Thursday, May 31, 2012

Parashat Naso: On Peace

Veyasem Lekha Shalom – And He will grant you peace. This is the culminating blessing of the tri-partite priestly blessing in this week’s parsha. It is the highest of the blessings, as the gradual increase in the number of words in each part of the priestly blessing -- 3, 5, 7 – makes clear (a point made by Nechama Leibowitz). The midrash Sifre Bamidbar says – Gadol HaShalom. Great is peace.

Gadol HaShalom, the midrash says over and over, and lists a series of proofs that indeed peace is among the greatest of Torah virtues. Gadol HaShalom because God is willing to cede His honor for the sake of shalom, for the sake of shalom bayit, household peace between spouses. This week’s parsha also deals with the sotah, the woman who is suspected of adultery. What the midrash is referring to is that as part of the test she undergoes, God’s name is erased in the water she is to drink, showing that He yields His honor for the sake of shalom.

Yielding is part of the essence of the pursuit of peace. Peace generally comes at the price of some other value. In this case, it is God’s Honor. The other example the midrash offers is that of Sarah and Avraham, where God purposely misreports Sarah’s assertion that her husband is old in order to avoid causing strife between husband and wife. Here it is the value of truth that is surrendered in the pursuit of peace.

This is our daily experience of peace, that it requires some ceding, some relinquishing of our strong hold on our own sense of honor and often, also of our sense of truth. We think we are in the right; often maybe we are in the right (on some cosmic level maybe both positions are “true”), but that does not help the cause of peace. Learning to make those concessions, to swallow pride and our innate sense of “justice” is the cost of peace.

We are not just called on to pursue peace in our own relationships, but to help others in this goal. Hava’at shalom beyn adam lehaveiro, “bringing peace between a person and his friend,” is one of the 10 things listed in our morning prayers whose fruits we eat in this world as well as the world to come. God is our model. He took care in the phrasing of his words to Avraham in order to avoid causing any conflict. We are often less careful with our words – sometimes we may even purposely repeat something in a way that incites conflict.

The midrash also points to a human model, Aaron, a known peace-lover. It is said that when two people were in a fight, he would go to one and say: “So and so is very upset about the fight. He is beating himself up about it and feels that he acted terribly toward you.” Then he would go and say the same thing to the other party, so that when the two met, they would embrace and forgive each other.

Aaron, like God, was a catalyst to peace. We – rightly – worry about global peace. But peace begins at home, with those around us. Perhaps that is why we say of God in our prayers first, Oseh Shalom Bimromav – He makes peace in His heavens, and then, Hu Ya’aseh Shalom Aleinu – He will make peace for us. It is out of the strength of God’s ability to make peace in His home above that He can make peace in the world below. Peace spreads outward.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Shavu'ot and Parashat Bamidbar: On Loyalty

Ve’Rut davkah bah. “But Ruth stuck with her.” Unlike Orpah, the other daughter-in law, Ruth stuck with her mother-in-law, Naomi. She stuck with her past the point of self-interest; Naomi makes clear that she will have no more sons to give her to marry. This act of Ruth’s is not just hesed, “loving-kindness/loyalty” but hesed shel emet, true hesed, the kind of hesed associated with the care for the dead, an act that, like Ruth’s, cannot possibly expect any return.

Each year we read the book of Ruth on the holiday of Shavu’ot, our celebration of the giving of the Torah. Why? What is the connection? There are many answers. The story takes place in the same season as Shavu’ot, the spring harvest time. Further, it enacts one of the precepts associated in the Torah with Shavu’ot and the harvest, the precept of pe’ah/ leket, leaving the corners and the droppings of your field for the poor.

But perhaps there is also a deeper connection between this notion of hesed and the acceptance of the Torah. When people look at the Torah and at Jewish practice, they often ask the question: What will I get out of it – spiritually, emotionally, even practically? The lesson of Ruth is that this is the wrong question to ask, at least initially. What is required is hesed, “loyalty,” a kind of steadfast devotion, known as dveikut -- from the same root as davkah as in Rut davkah bah, “Ruth stuck with her” -- a kind of stick-to-itness that does not look for returns.

Indeed, according to Jeremiah this is how God views our initial agreement to follow Him into the desert, as a sign of our unwavering loyalty and devotion. Zakharti lakh hesed ne’urayikh, “I remember the hesed¸ devotion of your youth,” says God, “how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown” (Jer 2:2). “A land not sown.” Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, was also, from Ruth’s point of view, a land not sown, a barren woman with no hope for future progeny. Ruth followed her in spite of her barrenness, like the people followed God into the barren wilderness, purely out of a personal sense of loyalty.

There are, of course, rewards for such devotion. In the end, Ruth marries the prosperous and kind Boaz and has a child whose descendants include King David (and therefore, ultimately, the Messiah). Sticking with what seems to be a barren woman, a barren land, eventually does bear fruit. Indeed, devotion to the Torah does lead to a good life, a life of fulfillment and deep spiritual rewards. All that is true. But it is nonetheless important that these rewards are built on a sense of devotion and loyalty. Sometimes the Torah does seem like a barren woman, a barren land; it seems to be all work, with no reward. It takes a sense of stick-to-itness, of devotion, of long-term steadfastness, to stay the course.

Partly, the message here is that our attitude toward God and Torah should be a relational one. The highest form of love is the love that is not based on self-interest, that does not look for a return, that does not think: “If I am friendly with her, she can help me move forward in my career,” but simply loves the other out of selfless devotion. It is this type of relationship that we aim for in marriage, and it is this type of relationship that the Torah hopes is the basis our ongoing relationship with God. On Shavu’ot, before we re-accept the Torah, we remind ourselves of the need for a Ruth-like sense of hesed and dveikut, loyalty and devotion.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Parshiyyot Behar-Bekhukotai: Linked In

In the Yovel (jubilee) year, the Torah says there will be dror lekhol yoshveha, “freedom to all the land’s inhabitants (Lev 25:10).” Why to all? The law is that slaves go free. Not everyone is a slave. Why is there a broad declaration of freedom for all? Because none of us is free as long as any of us is a slave. Our lots are intertwined.

That is why, if your fellow falls on hard times, you are to hold on tight to him, bring him in to live with you, help him rise out of the hard times (25:35). Vehai ahikha imakh, your brother should live with you. With you. He shares in your good fortune and you share in his burden. Your lives, your hayut, in the Sefat Emet’s words – your living essences – are dependent on one another. All deriving from the same Source, they are unbreakably linked.

Vehazakta bo, the Torah says – hold on to him. Don’t let him fall further into a downward spiral, says Rashi; stop the trend now, before it gets so bad that it becomes impossible to help. But the term vehazakta bo can also be read (playfully) as a reference to one’s own process of growth – Become strong through him. You thought you didn’t have anything to give someone, but here, through the very act of giving, you show yourself to be strong, to be connected to others and therefore linked in to the Source of all life, all strength.

Hazan et ha'olam kulo -- He who nourishes the whole world in its entirety, we say of God in Birkat Hamazon, the blessing after meals. Note, says the Sefat Emet, that we speak of His nourishing of the world, not of an individual; it is to the world as an entirety that He provides enough food; in God’s eyes we are a unit, and it is only when we act as one – providing each for the other and living in connection -- that we feel the fullness of His blessing.

We aren’t just talking about wealth or food here. We are talking about a state of mind. A state of mind that sees the interconnectedness of human beings, that understands that our separateness as individuals is in a way an illusion that masks our deep interdependence. Perhaps that is why Rabbi Akiva thought that the precept VeAhavta LeRe’akha Kamokha – love your neighbor as yourself – was the principle rule of the Torah; the key to a religious life is to learn to see the connections, to view others as if they are yourself, to understand that there is only true dror, freedom, in this world for any of us when the whole land is free. The call to declare freedom for all on the Yovel year is perhaps unrealizable, a kind of utopian dream, but it is also aspirational, a declaration of what we hold dear.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Parashat Emor and Sefirat HaOmer: On the In-Between State

Why wasn’t the Torah given to Israel immediately upon leaving Egypt? It would have made sense. They were wandering, feeling lost, for those almost two months. They could have used the assurance and direction of a revelation at Mount Sinai.

Why do we have this period of Sefirat HaOmer, the 49 day count between Passover and Shavu’ot? Why not go immediately from exodus to Torah? The two are clearly linked; Moshe told Pharaoh from the start that the people are leaving Egypt in order to worship God; when God appeared to Moshe at Mount Sinai in the burning bush, He told Moshe that the people would return to this very mountaintop to worship Him. The purpose of exodus was the revelation at Mount Sinai. That was its destination point. So why have this counting period between the two?

To teach us that the Torah is not acquired easily. Netivot Shalom quotes the Mesilat Yesharim as saying that tehilato be’hishtadlut vesofo bematanah – “Its beginning is through struggle and its end is a gift.” First a person has to work hard on her own, put some effort in; she can’t make it all the way on her own; the end result is a gift from above, but the gift only comes to one who has struggled. Enlightenment, or revelation, as the saying goes, only comes to the prepared mind, to the prepared soul.

Fortunately, we are given a head start in our struggle, a push in the right direction. As Kedushat Levi says, on Passover we have the initial experience of revelation and an awakening from above, but then we are left, during the time of Sefirah, to continue that awakening from below. Usefartaem Lakhem, “Count for yourselves” – You have to do it yourselves, out of your own volition and initiative.

It is no accident that we have this period of Sefirah between the two holidays, that we are called on to make our own way from the one to the other. I think that most of us lead most of our lives precisely in this Sefirah state. We have some vague memory of a past revelation buried inside us, and we can occasionally catch glimpses of a revelation in front of us as well. The daily work is in this middle period of the Sefirah, in our own struggle to find direction, to be able to see Mount Sinai in the distance, and to feel its gravitational pull. The Hasidic commentaries understand sefirah as coming from sappir, or sapphire, referring to a clarity or brightness. The point of this time-period is to create within oneself a clarity of vision, a sense of purpose.

Like the Israelites in the desert, we are all sometimes wonderers, winding our way through life, lost and directionless. Sefirat HaOmer is a way of asserting that our lives are colored by revelation on all sides of us, so that our current state looks backward and forward and is part of some chain. We count each day to remind ourselves of these connections, to help us feel, despite our existential bewilderment, that we are grounded, that we can see the revelation just over the horizon, and that each step is part of a path forward, given a sense of direction by its surrounding poles of clarity.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Parashat Kedoshim: Beyond the Minimum

Kedoshim Tehiyu. “Be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.” So begins the second of this week’s two parshiyyot. What does it mean to be kadosh, holy?

According to Rashi, kedushah, holiness, involves the separation from the prohibited sexual unions listed in the end of the previous parsha (as well as the end of Kedoshim). But according to Nachmanides, being kadosh does not mean keeping the bare minimum of prohibitions assigned by the Torah; it means striving for more. As Nachmanides points out, it is easy for a person to be a naval bereshut haTorah, “a vile person within the permissible realm of the Torah.” It is easy, in other words, to officially keep all the laws of the Torah, but to nonetheless act in disgusting ways, to eat only permitted foods but to eat them in an uncivilized beastly manner. So the Torah added on this general statement – kedoshim tehiyu, to let us know that we should do more than the bare minimum.

Kedushah then has a kind of reaching quality to it. It is not quantifiable; it has no maximum. It is a process, a journey, an attitude of striving. This is the nature of many of the laws of Kedoshim – love your neighbor as yourself; show respect to the elderly; do not go around spreading gossip; leave the corners of your fields for the poor. These laws involve going beyond minimum neighborly decency; they offer us a picture of the kind of loving society we should be aiming for.

The nature of Kedoshim’s laws is highlighted by a midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 24:5) which draws parallels between them and the 10 commandments. Ari Hart on the Uri L’Tzedek website (a great new Orthodox social justice movement), commenting on this midrash, points out that the 10 commandments create a floor, a required minimum, for a functional society, while parashat Kedoshim imagines a people striving toward a higher goal.

Thus, while the 10 commandments prohibit false testimony against a fellow in a court case, parashat Kedoshim prohibits any type of gossip or slander. While the 10 commandments prohibit jealousy, Parashat Kedoshim says, “Wish for your neighbor what you would wish for yourself” (ve’ahavta le’reakha kamokha). Do more than not wish him evil; actively desire good for him. The 10 commandments say “Do not murder,” while Kedoshim says Lo Ta’amod al dam re’ekha – Do not stand by while the blood of your fellow is being spilled. One is a minimum call to not yourself commit a murder; the other is a call for active intervention on behalf of your suffering fellow in the world. Do not stand idly by if you can save him.

They say that the key to ending a culture of bullying among children is to change the culture of “bystanders,” to convince those who stand by and either support or simply watch the bullying to actively intervene in some way. This is the message of Parashat Kedoshim. Yes, the bare minimum is the 10 commandments; first make sure you yourself are not being the bully. But beyond that there is a world to actively fix. Being kadosh means doing more than you are required to do, not just refraining from evil action, but helping to create a culture of love and generosity.