Friday, August 15, 2014

A Thought on the Parasha

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The Ger, Inclusion, and True Religiosity

I recently had the opportunity to deliver a shiur on the topic of inclusion of people with disabilities. As a model for a Torah approach to this issue, I looked at the mitzvot relating to the ger. One of those mitzvot occurs in Parashat Ekev, the mitzvah to love the ger: “Love you therefore the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Devarim, 10:19).

The ger of the Torah is, at the pshat level, the resident alien, the person who is not a citizen but resides in our land. Because she lives among us, we are responsible to ensure that she be given equal protection under the law, and we must protect her from possible abuse. The ger is an outsider, someone vulnerable and easily excluded, but because she is among us, we must treat her like one of us.

The Rabbis of the Talmud understood the Torah’s ger not as a resident alien but as a convert. Living as they did after the destruction of the Temple, when Jews no longer had sovereignty, the categories of identity were based not on citizenship and geography but on religious affiliation. The ger was someone who came from outside our religion but now, having converted, she is now one of us, and we must ensure that she is not mistreated because of whence she came.

The mitzvot regarding the ger – whether the prohibitions against afflicting and oppressing her or the mitzvah to love her – are all sourced in the reason that we too were strangers in the land of Egypt (Shemot, 22:20 & 23:9; Vayikra, 19:34). When we were powerless, we knew what it meant to be marginal, to be outsiders. When we have power, we can never forget those who are in similar circumstances. Such people can easily become invisible. Our historical memory must compel us to see such people and to ensure that they are treated as full equals.

The principles expressed here are readily applicable to people with disabilities, people who are indeed one of us but who are easily marginalized and overlooked by those with power, by those making the decisions and allocations and setting communal priorities. In such cases, it is not always easy to evoke the empathy that the Torah calls for. However, if it is not possible to call upon a shared past history, we can nevertheless call upon a shared future. As we teach our students during our immersive training on disabilities: The world is not divided into those with disabilities and those without; it is divided into those with disabilities and those who do not yet have disabilities. As we grow old, we start to lose some of our normal physical abilities. We might be the person who is wheelchair bound and needs a ramp. We might be the person with failing eyesight who needs a large print siddur.

I find that I must remind myself of this message. When I am standing in the supermarket line and the elderly lady ahead of me is taking forever to make change and I start getting all worked up – “I can’t believe how long she is taking! I need to get out of here. I can’t wait this long!” – I must remember that in 20 years that person could be me. What would I hope from the people standing behind me in line if I were that person? And you know what? That little bit of empathy completely changes my perspective. It is to remember that we all will be strangers in the land of Egypt.

But that is not the whole story, for in this week’s parasha, the Torah gives another reason for this mitzvah:

For the Lord your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords, the great, mighty and awe-inspiring God, who regards not persons, nor takes any reward. He upholds the cause of the orphan and widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. Love you therefore the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Devarim, 10:17–19).

We must have concern for the ger, the Torah is telling us, because God loves the ger. If we are to strive to be like God, to live a Godly life, then we must love the stranger; we must care for the orphan and the widow.

The theological point implicit in these verses is spelled out in a statement of Rabbi Yochanan at the end of Megillah (31a):

Rabbi Yochanan said: Wherever you find the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He, there you find His humility. This is written in the Torah, repeated in the Prophets, and stated a third time in the Writings. It is written in the Torah: “For the Lord your God is God of gods… the great, the mighty and awe-inspiring God…” And it is written afterwards: “He upholds the cause of the orphan and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing.”

God’s greatness, Rabbi Yochanan is telling us, is not expressed by God’s total otherness or by God’s withdrawal from this world. God’s greatness is in paying attention to each individual, to the unnoticed, to the small and forgotten.

There is a profound lesson here regarding what true religiosity means. For so many people, to be more religious means to act in ways that are particularistic, are ritual-focused, and serve to distinguish a person from the normal society around him or her. Heightened scrupulousness about kashrut or wearing distinctive clothing makes a person more frum, while not cheating in business, not lying, and working at a homeless shelter might make a person more ethical but not, in this reckoning, more religious. 

This problem is of course not a new one. Isaiah – as we read just two weeks ago – calls out to the people: “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? says the Lord… Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah, 1: 11, 17). It is a problem that continues to plague us today. It manifests itself in the rationalizing of some people to act immorally because they are so scrupulous in ritual matters. And it manifests itself in the issuing of halakhic rulings which set unnecessarily high bars for ritual performance and participation, seeing these – and not the demand for inclusion, the protection of those most easily rejected and marginalized – as the religious realms that need to be most protected.

It is not hard to guess at the reason for this. Ritual, particularistic acts make a person feel different, singled out, special. In very visible and real ways such a person stands out from the society surrounding her. She can tell herself that she is better than those who act and look like everyone else. More to the point, it creates a distinct identity. There is nothing special about acting ethically – that’s universal. Even non-Jews do that. To act and dress differently, however, well, that’s what makes one Jewish. What else is holy, what else is being like God, if not to be separate and different from the world?

Rabbi Yochanan tells us that if this is how we are thinking then we’ve missed the boat. Without a doubt, the ritual, particularistic laws are a core part of our obligations and religious life. But if we really want to be like God, we would do well to look at the passage about the ger. For God’s expression of God’s greatness and complete otherness is in God’s ability to take care of those forgotten individuals, to do those basic ethical deeds that everyone else is too important to attend to. To live a Godly life is to live a life with exquisite attention to the poor, the disenfranchised, and the suffering.

Rav Moshe Feinstein says this better than I ever could. According to one opinion in the Talmud by which we rule, a ger cannot serve in a position of authority. Rav Moshe Feinstein was asked if, given this, a ger could serve as a Rosh Yeshiva. Rav Moshe responds:

However, in practice you should now, that the mitzvah of “and you shall love the ger,” requires us to bring them (converts) close and to be lenient regarding all these things. Therefore, after great thought, it appears that we need not consider such appointments in our time like appointments of authority… (Igrot Moshe, Yoreh Deah, 4:26).

Rav Moshe concludes that this is not a position of authority since a Rosh Yeshiva’s power comes from an agreement between parties (the students’ parents and the school) and is not imposed perforce from above. What is key, though, is that when faced with a conflict between the mandate of caring for the ger and the rule excluding the ger from certain roles, Rav Moshe, while never compromising on the rigorous application of halakha, states in no uncertain terms that it is the mitzvah to love the ger that must guide us and that we must be the most strict about. This is what it means to be like God and to live a Godly life.

Shabbat shalom!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

A Thought on the Parasha

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Why do we fast? The general understanding is that it should be a spur for teshuva, repentance. This is certainly what Rambam writes in the beginning of his laws of fast days, where he sees the Torah’s commandment to sound trumpets at a time of communal distress as the basis for the rabbinic fast days:

This practice is one of the paths of repentance, for when a difficulty arises, and the people cry out [to God] and sound the trumpets, everyone will realize that [the difficulty] occurred because of their evil conduct… Conversely, should the people fail to cry out and sound the trumpets, and instead say, “What has happened to us is merely a natural phenomenon and this difficulty is merely a chance occurrence,” this is a callous approach, which causes them to remain attached to their wicked deeds… (Laws of Fast Days, 1:2–3)

This explanation works for the fast days that are the focus of the Talmudic tractate of Taanit – fasting during times of drought, locust, or the like. But what about the fast days that commemorate tragic historical events? On first blush these would not seem to be about repentance, yet Rambam again makes the connection:

There are days when the entire Jewish people fast because of the calamities that occurred to them then, to stir the hearts and to open the pathways of repentance. This will serve as a reminder of our wicked conduct and that of our ancestors, which is similar to our present conduct and therefore brought these calamities upon them and upon us. By reminding ourselves of these matters, we will repent and improve [our conduct], as Scripture (Lev 26:40) states: “And they will confess their sin and the sin of their ancestors.”

According to Rambam, then, we carry the burden of our ancestors’ sins by virtue of our continuing in their sinful ways. Fast days such as Tisha B’Av are meant to remind us that we too have sinned, and – perhaps more pointedly – that the current broken state of affairs continues as a result of our continuing in their sinful ways.

This is quite a heavy burden to bear, and if truth be told, it is often hard for me to connect my own sins and my own need to repent to these tragic, historical events. In fact, in all of tractate Taanit, almost no mention is made of the issue of repentance, and even the issue of sin plays a much smaller role than we may imagine. 

If not repentance, what then is the purpose of fasting? The simple answer may be that it is a way of giving concrete, external expression to our state of misery or, alternatively, of fostering such an inner state if it is lacking. If we feel the tragic losses of the past, we will want to find ways to give expression to that. And if we don’t feel those losses, then we need to work harder to try to feel them. Fasting, like many mitzvot, both reflects and helps create our religious reality.

Seen from this perspective, it is perhaps easier to relate to the fasting of Tisha B’Av, for we can all understand the importance of feeling the tragedy of the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people. And yet, given our current reality – a powerful State of Israel, a Jerusalem that is larger and more prosperous than it ever was in past history – it is often hard to feel, even with the fasting, this sense of tragedy and loss. It is probably for this reason that we often focus on the Holocaust in our afternoon programming on this day. Certainly, we do not have a Temple, but for many people the idea of a Temple is too abstract, and for some even conflictual, to truly feel a loss at its absence.

This year, however, I have no problem connecting to Tisha B’Av. As our brothers and sisters face daily rocket attacks, and as world opinion, especially in Europe, aligns against Israel, it is easy to feel the sense of brokenness, to share in the suffering, and to look toward a time of peace and of wholeness.

But there is more to fasting than this. A close reading of the mishnayot in Taanit shows that the more intense fasting done in times of drought is not due to the lack of rain per se. We are initially told that the people enact a series of fast days when the first rainy period has passed and rain has not fallen. If after these fasts, the mishna tells us, the people have not been answered, they enact another, more intense series of fasts. And if they have not been answered after that, yet another, even more intense series of fasts is enacted. The wording is carefully chosen: The second and third fasts are not because “rain has not fallen,” they are because the people “have not been answered.” 

There is, in fact, a play on words here. The ta’anit is in response to the fact that lo na’anu, they have been answered. It is the same root ayin, nun, heh. They fast so they will be answered. And, indeed, the liturgy for these fasts, which is perhaps some of our very earliest liturgy, is all about a cry to be answered: Answer us God of Abraham, Answer us. Answer us God of Isaac, answer us. Aneinu, aneinu.

We fast because God seems not to be listening. If a child calls from college to ask her parents to send money, and she calls again and again and receives no response, pretty soon it’s no longer about the money. It’s about why her parents are ignoring her. Why are they not responding? Do they not love her anymore? What has happened to the relationship?

In this week’s parasha, Va’Etchanan, the Torah speaks of how our sins will eventually drive us from the land. This is actually the passage that is read on Tisha B’Av, ki tolid banim. But there is more here than just the loss of land and of nationhood. It is all that it symbolizes. To be exiled from God’s land is to be existentially distanced from God. What is the response on our part that will bring us back? Not repentance per se, but our seeking out God, our desire to draw close once again:

But if from there you shall seek the Lord thy God, you shall find Him, if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul. When you are in tribulation, and all these things are come upon you, even in the latter days, if you turn, vi’shavta, to the Lord your God, and shall be obedient unto His voice (Devarim 4:29-30).

Repentance certainly is necessary; we must be obedient to God’s voice, for how else can we expect to merit the relationship? However, it does not start with repentance but with seeking, with seeking and with returning, v’shavta, the original meaning of the word teshuva.

And so it is with fasting. The people who are suffering drought do not need to find ways to feel the tragedy of the ruined crops. What they need to do is realize for themselves that God is not answering them. And they have to give expression to this and call out to God. They have to say, “God, look how miserable we are. We feel your distance. Please draw close. Please answer us.”

Tisha B’Av is a time when we give expression to, and work to realize, our sense of misery over God’s distance. We remember a time when God’s presence was felt on a national level and on a daily basis. We remember that, certainly in times of hardship but also in times of prosperity, God can be and needs to be more of a felt presence in our lives.

Ultimately, Tisha B’Av gives way to the 15th of Av, coming early next week. We are told in the last mishna in Taanit that there never were more joyous days in Israel than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippurim. The Talmud gives various explanations to why the 15th of Av was so joyous, but as some scholars have noted, its significance seems to be a counterbalance to the 9th of Av. As we are told earlier in the tractate, the 15th of Av was the date when many families who returned to Israel for the rebuilding of the Temple donated wood for the altar and distinguished themselves in their dedication and self-sacrifice for the Temple. Let us also not forget that Yom Kippur is the day when the High Priest enters into the innermost chamber of the Temple and a day when the Temple is cleansed so that God may continue to dwell among the people.

These two days represent the opposite of the aforementioned fast days. They celebrate God’s closeness to the people. They celebrate how, through actions both
practical and ritual, we have sought out God and how this has brought God into our lives, on a national as well as personal level.

As we transition from Tisha B’Av to the 15th of Av, let us all work, each in his or her own way, to do all that we can to help bring God into our lives and to help realize God’s presence in the land and State of Israel.

Shabbat shalom!

Friday, August 1, 2014

A Thought on the Parasha

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What happens when we repeat a story or lesson in our own words? Does it improve in the retelling, or does it worsen? Is the message lost, or is it made more relevant? What is the point of retelling? Why not just repeat things verbatim?

Parshat Devarim opens with an epic retelling. It is the speech of one man, Moshe Rabbeinu, delivered over the course of a little more than a month. It is the retelling of three books of the Torah: Shemot, Vayikra, and Bamidbar. And it is told not in God's words but in Moshe's.

Note, says the midrash, who is doing this expounding (Devarim Rabbah 1:1). It was Moshe, the very man who said of himself, lo ish devarim anokhi, “I am not a man of words,” who now expounds on the entire Torah, opening with elah ha'devarim, “These are the words” (Shemot 4:10). Why is a man who is not an ish devarim the one to relate the entire book of Devarim? We might equally ask why Moshe was chosen to be God’s spokesperson. Why not pick an ish devarim? Because such a man, being himself a person of words, might contaminate God’s message with his own words or ideas. Moshe, challenged in speech as he was, was certain to communicate God’s word without embellishment, without change. By the same token, it is just such a person who is most suited to tell over the Torah in his own words. With Moshe Rabbeinu – his humility, his desire to act only as a vessel for the Divine, his being a person not in love with the sound of his own voice, not interested in always asserting himself and his ideas – the message was sure to stay pure. It would be God’s words which would be communicated through Moshe’s words. And, hence, it was Moshe’s words which then became part of the Torah itself, which became, in essence, God’s own words.

Yet something has changed in the retelling. The Gemara tells us, for example, that even if literary juxtapositions of two mitzvot are not significant in the rest of the Torah, they are significant in the Book of Devarim (Berakhot 21a). Why is this so? The Shita Mikubetzet (ad. loc.) explains that since Moshe was now reordering mitzvot that had been already given in a different order, the reordering is communicating a particular message. When we retell a story, the organization of the material, the order that we put things in, what we choose to emphasize, and even what we choose to omit all shape the story we are telling; all of these are part of the message.

It is thus that we find that an enormous percentage of Torah she’b’al Peh, of the Oral Law, focuses on the verses, on the wordings of the mitzvot, in the book of Devarim. The Oral Law emerges naturally from Devarim because Devarim is already part of Oral Law. It is already the engagement of a human being – Moshe – with the Divine Word of the Torah. As the Sefat Emet states:

וזהו עיקר משנה תורה שהוא בחי' התקשרות תורה שבע"פ לתורה שבכתב כי מרע"ה היה בחי' תורה שבכתב ובאי הארץ הי' בחינת תורה שבע"פ לכן משנה תורה כולל משניהם שהוא שער המחברם     

This is the essence of Mishne Torah, which is the category of the interconnection of the Written Torah with the Oral Torah. For Moshe Rabbeinu was in the category of the Written Torah, and those about to enter into the land were in the category of the Oral Torah. Thus, the Mishne Torah contains both of these, for it is the passageway which connects them.

To retell the Torah was to take it out of the context of those who left Egypt and bring it into the context of those about to enter into the Land. It was to take it down from Mount Sinai, out of the Wilderness, and bring it into society, into the real lives of the people. Moshe’s retelling of the Torah was true to God’s word but also a reframing of God’s word. It was the beginning of the Oral Torah, the beginning of the religious enterprise of engaging God’s word with integrity while at the same time retelling God’s word in our own words, in each generation and for each generation.

There is another form of retelling, and that is the act of translating. We are told at the beginning of our parasha that “Moshe began to expound this Torah” (1:5). Rashi, quoting Tanchuma, comments on this: “He explained it to them in 70 languages.” When we translate, there is a risk. Things often do get lost or changed in translation. Perhaps this translation will not be exactly what God said.

But there is also an opportunity. First, such translations allow the message to reach the widest possible audience. In fact, echoing the midrash of Moshe’s translating into 70 languages, we find that many rabbis allowed the Torah scroll itself to be written in any language (Megillah 8b). People have been translating the Torah into the vernacular for millenia, and with every translation, the Torah becomes more accessible, more widespread.

When something is written in someone’s native tongue, it becomes intelligible to him or her for the first time. And when something is spoken in one’s own language in the metaphorical sense, when it is relayed in a way that someone can relate to and understand, then such words are not only comprehensible but also meaningful. Such words can resonate and enter into our mind, into our heart, and into our soul.

Translation however does more. It not only disseminates the Torah, it can also provide a fuller, truer realization of its meaning, of its essence. The Sefat Emet uses the metaphor of clothing in discussing the translation of the Torah.  Language, he says, is a type of outer garment to the meaning, the essence, of what is being conveyed, which is itself beyond language. Hebrew is one of these garments. Other languages provide others. Clothing, on the one hand, conceals; it covers our naked bodies. But clothing can also reveal. The part of ourselves we reveal depends on the clothes we wear; we will wear different clothes for different occasions or different moods. With every garment we put on we give a distinct expression of who we are.

The same is true for the Torah. When the Torah is translated into other languages, its meaning can be expanded, more fully actualized, more fully revealed. To again quote the Sefat Emet:

שכפי התרחבות הארת התורה במלבושים החיוצנים יותר שמתקרב הכל להפנימיות

“For to the degree that the light of the Torah has spread into other external garments, the more everything gets closer to the inner essence.”

Retelling the Torah is critical to reaching people, and it is critical to the Torah’s fullest realization. In fact, it is sections from the retelling, sections from the Book of Devarim, which form the essence of our daily religious lives. The two paragraphs of Shema – shema and v’haya im shamoa – are both in Devarim (6:4-9, 11:13-21). These verses make up the Shema prayer, are the verses written in the mezuzah scroll, and are two of the four chapters that constitute the tefillin scrolls. These are some of the most central components of our life of religious observance. Our daily affirmation of faith in our words, on our homes, and on our bodies are all done in Moshe’s words, in Moshe’s retelling. It was this translation that revealed a part of the Torah’s essence. It was this translation that was a distillation of the Torah to its essence. And it is this translation that enters into our homes and into our hearts.

Israel is now in the middle of an ongoing war. It is not just a war against Hamas but also a war in the media and in public opinion. It is not the events of the war themselves which will shape the minds, hearts, and actions of people. It is how these events are told over, how they are interpreted. Do people hear and believe a narrative of Israel waging an unjust war with disregard for innocent lives, or do they hear and believe one of Israel justly defending itself and its citizens with ultimate concern for the loss of innocent human life? As we are painfully aware, we cannot trust that the facts will be looked at objectively, in proper context, and speak for themselves. We have to speak for them. We have to find a way to translate them into a language that people can hear and understand. We have to spread this Torah so that it becomes the dominant discourse. This is what it means to partner with God, to make the Torah that is written into a Torah that is spoken, into a Torah that is heard.

Shabbat shalom!