Oct 06 2016

Time for a Reboot




When a computer device of some kind isn’t operating correctly, the first question any technician will ask is, “have you tried rebooting?” The option may be called “Restart,” but it means the same thing: clean out apps that are running, wipe the memory clean, and start up again.

Judaism teaches that people are basically good. In essence, we want to do the right thing. But we succumb to temptation. We do bad things. We let ourselves learn bad habits until we find ourselves in a rut, unable to get back onto level ground.

It’s as if we need our own “reboot” system. And we have one.

This is the concept of Teshuvah. Teshuvah is often translated as “repentance,” but in common usage “repentance” is taken away from its simple meaning. As of this writing, the Wikipedia entry on “Repentance” insists that “The doctrine of repentance as taught in the Bible is a call to persons to make a radical turn from one way of life to another.” Despite that claim, this idea is found nowhere in Judaism — and we did have the Bible first. It doesn’t have to be “radical!”

The word Teshuvah comes from the Hebrew root “to return.” It is about getting back to where we were always supposed to be, following the path we were always supposed to follow.

Today, many people will colloquially refer to a person who adopted traditional Jewish observance in adulthood as a “Ba’al Teshuvah,” but that is not the classical meaning of the term. It means “Master of Return,” and this is something everyone should be — especially on Yom Kippur.

Four Steps to Teshuvah

Our Sages provide a relatively straightforward three process for Teshuvah:

  1. Regret – a person must sincerely regret wrongdoing
  2. Abandonment – the person must commit to not doing the misdeed(s) anymore
  3. Confession – to cement the process, the person must then admit to G-d what was done wrong in the past, along with his or her commitment not to do so in the future

Sep 29 2016

Meeting the King


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?


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


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.

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