Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Parshas Teruma 5775, February 2014, Ahava

In this week's parsha, the B'nai Yisroel are given the commands from G-d to collect materials for the construction of the Mishkan itself and the items which will be held within it. Each of the materials--gold, silver, copper, techailes, crimson silk, tola'as shani, fine white linen, goat's wool, dyed rams skin, Tachash skin, cedar wood, oil, spices, and fine stones--has a direct symbolism of atonement or exhortation for the people (Midrash haGadol).
Fine linen

But while the items individually represent G-d's forgiveness for various sins of the past, his promises for the future, and his protections for the present, the whole, the Mishkan itself, has an entirely different symbolism. It symbolizes not the parts, not the relationships within G-d's creation, but the very universal creation we experience itself (Bamidbar Rabbah, Tosafos).

The curtains above and below are the heaven and earth; the water is obviously the waters. The mizbeach haolah, the alter on which we sacrifice animals, represents those very animals, which G-d created so that they can serve their purpose. The mizbeach of the ketores represents the vegetation. The menorah is the lights of all the heavenly bodies, as well as the figurative light we can create ourselves in worship (Beraita de'Maasei).
Love across generations

In the whole Mishkan, all that was created was done exactly as G-d commanded, not as humans envisioned. Every part was geometric and exactly as it needed to be with one exception: the Keruvim of gold atop the aron. The Keruvim were in the form of an angelic boy and girl embracing each other. G-d told Moshe that from the time this was created and set atop the aron, his voice would emanate from the space between the two Keruvim. For this was the holiest spot of the whole Mishkan, indeed of the whole creation from that point on. Not because it was a solid piece of gold, not because the aron held a sefer Torah, not because the whole piece resembled heaven and earth and the angelic realm. Rather, the spot between the two figures can only represent absolute love of B'nai Yisroel one for another. Love, caring, support, all these platitudinous expressions we so easily throw around are truly G-d's greatest,  most important messages to us and what He most wants from us.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Parshas Mishpatim 5775, February 2015; Justice

Plato's Republic is an entire volume of ancient Greek thought dedicated to portraying Socrates' efforts to define justice, piety, and virtue.  In a remarkable parallel to Jewish thought, Socrates had himself succeeded in determining that the reason that many individuals do evil to others is because they do not have the knowledge and understanding of what good is; he also seemed to believe that ultimately good would come to the good and evil to the evil, even if not in this world. This is why he was able to show such equanimity when others mocked him, and ultimately even agreed calmly, even demanded, to suffer the death penalty for his crimes of impiety and corruption of thought.
Showing respect, appreciating effort, and generally treating  each other well after a fourth grade chess match.

How sad indeed that had he only consulted with a Torah scholar he could have had an answer, simply bound up in this parsha!  For the Jews were taught the mishpatim at the foot of Har Sinai (Shemos Rabbah).  When the Talmudists stated in Avos, "as a result of three things is the world sustained: truth, justice, and peace," they had no questions as to what constituted those three things. It was very clear in the law.

Not only is the law clear, it clearly applies to all. The first mishpatim G-d told Moshe to teach to the Jews were those regarding enslaved servants, as if to make clear that halacha does not differentiate between rich and poor; the law is identical for all, and human justice is absolute, not relative to one's station (Divine justice, of course, does differentiate among people's abilities and potentials, as G-d can truly know what an individual is capable of).

This week's haftarah, from Yirmiyahu, makes abundantly clear that Jewish justice must be maintained at all times, that virtue is found in following Jewish law and thought (particularly relating to interactions with one's fellows, above one's relations with G-d and individual commandments like prayer or study), and that piety has significant benefits while impiety in the form of breaking any commandment brings punishments. Almost all of the people of Yehudah had been taken into captivity by the Babylonians, and Jerusalem was on the verge of falling. King Tzidkiyahu exhorted the people to return carefully to the laws regarding Jewish enslaved servants, as he felt that it was the sin of illegally holding servants longer than the Torah's mishpatim allows that was bringing Divine punishment on Israel.
Not Jewish justice, just a funny 4 year old learning about
other historical conceptions of justice which have fallen by
the wayside. Jewish laws have been maintained for thousands
of years.

We must remember at all times that prayer, study, tehillim, and daily practices that reflect only on our relationship with G-d are indeed mandates. Yet it is the laws of our behavior with other people which truly determine whether we are just, pious, and virtuous.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Parshas Yisro 5775, February 2015, Ahava l'Chaveiroh (love for your neighbor)

This morning an upsetting event occurred locally; a bomb threat was called in to a local private school that serves students from elementary through post-high school age who have autism or related cognitive learning disabilities. This school has been a long standing fixture in a very wealthy, rather Jewish neighborhood for decades. It is sited in fact across the street from a Chabad shul, next door to a Young Israel shul, and half a mile from another Orthodox shul.  (note: I am deliberately not naming the school or the neighborhood for security reasons; second note is that I realize I am expressing a certain amount of disappointment and anger, and so these words may later be edited)
Several of the Special Olympics athletes here shown attend the school in question;
the child in yellow is my own son who attends another school

When the main road to the front of the street was closed off by police, I began to see Facebook posts from several Jewish women friends who live in the neighborhood.  I saw many. Not one initially expressed dismay that children and youth with communication disabilities and a need for continuity and routine were threatened, disrupted, and in fact thrown out in the cold in weather that was approximately 25F (school buses were brought in as warming stations for those students who had left their own buses, but it took time). Rather, people complained about the traffic disruption. Even more upsetting to me as a Jew, people expressed joy and relief that it was the school for children with disabilities that had been threatened rather than one of the synagogues.

In this week's parsha, we read of Yisro's arrival among the b'nai Yisroel and their complete acceptance of him and Moshe's wife and children despite Yisro and Tzipporah's origins in Midyan. We read explicitly that G-d instructed Moshe to first instruct the women of b'nai Yisroel to prepare for matan Torah, and to do so gently; and then to sternly direct the men of the community (Shemos Rabbah, Tiferet Tzion). Why? Because women are wiser at a younger age; the women would teach the children; Chava was not taught directly first and led Adam to sin but had she been taught first she might have not only avoided but even prevented sin; and because the b'nai Yisroel were redeemed in the honor of the righteousness of the women (Rokeach).

The very first of the aseres hadibros is "Anochi…" I am the L-rd your G-d who brought you out of the land of Egypt. G-d had rachamim, mercy, and ahava, love, for us, and chose to redeem us. Moreover, he expressed love for every nation on earth and gave each the opportunity to accept the Torah, as well as allowing them all to experience the sensory facts of the splitting of the Yam Suf to ensure they know full well that this was in fact communication from G-d H-mself.

G-d tells Moshe directly in the parsha (Shemot 18:20): "And you will warn them regarding the statutes and the teachings, and you will make known to them the path on which they shall walk and the deeds they should do."

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky cites this pasuk and Bava Kama that this refers to three areas of chessed: acts of general kindness, bikkur cholim, and chessed shel emes.  True chessed for the other he gives examples for, including the mother of Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi who once saved a Jewish girl on a train from a Nazi by placing her own (very pregnant) body between the two and threatening to that every other passenger on the train would follow her own lead in refusing to comply with allowing the Nazi to take the girl. True chessed, says R' Pruzansky, is not a teaching of the Torah or a part of a mitzvah; rather it is the very foundation of Torah and goodness, that which G-d expects of every Jew and in fact of every human being, Jewish or not.

Had the bomb threat this morning been at any of the Jewish schools my acquaintances' own children attend, I am absolutely sure they would not have first complained of inconvenience in commuting, or relief that it was others and not their own synagogue threatened. They would have thought of their children, frightened, cold, confused, endangered. They would have been thinking only whether they themselves should run to their cars to go to their children, whether the children were with their own familiar teachers or bus drivers, whether the children were safe. At all times, though, that is how we as Jews are expected to feel. We must feel for others as we feel for ourselves. Not only "what is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor," but "love your neighbor as you love yourself," and "he who saved a single life it is as if he had saved a whole universe." Take note; not one of these specifies only your Jewish neighbor and his life.
These children and those below (the boy in blue at the right above is my son and
the very short girl who is the one of the oldest shown in the photo below are my own
children) are at a Jewish day school and a JCC. Had either of those sites been threatened,
I expect their would have been a very different initial reaction in the Jewish community
than "this is inconvenient," of "thank goodness it's not our synagogue threatened, all
is well, then.