Sep 29 2016

Meeting the King

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crown3-2In an ideal world, our leaders would be qualified, competent, and benevolent. If we could find such a person, we certainly would want him or her to rule for life, providing for our common needs, protecting us from danger, and helping us to flourish.

Now imagine living in a country like that. Once a year, the King comes for a visit. He has placed relatively limited demands upon you, while providing you with a tremendous bounty. And you know that you have failed to live up to his modest expectation — yet despite all that, you also know that the King cares about you personally, wants you to succeed, and hopes that you will take advantage of his visit as an opportunity to renew your commitment to growth and development under his rule. What would you do to prepare for his visit? And how would you behave in front of the King?

Certainly, it would be a solemn occasion, with all the majesty befitting a royal visit. You would wear special clothes, polish the silverware and hang decorative curtains, and prepare banquets in his honor. Yet at the same time, you would celebrate his benevolent rule, knowing that he would judge your actions with mercy, and give you the opportunity to do better. And, of course, you would commit yourself to doing precisely that, so that next year his royal visit could be a celebration of your success.

This is perhaps a brief encapsulation of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

We are ruled by the King of Kings, Creator of the Universe. He sees past, present, and future. He knows what will work and what will fail, and knows how to lead us. And he hopes to see us succeed under His rule.

Each year, He judges the world — and gives us the opportunity to judge ourselves, to see our failings, and to look for ways to do better. We can clear out bad habits and replace them with better ones, in order to grow in our commitment to Judaism and Jewish ethics.

Our prayers are serious, and somber. We speak in our special Musaf prayer of his Kingship, his Remembrance of all things, and the need to cry out to him and to arouse others with the sound of the Shofar. Yet we know that He will not only judge us fairly, but mercifully, giving us a special opportunity to correct ourselves and do better.

Sep 16 2016

Slave or Servant?

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butler2In this week’s reading, we are reminded multiple times that we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. First the Torah warns judges to be impartial, especially in handling cases involving orphans and converts, and to be merciful when it comes to debts of widows. “And you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and Hashem your G-d redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this thing” [Deut. 24:19] Then the Torah tells us to leave behind forgotten sheaves, olives or grapes, to leave these for the poor — again, especially converts, orphans and widows. “And you shall remember that you were a slave in the Land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this thing” [24:22].

The Torah also gives us, this week, two Commandments regarding non-Jewish slaves themselves: if such a person runs away from somewhere else to go live in the Land of Israel, he must be allowed to remain there. His master cannot extradite him; “He shall live among you, in the place of his choice within one of your gates, which he likes, and you shall not oppress him” [23:17].

The Torah reminds us that we were slaves, in order that we not consider ourselves “upper-class.” We are to go out of our way to treat widows, orphans, converts, and any poor person with generosity. After all, they are our peers, and they need our help.

But what about a person’s own slave? Why is there a law not to send him back home?

In reality, this is far from the only limitation upon treatment of slaves. A person may not command his slave to violate a Torah Commandment, meaning that both enjoy the Sabbath as a day of rest. And if one blinds the eye of his slave, knocks out a tooth or severs a finger, the slave goes free.

I had the good fortune to speak with R’ Irving Roth lay”t about this; he is a Holocaust survivor and Director of the Holocaust Resource Center at Temple Judea of Manhasset. He knows very well what it means to be treated as a slave — and these Commandments, he explains, prove that what we call slavery is forbidden in the Torah. The Hebrew word Eved is translated as slave in this context, but it is inaccurate — it derives from the word la’avod, to work, and in other contexts is translated as servant. We are all told to be an “Eved Hashem,” a Servant of G-d!

A slave is a piece of property; he has no individual human rights, and can be treated literally like an animal. The Torah tells us that to the contrary, every human being was created in G-d’s Image — and must be respected for that reason alone.

There is nothing inherently wrong with having or being a servant — honestly, having a job for life would be a relief for many of us! Yet the Torah forbids denying the humanity of any other person. We must treat every person with dignity and respect — for after all, we ourselves are descended from slaves.

Sep 09 2016

The Judge in His Locker

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locker-820088_640In this week’s reading, we find two passages that do not seem to belong together. The Torah begins this week with a commandment to set up a justice system, with both courts and judges to make rulings, and police to enforce them. It speaks of the importance of true and fair judgment that shows favoritism to no one. “Justice, justice shall you pursue” [Deut. 16:20]. The Torah even follows this up by saying, “in order that you live and inherit the land which Hashem your G-d is giving you.”

Then the Torah goes off in what appears to be an entirely different direction: “you shall not plant an asheira tree” — which comprises prohibitions on planting a tree for idolatrous worship, as well as planting a tree in the Holy Temple. What is the connection between setting up a justice system, and prohibiting idolatry?

The Talmudic Sage Rabbi Shimon ben Lakeish explains the juxtaposition [Sanhedrin 7b]: appointing a judge who is unfit for the position is like planting an idolatrous tree! To which Rav Ashi adds: if the unfit judge is appointed in place of a true scholar, then it is like planting such a tree in the Temple itself, next to the Altar.

Judaism does not permit a distinction between obligations to G-d and our obligations to each other — after all, they both come from the same Source. The Torah is telling us that corrupt judges strike at the very foundation of Judaism, just like idolatry.

There was a teacher who came to a Jewish school for boys after years in the public school system, who quickly learned what it means when children treat their interpersonal relationships like key religious obligations.

A student had performed well in her class, and she awarded him a prize: his very own can of soda. She gave it to him as they were leaving class, and she saw him go over to his locker to put it away to drink later. Seeing that his locker did not have a lock on it, she asked him if he would like her to keep the soda for the time being, so that no one else would take the soda from his locker.

This young boy, in either fourth or fifth grade, looked at her like she had suggested something crazy. “No one would take my soda,” he said. “That would be stealing!”

Those of us who attended those schools, and who send our children to those schools, may not recognize this as anything extraordinary. But to her, after decades of experience with children trying to educate themselves in “what they can get away with without getting caught,” this was a profound moment.

Throughout our lives, that sense of obligation must constantly be with us. Any type of injustice is certainly no less significant than anything we regard as a core Jewish ritual. This, too (and perhaps even more so), is part of what it means to follow the Torah.

Sep 02 2016

True Vision

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Space-EyeThe reading this week begins, “See I have placed before you today the blessing and the curse” [Deut. 11:26]. This is said in the singular form, rather than plural, and the Ba’al HaTurim explains that this statement, “see,” was made to each and every individual. Each of us has the blessing and curse lying in front of us, the ability to choose between right and wrong.

This does not mean, however, that the correct choice is always obvious. The same reading also discusses the possibility of a false prophet, coming to guide us to idolatry, even proving to us that his false god has real power:

When there shall arise among you a prophet or dreamer of dreams, and he shall provide you with a sign or wonder; and this sign or wonder shall come to pass as he told you, saying, ‘let us go after other gods which you do not know, and let us serve them.’ Do not listen to the words of this prophet or this dreamer of dreams, for Hashem your G-d is testing you, to know if you love Hashem your G-d with all your hearts and with all your souls.
— Deut 13:2-4

Throughout our lives, we are confronted with opportunities to choose the good — yet the good may not be immediately obvious. Sociologists talk about the “bandwagon effect,” in which even truly bad ideas are adopted at an increasing rate the more they are adopted by others.

A senior at Brown University wrote an article this week in which he advised incoming freshmen to “prepare yourself for insane anti-Semitism.” The movement to boycott Israel is a direct descendant of the Nazi boycott (via the Arab boycott, which predates 1948), it leads directly to anti-Semitic slurs and acts against individual students, yet it is adopted as a “moral” movement by people who have not bothered to look and discern the truth.

How often are we fooled, in our own lives, by things which appear moral or correct to others? Are we “going with the flow,” or are we looking at and evaluating the blessing and the curse?

This is the challenge of our reading, and it lies before each and every one of us.

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