Monday, August 17, 2009

Message from the Rosh HaYeshiva - May 28, 2009

Dear Friends and Supporters of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah,

It was a short week at the yeshiva this week, bookended as it was by Memorial Day at one end, and Shavuot at the other. Our students have been preparing for Shavuot, learning topics that relate to the halakhot and the meaning of the chag, and preparing their own shiurim that they will be delivering in their local communities.

Students are also continuing to learn hilkhot Shabbat, and during these last few days have been focusing on issues around tending to the sick on Shabbat. The Talmud clearly forbids a whole host of refuot, medical ministrations, for people who are sick, but not seriously so (what is termed in the literature as michush b'alma, discomfort, and in contrast to choleh kol haguf, someone who is laid up due to his or her illness). The Mishna, which records these prohibitions, does not explain why this is forbidden, and, in fact, it is hard to understand why the Sages would prohibit otherwise permissible activity, especially if it could alleviate suffering on Shabbat, a day of ta'anug, pleasure. The Gemara explains that this prohibition is to prevent the grinding of herbal and chemical ingredients that would be done by apothecaries, and even by non-professionals, in the preparation of such medications. Some scholars have argued that this reason in the Talmud Bavli may not have been the original basis of the prohibition, as we find the issue of healing on Shabbat to be a major concern in the Gospels, where Jesus is criticized by the Pharisees (the forerunners of the Rabbis) for healing on the Sabbath day by the laying of hands. The people are told by the leader of a synagogue, "There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day." The fact that the laying of hands was included in this prohibition, and that it is seen as "work", indicates that the problem, as reflected here, was not seen as a concern for grinding, but rather that healing in itself was seen as a form of work (either because it was a professional activity, or because it effected change, i.e., healing). The Bavli does not see it this way, but, as stated above, understands it as a safeguard against the violation of a melakha, grinding.

There are significant ramifications to this framing of the prohibition. For example, there is serious halakhic debate as to whether the prohibition extends to forms of healing that have no association with medicines or salves, for example, therapeutic massage. There are some who have questioned why the prohibition applies at all these days, given that none of us grind our own medicines, so the safeguard is unnecessary. This suggestion is strongly rejected, on the basis of the principle that rabbinic edicts remain in effect even when the (ostensible) reason no longer is seen to apply. Nevertheless, because the underlying purpose is seen as less relevant, many poskim are prepared to find more leniencies when these questions arise - either by limiting what is considered to be prohibited forms of refuah, or by narrowing the category of michush b'alma, and categorizing many cases as choleh kol haguf. Obviously, the value of an enjoyable Shabbat coupled with the concern for discomfort and suffering, play a significant role here. Finally, turning to the issue of Yom Tov, a number of poskim argue that there is no prohibition of refuah on Yom Tov because grinding foods is permitted, as are other forms of food preparation, and thus there is no need for a safeguard against grinding (one should note that there are some limitations to when grinding is permitted, depending on what could have or should have been done before Yom Tov, as well as other considerations). In all these cases one, of course, needs to ask his or her rav or posek for a psak when relevant, but it is important to be aware of the issues and how the framing plays a role in the scope and application of this prohibition.

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I would finally like to share with you a Torah thought that I published last week in the AJWS publication Chag va'Chesed.

The holiday of Shavuot is generally assumed to commemorate the giving of the Torah, which occurred on the 6th of Sivan. In the Torah, however, Shavuot is only described as an agricultural holiday and occurs not on any particular calendrical date, but at the culmination of seven weeks from the beginning of the harvest season that occurs on the second day of Pesach. Shavuot is chag hakatzir, the holiday of harvest, and is closely linked with Sukkot, chag ha'asif, the holiday of the ingathering of the crops. These are the two holidays on which the Torah commands us to be joyous - v'samachta lifnei Hashem, "and you shall be joyous before God" (Deut. 16:11) and v'smachta bi'chagekha, "and you shall be joyous on your festivals" (Deut. 16:14), respectively.

A year of agricultural bounty naturally evokes a sense of joy over one's accomplishment, security, and success. The Torah insists, however, that this joy not be focused merely on oneself, as such could lead to self-satisfaction and arrogance. Rather, the joy is to be directed to God (Deut. 16:11), recognizing that it is only with God's assistance that we have achieved this success.

However, thanksgiving to God is not the only, nor even the primary, theme of this Festival of the Harvest. As exemplified vividly in the book of Ruth, it was during this time of year that the entire Israelite nation, individually and collectively, provided for the poor who had no land of their own and no crops to harvest. In accordance with the Torah's mitzvot, which appear immediately in the context of the holiday of Shavuot (Lev. 23:22), landed farmers left an uncut corner of the field, together with whatever was dropped and forgotten during the harvest, for the poor to reap and glean for themselves.

These two themes - thanksgiving to God and support of the poor - are interconnected, and the Torah states so explicitly, "You shall rejoice before God, you, and the stranger and the orphan and the widow who are in your midst" (Deut. 16:11). If we recognize our material success as coming from God, then we will understand that religious responsibilities attach to that wealth. Just as God is described as caring for the poor and orphan, just as God's compassion extends to all of God's creatures, so too, as beneficiaries of God's beneficence, we must use our means to similarly care for those who are poor and downtrodden.

This framing emphasizes the Jewish value of chesed, the magnanimous act of helping others. There is, however, a more important theme at play here, and that is the value of tzeddek, of doing what is just and right towards other members of society. In commanding us to leave the gleanings for the poor, the Torah concludes, "and you shall remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt." (Deut 16:12). As slaves, we learned what it meant to be strangers, to be marginalized and vulnerable people in society. As free people, we must create a society that is based on tzeddek, on the equal protection of all of its members: "Like a citizen among you shall be the stranger who is dwelling among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Lev. 19:34). Now that we have been redeemed and have gone from slave to free person, from stranger to citizen, we must make sure to not follow in the ways of our past oppressors. This is a basic responsibility of being a citizen: to take responsibility for all of the members of society, its citizens and its strangers, its strong and its weak.

As an expression of tzeddek, this obligation relates to how we structure our society, and thus taking care of the poor, while often performed individually, has always been recognized as a communal responsibility. The mishna tractate of Peah is devoted to the agricultural gifts of Shavuot, and it is here where we are introduced to the rabbinic institution of the soup kitchen (tamchoi), for the town's visiting poor and the charity box (kanon), for the town's local poor. These rabbinic institutions were thus modeled after the communal, agricultural gifts of Shavuot, and, I believe, these communal gifts later served as a model for the Hebrew Free Loan Societies which began as local, communal institutions.

As a communal obligation, it is understandable that priority is given to the community's own poor (as is highlighted by Ruth's astonishment that Boaz has recognized her, given that she "is a foreigner"), but our responsibilities extend to the larger world as well. Halakha specifically mandates a responsibility to the non-Jewish poor, under the rubric of darkhei shalom, ways of peace. While often interpreted as a form of enlightened self-interest, it is more properly understood as a fundamental, religious obligation and as responsibility of reciprocity - what it means to be citizens not only of the Jewish community, but of the world (see, for example, Maimonides, Laws of Kings, 10:12)

In these times of economic downturn and hardship, it may be hard to feel the joy of bounty that is normally associated with Shavuot. However, this is also a time to be even more acutely aware of the needs of those in our community who have lost their jobs and their homes and who are struggling to put food on their tables and clothes on their backs. Those of us who have suffered economically, but who are still supporting ourselves and our families, need, firstly, to be thankful to God for our relative success, for our ongoing ability to provide for ourselves and our families, and to recognize the obligations of chesed that attend such success, however relative it may be. As members of the Jewish community and as members of the world community, we must live up to the demands of tzeddek to do everything in our power to ensure that all members of our various communities - religious, local, and global - are protected and cared for, are given the dignity that they deserve and are empowered, so that they can take their rightful place as full, participating members of our community.

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May you all have a chag of Torah learning and growth, a chag of appreciating all the goodness that God has given us - the material goodness together with the spiritual goodness that we have received in God's giving of the Torah. And let it be a chag where we are able to share these gifts with others and with our communities.

Chag Sameiyach,
Rabbi Dov Linzer

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