Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Parashat Bamidbar: Desert Thirst

Upon driving out of the city limits of the little Negev town of Yerucham, where we are living this year, all one can see for miles is desert--barren brown mountains stretching out to the horizon. My first nervous thought is always: Do I have enough gas? Do I have a cell-phone? Do I have enough water?! One feels the desert’s barrenness, that it is a place of absences, a place without, without color or vegetation, without the basic necessities of life –water, food, shelter.

This week we begin the fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar, “In the desert.” What happens “in the desert?” Almost everything of importance to the Israelite people. It is here that they become a nation, here that they receive the Torah, and here that they begin to develop a relationship – with all its ups and downs – with God. Why “in the desert?” Why in this place of emptiness and absence?

There is something important about the emotional experience of this barrenness. The rabbis say that only one who makes himself “like a desert” is truly capable of receiving the Torah. The Sefat Emet explains that a person needs to be aware of his own barrenness, of his own intense lacks before he can be filled by the great presence of the Torah. A person who views himself as already complete will not be open to receiving the gifts of the Torah. The more one feels that one is missing something, the more one feels incomplete, like an open, empty vessel, the more room the Torah has to enter and fill the vessel.

Maybe being “like a desert” means cultivating a kind of longing or yearning – a thirst like that of the parched land. Thirst is an intense awareness of the lack of a basic necessity; our desire for Torah should be like thirst, a desperate and intense longing. All the complaining the Israelites did in the desert, the constant crying out for water, the yearning for the watermelons and squashes of Egypt, perhaps this desert experience of longing is meant to be translated into a spiritual longing, a longing for God and for Torah, a deep awareness of absence which leads to the yearning for Presence.

In modern Hebrew, the word to express this emotion is ga’agua. It can be used to express the feeling of missing someone who is temporarily absent, but it can also be used to express a kind of yearning for something greater than oneself, a sense of oneself as essentially “missing” in some way and therefore striving, reaching for something beyond the self. The desert experience of lacking something like water is the physical parallel to this basic human emotion, an emotion which is at the core of religious pursuit.

As the Psalm -- also found in a popular Shabbat zemer (song) -- goes:
Tzamah nafshi lelokim, l’el hai. "My soul thirsts for the Lord, the living God (Ps 42:3)."

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Parashat Bekhukotai: On Walking

Im bekhukotai telekhu, “If you walk in My statutes.” Thus begins this week’s parsha. The parsha continues with a description of the bounty that will ensue if you follow the Torah path -- the rains and the crops and the driving away of all enemies -- and the terrible events that will befall you if you do not follow this path. What does it mean “to walk” in God’s statutes?

The Sefat Emet says that the word telekhu, “walk,” reminds us that we, as human beings, are each considered a mahalakh, a “walker,” someone who does not stand in one place but moves, changes, and grows. Make yourself into a walker, a grower. How? Through the Torah. Do not think the Torah is something that one acquires on one leg or in one day. The Torah is a form of “work,” of occupation, of long-term growth. That is why the brachah (blessing) we say over the learning of Torah is la’asok baTorah, “to be occcupied in the Torah.” The Torah is not an acquisition, but an engagement, an occupation.

The Sefat Emet further points out that the word bekhukotai uses the word khok, which, according to the rabbis, is a special term for those laws whose reasons are not understood by human beings, laws like kashrut (keeping kosher) and shatnez (the prohibition against mixing certain materials within a fabric). Approach all Torah as a khok, says the Sefat Emet. Do not think that you are big enough to understand it, but have the humility to approach it, to do it, without fully understanding. And, sometimes, says the Sefat Emet, out of this sense of your own smallness, out of this humble approach to Torah, will come great revelations. If you do the Torah simply because you must, then in the course of doing it, its reasons, its essence, its meaning will become clear to you.

The rabbis say that skhar mitzvah mitzvah. The reward of observing one commandment is the ability to do another commandment. The Sefat Emet reads this phrase differently. Sekhar mitzvah --the reward of doing a commandment simply for its own sake, without understanding it, is mitzvah -- the gift of coming to a deeper understanding and appreciation of that mitzvah itself. Inner meaning comes after action, as a reward for action.

Im Bekhukotai telekhu. If you walk in My statutes. The suggestion here is to walk, to make one’s humble way through the pathways of Torah, like the Israelites in the desert, faithful explorers on a long journey. We cannot see clearly the destination point of our journey; we cannot master the Torah; we can only walk and explore and grow with a spirit of openness, dedication and discovery.

What is the reward of such an attitude? Great bounty. The Torah speaks of physical bounty, but the Hasidim point out that there is also great spiritual bounty which results. The Torah does not simply say that geshem, rain will fall, but gishmeikhem, “your rain.” Plentiful will be your rain, your own spiritual bounty, if you walk in this humble way through the Torah and the world.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Parashat Behar: On Equality

Amidst a discussion of the Yovel, the Jubilee year, the Torah says, twice, lo tonu ish et amito, “do not wrong one another.” The rabbis say that the first ona’ah refers to property -- one should be careful not to wrong another by underpaying or overcharging in a sale. The second ona’ah, say the rabbis, refers to ona’at devarim -- wronging someone through the use of words.

My question is: What does ona’ah have to do with Yovel? Why is this prohibition against mistreatment of your fellow given here? With regard to the ona’ah of property, the answer is clear; the Torah warns people to be careful to take into account the number of years remaining before the Yovel year – when property automatically returns to its original owner – in determining the price of property. But what about ona’at devarim, which the Talmud says is the more serious offense of the two? How is wronging someone through speech connected to the Yovel year?

The Yovel year is the 50th year after 7 cycles of 7 years each of Shmita, of working the land for 6 years followed by a land sabbatical on the seventh. On the 50th year, not only is one forbidden to work the land as in the shmita year, but two other important things happen. First, all land returns to its original owner. At the time, land was wealth. If a family became impoverished and sold its land, in the yovel year the land was returned to them and they got a chance to start again on equal ground with their fellows. Second, all Israelite slaves are freed. Again, such a state of enslavement would have been reached through poverty, and by being automatically freed in the yovel year, people were guaranteed a fresh start even if they had fallen on hard times. On the yovel year, the Torah says, dror, “freedom,” was declared throughout the land; no Israelite must be master or slave to another, and all must stand on equal economic footing in terms of land holdings.

The prohibition against ona’at devarim seeks to instill a similar sense of equality among people. Consider some classic examples of such forbidden speech acts – to remind one who was previously not religious or a convert of his past; to say (as Job’s friends did) to one who is suffering that he probably deserves it because of his sins; to ask a person a technical question in a field in which the questioner knows the questionee has no expertise. The common denominator in all these examples, as Nechama Leibowitz points out, is that a person is trying to show that she is superior to another person, to point out the inadequacies of another in order to raise her own stature by contrast. Such a sense of superiority is prohibited by the Torah. One must treat one’s fellow as an equal, in speech – by avoiding ona’at devarim -- as well as in deed – by freeing slaves and returning land on the Yovel year.

The use of the verb ona’ah is telling in relation to this issue of equality. In the rest of the Torah, the object of the verb is someone weaker than oneself, the ger (“stranger”), the orphan and the widow. Here the object of the verb is first ahiv, “his brother,” and then amito, “one another.” The Torah seems to be saying: Do not treat your brother, your equal, as if he is in any way less than you. Treat him as an equal.

Ona’at devarim is an issue that comes up a great deal, especially among siblings, where there seems to be a constant need to show one’s superiority; “Did you go to that park with your class today? I already went there last week.” Sometimes, there is some resistance to admitting one’s intentions. “But I was just asking a question. I just wanted to know.” The matter is a delicate one, depending to a great extent on one’s inner thoughts and intentions. It is for this reason, says Rashi, that the Torah says, immediately following this prohibition, Fear your God. Only God knows one’s true intentions.

Both the mitzvah of Yovel and the prohibition against ona’at devarim speak to the same issue, an attempt to remind us of the basic equality of all humans, or, as the Sefat Emet would put it, of our common divine source. We are none of us slaves and none of us masters, but all equal in the eyes of God.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Parashat Emor: The Many Layers of Sefirat HaOmer

This week’s parsha sets out the Torah holiday calendar, from Shabbat to Passover, Shavu’ot, Rosh HaShanah and all the rest. Included in this discussion is the special period of time we are currently in the midst of, called Sefirat HaOmer, the counting of the 49 days between the holidays of Passover and Shavu’ot.

This is a confusing season. On one level, the count from Passover to Shavu’ot seems to be a happy time. We have the security of having left Egypt and the joyous anticipation of receiving the Torah on Shavu’ot. It is also spring-time, a time of excitement and rebirth, and also a time of harvest; Passover marks the beginning of the barley harvest and Shavu’ot, the wheat harvest.

Overlaid on top of this clear sense of joy and anticipation, though, are layers of complicated and painful Jewish history. According to Jewish law, certain mourning practices apply during this period, like the prohibition against haircuts and live music. These mourning practices commemorate a terrible plague suffered by the students of Rabbi Akiva in Israel in the second century, but they also point to the many other tragedies suffered by the Jewish people over the centuries. And then there is the modern calendar of commemorations, from this week’s Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Commemoration Day, to next week’s Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, Israeli Memorial Day and Independence Day, to Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, which we celebrate in a few weeks. These modern holidays are also a mix of sadness and joy, of difficult memories of our recent past and a sense of the blessedness of the current era.

It turns out that, as the Haggadah makes clear, we did not just suffer one era of travail and redemption in Egypt, but many, “in every generation.” Redemption, then, is not a permanent state – we left Egypt and will never return – but a kind of merry-go-round or roller coaster of historical ups and downs.

Where does that leave us emotionally? Sad or happy? Excited or despairing? Where is the sense of stability in the midst of the whirl of Jewish history? How are we to bear this emotional turmoil?

Amidst all this craziness, we are on a path, a 49 day path, which makes its slow but steady progress, one calmly ordered day at a time, toward a goal, the receiving of the Torah. The Torah stands, like the mountain it was given on, as a steadying point of light in the distance, a mark of stability and continuity amidst our stormy history. Things change; people come and go; Jews suffer and celebrate; but always there is the Torah, standing for eternity with its laws, its values and its stories, keeping us company in good times and bad.