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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Parashat Masei – The Power of Small Objects

There is an assumption that we control technology. We can use it for good or evil—to build or to wreck. We develop it, we manipulate it, we employ it to our own ends… but how often do we stop to consider that it too has influence, it too has power, and that as much as we think we control technology, it very much controls us?

In this week’s portion, Masei, there is a short discourse on the various materials an assailant might use to smite a victim. The first material is iron: “If he smote another with an instrument of iron, so that he dies, he is a murderer.” (Numbers 35:16) The second is stone: “If he smote with a stone in his hand, so that he dies, he is a murderer.” (35:17) The last is wood: “If he smote with an instrument of wood in his hand, so that he dies, he is murderer. (35:18)

The Sages point out that the description of violence executed with wood or stone differs somewhat from the description of violence executed with an object of iron. With wood and stone, the Torah mentions that the object be “in his hand.” But with iron no such stipulation is made. Based on this distinction, our Sages conclude that a person cannot be found guilty of murder if the wood or stone weapon used (in the attack) is less than the size of one’s hand. This contrasts with iron where “there is no minimum size, for even an iron object as small as a needle can be lethal.”  (Sanhedrin 76b; Sifrei: 9)

What is remarkable about this teaching is that the rabbis of the Talmud stopped to consider the potency of each object. A splinter of wood might prick the skin, a pebble might loosen a tooth, but only a needle can pierce the heart or neck. An object, even a pin-sized one, requires us to understand not only what we can do with it, but what it can do to us.  

I would like to finish with a bit of history. In the early 1900’s, the fountain pen began to replace the dip pen and inkwell. There were obvious advantages to the fountain pen. Its writing was smooth and fluid while the line made by a dip pen would vacillate from thick and blotchy to faded and thin. More importantly, with its internal ink cartridge, the user of a fountain pen could write at great length without refilling. In contrast, the dip pen ran dry after a line or so and needed to be continuously re-submerged.

For good reason, many young lawyers and businessmen quickly adopted these marvelous new pens. They could now write twice as much, twice as quickly; and behold, the missives multiplied like rabbits. But quite a few traditionalists clung to the inkwell, complaining to anyone who might listen: ‘Sure, they may write twice as fast, but without the pause between dipping and writing, they think a great deal less.’  

Perhaps, it’s worth reflecting on this between the next email and text message: ‘Sure, we write twice as much and twice as quickly, but are we thinking a great deal less?’

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Parashat Matot: "The Buck Stops Here"

Some armies have a command structure that is very top heavy.  The general will make every decision, large or small, and each decision will get passed down the chain of command. In other armies, the command structure is more elastic. High Command will provide general strategy, but individual officers and captains will be left to decide much of the specifics. The appeal of the first approach is likely greater discipline throughout the ranks. No captain will attack or retreat without a command from above.

As for the second approach, though at times it will lack overall coordination, it makes up for this lack tenfold by harnessing the independent creativity and intelligence of dozens, if not hundreds of individual captains and officers. In the fog of war, a brilliant general can be preoccupied or out of contact, but an intelligent officer can still utilize his wits to create a working plan of action.

This week’s portion, Matot, describes a war between 12,000 warriors of Israel and the forces of the five kings of Midian. The war is strange on many fronts, but Rabbi Solomon D. Luzzato points out one of the strangest details of all. ‘No general is named to lead the offensive.’ (Shadal on Num. 31:8) In earlier battles against Og and Bashan, Moses seems to direct operations. (Num. 21:33) Similarly, when Israel fought Amalek, Joshua commanded Israel's forces. (Ex. 17:9) Here though, we are left to wonder, why is no one appointed?

Yet the absence of a central military leader plays out in a curious way. When the army returns bearing captive Midianite women—spared more out of lust than compassion—Moses' wrath burns not against one specific commander, but against all the captains and officers of the army. “And Moses was wrath with officers of the army, the captains of the thousands and the captains of the hundreds who came back from the military service of the war….” (Numbers 31:14)

One might imagine that had there been a General Commander the mistake would have been avoided. But a valuable lesson ensues. Later in the Torah portion, these very same captains and officers approach Moses and Elazar the High Priest and offer valuables won in war “as atonement for their souls before the Lord.” (31:50) It is not a coincidence that the gold vessels offered are women’s jewelry— ‘bracelets and buckles, earrings and anklets.’ The objects of atonement suggest the nature of the sin: Israel’s lust for the women of Midian. (S.R. Hirsh)

Yet there is a larger lesson. In the absence of a central leader, each individual captain bears responsibility for his actions and each must answer for his deeds. There is no attempt to “pass the buck” up and down the chain of command.  In many armies, when mistakes are made, soldiers in the lower ranks will claim ‘I was just following orders.’ Not so in the army of Israel. Each officer is held accountable and must come forward to make atonement for his soul.

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Blessed are They Who Sow and Do Not Reap

I decided to try my hand at translating a Hebrew poem by the poet Avraham Ben Yitzchak. The poem was translated a number of years ago by Peter Cole, who I admire greatly, but I thought I could render the selfless generosity embodied in the poem somewhat more pointed... 

Indeed, there are people who sow, so that others (the poor) might reap. Indeed, there are people who give in absolute anonymity, without any desire for recognition. For them, this is a matter of pride. And Ben-Yizchak's poem is a tribute to those who desire no tribute. Below is the Hebrew original, followed by my English translation.

אשרי הזורעים ולא יקצורו
אַשְׁרֵי הַזּוֹרְעִים וְלֹא יִקְצֹרוּ
כִּי יַרְחִיקוּ נְדוֹד.

אַשְׁרֵי הַנְּדִיבִים אֲשֶׁר תִּפְאֶרֶת נְעוּרֵיהֶם
הוֹסִיפָה עַל אוֹר הַיָּמִים וּפִזְרוֹנָם
וְהֵם אֶת עֶדְיָם הִתְפָּרָקוּ - עַל אֵם הַדְּרָכִים.

אַשְׁרֵי הַגֵּאִים אֲשֶׁר גֵּאוּתָם עָבְרָה גְבוּלֵי נַפְשָׁם
וַתְּהִי כְעַנְוַת הַלֹּבֶן
אַחֲרֵי הֵעָלוֹת הַקֶּשֶׁת בֶּעָנָן.

אַשְׁרֵי הַיּוֹדְעִים אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָא לִבָּם מִמִּדְבָּר
וְעַל שְׂפָתָם תִּפְרַח הַדּוּמִיָּה.

אַשְׁרֵיהֶם כִּי יֵאָסְפוּ אֶל תּוֹך לֵב הָעוֹלָם
לוּטֵי אַדֶּרֶת הַשִּׁכְחָה
וְהָיָה חֻקָּם הַתָּמִיד בְּלִי אֹמֶר.

Blessed Are They Who Sow
But Do Not Reap…

Blessed are they who sow but do not reap—
For they shall ward off wandering.

Blessed are the generous—the splendor of their youth
Would add unto the light of days and their extravagance—
Who thrust aside their jewelry at the crossroads.

Blessed are the proud—their pride surpasses the borders of their soul
Becoming the white humility
That follows the rainbow after it ascends into a cloud.

Blessed are the knowing ones—their heart calls out from the desert
And on their lips the silence blooms.

Blessed are they—for they shall be gathered to the heart of the world,
Enwrapped in a cloak of forgetfulness,
An eternal judgment of quiet.

Avraham Ben Yitzchak

Trans. Yehuda Hausman

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and the Mechitza

Last week, I shared an excerpt from Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm’s piece found in the anthology: The Sanctity of the Synagogue. Looking back, we saw how the passage of half-a-century made Rabbi Lamm’s arguments somewhat foolish, though at the very hour of composition his arguments must have seemed quite formidable. Today, I share an excerpt from one of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s essays in the collection. After briefly mentioning the halachic and historical arguments for maintaining separate pews, he makes what I would call a “definitional” argument in which he describes his understanding of the very nature of prayer. "During prayer man must feel alone, removed, isolated...." For those who accept his definition of prayer, or at least, his ideal of prayer, it is worth reflecting how so many of our synagogues seem to have strayed from this ideal. Even with separate pews, frivolity prevails. Sadly, conversations had with neighbors, seated to one's right or left, are often more earnest than those had with the Creator. What can be done? To start, the queries need to be turned to the right address: 'Lord, what can I do to pray better?'
In the meantime here is the excerpt: 
'Thirdly, the entire concept of “family pews'' is in contradiction to the Jewish spirit of prayer. Prayer means communion with the Master of the World, and therefore withdrawal from all and everything. During prayer man must feel alone, removed, isolated. He must then regard the Creator as an only Friend, from whom alone he can hope for support and consolation. Behold, as the eyes of servants look unto the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maiden unto the hand of her mistress; so our eyes look unto the Lord our God, until He be gracious unto us (Psalms 123:2)  
Clearly, the presence of women among men, or of men among women, which often evokes a certain frivolity in the group, either in spirit or in behavior, can contribute little to sanctification or to the deepening of religious feeling; nor can it help instill that mood in which a man must be immersed when he would communicate with the Almighty. Out of the depths have I called Thee, O Lord (Psalms 130: 1), says the Psalmist. Such a state of being will not be realized amid "family pews."' (The Sanctity of the Synagogue: Page 116)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Parashat Pinchas: Among Illusions

“Little feet, little feet are playing 
 Hopscotch among the landmines."

A great deal of life is inevitable. We grow up. We age. There is illness. There is death. Like a pothole on a narrow road, one can slow the car or push the gas, but the pit is unavoidable.

Yet how often do we yearn to skip the bumps and leap the holes, to play ‘hopscotch among the landmines’? How often do we hold onto the hope that the unexpected—the miraculous—shall somehow conquer the inevitable?

Towards the end of this week’s portion, two seemingly unrelated passages are placed side-by-side. The first passage contains the story of the daughters of Zelophehad. As their father died without male heirs, these daughters ask that his portion of the Land of Israel be given to them instead. To the daughters’ satisfaction, the request is granted by God. (Numbers 27:1-12)

In the passage that follows, we find God informing Moses of his eventual death. “Ascend the mountain of Avarim, and behold the land which I have given unto the children of Israel. And after you have seen it, you too shall be gathered among your people. Because you disobeyed my words in the wilderness of Tzin…” (Numbers 27:12-14)

Rashi suggests that the relationship between the two sections can be found in Moses’ reaction to God’s verdict concerning the daughters of Zelophehad. Seeing how they were permitted to inherit the land, Moses began to wonder: ‘Perhaps I too will be permitted to enter the land and inherit it.’ Though repeatedly barred from entrance, Moses clung to the hope that the Almighty might do the unexpected and lift the ban. Thus God comes and pricks the illusion: ‘Moses, you may look, you may even dream, but you shall not pass’

There is something to be said that the Five Books of Moses do not end here, with Moses climbing Mt. Avarim and passing from the world. There remains much for Moses to do…A new leader to appoint, battles to fight, an entire book’s worth of laws to teach and instructions to give… It’s as if God hands Moses his return ticket, and Moses just adds to his itinerary.

The message imparted by Moses’ behavior is simple. What time we have is short. It’s easy to squander it among illusions—playing hopscotch among the landmines—waiting for what cannot be. But there is so much else to do before the foot takes its last step. Better to ask, like Moses: 'What else can I fit on my itinerary?'

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Parashat Balak: And Reason Shall Not Prevail

“In all things, reason should prevail,” wrote William Penn. Yet in quite a few things, there is no reason whatsoever.

In this week’s portion, we find Balak, the pagan king of Moab, desperately trying to protect his commonwealth. Israel has just routed Moab’s neighbors—the Bashonites and Amorites—and Balak knows that his nation may very well be next.  So he engages the services of a non-Israelite prophet, Bilaam, whose task is to get the God of Israel to curse the Jewish people.  

In terms of military history, praying to one’s personal deity for victory is hardly remarkable. That is what prayer is for. No more surprising is hiring a cleric to pray on one’s behalf, that is what clerics are for. What is surprising is that Bilaam is not asked to appeal to Moab’s gods for assistance but to enlist the enemy’s God—the Redeemer of Israel—instead.  

By way of an imperfect example, imagine if in the Middle Ages a Catholic general were to ask the Pope to invoke Muhammed as a way to curry advantage against an invading Moslem army. The idea abounds with absurdity. Even if Muhammed had any say in the matter, why should he forsake the people of the Koran for a people who entirely reject the Word of Allah?

Yet, this is Balak and Bilaam’s very strategy. ‘Make the God of Israel abandon his flock of monotheists and embrace the pagans of Moab.’ As to be expected, the plan fails miserably, which begs the question why was it attempted at all?

There is a funny comment that Rashi brings down on the verse: “And Bilaam awoke in the morning and saddled his donkey.” (Num. 22.21) Rashi writes, “From here we learn that hatred destroys common sense.” Bilaam had numerous servants that could have done all his packing, yet in his zeal to curse Israel, he saddled the donkey himself. The stubborn mule of passion stomped right over the cool stoicism of reason. Bilaam’s heart brimmed with so much hatred there was little room left for good sense to prevail.

In this there is a poignant reminder: The greater our passion or conviction, the greater the need for deliberation. As William Penn warns, “it is quite another thing to be stiff, than to be steady in an opinion.” The decisions of a stiff heart are rarely as good as those of a steady mind.

Shabbat Shalom

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Rabbi Norman Lamm and the Mechitza

Every so often, one reads something written some years ago, and one has the opportunity to witness great words eviscerated by the progress of time. Below is an excerpt from a collection of essays found in Sanctity of the Synagogue, edited by Baruch Litvin. The work was published in late 50's, when the mechitza issue was tearing quite a few synagogues apart, and, more than anything else, drove the decisive wedge between Orthodoxy and Conservative Judaism. The excerpt if from an essay by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, who would later go on to become President of Yeshiva University. His defense of the Mechitza amounts to an accusation of hypocrisy against Conservative rabbis who in the name of egalitarianism wished to remove the mechitza.  Considering the egalitarian trends that eventually swept through the Conservative movement, the essay should remind us how important it is to take the long-view if one intends to write for posterity. Tomorrow, I shall provide another excerpt, which to my mind, still rings R. Joseph Soloveitchik. In the meantime, here is Rabbi Norman Lamm: 
Separate seating, we are told, reveals an underlying belief that women are inferior, and only when men and women are allowed to mix freely in the synagogue is the equality of the sexes acknowledged. To this rallying call to "chivalry'' we must respond with a demand for consistency. If the non- Orthodox movements are, in this matter, the champions of woman's equality, and if this equality is demonstrated by equal participation in religious activities, then why, for instance, have not the non-orthodox schools graduated one woman rabbi all these years? Why not a woman cantor? (Even in Reform circles, recent attempts to introduce women into such positions have resulted in a good deal of controversy) . Why are Temple presidents almost all men, and Synagogue boards predominantly male? Why are the women segregated in sisterhoods? If it is to be equality's then let us have complete and unambiguous equality.
The same demand for some semblance of consistency may well be presented, and with even greater cogency, to the very ones of our sisters who are the most passionate and articulate advocates of mixed seating as a symbol of their equality. If this equality as Jewesses is expressed by full participation in Jewish life, then such equality must not be restricted to the Temple. They must submit as well to the private obligations incumbent upon menfolk: prayer thrice daily, and be-tzibbur, in the synagogue; donning tallis and tephillin; acquiring their own lulab and ethrog, etc. These mitzvoth are not Halachically obligatory for women, yet they were voluntarily practiced by solitary women throughout Jewish history; to mention but two examples, Michal, daughter of King Saul, and the fabled Hasidic teacher, the Maid of Ludmilla.
Does not consistency demand that the same equality, in whose name we are asked to confer upon women the privileges of full participation in public worship with all its attendant glory and glamour, also Impose upon women the responsibilities and duties, heretofore reserved for men only, which must be exercised in private only? We have yet to hear an anguished outcry for such equal assumption of masculine religious duties. So far those who would desecrate the synagogue in the name of democracy's and “equality'' have been concentrating exclusively upon the public areas of Jewish religious expression, upon synagogues privileges and not at all upon spiritual duties. They must expand the horizons of religious equality..."