Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Parashat Shoftim: On Lifeguards and Heifer Necks

At Grafton Lakes State Park this week, the lifeguard blew her whistle to stop some bathers from dangerous horseplay. Later, all three lifeguards on duty announced that everyone was to clear the water area so that a search for a missing child could be conducted. (The child was found and okay). These lifeguards were taking their duties very seriously to both police and protect the crowd.

This week’s parsha, Shoftim, meaning “judges,” deals with the various roles played by government leaders: judges, police, priests, and kings. Their authority is laid out clearly – “You must not deviate from the verdict that they announce to you either to the right or to the left” (Deut 17:11), as are certain limitations on their powers – a king may not accumulate too many horses, wives or money. But it is not until the final section of the parsha that I think we see the ultimate purpose of all these leaders – to act as life-guards, to protect and care for the people.

The final section deals with a case called eglah arufah (Deut 21:1-9). The Torah describes a situation in which a halal, a slain body, is found in a field in the no-man’s land between two towns, and the murderer is not known Measurements are to be taken to determine the closest town. This town’s elders and priests must then bring a brand-new heifer, an eglah, and break its neck over a strong flowing river. They wash their hands and make a pronouncement declaring that they were not involved in the murder themselves (“Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done.”). They then ask God to atone for the murder.

Rashi cites the Talmud which rightly asks: “Would it occur to anyone that the elders of the court are murderers?” (Sotah 45b). Why are they considered responsible? Why is there a need for atonement, for a ritual like that of Yom Kippur’s sacrificial lamb, sent out to the wilderness to atone for our sins? What is it that these leaders have done wrong, if they have clearly not themselves committed the murder?

Ah, but they are responsible for such things. They are the people’s life-guards, after all. Rashi and the Babylonian Talmud suggest that the leaders are actually declaring that they have not seen the victim and let him go without food or without proper accompaniment on the road. Perhaps it was hunger that led him to be murdered; perhaps he tried to steal someone’s food on the road, and was killed in the process. Others suggest that the leaders are responsible for keeping their local roads safe for travelers. The Palestinian Talmud suggests that the leaders were actually speaking not about the victim, but about the murderer, proclaiming that he had not come before them in judgment and been absolved (Sotah 9, 6, as cited by Nehama Leibowitz). Like the life-guard, these leaders’ duties involve both policing criminals as well as protecting and caring for the innocent.

But how far does this responsibility extend? The duty to care does not end with the city limits, says the Torah, but extends into the barren zone between cities. Indeed, according to the Torah there can be no “no-man’s land.” Every single piece of land must be under some community’s jurisdiction and care. A person should never feel that alone, should never feel so alone that he can be attacked without any witnesses. The sadeh, the “field,” in the Torah is a place where crimes happen; it is “while they were in a field” that Cain killed Abel in the beginning of time (Genesis 4:8), and it is in the “field” that a woman is considered unable to elicit aid when raped (Deut 22:25). The case of the eglah arufah sets a high standard for community leadership; it is the task of a society and its leaders to ensure that no one is excluded, that no one ends up in such a sadeh uncared for and unaccompanied.

When God confronts Cain about his murder of Abel, Cain says. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The eglah arufah teaches that we are indeed our brothers’ keepers, that if we are not careful about being their keepers, then we are almost like their murderers.

The leaders’ recitation over the broken neck of the heifer asks God to absolve the people of Israel “whom You redeemed ” (21.8). Why mention God’s redemption? God is our model for how to care for others. He redeems people from terrible suffering, oppression and murder, and we are called on to do the same. Earlier in the parsha (Deut 18:15-18), Moshe reminds the people that at Sinai, they were so frightened at hearing God’s voice, that they requested a human alternative. God agreed with the people and therefore appointed Moshe and all future prophets to be His representatives on earth. But the idea is not limited to prophets. All leaders, indeed, all people, are God’s representatives on earth, and must model their behavior on His. In the case of the eglah arufah, the leaders ask for forgiveness for not living up to His model, and pray for the strength to be, in the future, more like God the redeemer and life-guard.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Parashat Re'eh: The BIG CHOICE

This week’s parsha begins with one of Deuteronomy’s favorite topics, the BIG CHOICE in life -- the choice between good and bad, between life and death, or, as this week’s parsha puts it, the choice between a life of blessing and a life of curses.

The question of leading a moral life, of choosing good over evil, is a popular one and a universal one. But what makes the Torah’s version of this question special is that it is framed as an issue of relationship, specifically as an issue of the relationship between God and the people of Israel. The parsha does not begin with the words: “These are the blessings and these are the curses.” It begins with a statement of relationship: "See this day I give you blessing and curse.” What makes this blessing and curse important is that I give it to you. And how does one earn this blessing or this curse? Again, through the relationship, either by being faithful to the relationship and obeying God’s commands, or by reneging on one’s relational duties and disobeying Him.

Later on in the parsha, by way of introduction to the prohibition against gashing yourself or shaving the front of your head, the Torah says, banim atem lashem elokeikhem, “You are children of the Lord your God” (14:1). The good and the bad, the right and the wrong, are framed as questions of our relationship to God.

The relationship theme is one of classical midrash’s perennial favorites. Midrash Devarim Rabbah on this parsha explains that both the Torah and the human soul are compared to a ner, a light or candle. When the Holy One blessed be He wanted to warn the people to observe the Torah, says the midrash, what did He say to them? Neri beyadekha venerkha beyadi. “Your light is in My hands, and My light is in your hands. If you keep My light [the Torah], then I will keep your light [the human soul].”

How deeply intimate and inextricable is such a relationship! Each of us holds a piece of God in our hands and God holds a piece of each of us in His. We are in an inter-dependent, symbiotic relationship. Imagine two puzzles completed perfectly except for one piece in each puzzle which is interchanged and fit into the opposite puzzle frame. Someone once said to me that being a parent is like having your heart walk around in someone else’s body. Our relationship to God is of that order. We carry a piece of Him, through the Torah, and He carries a piece of us, through our souls.

Nor is it just any piece. It is the light, the ner, the or, the part of us my daughter would call “the shiny, sparkly part.” For her, that is what makes a dress worth wearing. For us, that sparkly part is what makes a life worth living. It is the song and the spirit, the part of us that soars heavenward, that is always seeking, always yearning to be connected to its origins.

But, oh, what responsibility! To be charged with keeping the light, with keeping God’s light, the Torah, alive on earth. And to be told that our own lives, our own lights depend upon this relationship, depend upon our ability to keep God’s light alive. So much rests on us.

But also what an honor, a privilege, and a joy. To play such an important role, not to be tiny in God’s eyes, but to be large, to be “the carriers of His light.”

The midrash says our souls are bound up in the keeping of His Torah -- when, through the Torah, we bring out the light in the world, we are simultaneously feeding our own souls, making their light shine even brighter. The true “blessing” of Deuteronomy’s BIG CHOICE is the shining of that light – God’s and our own.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Parashat Ekev: Food for Thought

What to eat? Let’s see . . . If we eat some tomatoes, we can fulfill our daily nutritional requirement of vitamin C. Add some whole wheat pasta for fiber and iron.

Is that all food is? The sum total of its chemical nutrients, the different components which make up the fuel for our bodies? This reductionist way of thinking about food has been termed “nutritionism” and is assailed by Michael Pollan in his book, In Defense of Food. He argues that food is “no mere thing but a web of relationships,” not merely “fuel” but “a form of communion.” We should approach food with pleasure, gratitude and mystery, he suggests, eat slowly, and with company.

The Torah understood this long ago. In this week’s parsha, Moshe speaks to the people about their experience of eating manna in the desert. He says that God made things difficult for them by making them hungry and feeding them this manna food which was completely unfamiliar to them. The whole point, says Moshe, was to teach them the following simple message: Ki lo al halekhem levado yehkeyeh ha’adam, “Man does not live on bread alone,” but rather, ki al kol motza pi hashem yekheh ha’adam, literally, “Man lives on whatever comes out of God’s mouth” (Deuteronomy 8:3).

At first glance, and taken out of context, the idea seems clear – we need more than food to be fully alive. We also need what comes out of God’s mouth, i.e. Torah. Mouths are both spiritual and physical gateways; they take in food but they also pass on Torah. On one level, then, Moshe is reminding the people that they are more than just base animals looking for fuel, that they also need to nourish their souls.

In its context, though, “whatever comes out of God’s mouth” seems (so most traditional commentators think) to refer to food as well -- to the manna which came from God to feed the people in the desert. The lesson is then not so much about the importance of Torah over food but of the importance of a proper Torah approach to food itself.

Through the experience of manna in the desert, God taught the people something about food in general -- that it should not be viewed solely as lehem, bread, a product of human labor and processing, but should always also be viewed as coming from God. A few verses later, in speaking about the process of acquiring ordinary food in the land of Israel, Moshe warns the people: “Beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God” (8:14). Don’t think that you have done it all, that what sustains you in this bread all comes from your own labors.

Manna is a perfect model food because it makes clear, in the most extreme way, that food comes from God. The people played no part in producing it. The Torah emphasizes that manna was strange and unfamiliar to the Israelites. Why? Perhaps to highlight the sense of mystery the Israelites experienced with this food, the sense of wonder at how such an unfamiliar food could still manage to sustain them. Manna, in its strangeness, highlights this sense of wonder, but the truth is that ordinary food should evoke in us the same feeling of mystery: How does it manage to keep us alive? Surely there is something divine and miraculous in the sustenance provided by an ordinary piece of bread.

Manna also makes human dependence on God poignantly clear. In the desert, there was nowhere else to get food other than from God. Perhaps this is why the Torah emphasizes that God made the people hungry; when you are very hungry, as on a fast day, you are made keenly aware of your dependence on God for food.

Manna also made the Israelites aware of their dependence on God for food because only enough was given for each day (except for Erev Shabbat). Any excess decayed overnight. As the Talmud says, “Someone who has food in his basket [for tomorrow] is not like someone who does not have food in his basket” (Yoma 74b). Without the security of having provisions for the future, a person feels scared and dependent. The manna brought up these feelings in an extreme version, but the truth is we are all this dependent. We hide it from ourselves by having baskets full of provisions, by having food with an incredibly long shelf-life on our supermarket shelves, but the truth is, without a constant supply of fresh supplies, even those provisions would eventually run out. As humans, we can’t exist without a constant supply of fresh food.

People should not live on bread alone, but with an awareness that all sustenance comes from God. That is the lesson of the manna. Manna teaches the lessons of dependence and mystery; it teaches us to approach food with the proper sense of respect, gratitude and wonderment, to feel the miracle of each bite.

Judaism is extremely practical, and as always, these are not just ideas in the sky; they have clear practical applications. Indeed, not many verses after this discussion of manna, Moshe turns to speak about what life will be like in the land of Israel, and says, “You shall eat and you shall be satisfied and you shall bless the Lord your God” (8:10). Blessings, brachot, before and after food (the verse speaks specifically about after, but the rabbis added the notion of before as well) are meant to remind us of just these lessons of manna, of our fragile dependence on God for food and of the miracle of its ability to sustain us. Saying a brachah is a kind of antidote to the “fast food” movement Pollan rails against, as one is forced to slow down the process of eating and consider with respect and gratitude one’s daily sustenance.