Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Parashat Mishpatim: On the Unloading of Burdens

“When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and you think to refrain from raising it for him, you must nevertheless raise it with him!” (Ex 23:5).

This is one of the many laws – dealing with subjects as far-ranging as slavery, the Sabbath and judicial procedure-- in this week’s parsha, fittingly called Mishpatim,”Laws.” This particular law describes a situation in which one comes upon one’s enemy and sees that his beast of burden has collapsed under the weight of its heavy load. The Torah spells out a natural response – not to help one’s hated enemy – and then insists that one nevertheless lend a hand.

The word used here for the “raising” of the burden is azov, which also means “to leave behind.” “Leave behind what is in your heart concerning him,” says Targum Onkelos, an ancient translation of the Torah into Aramaic. “Leave behind at that moment the hatred in your heart concerning him and take apart the burden and carry it with him,” says Targum Yonatan, another classical translation.

The ass, then, is not the only one who needs his burden unloaded! This commandment is also intended to help you relieve or “leave behind” your own burden, the burden of your hatred of another human being. If you have an enemy, then you, like that donkey, are falling down under a heavy burden. Stop and help relieve your fellow ass’s burden, and you will find that your own burden has also been relieved.

In the children’s book Zen Shorts, a panda bear tells a story about two monks who were travelling together. When the older monk stops to help carry an arrogant demanding rich woman across a puddle and receives no thanks for this task, the younger monk becomes angry and remains so for hours. When he finally expresses his anger, the older monk says: “I put that woman down hours ago. Why are you still carrying her?” The question is not whether one is right to feel anger or hatred at another human being, but rather what effect it has on the one who feels the anger or enmity, how such emotions weigh us down.

The point of this Torah law – like many others -- is not only to provide aid for those in need, in this case the animal and its owner, but also to train the person doing the aid, to teach him to act righteously -- despite his hatred-- and thereby to find some relief from that hatred. After all, the Torah could have stated the law more simply: Help your fellow when his animal is collapsing under his burden. The mention of hatred indicates that what is important here to the Torah is not just the net result of aid given but also the state of mind of the giver.

Perhaps it is for this reason that the Torah bothers to tell us the initial thoughts of the one who sees this animal. He first thinks he will refrain me’azov lo, “from raising it for him.” His first thought is that the action will be solely for the benefit of his enemy. No, says the Torah. Azov ta’azov imo. Imo, “With him,” not “for him.” With him. Together. You will both be benefiting, you as well as he.

The Hasidic Rebbe of Piaseczno is said to have told his young students every Shabbat eve, between every single course, the same exact message – “The most important thing in the world is to do something good for another person.” And when you do, do not think that the only person who is gaining from this do-gooding is the other. It is you. Azov ta’azov imo. Together. When you help another, it changes you, too, lifting both your burdens at the same time.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Parashat Yitro: Standing Alone Together

Vayihan sham Yisrael neged hahar. “Israel encamped there opposite the mountain,” opposite Mount Sinai in preparation for receiving the 10 commandments in this week’s parsha. The Hebrew verb Vayihan is in the singular here, causing the rabbis to say that, unlike other encampments, this one was done belev ehad, “with one heart,” as a single peaceful unified people.

As an American, raised in a culture where individuality is a core value, too much unity scares me. What happens to individuals in such a group setting? Do they lose the ability to express themselves differently from the group? Does “with one heart” imply a lack of individuality?

The ten commandments are also given in the singular, beginning with Anokhi Hashem Elokekha, “I am the Lord your” –the word “your” is in the singular –“God.” Here the midrash takes a different approach, saying that God spoke to each individual according to his or her individual ability and personality, appearing to each one as if He were looking and speaking to her alone. The Sefat Emet carries this midrash one step further, saying that during the Mount Sinai experience, each person was able to see his individual connection to God, to see the part of himself that was a piece of God.

These two traditions – seemingly contradictory, one with its emphasis on unity, the other with its emphasis on individuality – are actually complementary. Peaceful togetherness can only happen when each individual feels valued, when each individual feels he has a special place with God, and therefore also a special place in the community. The 2 commandments which stand at either end of the 10 commandments, forming a kind of envelope around the whole, convey precisely this message. “I am the Lord your – individual – God.” And “Do not covet” the possessions of your neighbor. Do not desire to be someone else. Know that you, as an individual, were created in the image of God and have your own special place in God’s universe. Be, therefore, not jealous of your neighbor, but at peace with yourself and with others.

Directing oneself toward God helps this effort. In the eyes of man, all kinds of hierarchy exist, and society tends to value some individuals more than others. But in the eyes of God, all hold a piece of God within them. All have a place. The people encamped belev ehad – with one heart – neged hahar -- opposite the mountain. It was standing opposite this mountain of God that helped them each feel valued and therefore at peace with each other.

Perhaps the feeling at Mount Sinai was not unlike the feeling of praying the silent Amidah together with a minyan (a prayer quorum). Each person speaks quietly and personally to God, but the whole group does so in the same room at the same time, with the knowledge that all are directing their hearts in the same direction. We stand before God--as individuals--“with one heart.”

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Parashat Beshallah: The Beginning of the Journey

The children of Israel, on the eve of their departure from Egypt in last week’s parsha, paint their doorposts and lintels with the blood of the paschal lamb. The Sefat Emet suggests that the image of the doorway is significant. They are on the cusp of a new life. God has created a doorway into the Torah for them.

It turns out the door does not simply open into a place of residence, but leads instead to a long twisting pathway, a road to be travelled. The path created by the parting of the two walls of the Red Sea symbolizes this road, and God’s choice of the “long way around” the desert mentioned in the first verse of this week’s parsha makes it clear that the road will be a long one.

This sense of journey is an important counter-point to the exhilaration of the exodus of last week’s parsha. Even after 10 plagues, the job is not done. One’s enemies, and in the classic Hasidic interpretation, one’s spiritual challenges, will continually follow one around. Steps forward are made. The Israelites see the Egyptians lying dead on the banks of the sea, believe in God, and, overcome by clarity and gratitude, sing the great Song of the Sea. But what next? Even this great moment – during which the midrash says that a maid-servant saw God with greater clarity than the greatest of prophets – does not last. Changes, spiritual changes, must happen slowly and gradually. Immediately after the parting of the Red Sea, the people complain of thirst.

Thirst is their next challenge. Facing the Red Sea, there was too much water; what they needed then was dry land. Now they are on the other side of the Sea, facing the next spiritual challenge, a problem of the other extreme, a lack of water. Later in the parsha, they will confront problems of hunger , a return of thirst, and another enemy attack, Amalek.

The problems and challenges of the long road through the desert continue throughout most of the rest of the Torah. Such is life. Such is a Torah life. It is not without moments of exhilaration and clarity, moments of standing in one place and singing out one’s praise to God. But it is mostly a journey. Like the waters of the Sea, the image of life here is not stagnant, but continuously moving, moving and growing, always with an eye to the Promised Land, but never actually getting there.

The ability to travel this journey is a privilege and a blessing. Slaves cannot travel, cannot move forward or upward, always chained to their place in society. The exodus was a door not to the land itself – with all its implications of settling down-- but to a road, an opening and an opportunity to travel this challenging yet rewarding journey.