Shabbat BaMidbar and Shavuot 5778: Into The Wilderness

Our parashat hashavua is called after the name of the book it opens, BaMidbar, “in the wilderness.” The first verse is both simple and completely mysterious:
וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי G‑d spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai (1:1)
This is the Shabbat before Shavuot, the Festival on which we commemorate the day when the people of Israel stood in G*d’s presence and received from that moment the heart of the Torah, the Aseret haDibrot, the Ten Words. I invite you to join me in considering that simple, and profound, idea.
First: “G*d spoke to Moshe.” what does it mean to say that G*d spoke?
 
Second: a human being, Moshe, experiences a sense of connection with G*d. We are so used to it in the Torah that we read blithely over it, looking for the action, forgetting as we humans do to be awed by the thought of what it means to be in the Presence of G*d. 
 
Third: what is the content of the davar, the word that G*d speaks? In Jewish tradition, that content is Torah, writ large: our tradition considers all learning that leads to spiritual wholeness to be Torah, not just the five books we keep in a sacred scroll.
Ancient wisdom tells us plainly that such Torah is not heard, or received, easily. We don’t get it on the couch watching television, nor even simply hiking through the woods. It comes when we know that we are standing in the Presence.
 

By three things was the Torah given: by fire, water and wilderness. By fire, as it is written (Exodus 19:18): “Now Mount Sinai was altogether on smoke, because G‑d descended upon it in fire.” By water, as it is written (Judges 4:4): “The heavens also dripped, yes, the clouds dripped water.” And by wilderness, as it is written (Numbers 1:1): “G‑d spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai.”  (Midrash Rabbah)

Fire – This morning I as you awoke to the news of another school shooting. As I write, the news is that ten human lives have been violently ended by gunfire in Santa Fe High School outside of Galveston Texas. This is the twenty-second school shooting since the beginning of 2018, an average of more than one per week. And our hearts are heavy for the violent deaths of all those caught up in violence everywhere: Palestinians in Gaza, Arabs in Syria, Rohingya in Myanmar, African Americans in the United States.
What Torah must we learn by this fire?
Water – The arrogance of modernity caused us to dismiss ancient warnings that link our social ethics to our ability to thrive on the earth; one prominent example is that second paragraph of the Shema: “Take care, lest you become confused and turn away and serve other gods, and HaShem become angry and shut up the the heavens so that there will be no rain, and the ground shall not yield to you, and you will perish.” (Deut.11.16-17) But today we see a divine anger – the earth’s righteous anger, which is just another way of knowing HaShem – expressed in the climate change that we have brought upon ourselves through turning away to worship the gods of convenience, of wealth and power.
What Torah must we learn by this water?
Our Torah was given in the wilderness, we are told; wilderness, chaotic and unsettled, unknown and undefined. We do not receive it in the comfort of our convictions and in the safety of our agreements, but only in the chaos and uncertainty of learning and spiritual growth.
What Torah must we learn in this wilderness?
On this Shabbat in the wilderness, on this Shavuot that commemorates awareness of the Presence found only within that wilderness, may our fear and sadness and anger lead not to despair but to an active desire to brave the uncertainty and plunge in to the unknown, that we might be in the Presence, that we might know the Awe, that we might seek the davar, the Word that heals and helps us to learn, and helps us to do.
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Shabbat BeHar-BeHukotai: Love Your Mother

This week we finish reading the Book VaYikra, Leviticus, with another double parashat hashavua. The name of the first of the two, BeHar, offers already a nice little learning. The word behar, actually three words in English, means “at the mountain” and refers to Mount Sinai. The first verse goes on to specify:
וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, בְּהַר סִינַי לֵאמֹר דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם–וְשָׁבְתָה הָאָרֶץ, שַׁבָּת לה’. HaShem spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the People of Israel, and say unto them: When you come into the land which I give you, the land shall keep a Shabbat unto HaShem.
From this our teacher Rashi asks a famous question: Mah inyan shemitta atzel Har Sinai? “What does shemitta have to do with Mt. Sinai?” This is the Jewish version of a phrase you may know – “what does that have to do with the price of tea in China?” In both cases the question concerns the apparent lack of relationship between two subjects – in our case, letting the land rest, called shemitta, and Mt. Sinai. Why is Mt. Sinai mentioned here, at this moment? It might be more than just a subtle reminder that in just another week we will reach Shavuot, the day on which we commemorate standing at Sinai to receive the Torah.
Many answers have been offered by different commentators, wise teachers and curious students:
1. you might think that letting the land rest is merely an economic matter and not spiritual, and therefore we recall the moment we stood at Mt Sinai in proximity to it to remind you.
2. the shemitta year is only one out of seven, yet its impact blesses the other six (by letting the land restore itself naturally for a complete year). You might think that Shabbat, only one out of seven, is a small thing, yet it was commanded at Mt Sinai and, if we rest, it will bless our entire week.
3. The Sefat Emet teaches that this mitzvah is so central that all of Torah depends upon it, and that is why Mt Sinai, which we associate with the giving of the Torah, is mentioned here:
Letting the land lay fallow – letting go of our need to work it, to work, to be productive, to control our future – leaving that in G*d’s hands, that is the foundation of the entire Torah, which necessitates a measure of submission to God’s will and a relinquishing control in this world. To embrace a life of Torah, one needs a measure of letting go. (from Steven Exler, The Bayit)
And, finally, a contemporary teacher asks: What does it mean that the whole Torah is dependent upon the laws of Shemittah?
It means, very simply, that the entirety of our religious lives, our spiritual lives, are built upon the very physical reality of a functioning earth. None of the world of Torah gets off the ground – literally – unless the ground is healthy. We cannot do anything without an earth which is nourished, sustained, sustainable, and healthy. If we have no clean air to breathe, no clean water to drink, no clean soil to plant in, then we have no foundation in which to root – literally – our religious lives. It is a simple, basic truth: we need to take care of our earth to have a future upon it. (Steven Exler, The Bayit)
As the following parashah, parashat BeHukotai, makes very clear, if we fall from Mt Sinai, we and the earth will suffer together. Our ancestors understood the existential linkage between our ethical behavior and our world’s physical existence. On this Shabbat before the secular holiday of Mothers’ Day, may we consider that other Mother of ours, the planet upon which we live, breath and find our meaning.

Shabbat Emor: Against the Cruelty

In this second year of the Triennial Cycle of Torah reading, our congregation, like many others throughout the Jewish world, begins to read not at the beginning of parashat Emor but with chapter 22, verse 17. This is about one-third of the way in, since the Triennial Cycle makes its way through one third of each parashah each year. And in chapter 22 and following, we find a collection of mitzvot that do not seem to us to cohere in any logical way – according to our modern, Greek-based logic, that is. The ancient Hebrew mindset, it has been suggested, was more analogical than ours. In its own way it is just as systematic, even though our eyes aren’t used to the way this system works.
Strange juxtapositions occur. Consider this mitzvah that appears in the middle of a series addressing the sacrificial system:
וַיְדַבֵּר ה’, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. HaShem spoke to Moses, saying:
שׁוֹר אוֹ כֶשֶׂב אוֹ-עֵז כִּי יִוָּלֵד, וְהָיָה שִׁבְעַת יָמִים תַּחַת אִמּוֹ; וּמִיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי, וָהָלְאָה, יֵרָצֶה, לְקָרְבַּן אִשֶּׁה לה’. When a calf, lamb, or kid is born, it shall be seven days with its mother; only from the eighth day on is it acceptable as an offering to HaShem.
וְשׁוֹר, אוֹ שֶׂה אתוֹ וְאֶת-בְּנוֹ, לֹא תִשְׁחֲטוּ בְּיוֹם אֶחָד. Whether it be cow or ewe, you shall not kill it and its young both in one day. (VaYikra 22.26-28)
The most interesting thing about this text is the way in which different commentators in different times, living in different cultures with different assumptions and expectations, understand the meaning of this mitzvah. For Maimonides, a physician and Rabbi living during the 12th century flourishing of philosophy and science in Al-Andalus, the meaning is clearly about the feelings of animals:
The Torah wished to choose the most humane method of killing and forbade cruel practices such as strangulation, cutting a limb, or slaughtering the mother and young on the same day, in order to preclude the slaying of the young in the presence of its mother, since this involves great cruelty. (Guide for the Perplexed)
This interpretation was not accepted by Nakhmanides, who lived at about the same time, but in Christian-controlled Aragon:
The reason for the prohibition of slaying the mother and young on the same day…is to eradicate cruelty and pitilessness from the human heart, not that HaShem has mercy on the animal. Were that the case, HaShem would have forbidden eating animals completely. The real reason is to cultivate in us the quality of mercy…since cruelty is contagious. (cited in Leibowitz Studies in VaYikra)
The common denominator is the ubiquity of human cruelty. This mitzvah is meant to protect domesticated animals which are mother and child from the cruelty inherent in being killed on the same day. This was a well-known prohibition in ancient Israel, and from that day to this the halakhic category of tzaar baaley hayim – “the pain of living things” has developed as all Jewish sacred obligations do, to include such modern mitzvot as feeding the family pet before you yourself eat.
Would that we treated each other as thoughtfully! In the ancient text Eikha Rabbati some ancient anonymous author looks around at the world and makes the painful point.
“G*d of the Universe! You wrote in Your Torah: whether cow or ewe, do not kill mother and young in the same day.” But behold, they have murdered children and their mothers in countless number, yet you are silent!” – Ekha Rabbati
The cruelty inherent in killing is everywhere. It is in the slaughterhouse where cows are butchered for human consumption and in the bombings where whole families die. The wisdom of our tradition urges us to consider the connections, and to realize that even as one small kindness adds to the good in the world, each small cruelty inures us to greater and greater horrors.
When we immerse ourselves in our ancient and modern sources of traditional wisdom, and we experience the multiplicity of thoughtful teachings in which our perspectives too find a home, we come to realize that our ancestors knew no less cruelty than did we, even as we know the same silence that pained them.
Nothing, no G*d on high nor any other source of power beyond us, is going to save us from ourselves, as Carl Sagan famously said. Jews know that waiting around for G*d to save us is not the Jewish way; the work of making the Presence of G*d real and loud in the world is what we must do, and it begins with each mother and child – each being among us, after all, is born of a mother. Disagree as we will on the why, or the best way to understand the what, if we each determine to stand against it in our every small act, perhaps our kindness will be contagious, and the cruelty of our time will be just a little less virulent.