads his case, the Rabbi says,” You are right”. The Rebbetizin jumps in, “How can both be right?”. To this the Rabbi replies,” You, too, are right.”
            Jokes about rabbis and jokes about lawyers aside, judgment and justice has been an integral part of Judaism form the first day that Abraham asked God,” Hashophet kol Haaretz Lo yaaseh mishpat.” Will not the judge of all the world do justice?”
            Last week, I spoke of the Ten Commandments and explained to you that “Ten Commandments” is actually a term used in, apparently late, in English translations at the end of the Middle Ages. We have “Aseret Hadibrot”, 10 Statements, commonly and more correctly termed, from the Greek, Decalogue. We speak in terms of 613 commandments, “ Taryag Mitzvot”, more a figurative term than a definite listing, but certainly, we know, there are plenty and the great Rabbis spilled countless ink trying to decide on a complete list which none agreed upon.
            The number 613 has its origins in a classic Midrash  in the Talmud and is built upon a very good description of the nature of Jewish laws: 613 is the combination of 248 positive and 365 negative commandments. 248 was the ancient Rabbinic count of bones and organs and 365 the count of days in the solar year. In sum, this Midrash comes to teach us that religious observances encompasses the entire body and is 24/7 year round.
            Of our Mitzvot, again, we noted that in the alignment of the Ten Statements, Aseret Hadobrot, they are aligned with those relating to G-d on the right column, and those relating to humans, on the left. However, the alignment is not so neat. Afterall, # 5 is respect towards parents, and number 4, Remember the Shabbat, is also a benefit to one’s household. If so, Jewish law tilts 70% towards the human need.
            Therefore, it is appropriate that this week’s portion, Mishpatim, which is heavily concerned with social order, follows immediately on the heels of the Giving of the Torah at Sinai and precedes the instructions to build a sanctuary in next week’s portion. Common Rabbinic interpretation is to indicate that the building of the holy and sacred can only be carried out by results of just and honest gain, not by oppression or thievery.
            So let’s look at some of these and see in what way these laws represented something new or earthshaking in its day. The most common example of law is the Code of Hammurabi, who lived as ruler of Babylon around the time of Abraham. It is usually the ancient code most compared to the Bible, both because of its antiquity, and similarity of phrases, but also because, like our commandments, they are described as given by a god, Marduk, to Hammurabi to establish justice.
            But there is justice and then there is justice. What happened in the Torah was a subversion of the prerogatives of the powerful and an elevation of the rights of the weakest and poorest in society.
            Look at our first rule, Ex 20:2-6. It is the rule of the status of slaves, specifically the “ Eved Ivri”, the Hebrew slave, which may have meant an indentured servant, rather than a true slave. In any event, the Eveb Ivri is offered his freedom at the end of the sixth year and if he refuses to go free, he is taken to court, and his ear is pierced, indicating that he has forgone his right of freedom.  Odd kind of punishment until we read what was done by the Babylonians:.
Line 282: If a slave say to his master: "You are not my master," if they convict him his master shall cut off his ear.
            This line is the very last of the rules of Hammurabi. In other words, denying one’s slavery leads to the whole ear being lobbed off. Try to be free and you lose your ear!
            In our portion, refuse to go free, and you also get punished through your ear.
            The Rabbis made a very telling comment on this: The ear that heard God declare at Sinai,” I am the Lord Your Good who brought out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” That ear that heard the call for freedom and rejected it, that ear is punished.
            What if the slave runs away and seeks shelter in someone else’s home. Again from the Code:
            Line 16.If anyone receive into his house a runaway male or female slave of the court, or of a freedman, and does not bring it out ( in other words, declare it)  the master of the house shall be put to death.
Line 19 19. If he holds the slaves in his house, and they are caught there, he shall be put to death.”
In American history, one of the most disgusting decisions of the US Supreme Court was in the Dred Scott case, in which it was decided that a slave could not gain his freedom by running away to a state where slavery was illegal. In short, the slave had to be returned to his master. It was the horrible decision that lit the fire of the Civil War. Hammurabi could have sat on the court.
            So what did the Torah state? Skip ahead to Deuteronomy( 23:16):
“You shall not return a slave who has run away from his master…he may live in your midst and you shall do him no harm.”
            Then ,we have the famous “ lex taliones”, eye for an eye.( Ex 21:24).This too has it version in the Code of Hammurabi, but with a clear distinction:
“196. If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out. [ An eye for an eye ]
197. If he breaks another man's bone, his bone shall be broken.”
So far, it sounds similar. However, since the codes also deal with goring oxen, as phrase goes, it all depends on whose ox is getting gored, or who it is that hits whom:
They eye of a freed man is worth one mina of gold, the eye of a slave is worth half-price of the slave. If it’s the tooth of an equal, then it’s tooth for tooth, but if it’s the tooth of a freed-man, then 1/3 mina of gold. But watch out if it’s someone noble in rank- then it’s 60 blows with an ox whip.
In other words, the value of eye for eye is very relative, especially if you are a slave or a commoner.
In the Torah, it is weighed differently. If the slave is hit and loses a tooth or an eye, the slave is rewarded with freedom ( Ex 21:26). In all other cases, the Torah makes clear, and the Rabbis carry it out in practice, there is one law, for all, the stranger as well as the native born, and no privileged class.( The language of the Torah, reinforced in Rabbinic teaching, implies financial equivalency, not physical equivalency).
      Finally, I want to touch on one rule in particular, that appears to us in our age as bizarre, the Rule of the female servant.( p. 307 Ex 21:7)
            Do any of you recall the book or the movie based on it, by Pearl Buck, The Good Earth? A young woman was sold off as a servant by a poor man when she was a child to serve in a nobleman's house. What else could one do in time of great poverty? That was true of pre-communist China. Modern communist China introduced the One Child Rule, which led in turn to families giving away, for adoption, hopefully under better circumstances, their daughters, so they could replace the daughter with a son. Certainly, the account of females being abducted and sold off is part of the on-going horror carried out by the fanatics of Boko Haram & ISIS.
            The Torah, too, had to address the reality of its day as well. If a father could be pressed into selling off his daughter to allay extreme poverty for the family, what protection did the child have?
            First, she could never be a slave in the same category as a man could be. She was brought in to the household with the intention of being a wife. Then, if the intended husband finds her to be a bad catch, offer her back, and he may never sell her off to a foreign people because he has abused her. If he brought her for his son, she must be treated with the status accorded a full wife, and he can not take another wife without denying her basic rights to food, clothing, and marital relations.
            Finally, if the owner fails in any respect to meet his obligations to her, he must then let her go, not at the end of seven years, but immediately, at no cost and no penalty to her and no refund from her father.
             In short, what was a system of slavery in other societies was transformed, by the Bible into a system eliminating women from servitude and guaranteeing the rights of a wife.
            However, it is not enough to take pride in the thought that our Torah was, in its day, more enlightened or more advanced. Our sages understood that the written Torah was never and end in and of itself. It needed an” oral Torah”, an ongoing teaching that could reinterpret the original principals in terms that were essential in each and every day. Rules of the conditions of the slave were reinterpreted to and reread to become the springboard for rules on the rights of the day laborer and his work conditions. The rules of the bond-woman were reexamined to become the foundation for the rights of the wife in marriage. “ Dor Dor ve dorshav”=Generation after generation, each with its interpreters.
            What was the one true factor underlying the works of sages in each generation  was the recognition that there could be no true piety and no true religion without addressing the needs of the human being on a day to day, practical basis. It is the natural continuation of the opening statement: Eleh hamishpatim: These are the ordinances that you shall set before them.