Friday, August 29, 2014

Two Minutes of Torah: Shoftim - Spreading and Pursuing Justice

According to the old joke one Jew brags to a friend, “My Rabbi is so brilliant that he can speak for an hour on any topic.” 
And the friend responds, “And my Rabbi is so brilliant that he can speak for 2 hours on no topic."

Traditionally we Rabbis are known for talking a lot and some would say too much. What is interesting, is that while Rabbis are known for being wordy, the Torah itself is considered to be a text that never uses a word superfluously.  It is for this reason, that in this week’s Torah portion when we read the word justice repeated, it is all the more striking.

In this week’s Torah portion, we’re told to appoint judges and officers in all of our communities, we are then told tzedek tzedek tirdof - justice, justice, shall you pursue.  It’s interesting to think about the way that one might go about pursuing justice as though chasing after something elusive.  But what is striking is the fact that the Torah says tzedek tzedek - justice, justice.  Many commentators have tried to understand why this word is repeated, some have talked about 2 types of justice that could be pursued, others have suggested that it refers to 2 ways of applying justice.

For me, in the first instance, I think that the repetition of tzedek is a reminder that we must pursue justice for ourselves, but we must also pursue justice for others.  Justice cannot exist in isolation, it has to be justice for us and for other people.  But the other thing that the text does is that it insures that we really pay attention to those 2 words: tzedek tzedek.  In Hebrew, the word tzedek shares its meaning with the word tzedakah which we generally translate today to mean charitable or good deeds.  In this way, the Torah may be expanded to saying that we must pursue good deeds and charitable actions, acts of tzedakah in the world.  But more than this, in the repetition of the word, I think it’s telling us that we need to help others to also pursue justice. 

In this way, as we pursue justice - tzedek, we must also help others to join us in our pursuit.  On Tuesday evening we began the month of Elul, which is a month of preparing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a month of spiritual reflection.  This year, we’re taking part in the Elul Mitzvah Challenge, where we’re asking people to do a Mitzvah in terms of a good deed, record themselves doing it and then challenge others to also do a Mitzvah themselves 

In this way, we’re pursuing Mitzvot in the month of Elul and hoping that we can really help mitzvot to go viral.  What a great way this could be for us as a community together to prepare for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and what a great way for us as a community to fulfill the words of this weeks Torah portion: tzedek tzedek tirdof - justice, justice, shall you pursue it.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Two Minutes of Torah: Re'eh - The world as it could be

Last week the world mourned the loss of Robin Williams, a remarkable man who touched so many through his art, and his comedy.  When thinking about his life and the various roles he filled, I always come back to the role of Professor Keating, in Dead Poets Society; this wonderful teacher who really challenged his students.  And when I think about Professor Keating, I always think of that scene as they looked at the photos of the former pupils of the school and Professor Keating whispered to them “carpe diem,  seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary”.

When I think about Professor Keating’s message to the students, he encouraged them to dream.  He urged them not to be bound up by the world as it is, but to imagine the world as it could be: imagining their lives as they could be, imagining their lives being extraordinary and then pursuing those dreams. 

Professor Keating’s message relates well to this week’s Torah portion of Re’eh when we have a really interesting take of the world as it is and the world as it could be.  As the Israelites prepare to enter the Promised Land, once again we receive the law of the sabbatical year; instructing us that in the 7th year there shall be a remission of debt.   And then the Torah says to us,” there shall be no needy among you, since Adonai your God will bless you in the land that Adonai your God is giving you as a hereditary portion.”  In this way, the Torah imagines once the Israelites reach the promised land there will no longer be any needy people.

And then, only a few verses later, it says “But when there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that Adonai your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman.”  In the space of just a few verses the Torah moves from this ideal situation of no needy people to what will inevitably  be the situation where there will be those in need. 

We can look at the Torah and the way that it precedes as rather beginning with the world as it is and then moving to the world as it could be, the Torah begins with the world as it could be; a world with no needy people.  And, only after considering that option, does it allow itself to then consider the world as it really is.

In this way the Torah allows us that moment where we might dream of what could be without being bound or constrained by what really is.  While it’s important to always have our basis in reality, in the world that we experience, beginning with the world as it could be rather than the world as it is, frees us and opens our minds to dream of how we can really make this world a better place, beyond what might otherwise be possible.

This is the message of the Torah, I think this was also the message of Professor Keating.  And for each one of us, we need to think, how we can imagine that world, and what will we do to build this world that could be extraordinary.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Two Minutes of Torah: Ekev - Remembering where we've come from

On one of my first trips to New York City I participated in a tour of the Lower East Side.  It was quite amazing to see where the Jewish community had originally settled here and to visit the tenement blocks and the buildings which made up their homes.

For me, what struck me most, was the fact that they lived in such difficult conditions, in such trying and hard times, and yet, through this, they had struggled and overcome the challenges placed before them to establish a community. This was the generation that built the institutions, and laid the foundations, for their children and future generations of the Jewish community and we are the lucky heirs to their building.

In this week’s Torah portion, as Moses continues to talk to the people about what will happen when they enter the land of Israel, Moses warns them, when you have eaten your fill and built fine houses to live in and you have accumulated much wealth, beware, lest then that you forget God. In this way, Moses recognized that when we become comfortable, when we become affluent, when we no longer have to struggle, it’s easy to forget where we have come from. It’s easy to forget our past and to forget those people who put in so much so that we would be able to live in the way that we do. 

In the Torah, Moses was talking about God and the way that God had led our ancestors out of slavery in Egypt through the wilderness to the Promised Land.  And for us, we might wonder about whether we forget God but we might also wonder whether we forget those previous generations who sacrificed so much.

And as we remember where we came from, and remember our community’s history, we might wonder – what is our obligation?  What can we learn from those that went before us?  How have we laid foundations for the future?  Where have we built up communities?

In many ways we are the lucky generation who live in the fine houses and are able to eat our fill and we must always remember those that came before us and we must always be conscious that we have a responsibility not just to their memory, but to the future generations who will come after us.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Some more articles about Operation Protective Edge and the current situation in Israel

As we continue to watch events in Israel escalating, I feel that it is time to post a few more articles that I have found interesting. With so many people writing about this subject, and with a real escalation in the anger and animosity on both sides, it was a much harder task this time round. I therefore reached out to friends and colleagues for help, and I thank them for their recommendations. Once again I stress that I do not necessarily agree or disagree with these articles, I do however feel that they offer important insights into the situation in Israel and the continuing conflict.

Rabbi Danny  (July 31, 2014)

As Jews, we can’t be neutral in this conflict
My friend and colleague Rabbi Neil Janes offers a letter to those people looking for information about the conflict, and reminds us of why it is impossible to be neutral in approaching this conflict.

7 Things to Consider Before Choosing Sides in the Middle East Conflict
Ali A. Rizvi poses 7 questions which frequently come up in relation to the conflict, and then offers his answers to these questions. He attempts to see things from both sides, attempting to move people away from being “pro-Israel” or “pro-Palestinian”.

You’re wrong to hate Israel or even criticize over Gaza
Marc Goldberg (who I spent a year in Israel  with) writes about the double standards applied to Israel’s actions in contrast to other things that happen in wars and conflicts elsewhere in the world.

We ignore the new anti-Semitism taking hold at our peril
Richard Ferrer warns us of the way that anti-Semitism is taking hold in Europe as people come out to protest Israel’s actions.

No War Is an Island
David Brooks considers why the conflict between Israel and Hamas is actually part of a wider clash within Arab civilization.

Hey, Liberals Who Oppose Israel: You’re All Right-Wingers Now

Liel Leibovitz writes about the people on the left who are supporting Hamas, and questions what supporting Hamas really means and how it is in conflict with the very progressive, liberal values this group seeks to espouse. 

Two Minutes of Torah: Devarim - Moses' Memory

A few weeks ago I was having a conversation with a friend where we were reminiscing about some events from our past.  While we, broadly speaking, remembered the event in the same way, there were certain elements and details which we both remembered differently.  Possibly because of perspective, possibly because I don’t have the best memory.  Or, maybe for some other reason, our memory of the event, while similar, was in some way different.  And, this led to a different emphasis in our retelling. 

In this weeks Torah portion we begin the book of Devarim and with it we begin the process of Moses sharing his memories with the Israelites as he prepares them to go into the Promised Land without him. 

At the beginning of this Torah portion, Moses shared 2 facts with the Israelites which can be troubling to those of us who've been paying attention to the Torah up to this point.  In the first instance, Moses says to them that because he felt he couldn't bear  the burden of the people on his own that was the reason that he set up magistrates and judges over thousands, over hundreds, over fifties, and over tens.  And then in the second instance as Moses remembers the incident of the spies who went out to scout the Land of Israel, he says to the children of Israel that it was because of you at this time that God decreed that, I, Moses, should not enter into the Promised Land. 

For those of us following along, we know that in the first instance, with the magistrates, it was actually Yitro, Moses father-in-law who came to him and told him that the thing he was doing was not good.  And in the second instance it was after Moses struck the rock at Meribah that God decreed that Moses and Aaron should not enter into the Promised Land.

In approaching these discrepancies, we have 3 choices.  Perhaps Moses forgot, he lost track of the details, and so on the spot when telling the Israelites about what had happened, he changed the facts slightly, unintentionally.  As a second option maybe Moses simply remembered it differently from the way that we have it written down in the text.  He remembered the events as he told the people in Devarim.  Or the third option is that Moses  was trying to teach the people a lesson, and so changed history to serve the purpose of the lesson he was trying to teach.  

In this way in telling the people about the introduction of magistrates he was teaching them that they themselves need to know their own limits because there might not be a Yitro there to tell them when they’re taking on too much. And in remembering the story of the spies, perhaps it was his way of reminding the people that they were all in this together, and that their actions would impact the leader and the people equally and so he wanted to place himself amongst the people in the verdict God issued upon them after this incident.

We might never know the reason for the discrepancy in the text, but I like to think that Moses took the opportunity of teaching a lesson. Recognizing every opportunity to teach is a good opportunity, and with the hope that we too will hear this lesson and learn from it. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Two Minutes of Torah: Massei - Thou Shalt Not Seek Revenge

In the original Star Wars movie, Obi Wan Kanobi takes Luke Skywalker to Mos Eisley and warns him before they get there – you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy, we must be cautious.  As the viewer, we don’t know what to expect other than Obi Wan’s words. I always found it funny that in this place of scum and villainy we meet Hans Solo and Chewbacca who will go on to become heroes of the trilogy.  I guess you never know who you’re going to meet in different places. 

In this week’s Torah portion we get introduced to the Cities of Refuge.  Another place that at first glance may seem like a location that would be associated with scum and villainy.  But when we read further, we discover that the Cities of Refuge are actually supposed to be a haven where a man-slaughterer might flee.

God instructs Moses to set up 3 Cities of Refuge on the other side of the Jordan and 3 Cities of Refuge in the land of Canaan.  The intention is that if a person kills someone accidentally they then have the opportunity to flee to one of the Cities of Refuge before the family of the murdered person can pursue them and exact revenge.

In this way, at the first glance, the Cities of Refuge appear as a haven for man-slaughterers to flee to so that they can then allow for a judicial process to ascertain their level of guilt.  But on a secondary level, the City of Refuge also may be considered to provide some form of protection for the family of the murdered person.  They may feel compelled, in the heat of the moment, to go after the person who accidentally killed their loved one and exact revenge.  The Torah even refers to them as the “blood avengers”. 

But, do they really want to kill a person in cold blood?  Do they want to fulfill the edict of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth?  Rather, the City of Refuge also allows for their anger to cool somewhat, for them to also wait for the judicial process to decide on the guilt, or otherwise, of the person who accidentally killed their loved one. 

The Cities of Refuge are protection for the man-slaughterer, but they are also protection against seeking revenge. And, the one thing that the Torah never goes into is to talk about what happens after the family of the murdered person exacts their revenge.  Do the family of the person they have killed now come seeking them out?  And do we enter into this cycle of revenge, potentially never ending. 

In this way as we read about the Cities of Refuge they provide protection for the man-slaughterer but they also provide protection against entering into an endless cycle of revenge, from which no good will ever come. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Two Minutes of Torah: Matot - Our Responsibility

As we continue to watch events unfolding in Israel, living here in America, one might wonder, what is our responsibility?  What are we supposed to do as Jews living in the Diaspora for the people of Israel who are suffering under the barrage of rocket fire from Hamas?

One of the challenges of living in the Diaspora is the distance that we sometimes feel from our brothers and sisters who are in Israel and, in many ways, on the front line.  We are all members of one Jewish family and in this regard, we might wonder, what are our obligations to our Jewish brothers and sisters who are suffering?

In this week’s Torah portion of Matot, the Israelites continue on their journey toward the promised land and, as they stand there, just outside the promised land, the Reubenites and the Gaddites, who had much cattle, observed that the land outside of Israel would be very suitable for them to live and settle and raise their flocks.

They therefore approach Moses and ask him whether it would be possible for them to settle in this land outside of Israel.  In many ways they are proposing the first permanent Disapora community. Moses’ response is to ask the question – Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?  In this way, Moses makes it clear that if part of the Israelite community is at war – are others going to stand idly by and just watch them fighting?

The Reubenites and the Gaddites respond and say they will build their homes and then they will serve as the shock troops, leading the Israelites until their homes are established.  In this way, the Reubenites and the Gaddites say that while we might not be living with you, we will be there serving on the front line taking our place with our brothers and sisters, the Children of Israel. We will not let you do this alone, we will be there with you.

I doubt that many Jews in the Diaspora are about to drop everything to go serve on the front line in Israel.  But we might consider how we can be there supporting them from our homes and our places.  How do we offer our solidarity and make it clear to the people of Israel that they are not alone.  Whether it’s by fighting their cause on social media, or by messages of support to those we love in Israel, or if it’s by making contributions to those charities helping those who are suffering in Israel today.  Each one of us has a choice.  We can stand idly by while our brothers and sisters in Israel are suffering or we can be like the Gaddites and Reubenites who said that our destiny is a shared destiny amongst all of the Jewish community. Supporting those in Israel in their time of need and being there together as one Jewish people.