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Archive for August, 2008

Mitzvah 53 – Its the pits

Posted by rabbiart on August 27, 2008

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

This mitzvah defines the jurisdiction of a rabbinical court with regard to damages resulting from improper use of public places.  In the rabbinic world, there is a clear distinction between public and private places. As you would expect, streets, alleys, passageways are all public.  What you might not expect is that people used public spaces for personal usages.  The rules and regulations of this mitzvah are not designed to discourage or prevent use of the public space, but rather to govern the usage and apportion responsibility for any damages that result.

The primary malfeasance in this mitzvah involves digging a pit in the public space, then leaving it, or leaving it uncovered or insufficiently covered.  Anyone who has ever driven over a pothole can see the importance of this mitzvah.  In the rabbinic understanding, “pit” might can include a ditch or a cave; any opening that would have the capacity to cause death.

The responsibility for carrying out this mitzvah is shared in an interesting way.  The mitzvah itself is to enforce the laws, apportion damages and so on.  This is a judicial responsibility, and therefore only falls to men, because women, in the rabbinic time, did not judge cases. But the application of the laws apply equally to women as well as men, whether they caused or suffered damages.

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Parshat Re-eh – Take a good look

Posted by rabbiart on August 27, 2008

The parshah begins with a bold declaration; we have before us both a blessing and a curse. We have a choice as to what we will take. We have a clear explanation of how to make the choice, and what practices to adopt to support the choice we make. We are even told (12:12) to rejoice. Joy is commanded!

וּשְׂמַחְתֶּם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם–אַתֶּם וּבְנֵיכֶם וּבְנֹתֵיכֶם, וְעַבְדֵיכֶם וְאַמְהֹתֵיכֶם; וְהַלֵּוִי אֲשֶׁר בְּשַׁעֲרֵיכֶם, כִּי אֵין לוֹ חֵלֶק וְנַחֲלָה אִתְּכֶם

Rejoice before the LORD your God, you, your sons, your daughters, your men-servants, your maid-servants, and the Levite that is within your gates, because he has no portion nor inheritance of his own among you.

In chapter thirteen we are warned against all sorts of distractions. The language is about listening to dreamers of dreams and false prophets – even though one of our most famous Biblical characters was a dreamer of dreams. Perhaps that era is now over.

The language of this chapter is dramatic, powerful, harsh and unforgiving. What are we to make of these passages?

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Mitzvah 52 -Who’s ox got gored?

Posted by rabbiart on August 21, 2008

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

OK. So I went with a title that it eye-catchy.  This mitzvah is actually that we should not eat any ox that gored another animal (for more than the first time) and was sentenced to death.  Once we have learned that this mitzvah applies to any animal that intentionally injures another animal. Even if the offending animal is a kosher animal, and even if the animal were to be correctly ritually slaughtered, we should not eat of it.

We might think that – since the animal must be killed anyway – why not at least put its meat to some human benefit? But this reduces the severity of the penalty, and lightens – in our eyes – the severity of what the animal has done (and what we in our thoughtlessness of maintaining the animal are also responsible for). So we are told not to eat of the animal so that “it will influence us to be so very careful in all our deeds that no disaster or misfortune should ever issue from our behavior”.

Does this apply in our time and place?  Should it?  We don’t have oxen, but we’ve probably all had neighbors with dangerous dogs.  In our own congregation we have had dogs attacked by other dogs. The problem of dangerous animals is with us even in our modern, urbanized society.  And once again… we find the Torah has something to tell us that is right on point with our lives.

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Parshat Eikev

Posted by rabbiart on August 16, 2008

Consequences! Consequences can be good, or they can be bad. Either way, they are a result of our behavior. Parshat Va-Etchanan (last week’s parshah) concludes with this exhortation

וְשָׁמַרְתָּ אֶת-הַמִּצְוָה וְאֶת-הַחֻקִּים וְאֶת-הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם–לַעֲשׂוֹתָם.

Thou shalt therefore keep the commandment, and the statutes, and the ordinances, which I command thee this day, to do them.

Observing the Hebrew, we see that this verse is in the singular and not the plural, so we read it as directed to each of us. Yet the verse with which our parshah opens is in the plural.  What might we learn?  We are each individually responsible, but the consequences of our actions affect our entire community.

What might the consequences be?  Early in our history, Avraham is told that those who bless his descendants will be themselves blessed; those who curse – cursed.  Now in verse 14 the blessing is defined.

בָּרוּךְ תִּהְיֶה, מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים: לֹא-יִהְיֶה בְךָ עָקָר וַעֲקָרָה, וּבִבְהֶמְתֶּךָ.

You will be blessed of all the nations. No sterility, male and female, among you.

We of course remember how difficult it was for our founding matriarchs to conceive, and the troubles that accompanied birthing and raising children. The most important blessing of all is the ability to bring forth the next generation. A blessing… and an awesome responsibility.

What does this parshah have to teach us about our responsibilities to the next generation?

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Out of the CAJE

Posted by rabbiart on August 14, 2008

We could be holding a mini-CAJE here at the Burlington airport. The food kiosk inside of security has sold out of all its veggie wraps and tuna sandwiches. I talked to a porter who was refilling the shelves and she told me that there is nothing vegetarian left in the entire airport. OK, that’s two food kiosks and a restaurant, but you get the idea.

The biggest challenge in returning from the CAJE experience is limiting the number of ideas you try to implement. I heard and saw enough good ideas and techniques to last quite a while. And that doesn’t even begin to address getting funding to bring in all the incredible teachers, storytellers and musicians to liven up the life of the shul. What I’d love to do…

  • start each religious school student making her own siddur (see next bullet)
  • re-invent how we daven in religious school and erev shabbat to return to the original intent of the liturgy and role of the hazzan.(see next bullet)
  • return to “improvisational prayer”. For example, keep only the last five words of the first evening brachah, and at each service, have someone from the congregation describe his “sunset” or “evening” moment, ten conclude with the hatimah (signature, or standard ending). Beginning in the pre-hebrew school grades, teach each student to express her own version of the prayer which their class is learning.
  • teach trope, which is to say, really teach trope
  • bring back the maven who interprets the torah – see Storahtelling

See, there are already too many ideas to do at once…. or maybe not.

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Into the CAJE – 2

Posted by rabbiart on August 13, 2008

The first time I attended CAJE it was the Conference on Alternatives. I discovered yesterday that some rebranding took place while I was in the wilderness of high tech for 25 years. Now its the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education. Nuff said.

Yesterday I went to a session given by Rabbi Ed Feinstein. It dovetailed nicely with the StorahTelling session from Monday afternoon. He observed that when people come to talk to him in his office, no one has ever told him to “keep it short.” In services, that’s another matter altogether. He began by collecting a list of distractions to prayer that people have. As a person who liked Hebrew school – even before going to Mahaneh Ramah and trying to keep up with day school and better educated campers who could daven from the good old Shilo Siddur – and eventually became a Rabbi, I am blessed to report that I don’t have the “common problems” with prayer that people reported. But that might make it harder for me to find ways to open up the tefilot to Jews who are not so lucky.

Rabbi Feinstein laid the ground by saying that teaching the siddur requires 3 disciplines; teaching the skills of saying the prayer (Hebrew language and bodily movement), teaching the understanding of the prayer (what does it say), and teach how to pray the prayer. The last part is, obviously, the most difficult, primarily because someone went and invented the printing press. Prayer, he said, used to be of a form like hip-hop or rap (I have often said jazz). Only the theme (the final hatimah (signature) was fixed; the rest of it was meant to be improvised.

What was new to me was an exercise in personalizing a prayer and accessing its emotional content. He used hamaariv aravim – the first prayer of the evening service. He asked for vounteers to describe a “sunset moment” in their lives, then turned their stories into a “prayer version”, concluding with the standard hatimah. Something I can barely wait to try at home.

Yesterday’s evening plenary was a combination of Craig Taubman (and band) and Rabbi Feinstein. In between the musical pieces, Rabbi Feinstein observed that it is a miracle that sixty years after the Shoah, Jewish life and Jewish education is being reborn. He talked about how easy it is for Jewish educators (and for rabbis al achat kamah v’kamah) to become discouraged and beaten down. So Craig had selected three people to come onstage and speak about their individual “miracle moments”. Quite moving to hear (understatement!) and an important reminder to any Jewish teacher to focus on and treasure the moments when we truly touch someone’s heart – and forget the rest.

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Seeking HaShem

Posted by rabbiart on August 12, 2008

The opening verse of our parshah this week strikes me as a verse which is “all we need to know”.  At the end of parshat Devarim Moshe was telling the story of how the promised land was apportioned.  Here is Moshe, relaying the assignment of the Promised Land to the tribes, yet he already knew he would not enter the Land.

Moshe – in the moment – turns to HaShem with his own request. He “entreats” HaShem to let him enter the land.  He asks for a gift.  As Rashi explains

[The word] חִנּוּן [and its derivatives] in all cases is an expression signifying [requesting] a free gift. Even though the righteous may base a request on the merit of their good deeds, they request only a free gift of the Omnipresent.

Unlike our daughter and son-in-law (shameless wedding reference) who could register on websites and hope to “get what they wanted” as presents, Moshe is entirely dependent on G-d’s will for his “gift”.  Moshe wants to enter the Promised Land, if anyone “deserves” to enter the land, it is Moshe.  The land was promised to all Israelites, so why not Moshe? Moshe does not get what he asks for; he is not allowed to enter the land. What are we to make of this? How are we to understand that “the greatest Jew ever” makes a simple request to HaShem… and he is turned down!

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Into the CAJE – Monday

Posted by rabbiart on August 11, 2008

This week I’m attending CAJE (Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education).  I go sit down in a session and someone introduces himself to me and says he’s from Providence.  So of course I ask him “Do you know Alan Flam” who is the only person I know in Providence.  What’s the reply?  Of course I know Alan; he davens at my shul sometimes. (I’m not sure if Mark actually spoke a semi-colon, but, what the heck.)

It’s the nature of conferences that in one time slot there is nothing you want to hear, but at the next time slot there are four speakers that are all compelling.  At least I had the benefit of getting a “speaker debrief” from my sister Ruth, who is a long-time veteran of CAJE.  So that helped.  At the moment I’m waiting for the StorahTelling founder to show up for his session. Once he arrived, the session was incredible!  Almost beyond description; the revival of a form of Torah teaching that has been lost for 1,000 years.

This morning, of course, I went to hear Alan Morenis, and was happy to see he had a full room, and people were hanging on his every word.  In keeping with the theme of the prior paragraph, Jack Wertheimer couldn’t get here because of the weather.  This meant I didn’t get to hear the presentation of research on synagogue supplemental schools, which was the most “on-point” session I was planning to attend.

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These Words: a Second Telling – אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים

Posted by rabbiart on August 6, 2008

Two months remain of the forty years. Now they stand  בַּמִּדְבָּר בָּעֲרָבָה מוֹל סוּף (bamidbar aravah mul Suf) in the “wilderness” opposite Suph.  Rashi observes that the Israelites are not in the “wilderness”  i.e. the Sinai peninsula or the Negev desert because they are actually in the plains of Moab – on the Eastern side of the Jordan River.  “Wilderness” is a reminder of all the places where Israel rebelled in the wilderness. (Think of all the incidents in Sefer BaMidbar aka Numbers).

In general, Rashi takes this first speech as a set of rebukes for all the times when the Israelites (us? them?) didn’t quite do what HaShem and Moshe were telling them.  (Shocking, isn’t it!) Read the first part of Moshe’s speech and see for yourself.

Rashi notes the “great leap forward” between the first eleven days (verse two) and the fortieth year (verse three).  The trip should have been over very quickly. Why did it take forty years?  “Because you sinned, He made you travel around Mount Seir for forty years.”

As we begin our reading of Devarim it is helpful to have a second Bible open to the books of Shemot, VaYikra, and BaMidbar.  Compare Moshe’s recounting of events with the “story in its original form.” What is the same, what is different in the remembering and recounting of incidents which have passed? Moshe mentions two specific stories in this chapter; the appointment of judges, and the incident of the spies. Why does he recall these two incidents?  Does he recall them for the same reason, or different reasons?  What can we learn from this act of remembering?

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We’ve got damages

Posted by rabbiart on August 6, 2008

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

In Mitzvah 51 we learnh that a bet din should judge and impose recompense for damages done by domestic animals.  The classic case, and the verse on which this jurisprudence is based, is that of an ox gores a person aor does damage to property.  We quickly learn in the Talmud that this is not limited specifically to an ox, but applies to any domestic or wild animal where a person has combined with that animal to cause damage.

The tradition moves quickly to a consideration whether damage from the animal in question should have been expected, or whether the damage in question is truly a “new case.”  Different penalites apply, and we also learn that some animals are considered a “habitually damaging animal”, some animals are considered to have become “habitually damaging”, and there are some cases where the damage caused is truly unexpected.

At this point, the reader may be wondering, how does this apply to my modern, urban life, where I don’t have any domestic animals.  (Unless you have dogs, cats or other animals that don’t live in a bowl of water but can get out and move around.)

Are there modern equivalents of domestic animals. Animals were often used for grazing, to keep a pasture under control. Does your automatic lawnmower fall into this category? What if you get distracted and your automatic lawnmover cuts down your neighbor’s geraniums? Is this a case of accidental damage that could fall under this mitzvah?

Or – and I see this out my front window – your animal “goes” on my front lawn, creating a little yellow circle of grass. Can I recover damages from you? Suppose your animal does this repeatedly? Can I recover increased damages?  What does the Torah have to say about this situation?  For one thing, we can learn that the Torah tells us that we are required to guard our animals (read possessions, perhaps) against doing damage.

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