Shabbat Ki Tetze: Doing Battle In Jewish

The first words of this week’s parashah are כי תצא למלחמה ki tetze l’milkhamah, “when you go out to do battle.” When one looks for these words in the Torah scroll, it’s easy to mistake the place, for the same phrase appears three times in a short space of parchment. All three have in common that in this part of the Torah our ancestors are recounting the Jewish way to fight.
Jewish tradition does not shy away from any human behavior; we insist that no matter what you are doing, there is a way to do it according to Jewish ethics. A teacher of mine used to say that there’s even a Jewish way to slide into second base – with your cleats down, and without attempting to intimidate the opposing player off the bag out of fear of harm.
Of course, when we read in the Torah during the month of Elul of “going out into battle” we recognize that much of the struggle against evil is that which takes place inside ourselves. Jewish ethical literature requires during this time of Atonement that we seek out the inimical forces that are part of us, and battle them for control of our hearts and minds – and behavior.
But there is also a Jewish way to behave when we are facing a even more difficult and even frightening opposition. In the current climate of rising hatred and fear, many feel that when some would march in our streets declaring the tenets of their hatred, we must be there to counter that voice and resist that hostility. To do this is to fulfill the mitzvah of going out to oppose the enemy – in this case, not only of our well-being and peace of mind, but also of the peace and well-beingn of our society.
If you are moved to “go out against the enemy” – and yes, people who commit violence with word and act are our enemy whether they threaten us or our neighbors – you are nevertheless not permitted to consider yourself as “going out” from your Jewishness. Thus these three repetitions of the phrase ki tetze l’milkhamah, “when you go out to battle” are instructive:
When you take the field against your enemies and they are delivered into your hands, and you see something that you want. (Deut. 21.10)
The parashah begins with this warning, that just because you are caught up in a situation of disorder, you may not take advantage of it. You may not simply take anything you see that you decide that you want. A protest is not a time when ethics do not apply – Judaism insists that you be a Jew at all moments, no matter what the provocation or temptation of your yetzer hara’, your evil inclination.
When you go out as a group against your enemies, be on your guard against anything untoward. (Deut. 23.10)
This command requires that we look at ourselves and the group we have gathered together in order to go forth and do battle. Related to the warning in last week’s parashat hashavua, we must pursue justice justly – just means and just ends. What is the group’s ethic? its rhetoric? its aims? Who are you allying with, to whom are you adding the strength of your voice and your presence?
When you go forth to do battle against your enemies and you see horses and chariots – forces larger than yours – have no fear of them, for HaShem is with you. (Deut. 20.1)
There’s a moment when one’s group may be confronted with a sense of being overwhelmed by the forces we confront: the scale of the national catastrophe, the hostility of White Supremacists, or the militarized police who deploy tear gas, rubber bullets and sound cannons against unarmed people expressing their First Amendment rights of speech and assembly. Just seeing the riot police show up with their armed vehicles offers a moment of empathy with the way our ancestors must have felt when the Hittites showed up on their shiny chariots with their fearsome spears made of the latest synthetic, bronze.
The Torah’s promise does not mean that G*d will protect us from harm in such a case; indeed, members of our own kehillah have been hurt in gatherings since January 20 of this year. The Torah only promises that G*d will be with us when we go out to do battle with evil, meaning that even if we’re harmed, even if we’re arrested, even if we are – G*d forbid – killed, if we have gone forth to the battle with care for ethics both in our acts and that of the group with which we ally, we will be able to rest in the assurance that our intentions and our acts aimed toward righteousness.
In memory of
Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, James Cheney (Mississippi),
Edward Crawford (Ferguson),
William Schraeder, Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Lee Scheuer (Kent State)
Heather Heyer (Charlottesville)
and
too many more
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Shabbat Emor: With All Your Heart

Nobody sees a flower really; 

it is so small. 

We haven’t time, 

and to see takes time – 

like to have a friend takes time.

  – Georgia O’Keefe

Parashat Emor begins with a series of commands regarding the priests and their behavior: lo y’tama’ b’amav, they shall “not become defiled among their people”. (Lev. 21.1) Priests, who are set up as an elite among the people, must live up to the expectations of the position. This is a very ancient idea and still so relevant: when people occupy positions of high authority, we expect them to behave accordingly, and by that we mean ethically – and we are especially disappointed in them when they do not.

There’s an ethical dilemma, though, in that expectation: we who are not in that high position might come to see our own behavior as less significant. We might even say that it’s no big deal if we break a law, compared to if the priest/king/president/mayor does. 

Jewish tradition teaches differently. When the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed by the Roman Empire, the Rabbis sought ways to keep our religious (which includes ethical) traditions relevant even without the institutions they had been based upon and grew from. Jewish teaching emphasizes that each of us can defile not only ourselves, but our people, when we act unethically. It takes the heart right out of the community and slowly but surely, that community declines into cynicism. 

No – rather than give up the institutions that support our acts and teachings, they brilliantly interpreted them:

No more sacrifices? the Rabbis taught that G*d welcomed the “service of the heart”, and that our obedience to the ethical teachings of our tradition would be just as acceptable an offering – as a gift of thanksgiving for the gift of life, or as an offering of atonement.

No more Temple altar? our tables in our homes shall become our altar, they said, and each of our homes a mikdash me’at, a “small sanctuary”. Our homes are to echo and reinforce our ethics.

No more priests? the Rabbis pointed out, G*d declares in the Torah that “you shall all be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy people.” (Ex.19.6) Without a central Jewish institution, it was – and is – up to each of us to maintain the ethical standards that were to be upheld by the priests.

It is clear that we are to see the ethical commands of Judaism as incumbent upon us all equally. And these mitzvot are that which will keep us from becoming “defiled among the people”. But how to keep track of all the specifics in the way we are meant to behave, not only judging others but ourselves, in a life so full of distraction? How to, as the familiar mitzvah puts it, follow the path “with all your heart”?

The text of parashat Emor itself offers us a way to do just that: “you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete” (Lev. 23.15) Jewish tradition has developed this into an ethic of counting our days – all our days, not just these 49 between Pesakh and Shavuot. But these 7 weeks have become for us a time to deepen whatever practice we have for noticing our days, for not letting them slip by completely unexamined. When we take time each day to consider our day, we see them, and the days themselves become fuller for us, richer – and we are more able to be conscious ethical actors in our lives, rather than helplessly pulled from place to place, commitment to commitment. 

Then we are more able to act with all the heart. And that is what makes each day, and each week, “complete” in the sense of the Torah’s phrase.

Shabbat Kedoshim: Neither Inaccessible Nor Absurd

Our parashat hashavua (“section of the week”, i.e. the part of the Torah assigned by ancient Jewish tradition for this week in the Jewish calendar) begins with the most inaccessible and ludicrous of demands: 

“Speak to the People Israel and say to them, ‘be holy [kadosh], as I ‘ה your G*d am holy [kadosh]’.” (Lev. 19.2)

But when we investigate using our tried and true Jewish implements of interpretation, we find that what was thought was far from us is actually very near to us.

What does the Torah mean by kadosh, “holy”? The Rabbis who interpret our tradition, following the invitation to “turn it over and over, for everything is in it” (Pirke Avot 5.22) consider several options. To be kadosh, they offer, is perhaps to act like G*d, or, perhaps, it is to hold oneself separate. I suggest to you that it is both, and we must realize that there are times when to do one we must do the other.

This seems, as I said, either inaccessible or absurd. After all, don’t we strive for unity among all, and if so, why teach that we should hold ourselves separate? And acting like G*d, i.e. “holier than thou”, has a very bad ethical reputation in our world of political manipulation of religion.

But there is a different, more ancient insight from our tradition:

What does it mean to be “kadosh”, i.e. act like G*d?

R. Hama son of R. Hanina said: What does the Torah mean when it says You shall walk after the Lord your God? (Deut.13.5)  Is it, then, possible for a human being to walk after the Shekhinah [i.e. the Presence]; for has it not [also] been said: For HaShem your God is a devouring fire? (Deut.4.24)  

[It means that we should] to walk after the attributes of the Holy One of Blessing:

As G*d clothes the naked, for it is written: And ‘ה made for Adam and for Eve coats of skin, and clothed them (Gen.3.21)  

so you must also clothe the naked. 

The Holy One of Blessing visited the sick, for it is written: And ‘ה appeared unto Abraham by the oaks of Mamre (Gen.18.1)  

so you must also visit the sick. 

The Holy One of Blessing comforted mourners, for it is written: And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that ‘ה blessed Isaac his son (Gen.25.11)  

so you must also comfort mourners. 

The Holy One of Blessing buried the dead, for it is written: And ‘ה buried [Moshe] in the valley (Deut.34.6)  

so you must also bury the dead. (Talmud Bavli, Sotah 14a)

What does it mean to be “kadosh” i.e. be separate?

The 11th century Ashkenazi authority Rashi, using the interpretive tool of noting juxtaposition of texts, suggests that to be kadosh in this manner is to separate ourselves from the acts which are prohibited in the preceding parashah. In other words, just do what the Torah commands.

But the 13th century Sephardi teacher Nahmanides sees a more general idea. He points out that the Torah commands the priests to maintain a certain level of constant separateness from that which would render them unable to do their assigned tasks in the sacred space. (From a teaching by Rabbi Dov Landau of Bar Ilan University, Israel)

The rabbis of antiquity, when asked how we were to go on after the sacred space in Jerusalem, the Temple, was destroyed, answered that the Torah also says you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy people (Ex.19.6). Therefore, Nahmanides teaches, we should all see ourselves as priests in terms of fulfilling the command to be kadosh.

Now more than ever as we struggle to know what is true and good in a world that drags everything into relativity,

as we face feelings of demoralization over the forces of greed and cynicism in our national and local social circles,

as an American politician encourages bigotry and violence against those who would oppose his urge to power,

There is a way forward, and it is neither inaccessible nor absurd: be kadosh by separating yourself from cynicism and greed and demoralization. Be kadosh by holding on to the teachings that formed your sense of ethics. There is nothing inaccessible or absurd in the clear demand of the mitzvah to clothe the naked, visit the sick, comfort the mourner, and, as our Gevurot prayer puts it, “keep faith with those who sleep in the dust”.

Shabbat Bereshit: We’ll Keep the Light On

The earth was formless and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep (Bereshit 1:2)

First comes darkness, then light.  (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 77b)

At the beginning, there is darkness. This is not only true of the account of Creation as we find it in the Book we call Bereshit, known in English as “Genesis”. It is true of life, as well – our own, as we are conceived, and of much of the rest of Existence.

Darkness is a challenge to those of us life forms which depend upon our eyes to navigate. In the light, we orient ourselves by looking around; we judge our surroundings by visual cues; we can assess threat or safety at a distance, and signal the same. But in darkness we wander, disoriented, perhaps even lost. We seek to relieve it by finding a source of light, and the relief you have felt when you realized that the batteries were still good in the old flashlight is recognizable to us all.

These days of our lives are meant to be so full of joy, as we have just come through our Days of Awe, our fall Sukkot harvest festival, and our yearly blowout with our beloved Torah. But there is increased violence here at home; today there are reports of more than one random shooting in a public place. And there are terrible reports coming in from Israel, where one act of violence after another has led to speculation in Israel’s newspaper of note of a third Intifada. And there are other sadnesses: medical workers come under attack in a bombing raid. Refugees face indifference, and worse. A homeless man begs on a street corner near you.

Here is the real challenge to our lives and the way we live them: do we really believe that the things we do bring light to this world of ours, which so desperately needs it? Jewish tradition urges us not to underestimate the power of the choices we make, and the acts by which we are known. Every small spark of kindness can add to the light in this world by which we find our way out of this terrifying darkness. But the challenge is to stay focused upon the power of a small act, when one might give in to the impulse to believe that there’s no use, that it doesn’t matter.

On this Shabbat, consider your own morale and your purpose in the world. Do you perhaps wonder about whether you can really make a meaningful difference in the misery you see all around you? If so, remember this: your own personal ethics either stay with you under this kind of stress, or they need an upgrade. To turn away and say that there is nothing you can do is to misunderstand your purpose in the world. As another teacher put it:

“Let there be light” was the first statement in Creation, because “light” is the true purpose of existence. To bring light is our purpose: that each of us transform our situation and environment from darkness and negativity to light and goodness. Through the study of Torah and the fulfillment of mitzvot, we strengthen the light of creation. 

It’s getting darker. It’s getting colder. And this is when you need the most support for your own ethical choices and your confidence in them. Refuse to give in to cynicism. Get that free upgrade by lending your presence and getting strength from your religious community. This is the village that devotes itself to keeping the light on – through davening, study, and the kindness that can be shown only through social justice work.

Rabbi Hayim of Tzanz used to tell this parable: a man, wandering lost in the forest for several days, finally encountered another. He called out: brother, show me the way out of this forest! The other replied, but I too am lost. I can only tell you this: the ways I have tried lead nowhere. They have only led me astray. Take my hand, and let us search for the way together. Rabbi Hayim would add: so it is with us. When we go our separate ways, we may go astray. Let us join hands and look for the way together.

Shabbat Shoftim: No Justice, No Peace

This parashat hashavua offers us so much of the guidance we need for our community relationships – the parashah begins with three perfect verses that cover so much ground.

שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים, תִּתֶּן-לְךָ בְּכָל-שְׁעָרֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ, לִשְׁבָטֶיךָ; וְשָׁפְטוּ אֶת-הָעָם, מִשְׁפַּט-צֶדֶק.

You must have judges and officers in all your gates which by the grace of G-d you have, tribe by tribe; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment.

לֹא-תַטֶּה מִשְׁפָּט, לֹא תַכִּיר פָּנִים; וְלֹא-תִקַּח שֹׁחַד–כִּי הַשֹּׁחַד יְעַוֵּר עֵינֵי חֲכָמִים, וִיסַלֵּף דִּבְרֵי צַדִּיקִם.

You shall not show favoritism; you shall not respect individuals; you shall not take a gift – for a gift blinds the eyes of the wise, and twists the words of the righteous.

צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף–לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ

Justice, justice you must follow, that you may live, and inherit the land which ‘ה your G-d gives you.  (Devarim 16.18-20)

Consider these few of the centuries of interpretations of these three verses, and in how many situations of your every day life they might guide your own words and acts:

1. “Judges” – in the plural. Do not dare to judge alone, for no one can judge alone but the One.  –  Pirke Avot 4:8 – Get a second opinion before you make a decision about someone’s character or behavior. Maybe you’re wrong.

2. “in all your gates” – The human body is a city with seven gates, that is, seven portals to the outside world: the two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and the mouth. We must learn to place internal “judges” to discriminate and regulate what goes in and what comes out. – Sifte Kohen – The best advice I ever got was to “put a seven-second delay” on my mouth.

3.”Bribes blind the eyes of the wise” – As soon as [the judge] accepts a bribe from [a litigant], it is impossible for him not to be favorably disposed towards him. – Rashi – Bribes are not just money or other kinds of material gain. One can be bribed in a much more subtle way, without any malicious intent, as in this story from the Talmud:

Bribes twist the words of the righteous” – A person once brought Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha the “First Shearings” (one of the 24 gifts given to a kohen – Rabbi Ishmael was a kohen by lineage and could accept such gifts). Said Rabbi Ishmael to him: “Where are you from?” Said he: “From such-and-such a place.” Said Rabbi Ishmael: “And from there till here there was no kohen to whom you could give it?” Said he: “I have a matter of litigation, and I said to myself: as I’m coming here, I’ll give it to you.”

Rabbi Ishmael refused to accept it from him, and said to him: “I am disqualified to serve as a judge in your case.” Instead, he sat two Torah scholars to judge his case. While still going to and fro [and overhearing the litigation], Rabbi Ishmael said to himself: If he wanted, he could argue thus and thus [to better present his case]. Said he: “A curse upon the takers of bribes! I did not accept anything from him. And if I would have accepted it, it would have been something that is mine by rights. Nevertheless, I am inclined in his favor. How much more so one who accepts a bribe! – Talmud Bavli, Ketubot 105b

4. “Justice, justice shall you pursue” – Why does the verse repeat itself? Is there a just justice and an unjust justice? Indeed there is. The Torah is telling us to be just also in pursuit of justice — both the end and the means by which it is obtained must be just. – Rabbi Bunim of Peshischa

5. “Justice, justice shall you pursue” – By virtue of three things the world endures: law, truth and peace. – Pirke Avot 1:18 – Law, truth and peace; the three are one and the same: if the law is upheld, there is truth and there is peace. – Talmud Yerushalmi, Taanit 4:2

Our third verse concludes with the warning that only when justice is upheld with righteousness can we expect to “inherit the land”. That land is the place of your life and that of your family and community. The Torah is telling us that aren’t enough security systems and armies in the world to protect us from the consequences of our unethical choices. Unless we establish real justice, for all, in the land of the living, none of us will feel secure upon it.

What would our lives be like if we truly believed that the best insurance for a safe and happy life was bought by ethical insurance, and not just the homeowner’s or renter’s policy you wouldn’t dream of not having?

Shabbat VaYera: How Are Jews To Be in the World?

How are Jews meant to be in the world? The answer suggested by Jewish ethics is that with every step and with every word, we are to seek the presence of G-d. That does not mean that we are to treat the world as a game of hide-and-seek, but rather that we are to consider the impact of every word and act. Will this thing that I am about to say, that I am burning to say, bring the Presence more fully into being? Will this act that I plan to undertake bring more wholeness into my life and that of my family, my friends, my companions in community?

This week we are given a clear message about the intersection of ethical behavior and the Presence of G-d, as our ancestors struggled to understand it.

We have arrived, this week, at the parashat hashavua called VaYera, “[G-d] appeared”. In this first verse and throughout this long parashah, G-d appears several times to different people, in different guises. 

First, to Abraham in the guise of three travelers (or maybe only one of them, the text is obscure).

18.1: “God appeared to him by the scrub oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day”

Second, to Sarah in the guise of an accuser, “outing” her private laughter:

18.15 “Sarah denied it, saying ‘I didn’t laugh’, because she was afraid. But G-d said, ‘you did too laugh’.”

Third, to Abraham in the guise of a king taking counsel with a trusted advisor:

18.17: “Shall I hide from Abraham that which I am doing?”

Fourth, to Avimelekh, king of Gerar, who adds Sarah to his harem after Abraham says that she is his sister (long story):

20.3: “You are going to die, because you have taken a woman who is another man’s wife.”

Fifth, to Abraham, as a friend counsels a man having trouble at home:

21.12: “In all that Sarah tells you, do as she says.”

Sixth, to Hagar as a savior:

21.19: “G-d opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water.”

Seventh, and finally, as – well, we don’t really know for sure:

22.1: “After all these things, G-d tested Abraham.”

These appearances all have in common an invitation to consider the meaning and ethical impact of one’s acts. The first is the classic story of Jewish hospitality. The second and fourth have to do with honesty, and the third with refraining from hypocrisy. The fifth touches on a Jewish category called shalom bayit, “keeping peace at home”. In the sixth, Hagar is challenged not to give up as long as life remains. 

The seventh appearance of G-d in this parashah introduces the story of the Akedah, the “binding” and near sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham’s son and heir. For millennia, Jewish commentators, teachers and scholars have all tried to explain this incident and make it comprehensible. How could G-d command Abraham to “go to the land of Moriah, and take your son, your only one, whom you love, and offer him up as a burnt offering to Me on one of the mountains that I will show you there.” (Gen. 22.2) As has been said by many long before now, this makes no sense. It is also horrifying, of course.

One of the more compelling answers to this question is the one which notes that G-d “tested” Abraham. Pointing out that G-d did not allow the sacrifice to be completed, it has been suggested that the answer is quite simple: Abraham failed the test. The test was knowing when the voice that you are sure is G-d’s is not.

If the idea of “hearing G-d’s voice” is really just another way to say “I feel absolutely certain”, then the true test is knowing when that truth of which you are already certain is no longer true.

Each of the appearances in this parashah ask the protagonist to make a difficult ethical choice. Contrary to what we might assume, the appearance is not a reward for doing the right thing, the appearance is in the quandary itself. 

G-d is present in our difficulties as the strength and vision that allows us to find our way through them. The Divine Presence is not, according to this particular Torah insight, the property of the one who makes the right choice. It is with all of us who realize that before us lies a struggle to discern the ethical path. It is in the seeing, not in someone’s temporary and partial definition of success. It is clearly NOT the property of one who says s/he speaks in the name of G-d, or the secular god of ethics, and then speaks a hurtful, cold, word, or does a cruel act. It is no accident that G-d never again appears to Abraham after this incident.

May the sense of a divine supportive Presence be with you as you do your best to discern the ethical and moral choices of your life, and choose your acts in response.