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Friday, September 23, 2011

Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelech: Lost and Found



Just thirty minutes outside of Baltimore, there are dozens of smooth country roads that flow like rivers between banks of undulating forest.  As my wife and I coasted past rolling hills of green, we had the impression of driving over waves.  Red barns and silver silos stood guard upon billowing crests while small ponds and brooks flowed through steep troughs.

Here and there, we found meadows picketed by wooden fences. Some were glazed recently with white paint, other fences were the color of smoke, the paint long peeled, the wood weathered and decayed. Beyond the fences, cattle grazed on tall grass.  There was one breed that had short wooly hair growing in patches of charcoal and ivory. Another breed had a coat that was cherry-brown and leathery like a chestnut horse.  We passed a long slope of trees that stretched like a cat into the distance, an endless forest of red maple, scarlet oak, hickory, white pine…. This being late September, scattered flecks of gold and red had begun to emerge like stars amid a velvet canopy of green. They were the first touches of the sunset we call ‘autumn.’

Yet as we drove, a polite but peaky robotic voice interrupted this visual feast with careful instructions. The voice belonged to my cellular phone. “Take next right in half a mile...Bear left at fork in-the-road…Continue straight toward destination…” As our eyes were lost in the scenery below, the phone’s navigational program guided us via satellites found high above. Though the convergence of Mother Nature and high technology was rather jarring, had we ignored the guiding voice, we would have been doubly lost in those trees, and we would have never arrived at our destination.

The one flaw of the navigation program was that each time I took a wrong turn or came upon a road that was not on one of its maps, the voice would suddenly announce: “recalculating…recalculating….” We would then wait anxiously for the phone to regain its bearings, to set a new course, to give us new directions. One time, however, the phone failed to find its way.  As the minutes slowly passed, and no new course was forthcoming, we began to worry. It felt strangely as if it too were lost—perhaps just as lost as we were....

In this week’s double Torah readings, Nitzavim-Vayelech, we find a prophetic vision of Israel’s repentance and return. Amidst our preparations for the coming High Holidays, the passage is thematically apt. “Then you shall turn to the Lord your God, and hearken to his voice…you and your children, with all your heart and all your soul. Then the Lord your God will return your captivity, and have compassion upon you, and will return you from among the peoples…” (Deut. 30:2,3)

Some understand the phrase “the Lord your God will return your captivity” to mean that God will change your fortune, restore you as in days of old. (Shadal; Cf. Jeremiah29.14; 39.25) Yet the Sages of the Talmud rendered the expression differently: ‘The Lord your God shall return with your captivity.’ As if to say, when Israel went into exile, God went along for the ride and remained banished, so to speak, till Israel’s long-awaited repentance and return. (Megillah 29a; Cf. Torah Temima and Rashi Deut. 30.3)

There is something quite startling about this image of God, exiled among the exiled, adrift and suffering by our side. For it implies that when we turn astray, God turns with us. And when we are lost, so too is God. One wonders if somewhere a small thin voice is crying out desperately, ‘recalculating… recalculating…’

When the navigation voice finally returned, it did so after I had done something that hearkened back to days of old.... I looked at the road, at the signs, at the sun, and then calculated which way was east and west and north and south, till I situated myself. Then I chose a road that seemed to head in the right direction. Immediately the voice returned: “continue straight toward destination.”

We were both found.

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, September 16, 2011

Parashat Ki Tavoh: The Creation of Us



Often, when saying grace, it is natural to reflect on the process by which fruit and grain arrive at our table.  We reflect on the miraculous transformation of seed into sapling, and sapling into mature tree. We think how each summer hardened vines bear clusters of soft sweet fruit. We ponder the great toil through which golden stalks of wheat become milled grain and the flour that is lovingly baked into a buttery slice of bread. When we give thanks to God for sustenance, it is tremendously meaningful to contemplate the elaborate history of the food.

Yet there is another slice of history that can be recalled before that next delicious bite. And no, it is not the flight of the Fuji apple across the Pacific or even the great crushing of oranges in the sunny factories of Florida. Rather, the history that may be remembered is the history of us.

In this week’s portion, Ki Tavoh, we find a liturgical passage that Israelite farmers were obliged to recite before giving a basket of first fruit to a priest of the Temple. The passage is especially strange because it ignores the history of the fruit, and instead focuses on the ancestral history of the farmer.

The farmer intones: “An Arammean nomad was my father, and he went down to Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous….And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us; and they laid upon us hard bondage… But God brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm…And He brought us to this place, and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now, behold, I have brought the first fruits of the land, which You, O God, have given me.” (Deut. 26.5-10)

One would think that after the endless toil and sweat, something would be said of the plowing, tilling, seeding, watering, trellising, pruning, and harvesting that preceded the bringing of this farmer’s first fruit. But nothing of the kind is mentioned. Instead of emphasizing the creation of the fruit, something else is emphasized, the creation of Israel.    

In this there is an essential lesson. Though it is important to know how our food came to be, it is just as  important, if not more important, to know how we came to be; what travels, what wanderings, what ancestors, what miracles lead to our creation…

This Shabbat, take a few moments, as we usually do, to thank God for bringing a table of sustenance to us…but try as well, to take another few moments, to thank God for bringing us forth so that we can enjoy a table of sustenance.

Shabbat Shalom   

Friday, September 9, 2011

Ki Tetzeh: The Plight of the Captured Woman


In the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta, boys were required to keep their hair short in youth, then, as they reached maturity, they were permitted to grow their hair long as a symbol of strength and virility. Indeed, Plutarch records that Spartan warriors would "curl and adorn their hair" in preparation for battle, "as a fine set of hair would make the handsome more beautiful and the ugly more terrible." (Lycurgus 22

In contrast, Spartan women, young and old, kept their hair long, the exception being a bride on her wedding day. In Spartan tradition, the bride was first "kidnapped" by her husband-to-be, who would leave her in the hands of a bridesmaid. The bridesmaid would then clip her hair short so she resembled a boy. Shorn of this symbol of masculinity and martial power - not to mention femininity - she awaited the groom in the bridal-chamber. (Lycurgus 15.3; cf. Mortals and ImmortalsOff with her head!If there was any good in this horrid ritual, it may have been to remind the groom that his bride was not an adversary on the field of battle to be conquered or defeated. Yet this lesson came at a terrible price. For a Spartan man to learn to eschew violence in the bedroom, a young woman had to be robbed of her locks of womanhood and humiliated on the day of her wedding. 

In this week's portion, Ki Tetzeh, we find a number of biblical laws that are quite disturbing to modern sensibilities. Perhaps most disconcerting of all are the martial laws that relate to the captured woman. The Torah begins matter-of-factly: "When you go to war...and see among the captives a woman of beauty whom you desire and wish to take for a wife." (Deut. 21.10,11) It then prescribes a series of rituals that must be done before the Israelite man can marry her. "You shall bring her inside your home, where she shall shave her head, and let her nails grow..." She is then given “a month to weep and mourn for her mother and father.” If at this point, the man still desires to marry her, he may do so, and if not, he must set her free. (21.13-14)

Rabbi Bachya ben Asher notes that the purpose of these rituals is to make the captive woman less attractive; thus the shorn hair, unkept nails, and month of mourning. Moreover he adds that the enduring sight of the captive woman "weeping and pained" is intended to stir within the man a sense of compassion so that he is moved to give her freedom. (Commenting on vs. 21.13) To put it starkly, having suffered war, the loss of her family, capture, and possibly rape, the captive woman was made to undergo further humiliations just so that her captor could develop enough empathy to set her free. Such was the emotional obtuseness of men, even Israelite men, of that age. 

In a similar vein, we later find the Torah explaining why a victim of rape is innocent of blame. "But unto the damsel thou shalt do nothing; there is in the damsel no sin worthy of death; for as when a man rises against his neighbor, and slays him, even so is this matter." (Deut. 22.26) Already in Talmudic times, the sages wondered what need was there to to say that a victim of rape is as blameless as a victim of murder. Surely, that was and should be obvious! (Cf. Sanhedrin 74a) However, if one considers the mores of 9th century BCE Sparta, the common practices of war three millenia ago, or even the "honor killings" that we hear of today, the concept of a "blameless rape victim" requires education, for it was not obvious to men of that time and the point is still too often missed by many a man today.


To return to the plight of the captive woman and her stiff-hearted captor.... Though repugnant to us, there is an enduring lesson in psychology that is contained in the process by which the captor is finally led to empathize with his captive. Anyone who has fought heatedly with a friend or a loved one knows how easy it is to forget the damage of hurtful words. Ill remarks and thoughtless insults are flung unabated until one sees in the eyes of the other the sting of hurt or tears of pain. 


It is an unfortunate flaw of human nature that we are often blind to the pain we cause until we see some outer sign of damage and humiliation. It should not be so. Better if long before the senseless quip is loosed on kin or fellow, we ask ourselves how it would feel if the arrow were shot in one's direction.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Parashat Shoftim: Winter’s Fruit – A Recollection


It was a day hollowed of warmth and full of February’s wrath. The wind hurled mists of ice and powder drifts against the light infantry of hats, coats and doubled scarves. If New England wind had teeth, that day those teeth would have shorn flesh off the bone.

Inside a toasty restaurant in Boston, a door bell chimed, and a customer entered accompanied by a blast of cold air. A first glance revealed a worn coat, patched and frayed. Looking closer, one noticed a faded denim shirt that hung untucked over torn jeans. Above this mess, there stood a head of matted hair; below the hair, a man’s face, smudged with grease and caked in old sweat. The fellow would not have looked out-of-place asking for quarters outside a coffee shop. As it was, he was shown a seat and handed a menu. Nervous and flustered, I watched him flip the menu for several minutes till a neighboring woman helped him order.

So gracious was he for her help that he announced to the restaurant his wish to pay for her meal. “I won $7000 today in the lottery. Let me buy you lunch. Actually, I want to buy everyone lunch,” he went on. The woman smiled, “No, you keep your money.”  Then the man stood up and repeated the offer to each of us in the room. We each shook our heads. He needed the money more than any of us.

Though it seemed right at the time to refuse the gift of a destitute man, as I left the restaurant, I could not help but feel that the day had grown much colder.  

In this week’s portion, Shoftim, we find a variety of laws related to the waging war. For example: “When you lay siege to a city for many days, in making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy the (fruit) trees thereof by wielding an axe against them; because you may eat of them, do not cut them down; for is the tree of the field a man, that it should be besieged by you?” (Deuteronomy 20.19)
The commandment to spare the fruit is understood by some as a lesson in compassion. What has this tree done to you? Rooted to the ground it can neither surrender nor flee, why should it share the sorry fate of the city? (Rashi on 20.19) In contrast, there are those who see the commandment as being preoccupied with human welfare. Fruit trees sustain us with their fruit. What purpose is there in using them for bulwarks and battering rams when non-fruit trees can be used instead? (Ibn-Ezra, Hirsch) Indeed, the general prohibition against needless destruction (Bal Tashchit) is learned from the above verse. (Cf.Torah Temima)
Yet, I would like to suggest a third reason for the prohibition. When laying a siege, the Israelite army is also commanded to first offer the city ‘terms of peace.’ If the inhabitants accept, surrendering themselves as servants, the inhabitants must be spared. If not, war is waged. (20:10-12) In a similar vein, the fruit tree has essentially surrendered. It has offered its service: the fruit of its limbs. It would be criminal to fell what gives freely and cannot flee. “Is the tree of the field a man, that it should be besieged by you?”

Thinking back to that arctic day in Boston, some eight or nine years ago... A beggar blew in from the street. He offered us fruit in the very heart of winter. How excited he must have been to have an opportunity to feed others for a change. But we shook our heads and refused. It was as if we took an axe and felled a fruit tree. There is value in knowing when to give. So too there is a value in knowing when to accept.

Shabbat Shalom