Friday, September 23, 2016

Young and Senior, New and Old: We Need to Focus on Both

Parshat Ki Tavo contains within it the curses that Moshe foretells will fall upon the nation should they not live up to the expectations thrust upon them by the Torah. Part of this dynamic is understanding the metaphysical rules of cause and effect; ie sin brings punishment. The verses in Ki Tavo go into some details as to the particulars of such punishment. One element of the punishment is exile. The Torah goes into some detail about this exile, and by whom will it be perpetrated (28:49-50):
Hashem will carry against you a nation from afar…a nation whose language you will not understand. A brazen nation that will not be respectful to the old nor gracious to the young.”

 Many of the Meforshim understand this to be an allusion to Rome under Vespasian and Titus. I understand this characterization to be just as important for us to understand for ourselves as it is a description of our enemies. A brazen nation is described as one that does not respect its elders. We are living in an age that generally considers “newer” to be “better”. We must not fall into that trap set for us by society. We must appreciate the wisdom of our elders and the debt of gratitude that we owe previous generations.

A brazen nation is also one that does not show extra care and concern for the young. Many people today look towards the future in a very pessimistic fashion. They focus on the problems that they feel lay ahead, and wonder whether humanity even has a future. They choose not to have children, for why should new life be brought into such a scary, sad world? We reject such a view outright and attribute it to a selfish and egotistical attitude. We believe that it is within our reach to better the world, and part of our legacy is to leave the next generation better off in some fashion.

A brazen nation neither respects its old nor its young. Many groups have been able to accomplish one of these two tasks, but at the expense of the other. For instance those who revere the old are often wary of the young, while those who concentrate on the young often ignore the old. Our challenge as Jews is to simultaneously be concerned with our pasts and our futures, to be respectful of our old and gracious towards our young. In this way we can avoid becoming brazen and avoid the curses while receiving the blessings promised to us by the Torah for doing the right thing.

We must never view situations in a myopic or "zero sum" fashion.
Our focus on the young and the new need not and must not come at the expense of our commitments to that/ those who are more senior or more established.
The goal is to elevate our communities and our service to all segments of the population, to the benefit of everyone.

Friday, September 9, 2016

If You See Something, Say Something

In our post 9/11 world, we are all familiar with the security-conscious slogan: “If you see something, say something.” Our vigilance is the first line of defense. Being aware of your surroundings can keep you safe and help save the lives of others. Seeing something is not only the first line of defense though; it also obligates us. Utilizing our sight perception thrusts upon us a responsibility to process what we have seen and then act in the best way as the situation dictates. If we see something but don’t “say something” ie we remain bystanders and do not act on what we see- then we become complicit, even responsible, for what transpires due to our inaction.

This is one of the lessons of the Eglah Arufah: the enigmatic ceremony  surrounding an unsolved murder, described at the end of Parshat Shoftim.  If a corpse is found outside of town, the Torah describes how the leaders of the closest population center must engage in a procedure during which they declare their innocence. As part of that procedure they leaders state (21:7):

And they shall announce and say, "Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see [this crime]."

זוְעָנוּ וְאָמְרוּ יָדֵינוּ לֹא שָׁפְכוּ (כתיב שפכה) אֶת הַדָּם הַזֶּה וְעֵינֵינוּ לֹא רָאוּ:

No one really suspects the elders of actually shedding this victim’s blood. However it is possible that they saw something that if they were being more vigilant could have led them to intercede in a manner that could have prevented this loss of life.

We live in interesting times. On the one hand, we have never had more opportunities to connect with each other (texting, social media). And yet at the same time there is more distance and alienation that people are feeling from each other. It may originate from the value we place on privacy. It is exacerbated by the long geographical distances that separate friends and family. The anonymity of the internet cannot be discounted. These factors (and more) contribute to people feeling disconnected and invisible.

September is National Suicide Prevention Month.  Research has shown that many suicides can be prevented if family and friends who see something have the courage to say something.

Let us learn the lesson from the Eglah Arufah and commit to being astute observers of the world around us - especially family and friends. Let us never turn a blind eye. Let us appreciate the opportunities we have to connect with others, and try our best to ensure that those in our social orbit do not feel invisible or disconnected. And let us commit to saying/ acting based on what we see. 

Doing so is a fulfillment of what the Torah describes as the end result of the Eglah Arufah ceremony:
כִּי תַעֲשֶׂה הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינֵי יְהֹוָה:

for you shall do what is proper in the eyes of God.           

Friday, September 2, 2016

Don't Remove God from Your Picture

In Parshat Re’eh Moshe criticizes the pagan worship of other nations and then states (12:4)

You shall not do so to the Lord, your God.

דלֹא תַעֲשׂוּן כֵּן לַיהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם:
Moshe here warns us to avoid the temptation of foreign worship and stick to serving God as delineated in the Torah through the commandments.

Many commentators address the question from this verse: What in particular does Moshe want the people to avoid?
Rashi quotes the idea that in this pasuk we are being warned against erasing God’s name.
אזהרה למוחק את השם

I could not help but wonder: Of all the practices we associate with paganism, why is erasing the name of God singled out and why are we warned especially to avoid that behavior? (and furthermore, is it really so that pagan service entails erasing names of gods?)

To answer this question let us consider the underlying philosophy of paganism: self worship. Avodah zarah is an expression of the ego to the extreme. Adherents of idol worship do so because they think that they are in total control of their life and their destiny; not directly, but they can intercede on behalf of whatever future result they seek. It is an attitude that sees no role for God. It is an attitude based on achieving certainty in one’s life, by believing in the formulaic approach to worship that believes that if you want this outcome, all you have to do is serve this god. And if that happens to you, just brings gifts to this other god to fix the situation. In this model man is helpless to better his own lot. He is totally dependent on the whims of the gods.

The first step in adopting a pagan attitude is to erase God from areas of our lives. This can come from a place of helplessness (ie “even God can’t help me now”) or from a place of misplaced humility (ie “Who am I that God should intercede on my behalf?”)

 Moshe is adamant that we not erase God’s name. Judaism rejects paganism and affirms the Presence of Hashem in every facet of our lives. Let’s do our best to never removeGod from the beautiful and complex picture of our lives.