Thursday, May 24, 2012

A Thought on Shavuot

A Thought on Shavuot - The Obligations of Tzedek
(an earlier version of this appeared in the 5769 AJWS Chag v'Chesed).

The holiday of Shavuot is generally assumed to commemorate the giving of the Torah, which occurred on the sixth 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” (Deuteronomy 16:11) and v’samachta bi’chagekha, “and you shall be joyous on your festivals” (Deuteronomy 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 this could lead to self-satisfaction and arrogance. Rather, the joy is to be directed to God (Deuteronomy 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 (Leviticus 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” (Deuteronomy 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 tzedek, of doing what is just and right toward 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” (Deuteronomy 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 tzedek, 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” (Leviticus 19:34). Now that we have been redeemed and have gone from slaves to free people, from strangers to citizens, 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 tzedek, this obligation relates to how we structure our society, and thus taking care of the poor has always been recognized as a communal responsibility. The Mishnah tractate of Peah is devoted to the agricultural gifts of Shavuot, and it is here that 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.

While as individuals we have largely excelled in acts of chesed and tzedek, there is work that still needs to be done to build and support communal institutions directed towards these goals, institutions in which everyone participates, everyone gives, and everyone in the community is cared for.  We must strive to live up to the demands of tzedek to do everything in our power to ensure that all members of our various communities—religious, local and global—are protected, 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.

A thought on the Parsha

Feel free to download and print this week's Parsha Sheet and share it with your friends and family: 

To Roam without Ever Leaving
This week, when we move from sefer Vayikra to sefer Bamidbar, we are finally moving away from Har Sinai, where Bnei Yisrael have been for almost a year. From the middle of Shemot through the end of Vayikra, they have been encamped at the foot of Har Sinai, having received the Torah, mitzvot and the laws, and then all the laws of the Kohanim, through Kedoshim and Behar Bichukotai. It is only because we lose sight of this that the opening of Behar takes us by surprise. "What does Shmita have to do with Mt. Sinai?" Rashi asks. The answer is obvious - because they are still there, and the parsha is reminding us of that, as it draws to wrap up their experience at Har Sinai.

Now, this experience at the foot of Har Sinai can be likened to the period of the chuppah and the sheva brakhot. The moment of the giving of the Torah was the moment of marriage (nissuim). The intimacy, intensity, and immediacy of the connection and self-revelation that occurred between God and Bnei Yisrael is like the coming together of chatan and kallah, the consummation of the betrothal (kiddushin). In addition to the intensity of the love , thebrit is actualized and the full obligations of the relationship are accepted -the mitzvot and the laws - with the sefer habrit, the book of the covenant that Moshe presents the Children of Israel (see Shemot 24:7), serving as the ketuvah, with all its reciprocal obligations.

Now, however, as we move to Bamidbar, it is time to move away from the chuppah, and to move on with our lives. The question will be - how has our life changed and how will we move forward? The Torah tells us that when we camp elsewhere, the encampment must always be with the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, in the center. Even when we break camp and move forward, the Mishkan must move in the center. As the Torah says in Terumah - "and I will dwell in their midst" (Shemot 25:8). Even when we depart Har Sinai, when we are distant from the immediacy of the Shekhina, we must always encamp around the Mishkan - we must orient our lives towards God and God's presence. And when we move - it is in the context of our relationship to God - "by the command of God they encamped, and by the command of God they moved." (Bamidbar 9:23).  Thus, no matter how geographically distant we are, we will not lose our way if we continue to orient ourselves to God, to encamp, literally or by orientation, around the Mishkan. The remainder of Bamidbar is the working out of this challenge - can Bnei Yisrael depart from Har Sinai, and continue to keep God in their midst, continue to orient themselves towards God's presence? We know this is not trivial, for when one is physically distant, it is easy to lose one’s way and to forget what is central and essential in one's life.

This is also the challenge that presents itself in an actual marriage.  As a couple moves from the chuppah and the sheva brakhot and begins to move forward and continue with their life, how will they orient themselves towards one another? Sometimes one spouse will need to travel geographically, or will need to involve him or herself in career, education, or other demands or pursuits. This is a necessary part of life. We must move from Har Sinai. But if we have worked on the relationship, and continue to work on the relationship, then wherever and whenever one travels, the other will always be their center, and all that we pursue will be with the other in mind. John Donne put it best in his "Valediction: Forbidding Mourning":

Dull sublunary lovers' love
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.

But we, by a love so much refined
That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two:
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do;

And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like the other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

As we enter into the chag of Shavuot, the day we celebrate the giving of the Torah and the beginning of the marriage between ourselves and God, let us take a moment to pause and ask ourselves how we keep God and the Torah at the center of our lives.  How do we remain encamped around the Mishkan, so  that wherever and however far we doth roam, God and Torah will be our center, allowing us to make our circle just and end where we had begun.

Happenings at the Yeshiva

Students continued their normal learning this week, with years 1 and 2 delving deeper into Baba Kama, and years 3 and 4 beginning to wrap-up hilkhot Aveilut.  In my Modern Orthodoxy class for year 1, we heard two presentations this week, one on the history and impact that YCT has had on the Modern Orthodox rabbinate, and one on comparing and contrasting the approach of Agudah with that of the Modern Orthodox community when it comes to interacting with the other denominations.  We look forward to the final presentation next week.

The big event this week was the IRF conference which took place on Tuesday and Wednesday at Congregation Beth Israel - the West Side Jewish Center, at West 34th Street (Rabbi Jason Herman, YCT 2005, serves as its rabbi).  There was much Torah learning, good chevraschaft, and serious, engaged conversation and teaching around critical issues facing the Modern Orthodox community.  But the most important event occurred at the end of the first day, when the membership of the IRF voted overwhelmingly to pass the resolution that had been previously approved by the Board of Directors requiring the use of halakhic prenuptial agreements. The resolution reads as follows:
IRF Rabbis may not officiate at a wedding unless the couple has signed a  halakhic prenuptial agreement.  IRF Rabbis are further encouraged to participate ritually only in weddings in which the couple has signed a  halakhic prenuptial agreement.  Ritual participation includes but is not limited to reading the ketubah, serving as a witness, and making one of sheva berachot.
The IRF is the now the only Orthodox rabbinical organization to require its members to use a pre-nup in any wedding they officiate at.  An editorial applauding this move, written by Rabbi Michael Broyde, appears in this week's Jewish Press. This reinforces the YCT policy which requires its musmachim to use a prenuptial agreement at every wedding at which they officiate.  YCT is the only rabbinical school to require this of its rabbis.  We know that these requirements will go a long way to preventing the future occurrences of agunot, and we hope that it will serve as a model for other organizations and institutions.
And a big Mazal Tov to YCT musmach Rabbi Ari Weiss (YCT 2007) and YCT Student Avram Mlotek (YCT 2015) for being named as 2 of the Jewish Week's "36 under 36".  The article on Rabbi Ari Weiss focused on the impact he has had as head of Uri LiTzedek, in educating the Modern Orthodox community about social justice, cultivating young Orthodox Jews to be activists for this cause, and raising the standards of yashrut within the community.  The  article on Avram Mlotek highlighted the many ways he is touching people's souls in the community, from his music to his love of Yiddish, from his teaching of children to his hospice visits, and from his writing of special columns in the Jewish Week. We could not be prouder of our rabbis and rabbis-to-be and the impact that they are having on the Jewish community and society at large.  Mazal Tov!