Friday, May 30, 2014

Circle The Wagons- Or Open The Circle?

In Parshat Naso we learn about the laws of the Nazir, a person who accepts upon himself extra restrictions relating to grapes/ wine, haircuts and contact with the dead. The Torah introduces this section with the phrase: “Ish Ki Yafli Lindor Neder” There is a difference of opinion among commentators as to how to understand the word Yafli. Rashi understands it to mean, “to separate.” The Nazir separates himself from certain permissible activities as an extreme response to the Sotah episode. The Ibn Ezra understands Yafli to be related to the word pele, which means wonder. The Ibn Ezra explains that the Torah is commending the Nazir for his asceticism, though he was never commanded to undertake such an endeavor.

From the dispute between Rashi and Ibn Ezra we can see the underpinnings of the dispute between Rambam and Ramban as to the status of the Nazir: did he do something good or something sinful? Ramban feels that the Nazir did something good, and he must bring a sin offering at the end of his Nazir-period because he is ending a period of heightened spirituality. This seems to jive with the opinion of the Ibn Ezra. The Rambam understands that what the Nazir did is less than ideal. We are not supposed to prohibit things on ourselves that the Torah did not prohibit. The Nazir felt that out of necessity, due to the times in which s/he lived and the things that s/he saw, that a vow of Nazirut was the appropriate response.

I think these approaches should give us food for thought in terms of how we must respond to the challenges that surround us in modern society. Do we circle the wagons and make even permissible ideas and practices off limits as a radical response to the permissiveness and moral relativism of general society? Or do we stay the course, fully engaged in society while attempting to be role models, based on the Torah?

There is no easy, across the board answer- but the Nazir- and how that status is viewed by our tradition, makes us aware of the dilemma and begins a conversation.

Friday, May 23, 2014

A Jewish Guide to Desert Survival

That book will probably never be published..

And yet, the Book of Bamidbar is about survival in the desert.  Are there any keys to surviving in a real desert that can help us in our spiritual quests as Jews?
I’d be lying if I said I knew anything about desert survival before yesterday. But in the post-Google age, you can become acquainted with almost any topic in mere minutes. What I’ve learned is that the first mistake people who die in the desert make is that they consider the desert a hostile environment that is conspiring against human life. The key to desert survival is learning to be part of the desert’s ecosystem. A practical example of this is extracting water from the desert cactus. To survive the desert, a person must learn to become part of the desert’s ecosystem and not view is as antagonistic.

This is such an important lesson for all of us. Not every tension, not every disagreement is necessarily antagonism. Friends can agree to disagree. Family members can have different perspectives on even important issues without it leading to all out war. Difficult situations can be the breeding grounds for very positive outcomes.

As important as this rule is for our interpersonal relationships, it is just as important in our religious outlook as well.  When we see the title of a shiur comparing a modern, contemporary idea with Halacha (Abortion and Halacha, Global Warming in the View of the Torah) what is our gut reaction? Do we assume that there is unsolvable tension between the two ideas? Do we believe that the Torah is by definition hostile to the world in which we live? Do we think that the Torah conspires against us living our lives as we want to? 

Or do we view the Torah as an ecosystem in which we can not only survive, but excel? 

Friday, May 16, 2014

No One Is Interchangeable

Towards the end of Bechukotai we learn about the prohibition of Temurah. If I designate an animal for Temple use, I am not allowed to transfer that status to a different animal. this is the case even if I was planning on offering a better animal in place of the first one. If I were to attempt to transfer the sanctified status, then both animals become sanctified and must be dedicated for temple use.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein explained that the lesson of Temurah is that no one is interchangeable. Even if it appears as if my role can be accomplish by someone else, in truth there is no one that can do what I do. If I try to exempt myself from my responsibilities, the role just expands to include me and now other people.

In this age when entire industries are becoming obsolete we run the risk of characterizing people in similar terms. The lesson of Temurah is that sanctity cannot be diminished, it will only spread. Since every human possesses a degree of sanctity and dignity we must remember that there is no such thing as an obsolete person. Every one of us is necessary, irreplaceable and never interchangeable.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Security and Faith

In Parshat Behar we read about the Mitzvah of Shemitah, the Sabbatical in the Land of Israel every seventh year. If observed correctly, we are taught that the reward is that we will dwell in the land l'vetach. Rashi explains that observing Shemitah leads to security and safety for the Jewish inhabitants of Israel. But not observing Shemitah leads to exile. In fact there is a tradition that the 70 years of exile after the destruction of the first Temple corresponds to the 70 shimtahs that were not observed correctly during the almost 500 years during which the first Temple stood.

The word vetach is related to both the words security and faith (both bitachon). The future of Jewish prosperity in the Land of Israel is tied to both appropriate security measures as well as appropriate demonstrations of faith in God.

As the memories of Yom Haatzmaut are still fresh in our minds, let us learn well the lesson of Shemitah: to recognize the limitations of human endeavor, and to pursue both security and faith as parallel yet complementary facets of Jewish existence.

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Paradoxical Lessons In Counting Sefira

There are two ways to understand the Sefirat Haomer period. It can be viewed as a countdown to receiving the Torah on Shavuot. Or it can be viewed as a period of incremental growth- for the Jews as they left Egypt and for each of us as well. These two approaches can be used to understand the logic behind a number of Halachik arguments:

Is Sefirat Haomer today Torah-ordained or Rabbinic? If we are counting towards Receiving the Torah, then we count today as it has been done throughout history and can continue to be viewed as a Torah-obligation. However if Sefira is about personal/ national transformation, this was symbolized by the transition from Korban Haomer (barley) to Korban Shtei Halechem (bread on Shavuot). Since we no longer have Korbanot, our count is only a commemoration and would be considered Rabbinically obligated.

1)      Is Sefira one mitzvah or 49 separate mitzvot? If the Count is about reaching Matan Torah, then there is only one destination. Therefore one would view the entire period as one Mitzvah. However if Sefirat haomer is about personal/ national development, then it is possible to view each and every step of growth as important and a mitzvah in its own right.

2)      Whether one can fulfill their obligation to count by listening to someone else (ie does Shomei’ah K’oneh apply to Sefirat Haomer?) If Sefirah is about getting to Matan Torah, then each person must prepare for Matan Torah themselves. However if Sefira is about personal/ national development, part of that development is the notion of Areivut -that Jews are responsible for one another- which is demonstrated through Shomei’ah K’Oneh

In these ways Sefirat HaOmer teaches us important, yet dichotomous lessons: The importance of the individual as well as the community. The value of having a goal, while appreciating every step along that journey.