Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Value of Every Human Being

The Value of Every Human Being

This week we read about the importance of justice. In 19:15 the Torah warns judges to act with scrupulous honesty and integrity:

You shall commit no injustice in judgment; you shall not favor a poor person or respect a great man; you shall judge your fellow with righteousness.

טו לֹא־תַֽעֲשׂ֥וּ עָ֨וֶל֙ בַּמִּשְׁפָּ֔ט לֹֽא־תִשָּׂ֣א פְנֵי־דָ֔ל וְלֹ֥א תֶהְדַּ֖ר פְּנֵ֣י גָד֑וֹל בְּצֶ֖דֶק תִּשְׁפֹּ֥ט עֲמִיתֶֽךָ:
            Twenty verses later the Torah uses the same phrase:
You shall not commit a perversion of justice with measures, weights, or liquid measures.

לֹא־תַֽעֲשׂ֥וּ עָ֖וֶל בַּמִּשְׁפָּ֑ט בַּמִּדָּ֕ה בַּמִּשְׁקָ֖ל וּבַמְּשׂוּרָֽה:
The same phrase is used again, only this time it is addressed to every merchant, storekeeper and peddler: maintain honest weights and measures.

Dr. Michal Tikochinsky writes that the usage of the same phrase used in both instances  is meant to be a powerful statement by the Torah of the value of every person: whether they are a formal judge or a simple fruit vendor- both are called upon to not corrupt justice. Both are informed that there is potential sanctity in their respective fields of work. Both are considered judges with all of the responsibilities and accolades attached therein: ie just as a judge on a Beit Din/ Sanhedrin/ that takes his job seriously is considered as if he has partnered with God Himself, so too a salesman or vendor that acts appropriately is on similar spiritual footing.

The Sanhedrin judge and the fruit vendor may occupy different socio-economic strata. Yet both of them deserve our dignity and earn our respect through their honest conduct.

Our responsibility as Jews is to see every human being and the value contained within, so that no one feels invisible or marginalized. The word respect in Hebrew- Kavod is related to the word Kaved- which means heavy. We show respect for someone by treating them and their concerns in a heavy manner- ie with attention and seriousness.

The opposite of heavy is light- Kal. Kal is the root of the word Kilel- which means to curse and is also found in Parshat Kedoshim: Lo Tekalel Cheresh, do not curse the deaf (19:14).
The problem with cursing the deaf is that behaving in such a way shows how lightly that person is taken- how that person is treated without respect and is marginalized. It’s not surprising that the prohibition in the Torah is formulated in regards to a deaf person- because those who are different- learning differences, a disability, or mental health challenges- are often marginalized and taken lightly.

Let us learn from this week’s Parsha to appreciate the importance of Kavod Habriyot: of treating every single person with the dignity and respect that they deserve. Let us also apply that lesson and extend kavod to all whom we come into contact regardless of their social or financial status: whether they be a distinguished judge or a hard working fruit peddler.

Our rabbis promise that it is through honoring others that we ourselves are truly honored:
Avot 4:1: Eizehu Mechubad? Hamechabeid Et Habriyot:
Who is truly honored? One who is careful to honor all other humans.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Seventy Years Young

70 Years Young
Rabbi Yosef Weinstock
Adopted from a sermon delivered on the Last Day of Pesach 5778

In the Hagadah on Pesach we read:
Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah said: "Behold, I am like a seventy-year-old man,

Tradition teaches that Rabbi Elazar was really much younger, but a miracle happened whereby he underwent a drastic change in appearance. This was for his benefit; so that his rabbinic colleagues would respect him in his new leadership position. The story of Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya indicates something that Einstein would later mathematically prove: Time is relative. Age is just a number. Rabbi Elazar was “KEBen Shivim Shanah”- like a 70 year old, when really his chronological age was something different.

I think about Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, especially this year as we prepare to celebrate the 70th birthday of the State of Israel. For in many ways, Israel, too, is like 70 years old. On the one hand the modern State of Israel is the culmination of a hope that had existed for over eighteen centuries- since the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in the 1st century CE. 

On the other hand 70 years seems like too short a time when we reflect on the tremendous accomplishments packed into those seven decades: absorbing millions of immigrants, developing and maintaining a vibrant democracy in a very challenging area of the world. At first Jaffa origins were Israel’s biggest export. Today, it’s high tech startups that are bought by companies like Apple. Jews around the world have much to celebrate, and mush to be grateful for, on Israel’s 70th.

Time is relative. Recent events can sometimes feel like they occurred a long time ago. And sometimes, events of the distant past remain vivid and relevant

In 1936, the Peel Commission questioned David Ben-Gurion, then head of the Jewish Agency, concerning Jewish rights to the Land of Israel. Ben-Gurion understood that the underlying question was: how can Zionists speak about a single homeland for all of world Jewry, after 2 thousand years of exile and dispersion? Is it really true that Jews of Russia and Jews of the Middle East and Jews of South America still constitute one nation? The following is an excerpt from his testimony:
'Three hundred years ago, a ship called the Mayflower set sail to the New World. On it were Englishmen unhappy with British society and government, who sought an uninhabited coast to settle and establish a new world. They landed in America, and were among the first pioneers and builders of that land.

'This was a great event in the history of England and America. But I would like to know: Is there a single Englishman who knows the exact date and hour of the Mayflower's launch? How much do American children — or grownups — know about this historic trip? Do they know how many people were in the boat? Their names? What they wore? What they ate? Their path of travel? What happened to them on the way? Where they landed? The name of their captain? The conditions of the sea during the journey?

 'More than 3,000 years before the Mayflower set sail, the Jews left Egypt. Any Jewish child, whether in America or Russia, Yemen or Germany, knows that his forefathers left Egypt at dawn on the 15th of Nisan. What did they wear? Their belts were tied, and their staffs were in their hands. They ate matzot, and arrived at the Red Sea after seven days.

 'He knows the path of their journey through the desert and the events of those forty years in the desert. They ate manna and slav birds and drank from Miriam's well. They arrived in Jordan facing Jericho. The child can even quote the family names from the Torah.

 'Jews worldwide still eat matzah for seven days from the 15th of Nisan. They retell the story of the Exodus, concluding with the fervent wish, "Next Year in Jerusalem." This is the nature of the Jews.'
(Quoted from 'The Jewish Case Before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine' (Jerusalem, 1947), p. 63, 65.)

The Mayflower is history. Over time, the details of that story begin to fade from memory. The Exodus is OUR story. No amount of time distances us from the relevance and pride that we attach to the specifics of those events. The same is true concerning Medinat Yisrael. The Promised Land was the destination God had in mind all along when He promises to take us out of Egypt. Our task is to develop a personal relationship with Israel, and by doing so we will surely cherish her and take pride in every one of her achievements. 

A strategy for developing that appreciation emerges from the two other Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya quotes in that paragraph from the Hagadah:
“I could not win [the argument against the other sages] having the exodus from Egypt recited at night, until Ben Zoma derived it [from a Biblical source].”

Rabbi Elazar learns from Ben Zoma that we recall the Exodus even at night. Halachically this means that the third paragraph of Shema (which references the Exodus) is recited at night also, and not just during the daytime. However the implications of Ben Zoma’s teaching goes much further. Even in the darkest moments of Jewish history Jews have found strength from the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim – the story of our nation’s founding and the moment when God chose us as His People. Just as recalling the Exodus is appropriate “at night”, so too recalling the dark chapters of Jewish history allow us to better appreciate the miracle of the State of Israel.

The justification for Medinat Yisrael is not the tragic events of the 20th century. We know that the Jewish claim to Israel goes back to Creation, and at least 4000 years to God’s promise to Avraham. And yet we dare not be blind to the juxtaposition of the Holocaust followed by the establishment of Israel. Appreciating this flow of narrative makes us more grateful and more appreciative for Medinat Yisrael.

Lastly, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya quotes the teaching of the Chachamim:
But the Sages say: "Days of your life" means the present world; "All the days of your life" includes also the era of Mashiach.
Our relationship with Israel is not merely predicated on Jewish history, but on Jewish destiny as well. As Religious Zionists we believe that our story, individually and collectively, will be linked more and more with Israel in the future. The question we must ask is: what are we doing to inject Israel into our story, into our identity? Are we learning about Israel? Are we visiting Israel? Are we supporting Israeli causes? Are we including Israel more and more into our story? And are we seeking ways in which we can be included in Israel’s story?

So let us celebrate Israel’s birthday- 70 years young. As she reaches KeBen Shivim Shanah, it is an appropriate time to be grateful, to be joyful and to consider the formative and transformative ways that Israel has been a part of our Jewish past, our Jewish present and our Jewish future.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Death of the Righteous Shall Atone: Reflections on Yom HaShoah and Yom Hazikaron

The Death of the Righteous Shall Atone: Reflections on Yom HaShoah and Yom Hazikaron

“The death of the righteous shall atone.”  Does that sound Jewish to you? For some at first glance it may even sound a little Christian. And yet that is the language utilized by the Talmud Yerushalmi to explain the connection between Yom Kippur and the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, both found in Parshat Acharei Mot. The first depiction of the death of these two sons of Aharon is in Parshat Shemini.

Rabbi Chiya ban Abin said…… just as Yom Kippur atones for the Jewish People, so too do the deaths of the righteous atone. (“Mitatan Shel Tzadikim Mechaperet”)

The literal interpretation of this Talmudic phrase did not sit well with Rabbi Baruch Epstein, author of the Torah Temima.  He suggests that we understand Mitatan Shel Tzadikim mechaperet in light of a story concerning the death of Shaul, the first King of Israel, as described in Shmuel Bet (Chapt 21):

And they buried the bones of Saul and Jonathan his son in the country of Benjamin in Zela, in the sephulcre of Kish his father; and they did all that the king commanded. And God was entreated for the land after that.

ידוַיִּקְבְּרוּ אֶת עַצְמוֹת שָׁאוּל וִיהוֹנָתָן בְּנוֹ בְּאֶרֶץ בִּנְיָמִן בְּצֵלָע בְּקֶבֶר קִישׁ אָבִיו וַיַּעֲשֹוּ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה הַמֶּלֶךְ וַיֵּעָתֵר אֱלֹהִים לָאָרֶץ אַחֲרֵי כֵן:
Rabbi Epstein explains that God showed compassion to the people in response to their appropriately mourning Shaul and appreciating his accomplishments and his legacy.
Mitatan shel Tzadikim Mechaperet is premised on the obligation we have in this world to be Makir Tov: to acknowledge the accomplishments of those who have passed - especially when they died Al Kiddush Hashem.

The Torah Temima’s explanation is important for us to consider- especially now as we find ourselves on the calendar between Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron, Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israel’s Memorial Day for those who have died in defense of Israel. Both of these days mourn the passing of Kedoshim, martyrs, and also Tzadikim- righteous souls.

 A student once approached Rav Auerbach and asked for a timeout from his studies so he could travel north to pray at the graves of Tzaddikim. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman looked perplexed but didn’t immediately answer. Sensing hesitation from his Rabbi, the student elaborated, explaining he had some personal issues to think through and he felt praying by the righteous would help. Rabbi Auerbach replied that he fully understood what the student wanted to do and why he wanted to do it, but could not understand why he would travel four hours to pray by the graves of a few Tzaddikim when there were thousands of them buried on Har Herzl (Israel’s military cemetery), just five minutes from the yeshiva!

Every day, someone would drive Rabbi Auerbach from his home in Sha’arei Chesed to his Yeshiva in Bayit Vegan. The Rabbi would occasionally ask the driver to pull over for a few moments outside Har Herzl, where he would recite Tehillim at kivrei Tzadikim, the graves of the righteous women and men who served and sacrificed on behalf of the State of Israel.

Mitatan shel Tzadikim Mechaperet, the death of these Tzadikim can serve as a source of atonement and spiritual inspiration and growth; but only if we learn the lessons from their lives and the circumstances surrounding their deaths.

If we utilize Yom HaShoah and Yom Hazikaron appropriately then not only will Mitat Tzadikim Mechaperet, but we will merit the fulfillment of the verse in Av Harachamaim- V’Chiper Admato Amo; may we be worthy to fully appreciate the gift of the State and Israel and celebrate its birth with full religious passion, as it deserves.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Finding Our Voices- and Using Them Effectively

On the seventh day of Pesach we read that upon leaving Egypt, the Jews camp at a place called Pi Hachirot. Rashi quotes the Midrashic tradition that the name Pi Hachirot is related to Cheirut- freedom. The Jews began to feel the freedom upon arrival at this location.

If we look at the first part of the name of the location, we realize that Pi Hachirot may refer to freedom of the mouth or free speech.

Slaves are not allowed to speak freely. They can only speak when spoken to. They are also not at liberty to express, or even possess, their own opinions. Originally Pi Hachirot was called Pitom, which some suggest is a contraction of the words Peh Satum- a closed mouth. It was at Pitom that Bnei Yisrael lost their freedom to protest.

                At Pi Hachirot Bnei Yisrael found their voice. The ability to freely speak is a gift and a responsibility that Bnei Yisrael did not immediately utilize effectively. The first use of their voice is to complain to Moshe: “Were there no graves in Egypt that we had to come out here to die?” We prefer to have never left Egypt and remained as slaves without a voice rather than to die in the desert where we will similarly be silenced!

Instead of answering them with words, G-d splits the Sea and causes the people to experience a revelation unlike anything in history. In response Bnei Yisrael sings Shira- they come to appreciate the power of their voice. They utilize their freedom of speech in an effective and meaningful manner.
The story of Pesach is the story of Bnei Yisrael finding their voice as they begin to taste freedom. As we commemorate this event we must commit ourselves to utilizing our freedom of speech: By speaking up even when our views go against today’s popular culture or conventional wisdom. By speaking up even when we think that our views are obvious or that everyone is in agreement. Chances are they are not nearly as obvious or unanimous as we think. By speaking up even when we don’t know if anyone is listening.

The Maharal writes that the word Pesach is a contraction of the words Peh Sach, the mouth that speaks. Pesach celebrates the finding of our voice and the liberation of our power of speech. Just as it was then, so may G-d give us the insight and strength to utilize our voices today in a powerful and productive manner.