Shabbat Shoftim: Who are You to Judge?

“Who am I to judge?” When did those words last come out of your mouth, or at least formulate in your mind? It’s a common way for us to dodge involvement in the world.

It is, however, a stand which is not very Jewish. One of this week’s messages from our parashat hashavua, the Torah reading of the week, is that one must judge – and judge justly. The opening words of the parasha are: “Appoint judges and magistrates in all your gates, tribe by tribe; they shall judge justly.” (Devarim 16.18)

To judge justly is a mitzvah – a command. It is a necessity for a participatory society if it is to have any chance to function justly. That is why it is a mitzvah to serve on a jury. But Jews are held to a very high standard when it comes to judging, whether in our everyday lives or having been seated on a jury. What is that standard? The Torah itself provides it. As often happens in our Torah, the declarative command “you shall judge justly” is followed by the details of just what that means. The next verses specify:

1. No “coercing judgement”: to judge justly is to refuse to let evidence be manipulated, to insist upon proper process, to work to ensure that no one has been silenced. You are being coerced when you let a sound bite on television, or an videotape, or the lack of a good argument against your supposition, moves you to judgment. You are always to remember that each person is accorded the benefit of the doubt until it is proven otherwise.

2. No “recognition of a face”: you cannot judge someone if you have personal feelings that cause you to be pre-disposed either to trust or distrust that person. If you believe it when you hear that so-and-so did such-and-such, because they’ve done it before, you are “recognizing faces” and your judgment is not trustworthy.

3. No “gifts”: obviously, bribery is wrong. But there are much more subtle “gifts”: the story is told in the Talmud of a Rabbi who was due in court as a judge. A tenant farmer who rented his field brought him the fruit due him as rent a day early that week. When the Rabbi asked why, the farmer mentioned that he had to go to court for a legal matter, so he brought the fruit early on his way to town. The Rabbi realized that he would have to recuse himself. The fruit was his due, the payment of rent that he expected regularly; but in his judgment it fell into the legal category of a gift, and he could not serve as a truly impartial judge as a result.

Judging is a very difficult challenge, even for those whose daily responsibility is to do their best to judge what is truth. One example that will surprise you, I think, is presented here: Ask yourself, when this photo was first published with the incorrect caption, did you accept that incorrect information as truth? after all, it was in the New York Times!

I’m not accusing the Times of deliberate falsehood. This is merely an illustration of the fact that you cannot ever completely accept second-hand information as factual. Just judgment is more difficult than that, and requires a lot more caution and willingness to remember that there is more than one side to EVERY story.

On this Shabbat, as you are presented with opportunities to judge what you see and what you hear, and you consider how to respond justly, may you remember to take a breath before you believe what you see or hear, and run it through your Jewish ethical filter. We are called upon to judge, and to act upon that judgment – and we are called upon to be very careful that our acts are based upon true, and just, judgment.

כתיבה וחתימה טובה – May you be written and sealed for good in the coming year,

Shabbat Re’eh: Seeing and Being Seen

This week we read from parashat Re’eh. The parashah’s name translates to the imperative “see!” or “behold!”. We are urged to see that before us lies blessing and curse, and also (in a further development of the connotations of the verb) to “see”, and “understand”, that it is up to us to discern one from the other on “the path that I [G-d] set you upon”. (Devarim 11.28)

So watch your step.
A parashah like this might remind us of…
…hiking through the forest, where rocky footing might cause you to wrench an ankle if you’re not looking.
…walking into a situation at work and seeing for the first time that there’s a problem that you never noticed before.
…feeling sad or grumpy all day until you are suddenly in the presence of someone you love, and understand how blessed you are.
Jewish tradition sets a great deal of value upon taking care to see, in all its meanings, before acting. In the Talmudic tractate Pirke Avot it is written, “Who is wise? the one who can see what a possible result [literally, what is being born].” It is true that, often, to see is to feel compelled to respond: when we see each other in need, we want to help. When we see suffering we seek to alleviate it. And when we see joy, the heart lifts.
There are many things that we see. There are also many things that we think we have seen, and have not; things that we have not seen but can vividly imagine; and that which we long to see, but will not. The Haftarah for this Shabbat, from Isaiah 54, invited our ancestors, in the midst of the experiences of occupation, destruction and exile, to imagine something unseen:
I will lay gems as your building stones and make your foundations of sapphires.
Your battlements will be rubies, and your gates precious stones,
the whole encircling wall of gems. (Isaiah 54.11-12)
In the Talmud there is an ancient story of a skeptic who studied this text under Rabbi Yokhanan in a beit midrash, a study hall, after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, but did not believe it.
He mocked the teaching, saying  “even gems of small size are not easily found!”
Some time later the skeptic was on a ship and saw a vision; two angels were carving a giant gem.
The skeptic asked the angels what they were doing, and they replied, using Rabbi Yokhanan’s words exactly, “we are preparing this for the gates of Jerusalem in the future.”
The amazed skeptic returned to the Rabbi in the study hall and cried out to him, “teach, my master, for you teach wonderfully! I have seen that which you have taught, and can say that it is true.”
The Rabbi turned to the skeptic with a scowl. “And if you had not seen it, you would not have believed it?”
And he placed his eye upon the skeptic, who was forthwith turned into a pile of bones.  (Bava Batra 75a)
The reaction of the Rabbi seems disturbing. Does he kill the skeptic? Such wonder working is clearly beyond today’s Rabbis. Perhaps more likely, something about the exchange between the skeptic and the Rabbi reduced the skeptic to inconsequentiality. Consider:
In our parashah, the first verse commands us to see. The skeptic, demoralized and unwilling to see the possibility of hope in his situation, mocked those who taught others to see it. This story underscores our ethical responsibility to make that effort to re’eh, “see!” and “understand!” what we are seeing, and what is likely to be born out of that which we see.
And in the final verses from this parashah, we are reminded that we are also seen: “Three times a year…you shall go up to the place G-d has chosen and be seen before ה your G-d”. Devarim 16.16) We are not the center of the universe; as we see, so we are seen, each from our own perspective. So much that we mean to be is misunderstood in the seeing; that is why the ethic of marat ayin, “that which presents to the eye” is such an important concept to remember.
The Rabbi merely saw the skeptic for who he was. Neither he, nor the skeptic’s disbelief, was what turned him into a pile of bones; he did that to himself, by making himself useless as a member of a community that strives to see, and needs encouragement from each other as we try our level best to understand.

Shabbat Ekev: If, Then

One of the most challenging problems in religious life is that of cause and effect, or, more heartbreakingly often, the obvious lack thereof. Our parashat hashavua for this week begs the question right away, with its opening words:

If you do obey, and guard these rules and do them, G-d will guard the Covenant loyalty that G-d promised to your ancestors. (Devarim 7.12) If we obey and do the mitzvot, we are told that we will be blessed above all other peoples. (7.14)

This seems not only to fly in the face of reason – we know that bad things do happen to good people – but also to be a particularly inapt promise when uttered to a people who have suffered such unbelievable persecution simply for holding on to that Covenant. There actually is a sardonic old statement in Jewish tradition which you may have heard:

G-d, if this is what it means to be chosen, could You please choose someone else for a while?

Beyond the objections we might bring to the message of this week’s reading grounded in logic or simple exhaustion, there is a deeper level, to which Judaism itself bids us, and that, of course, is the ethical. There is a very old story about that:

In the Talmud we are told about Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, who was said to have the occasional conversation with Elijah the Prophet, who, of course, lived many years before. There is an ancient teaching that Elijah the Prophet never died, and that he is among us in disguise. Some day he will make himself known and announce the arrival of the Mashiakh, the Anointed One, a descendant of the House of David, who will lead the people of Israel out from under foreign domination and restore the glory of Jerusalem. (From this, of course, we develop the idea that Elijah comes to every Brit Milah and to every Jewish home during the Seder.) During the days of Roman occupation of Jerusalem, the interest in the coming of the Mashiakh was very keen. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi was one of the few who could identify Elijah in disguise in the marketplace or elsewhere, and was allowed to actually converse with the Prophet.

So the story goes:

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi once asked Elijah: “When will the Mashiakh come?”

Elijah replied: “‘Go and ask him himself.”

“And by what sign may I recognize him?”

“He is sitting among the poor, who are afflicted with disease; all of them untie and retie [the bandages of their wounds] all at once, whereas he unties and rebandages each wound separately, thinking, perhaps I shall be wanted [to appear as the Mashiakh] and I must not be delayed.”

Joshua thereupon went to the Mashiakh and greeted him:

“Peace unto You, master and teacher!”

To this he replied, “‘Peace unto You, ben Levi.”

“When will you come, master?”


Rabbi Joshua waited in joy all that day, and the Mashiakh did not come.

He returned to Elijah and said: “He spoke falsely to me.

For he said he would come today and he has not come.”

Elijah rejoined: “This is what he said: [quoting Ps. 95:7]: Today – if you would but hearken to His voice.” 

(Sanh. 98a as adapted by J. Ibn-Shmuel,Midreshei Ge’ullah (19542), 292–4, 306–8).

There’s that tiny little problematic word again: if. The answer Elijah gives, quoting the Psalm, is maddening. What was Rabbi Joshua ben Levi supposed to hear? We are not told. The Talmud, it seems, wants to tell us that our ancestors had the same difficulties with the If, Then of this parashah. And this is the crux of the matter: we can see the simple equation: if you do this, you’ll receive that. But we are not, perhaps, focused on the deeper, and the larger, circles of cause and effect that actually influence our lives.

Consider Ferguson Missouri, where another unarmed black man has been shot dead. Where was his “if, then”? We may try to make sense of it in a small, immediate way, but we will certainly be mistaken, because the forces that led to that moment in Michael Brown’s life are monumental, complex, and far beyond the understanding of either victim or killer. A true answer would have to take into account why a small police force brought out armored vehicles to confront the citizens who pay their salaries.

Cause and effect are not a child’s game, although we often play at that level, when we ask “what did I do to deserve this?” On that level, parashat Ekev clearly makes no sense. It is not meant for people who use the term “I”. It is meant for that moment when we look at the news report out of Ferguson, or when we consider climate change, or when we try to understand the causative nature of our own relationships upon others. All of us are part of this, and all our actions have effects. The question this Shabbat asks us is this: what have we wrought? what was the cause of this effect? And what voice have we been missing?

Shabbat Nakhamu: let hatred give way to kindness

This Shabbat bears two names, one for the parashat hashavua, the “parsha of the week”, and one which reflects the fact that we have just passed Tisha B’Av, the “9th of Av”, the day on which we reach our lowest, saddest point as a people and a nation. On Tisha B’Av the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed and we went into exile, stateless, homeless refugees. This happened not once but twice, both times during the hot summer days which are so harsh in the Middle East.

The first time that the Temple was destroyed, and our people were led into slavery and a fifty-year exile, was at the hands of the Babylonians, in 586 BCE. The Rabbis state in the Talmud that the first Temple was destroyed because Israelite society was guilty of idolatry, sexual immorality, and bloodshed. In other words, cynicism and hypocrisy, disrespect for one’s body and that of others, and callous disregard for life were the conditions our ancestors contributed to or stood by and witnessed. The destruction of the first Temple was understood after the fact (and by the prophets way before) as a direct result of the corrosion of Israelite society’s ethics and behavior.

The second time that the Temple was destroyed, and our people were led into slavery and a two thousand year exile, was at the hands of the Romans, in 70 CE. The Rabbis ask in the Talmud, why did this happen? Our people was not idolatrous, nor sexually immoral, nor wantonly violent. The answer is that our ancestors of the Roman period, we are told, were guilty of baseless hatred. For no real reason, our ancestors assumed the worst of each other’s actions and words and responded with hate. The destruction of the second Temple was understood to be the end result of baseless hatred. Therefore, our Jewish tradition teaches that baseless hatred as as destructive as idolatry, sexual immorality, and callous bloodshed together.

Baseless hatred – sin’at hinam in Hebrew – is a judgmental anger that finds fault and assumes the worst of others, without any justification at all. It is the result of the sin of not giving the other the benefit of the doubt. It is a sin that is doubled by the sin that follows, of treating the person we’ve judged unkindly, instead of respecting as we wish to be ourselves respected. We are warned that, even as a mitzvah will often lead us to another mitzvah, an averah often leads directly to another averah. Once they pile up, it is difficult to dig oneself out. On the bright side, the world will one day be healed of the horrors we inflict upon each other, when we stop reacting as children to what life brings us, and instead consider, as adults, not only how we feel, but what we’ve learned.

On this Shabbat Nakhamu, the first Shabbat after the mourning over destruction on Tisha B’Av, the rituals of our tradition encourage us to lift up our hearts from sadness and be willing to be consoled. The Rabbis who, two thousand years ago, set this meaning for this Shabbat, had lived through total catastrophe. Everything was destroyed – yet they insisted that we refrain from despair. On this Shabbat Nakhamu, as the rockets fly again and peace is nowhere in sight, we who are experiencing something much less total, have all the more reason to pull ourselves and our morale together and hope. More, in good Jewish fashion, let us see the task of making Shabbat Nakhamu a real and complete consolation in the future. May we live to see many more of them, and may we strengthen each other to work for a time where no baseless hatred remains to corrode our vision of what might yet be. The most difficult work, of course, is within ourselves: if each of us tries never to give in to thoughts of intolerance and hatred, the small ripples of our influence will have an impact on all those with whom we interact.

Let that work begin for you today, with three small acts of Torah, Avodah, and G’milut Hasadim: learn something, meditate upon it, and let it lead you to a random act of kindness. Let that be your small observance of the true meaning, and hope, of Shabbat Nakhamu.

Tisha B’Av 5774: May Our Mourning Soon Turn to Celebration

Today, the 9th day of Av, is one of intense mourning. For two thousand years the People of Israel has mourned the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple on this day. In 586 BCE Solomon’s Temple, paneled with cedar from Lebanon, was destroyed by the Babylonian Empire’s army; in 70 CE the Second Temple, begun by those who returned from Babylonian Exile and renovated by Herod of Rome to great beauty, was razed by the army of Rome.

The full horrors of siege and massacre were recorded in the Book Eikha (“Lamentations”), traditionally attribute to the Prophet Jeremiah. Ever since, we read from that book on this day and cry; we recite laments written in fantastically artful rhyming acrostics, two, three, and four times repeating each letter of the Hebrew alphabet in order. Some of the kinot are anonymous; some of the most beautiful are attributed to the poet Eliezer ben Kalir (7th century). The words within each beautifully written kinah (“lament”) describe the horrifying details of suffering and death – all the more awful in that stark contrast.

The kinot give voice to a despair that, though it may change its specific circumstances, remains tragically the same in all human experience: How can our lives have become so wretched that some seek to kill others? How has the Garden of this beautiful world into which we are born, a beautiful gift that we did nothing to deserve, how have we turned it into such a radioactive dump?

The classic Jewish response is this: for our sins we were exiled from our land. The responsibility for our exile from happiness, from peace, from safety, from delight, is the work of our own human hands. I do not mean to say simplistically that an individual deserves what happens to her; rather, to recognize that none of us is an individual in that radical way. Our acts are dependent upon, and affect, each other, not only in our own day but throughout time.

Take one example from political science: After World War I, a supremely confident victorious group of allies divided up the spoils, just as victors always have. In this case, the spoils were the Ottoman Empire, and the victors were the colonial powers of Europe. The victorious imposed arbitrary “states” and “nations” upon the vanquished, and in so doing created the conditions for great suffering among those whose lives and identities were peremptorily reassigned. Much of the unhappiness in the Middle East today is more easily understood simply by recalling those days, and the Islamic State newly self-styled (and appearing in the areas of Syria and Iraq, tellingly ignoring those Western-drawn state borders) declares itself a direct reaction against that time.

What each of us does, affects us all. In Jewish tradition we recognize this reality through the Talmudic teaching What is the best practice to which a person should adhere? Always consider what is being born. (Pirke Avot 2.12)

Jewish tradition is optimistic; since human beings are created in G-d’s image, we are capable of creativity, love, and beauty – not just the horrors we tend to inflict upon each other. Thus, on this day of Tisha B’Av 5774, when there is much about which to despair, let us consider our power to work for good even in the midst of darkness. If we are in exile because of our sins, it is an ethical exile, not geographical, and we cannot return from it physically or mentally but only morally. We are capable of this return, but only after we come to terms with our acts, and seek healing from them for ourselves and for those we have injured.

The most optimistic teaching of all is that one day, Tisha B’Av will become a day not of our greatest mourning, but of our greatest celebration. On that day we will look back at all our former struggling, and our unkindness towards each other, and then we will laugh it away, and sing our sorrows into delight.

If you have a hard time fighting off despair, you are not alone. But there are those who wrestle a blessing even from the current darkness that seems to surround us. This link shows you a short video of people helping people, in the midst of the destruction. They might be Israelites or they might be Babylonians; they might be Israelis or they might be Arabs. What matters is that they are choosing life in the midst of death.

…May the day that turns our mourning into song come soon – it cannot come soon enough

Because for now, we find ourselves situated within the difficult and sad work of coming to terms with what we, the people of Israel, and what we, human beings on this earth, have wrought. May this Tisha B’Av be one of fasting from denial, fasting from hate, and fasting from despair.

Here are a few excerpts from the kinot. May these songs of sorrow turn soon to their opposite, and may we all see the day of joy on the other side of this darkness.

Oh how they have cast down my glory from my head when they set up an idol opposite G-d’s Throne, when they profaned the conditions the prophets had counselled, saying “If you walk in My statutes”….G-d has cut down the cornerstone of the city which was full of righteousness, for in her chamber of imagery He found every kind of impurity.

How lonely sits the rose of Sharon! Song is muted on the lips of the Levites, and the priests, the offspring of Aaron, were moved away from their watch-stations when the Temple was delivered into the hands of those who rebel against G-d.

The five-fold Torah cried bitterly when the priest and prophet was slain on the Day of Atonement, and over his blood the young priests were slaughtered like young goats, and the priests of Tzippori scattered like birds in flight.

On account of the iniquity of tithes and the sabbatical year, Israel, the bedecked bride, was exiled from her land.

When I think how the tongue of the suckling child could cleave to his palate through parching thirst, oh woe!

When I think how the daughters were swollen from starvation in their mothers’ laps, oh woe!

When I think how women were burdened with miscarrying wombs and dried-up breasts, oh woe!

When I think how the mother weeps over her children that are sinking toward death, oh woe!

When I think how the young warriors dropped in the desert of Arabia, oh woe!

When I think how in exhaustion the exiles diminished from a thousand to ten, and ten to one, oh woe!

When I think how their breath became flame from thirst, and were given empty skins of water, oh woe!

When I think how nine kavs of children’s brains were piled up on one rock, oh woe!

When I think how three hundred babies were impaled on a single lance, oh woe!

When I think how the young men and women fainted through parching thirst, oh woe!

Palestinian children from border crossings to Israeli hospitals and back. It was shot during the first week of Tzuk Eitan (the current conflict w Gaza) and it features my cousin Yuval, the founder of Road to Recovery.

.A bit of sanity for us all, please share with the world…

Shabbat Hazon: A Vision To Hold On To

This week we begin to read the final book of the Torah, called devarim, “words”. The entire book consists of Moshe’s parting words.

The Israelites will soon cross the Jordan River, under the leadership of Joshua. Before the crossing, a moment of reflection: Moshe is reminding the Israelites of where they came from, and how far they have come. Over and over he will urge us, remember your ancestors, and what they did; remember your forebears, and what they taught.

As we face the challenges of our lives, it may help to consider that, whatever we are facing, there is a good possibility that either we have been in a similar situation before, or that our friends, our colleagues, even – yikes – our parents, may have, and may have the wisdom of experience to share. None of us need ever be alone in a stressful situation.  As Jews, we are told this over and over again: you are part of a community that remembers, that seeks to learn from experience, and that holds before it an ideal against which we measure ourselves, our experiences, and our beliefs.

Our starting point is the belief that life is a gift, and that it is not enough to be grateful. We have a responsibility as receivers of the gift of life, to respond out of that gratitude, and ask what is my obligation? what do I owe to Life, having been given life? The answer, of course, is to become the best life-form we can be: to be open always to learning, to pray and meditate upon that which is learned, and to practice loving kindness at all times.

It is easy to understand a teaching when one agrees with it; it is easy to pray and meditate when one is serene; it is easy to do kindness to those we like or feel sorry for. But our obligation to uphold our ethics is no less when it’s difficult – rather, that’s where we find out what we really believe, and what we really worship. It is in the face of anger, frustration, stress, and fear that we discover what we’re really made of.

On this Shabbat we are challenged by a special haftarah to consider how we are doing. This special Shabbat is called Shabbat Hazon – the “Shabbat of vision”. The vision is that of the Prophet Isaiah, whose words supply our haftarah for this Shabbat. On this Shabbat, consider his words as they echo in your life and the life of our People:

21 How is the faithful city become a harlot! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her once. 

22 Your silver is become dross, your wine mixed with water. 

23 Your leaders are rebellious, and companions of thieves; every one loves bribes, and follow after rewards; they judge not the fatherless, neither doth the cause of the widow come unto them.

24 Therefore says our G-d, the Mighty One of Israel: Ah, I will ease Me of Mine adversaries, and avenge Me of Mine enemies; 

25 And I will turn My hand upon you, and purge away your dross as with lye, and will take away all your alloy; 

26 And I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counsellors as at the beginning; afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city. 

27 Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and they that return of her with righteousness. 

Evil, whether done by us or by others, will not endure, if we are committed to its end. This is the vision that we are called upon to believe in and to make real through our words and our acts. On this Shabbat, consider your own power to create a more just world in every small act, in every situation, and that real justice will only come from finding within ourselves a willingness to learn also from those whom we don’t like, to pray and to meditate upon our acts and our attitudes when we are not serene, and to practice kindness with those from whom we recoil. Such behavior can only come from constantly reminding ourselves, in the moment before crossing from a word to an act, to consider G-d’s command to us to, at all times, to

do justice

love mercy

and walk humbly with G-d. (Micah 6.8)