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Archive for June, 2008

Mitzvah 47 – Capital Punishment by Strangulation

Posted by rabbiart on June 30, 2008

A study of the traditional 613 mitzvot (commandments/obligations) according to their order of appearance in the Torah.

With this mitzvah we hit on a difficult subject; capital punishment.  The mitzvah is based on Shemot 21:12.  The verse in translation reads “he that strikes a man so that he dies, shall surely be put to death.” In the original it is:

מַכֵּה אִישׁ וָמֵת, מוֹת יוּמָת

This verse of the Torah leads us into the well-known passage often referred to as lex talionis or the “law of retribution.  This is perhaps one of the passages that leads to the erroneous description of HaShem as the angry Old Testament god. Let’s face it, this passage is not exactly “touchy-feely.”  But what kind of a society would we be living in without this principle?  Or as it is rendered in our idiom “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.”

It’s not pleasant to consider executing a human being, and we can know for a certainty that in the United States today our criminal justice system has executed innocent people.  Perhaps not individuals that are “innocent” in the sense of never having committed a crime or done something that would cause us to lose our dinner, but innocent of the crime for which they are being executed.  But this is part of the Torah and part of our tradition, and it behooves us to wrestle with this command and with our feelings about it.

The details of carrying out this commandment are striking indeed and beyond description in this article. You can read them for yourself in Tractate Sanhedrin, Chapter Seven English online here.  But be careful, and don’t try this at home.

The rabbinic understanding of this commandment, and the unfortunate necessity for it, is based on a deep understanding of the flawed and fallible nature of human beings.  In the explanation by Sefer HaHinuch, we begin in the classic Rabbinic approach by quoting a verse from the Tanach.  In this case, he quotes Proverbs 29:4 “The King by justice establishes the land”. Simply put, he says “if not for the fear of justice, people would kill one another.”  In his examination of the details, he concludes that the Torah “lightened his (a killer) sentence to have him executed by strangulation, which is a death that comes swiftly” and not by other methods which there is great suffering.

Passing over the current debate on whether we – in our time – should abandon captial punishment entirely, we see that establishing the proper method of execution is a debate going on in our day. Does the Torah speak to us in our time? You betcha!


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It’s a Mystery, Yes it Is – פרשת חקת

Posted by rabbiart on June 30, 2008

Our parshah this Shabbat opens with the commandment to concerning the red heifer – פָרָה אֲדֻמָּה . This commandment is considered by almost all Torah scholars to be the most mysterious commandments in the Torah.  So we rely this week on perhaps the greatest of all modern Torah scholars – Nehama Leibowitz –  אליה השלום    – for help in studying the commandment.  Professor Leibowitz writes (Studies in BaMidbar) “Our Sages observed that it was one of the matters which even the wisdom of the wisest of men failed to fathom:” and quotes from Midrash Yalkut Shimoni

This is the statute of the Torah”. R. Isaac opened with the text: “All this I have tried to fathom by wisdom…. Thus spoke Solomon: I succeeded in understanding the whole Torah, but as soon as I reach this chapter about the Red Heifer, I searched, probed and questioned, “I said I will get wisdom, but it was far from me.

Professor Leibowitz then goes on to state, in a remarkable display of humility (an attribute we should all emulate in everything we do) “We shall similarly not pretend to fathom it completely but shall present some of the observations of our commentators and Sages.”

After presenting an explanation from R. Joseph Bechor Shor and another explantion from Sforno, she brings the explanation of the great Talmudic sage Rabi Yohanan ben Zakkai, with the prefatory remark that “His words are highly instructive for us today.”

A certain heathen asked R. Yohanan ben Zakkai: The rites you perform in connection with the Red Heifer smell of witchcraft! You bring a heifer, burn it, grind it and take its ashes. You sprinkle two or three drops on one of you who is contaminated with corpse defilement and say to him, You are clean. Said R. Yohanan b. Zakkai to him: Have you never been possessed by a demon? He answered: No. – Have you never seen a man possessed by a demon? He answered: Yes. – And what do you do for him? – We bring herbs and make them smoke beneath him, and throw water on him and the demon is exorcised. He answered: Let your ears hear what your mouth has spoken. The spirit of defilement is the same as your demon. We sprinkle on it the waters of purification and it is exorcised.

After the heathen had left, R. Yohanan’s disciples said to him: Him you have put off with a straw, but what answer will you give us? He replied to them. By your life, neither does the dead defile nor the water purify, but the Holy One blessed be He said: It is a statute I have laid down, a decree that I have decreed and you are not authorised to violate my decree.

What words of the Kadosh Bar’chu are highly instructive for us today?  Obviously, Professor Leibowitz is referring to the final sentence of R. Zakkai’s teaching.

This brings us to the question of authority in our own religious practice.  Considering only the three “major branches” of American Judaism; Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, we see differing approaches. (By the way, I don’t like the labels, and I don’t like the situation where Klal Yisrael finds itself divided into so many different and opposing communities, but this also is not new).  The Reform movement has taken the position, so to speak, that each individual educated Jew should make her own decisions about what to take from our tradition.  This is sometimes expressed that Halacha has a vote but not a veto.  The Conservative movement practice is that the Halacha, as interpreted by Rabbis, and in particular the Rabbis of the Rabbinical Assembly Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, interpret an ever evolving Halacha in the light of historical developments and a consideration of modern times.  Orthodoxy (a broad label for a variety of religous communities) generally takes the position that Halacha, as expressed in the Oral Torah, does not change; only the understanding of it. (And yes, each of these descriptions is a broad generalization and an over simplification).

Authority is perhaps a difficult concept for us moderns, unless of course we’re talking about our own authority and our drive to impose our authority on others.  Consider this. Do you accept the concept of an authority is higher than your own?

Shabbat Shalom

Additional Notes:

  1. You can read Professor Leibowitz’s commentary here.
  2. “Put off with a straw”.  In Hebrew the phrase is   קנה של דרש or “weak reed of an explanation”.

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Mitzvah 46 – No Holding Back

Posted by rabbiart on June 27, 2008

A study of the traditional 613 mitzvot (commandments/obligations) according to their order of appearance in the Torah.

The tradition we have inherited at times is of course not gender neutral. Men
and women are assigned different roles.  In fact, over time, the roles have
been constantly changing and evolving. To this day, we struggle with this issue.

But we shouldn’t think that the tradition was not concerned with issues
affecting women.  This particular mitzvah demonstrates the consideration
given to a Jewish wife, even if she had previously been a maidservant.

According to this mitzvah, a husband has specific responsibilities to his
wife. Specifically, this mitzvah forbids the husband from acting toward his wife
in a hurtful manner.  More specifically, a husband is forbidden to deprive
his wife of her rightful share with regard to food, clothing and conjugal

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A Disturbing Turn of Events – קרח

Posted by rabbiart on June 27, 2008

This week we are reading Parshat Korach. Moshe, after successfully extricating the Israelites from the slavery of Mitzrayim, guidng them to Har Sinai and receiving the Torah on their behalf, is now confronted by a disgruntled group of Levites.  They are led of course by Korach. He is assisted by Dathan, Abiram and On.  In total, 254 men, all of them leaders and “men of renown.”  In short, people who were already part of the leadership, people who already had an important role to fulfill in the service of the people. As Moshe attempts to explain.

הַמְעַט מִכֶּם, כִּי-הִבְדִּיל אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶתְכֶם מֵעֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל, לְהַקְרִיב אֶתְכֶם, אֵלָיו–לַעֲבֹד, אֶת-עֲבֹדַת מִשְׁכַּן יְהוָה, וְלַעֲמֹד לִפְנֵי הָעֵדָה, לְשָׁרְתָם.

“is it but a small thing unto you, that the God of Israel hath separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to Himself, to do the service of the tabernacle of the LORD, and to stand before the congregation to minister unto them?”

There are so many ways to approach this sad and disturbing situation.  We might ask whether this is an organizational issue, a power struggle, a question of faith.  But every so often, we should also remind ourselves that the characters in the Torah were real people, each with their own burdens, their own feelings, their own drives, ust like us!  We might ask, “what drove Korach and crew to resent Moshe so much that they acted in this way?”  We might ask, how did this make Moshe feel, after all that he had done to this point, to be treated in this fashion?

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How can we know what is right? שְׁלַח-לְךָ

Posted by rabbiart on June 17, 2008

This week we read the parshah known as “Shlach” or “Shlach Lecha”.  The word שְׁלַח  means “send.”  The addition of the next word – לְךָ  (lecha) – makes the opening of the parsha very similar to the Lech-Lecha, the third parshah of the Torah; the parshah where Abraham begins his journey to the unspecified destination that HaShem promises to show him.  A collection of men, one from each tribe, is assembled.  HaShem instructs Moshe, and Moshe instructs the men, to tour the land, and to bring back a report.  At the end of instructing them, Moshe tells them to be strong and to bring back samples of the land.  Moshe does not ask them for a recommended course of action. The rest, of course is history.  They go, they return, and ten of the twelve scare the Israelites so badly that they descend upon Moshe and Aharon and announce they will choose new leadership and return to Egypt!

The Talmud Bavli reports an ongoing dispute between the disciples of R. Hillel and R. Shammai. The dispute is ultimately resolved when a voice from heaven proclaims “these and these are the words of the living G-d, but the halachah is according to Bet Hillel.  In our parshah we also have a dispute, which given our country’s current adventure in Iraq, seems eerily familiar to something we are living through in our day.  One side argues we will not be successful, and the other side relies on faith.  How do we determine if “both sides” are speaking the words of the living G-d, and if the argument is “for the sake of heaven”?

The conversation that takes place once the spies return is a model of an argument not for the sake of heaven. When we examine closely what takes place, we see an escalation of claims designed to win debating points rather than a quest for understanding or truth.

The first report of the spies reads as a matter of fact.  They report that the  people are fierce and the cities are fortified.  It appears from the text that the people are agitated upon hearing this, so Caleb calms them, and advocates for continuing because, he says, “we are able”.

The other spies (except Joshua of course) now say directly what they had previously implied; the inhabitants are stronger and the Israelites are unable.  Perhaps this is not persuasive, for in the next verse we read that they spread an evil report. Where before they had said the land flowed with milk and honey, they now say the land eats its inhabitants.  Where originally they had merely said the inhabitants were strong, now they claim that compared to the inhabitants they (the spies) were like grasshoppers.

This is a Torah portion that cries out to be read as a commentary on our time, and yes, specifically, our adventure in Iraq.  And it is not easy to discern what we should learn. We have two sides advocating for radically different courses of action.  One side says  “this is what G-d wants” and “if we believe we can be successful, we will be”.  The other side issues cautionary warnings that the task at hand is more difficult than it appears, and that failure rather than success, is the most likely outcome.  Then fueled by shame and emotions, the people act hastily and against the counsel of leadership… and fail.

It’s easy to read the Torah’s story in the Torah’s context and discern it’s lesson for the Torah’s time.  It’s more difficult to parse out what the Torah is telling us about the crucial issues that we are living with in our time and place.  But ultimately, that is what Torah study is all about.

Shabbat Shalom

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No Returns, No Exchanges

Posted by rabbiart on June 16, 2008

A study of the traditional 613 mitzvot (commandments/obligations) according to their order of appearance in the Torah.

Mitzvah 45 is the last of the series of mitzvot covering the treatment of Hebrew maidservants.  This is a “negative” mitzvah with that first requires an affirmative act, otherwise you cannot even be in a position to violate it.  The mitzvah can only apply to a man who purchases a Hebrew maidservant.  If you haven’t acquired a Hebrew maidservant, you cannot violate this mitzvah, no matter how much you might want to.

As we have already learned in studying the laws of the maidservant, they can only be in operation when the land of Israel is occupied and governed by the Jewish people, and when the laws of the jubilee year cycle are in effect.

The text of the verse on which this mitzvah is based  (Shemot 21:8) appears to say only that the maidservant cannot be sold to a foreign people.

אִם-רָעָה בְּעֵינֵי אֲדֹנֶיהָ, אֲשֶׁר-לא (לוֹ) יְעָדָהּ–וְהֶפְדָּהּ:  לְעַם נָכְרִי לֹא-יִמְשֹׁל לְמָכְרָהּ, בְּבִגְדוֹ-בָהּ

A bit of interpretation is required to arrive at the understanding of this mitzvah.  The “foreign people” reference, we are told, is simply a way of expressing the mitzvah in an emphatic way.  “If he sells here to another man, it seems to her as if she has been sold to a foreign people.  The purpose of this mitzvah?  Once more with feeling; compassion, compassion, compassion.

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Could I have some outrage with that advice, please

Posted by rabbiart on June 14, 2008

A woman writes in to “Ask Amy” wondering why all her lovers have been cheapskates.  She describes her current lover as a successful physician who enjoys a nice lifestyle.  She says she has plenty of things, but it would be nice to get a present once in a while because “I think that a long-term relationship warrants gift-giving “just because”—to make your lover happy.”  Further reading reveals lover’s explanation and the (perhaps, sadly, not surprising) fact that she and her lover are both married.  Dr. Lover doesn’t want to give her a present because “her husband might see it” and he doesn’t want any gift from her because his wife might see the present and ask where it came from.

I turn eagerly to Amy’s reply.  Had it been a musical track it would have been Aretha singing RESPECT. “You sound very unhappy. Your life sounds sad. When you start to value yourself, others will start to value you. Then the gifts (non-material but valuable all the same) will start to flow.”

Uh… how about. STOP HAVING AFFAIRS!? or (enough with the CAPS)  Stop having affairs with men who are having affairs!! Or, if your marriage has failed beyond repair, get out of it!?

Is that too much morality for an advice columnist?  Just asking.

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Mitzvah 44: Redeeming the maidservant

Posted by rabbiart on June 11, 2008

A study of the traditional 613 mitzvot (commandments/obligations) according to their order of appearance in the Torah.

Here is another mitzvah that we cannot observe in our time. It is based on the same verse ( Shmot 21:8 ) as Mitzvah 43, and has the same rules for when it is in effect. Like the prior mitzvah, it applies only when the jubilee year is in effect, but more importantly, we no longer have servitude as described in the Torah and interpreted in the Talmud. Since we no longer sell ourselves – or others – into servitude to pay off debts, it seems that we can neither keep nor violate this particular mitzvah.

So what shall we learn from this mitzvah and its sister mitzvah; the betrothal of the Hebrew maidservant?

Servitude – in any form – should never be permanent. The option and the possibility of “getting out” should always be available, and it should be the decision of the servant, not of the master.

Dignity should be preserved for everyone. Not just for those who can afford to command their own dignity.  These two mitzvot remind us that the maidservant, and by extension anyone and everyone in an unfortunate circumstance is one of HaShem’s creations; not an object for someone else to exploit, and not someone to be treated as a lesser child of Hashem.  As our author has written, Jews “…are compassionate sons of compassionate fathers, it is fitting for them to deal kindly with human beings, even with those who have been their servants even if for but one day.”

What can we learn?  All of us should strive to maximize our compassion, not with just those who have been our servants, but with everyone.

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Who Says Jews don’t have human sacrifices? – Behaalotecha

Posted by rabbiart on June 10, 2008

“Only” five mitzvot come from this parshah.  Four of them have to do with Pesach Sheni (a second Passover observance designed for those who could not participate in Pesach). The fifth mandates sounding trumpets (trumpets, not the shofar) at regularly schedule times (of sacrifices) and in times of community wide troubles.

While mitzvot in this parshah are few, interesting passages are many.  Following the principle of   אחרון אחרון חביב (the last is beloved), we work backwards from the end of the parshah in noting them.

  • The shortest prayer for healing, said by Moshe on behalf of his sister Miriam. אֵל, נָא רְפָא נָא לָהּ
  • HaShem’s statement that HaShem speaks directly to Moshe פֶּה אֶל-פֶּה אֲדַבֶּר-בּוֹ (mouth to mouth I speak to him). (12:8 )
  • HaShem lifts some of the leadership burden from Moshe. (11:16-17)
  • It rains cats and dogs (well… actually, quail) when the Israelites complain about the monotonous taste of eating manna every day.  (Thereby demonstrating the sadly apparently infinite ability of human beings to find something to complain about, no matter how blessed we actually are.) (11:1ff)
  • A vivid warning against the dangers of evil speech (11:1)
  • The “inverted (letter) nunns” passage. (10:35-36). These two verses have been incorporated into the Torah service.
  • The dedication of the Levites (8:6-14)

So much Torah, so little time.  Although as Rabbi Avraham Greenburg mentions in his commentary on last week’s parshah, the long days of summer (sorry, only works in the Northern Hemisphere) give us plenty of time to study Torah.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the parshah is the selection and dedication of the Levites as described in Chapter 8, verses six through thirteen.  A double “laying on of hands” takes place. The assembled community of Israel lays their hands on the Levites (verse 10) and the Levites lay their hands on the animals that are their sin- and burnt- offerings.  In this story, the Levites are themselves a sacrifice to HaShem. In particular, they are a wave-offering.  They are presented as a sacrifice, but they are not killed not burnt.  (When a “regular” animal wave-offering was presented,  the fat of the animal was burnt upon the altar, but the meat of the animal was to be eaten by the priests.  Wave-offerings can also be grain.  In any event, the substance of the wave-offering became property of the priests to be consumed by them.)

What is the symbolism and meaning of the Levites as an offering?  This offering has been understood to be in atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf.  Perhaps it is also a symbol of repairing the world (tikkun olam), in that the Levites are taken by HaShem “in exchange” for both the killing of the Egyptian first-born and the sparing of the Israelite first-born at that time.  Egyptians had to die for Israelites to be freed.  Their deaths “make a tear in the fabric of the world”.  This damage is repaired, so to speak, by the service of the Levites.  Davar Acher (Another interpretation).  The Levites are a gift to HaShem by the community of Israel.  By taking them into the divine service, HaShem gives them back to Israel.  Without all their lifting, carrying, assembling, dissembling, mucking out and other chores, their work makes it possible for the community of Israel to express (through the sacrificial rites) their relationship with the divine.

Who are the Levites in our day?  Jewish teachers everywhere, whether their title is lecturer, professor, tutor, teacher, cantor, rabbi, shammes, beadle. You name it.  These are the people who enable Israel to listen to – and talk with – HaShem.

Shabbat Shalom

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“Weeks” – What kind of name is “Weeks”?

Posted by rabbiart on June 7, 2008

Jewish names are a fascinating business, and I’m not even talking about names of people.  Our Torah portions are named according to the first significant word in the parshah.  Sometimes the parshah name gives a good indication of the content of the parshah, sometimes they seem merely coincidental, and sometimes they have almost nothing to do with the parshah.  “Breshit” makes perfect sense; its all about beginnings.  “Noah” works for the same reasons.  “Chayei Sarah” (Life of Sarah) – not about the life of Sarah.  “Behar” (at the mount) is puzzling to say the least.  One word later is “Sinai”.  That might have made a much better name.  Or how about “Behar Sinai” so at least we know what mountain we’re talking about.  And the portion where we receive the Torah?  Named after a non-Jew! (No offense to you Jethro, or your buddy Homer 🙂 )

Holiday names?  A pretty good assortment. Except maybe for the one we’re about to celebrate?  Why is “Shavuot” (weeks) called “Shavuot”?  “Sukkot” (booths) makes perfect sense.  We spend a week living in a booth.  “Pesach” (pass-over) reminds us of the very moment in which the Israelite escape from Egypt is assured.  “Shavuot”?  What the heck is Shavuot.  Yes, I know the traditional explanation; the holiday is called “weeks” because we count seven weeks (plus a day) from Pesach, and the counting connects the two holidays.  This has led to countless drashot on how Pesach is not fulfilled until we receive the Torah on Mount Sinai; that freedom without responsibility has no meaning.  All of this makes me think of the rabbnic phrase uttered when a week explanation is given – kneh shel drosh (a weak reed of a drash; imagine a concrete block standing on top of a reed growing out of a marsh; not a good design).  (Here’s a few more good holiday names, mostly.  Rosh HaShannah for the beginning of the year.  OK, so originally it was the beginning of the seventh month, but why worry about that now?  Yom Kippur – Day of Atonement – that says it all.  It works for post-biblical holidays as well.  Hanukah – rededication.

So what would a “good and meaningful” name for the revelation holiday be?   Google “Shavuot” and “Name” and you’ll find that Shavuot has either three or four primary names; depending on where you do your surfing.  In addition to the official name; it also is known by a couple of agriculture related names; Yom HaBikkurim (day of the first fruits), Hag Hakatzir (harvest day), and perhaps the most resonant name Zman Matan Torateinu (the time of the giving of our Torah).

The official name could be “matan Torah” (the present of the Torah). If we’re happy ( and you know it clap your hands, sorry) about getting the Torah, we could call the holiday Simchat Torah.  Oh, can’t use that, because it’s already used when we finish and start the Torah reading cycle in the fall.

Personally, I’d vote for Kabbalat Torah, not that anyone is holding a vote or proposing renaming the holiday.  Here’s why.

  • The first two paragraphs of the Shema that we recite twice a day are known as Kabbalat Ol Shamayim and Kabbalat Ol Mitzvot.  Respectively, these are the reception/acceptance of the “yoke” of heaven, and the reception/acceptance of the “yoke” of the commandments.
  • When Shabbat enters our life, wherever that may be, we greet it with Kabbalat Shabbat
  • Traditional Jewish weddings are preceded by pre-ceremony receptions (separately) for bride and groom.  The bride’s reception is called Kabbalat Panim (faces). And how does rabbinic judaism express the relationship between G-d and Israel?  As a marriage!

We gather on Erev Shavuot for the traditional eating of dairy (or soy) foods and study sessions.  Imagine doing the study under a giant chuppah, to reaffirm our vow to accept the Torah each year of our “marriage.”  think about  it.

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