Archive for Agost de 2014

We often assume that the Torah is static and unchanging, and in one sense it is. The scrolls that we open in any synagogue around the world have exactly the same words written in them, and the written word of the Torah will never change. However, for thousands of years, the concept “Torah”, which means teaching, has come to include all the wisdom and teaching that comes from the five books of Moses. What many do not think about is that sometimes we “expand” the message of Torah and sometimes we “contract” it. This week’s parashah presents a perfect example of this principle.

On one hand, we hear one of the essential teachings of Torah. “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” — justice with righteousness you shall pursue. This one verse has been expanded, in conjunction with many other teachings of Torah, to establish the pursuit of justice as one of the core principles of Judaism. Having been strangers in Egypt, we are called upon to have one standard of justice for stranger and citizen alike. Justice requires a standard of equity for individuals no matter their age or background; it calls upon us to have concern in particular for the underprivileged and oppressed, righting the wrongs created by human relationship and society.

On the other hand, we have one of the harshest teachings of the Torah put forward this week: the genocide of the inhabitants of the land of which we are to take possession. Tradition has contracted this passage by saying that the commandment was never fulfilled — but in our days we must constrict it even further. More than any other passage, this one calls upon us (especially in a world where too many justify their killings in the name and word of God) to reject this as a principle of Torah, whether actual or potential.

How do we get the right to expand and contract the Torah? Even if this were God’s teaching, it is quite clear that as God’s creatures we have obligations to use our minds for discernment. The Torah opens with the first human eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge — the implication being that we are responsible for our choices of good and bad, especially when it comes to expanding and contracting the respective teachings of Torah.

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The relationship between humans and other animals continues to be as vexed and complex as it was in Torah times, for we recognize that we have consciousness somewhat higher than the animals, while also being animals ourselves. A rabbinic midrash puts it quite bluntly, paraphrased as follows: “Like animals, humans eat, drink, defecate, procreate and die. Like the higher beings, humans stand upright, understand, speak and perceive”. What do we do with these differences? The tradition has acknowledged our power over animals, yet responsibility for them as well.

The Psalmist writes: “You have made the mortal human little less than divine, and adorned him with glory and majesty. You have made him master over your handiwork, laying the world at his feet, sheep and oxen, all of them, and wild beasts, too; the birds of the heavens, the fish of the sea, whatever travels the paths of the seas.” (Psalm 8:5–7). This power over the rest of animal life reflects other teachings of the Torah, including those from the opening story of creation in which we are given “dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky and the animals of the land”. While some have used these verses to justify our absolute right to use animals as we wish, Jews have never understood or taught Torah in this manner. According to thousands of years of received tradition, our dominion requires care for and duty toward animals. Judaism expects all humanity to avoid “tz’ar ba’ale chayim,” causing pain to animals.

In this week’s parasha, for a second time, we are taught the lessons of kashrut: laws that need to be seen in the context of the fact that when humans were given dominion over the animals, they were supposed to be eating a strict vegetarian diet of “the seed-bearing fruits of trees and plants.” Later teachings of Torah allow the consumption of animals, and in this light the laws of kashrut are to limit ourselves to eating land animals that do not chew the cud and have a cloven hoof, sea animals that do not have fins and scales, and birds that are not domesticated. Other received traditions limit our use of animals in many ways; even animals have the right to rest on Shabbat.

These limitations must be seen in terms of what the ancients knew about animals in general. Contemporary scientists tell us there are even more similarities between us and animals; animals are far more sentient and similar to humans than the ancients understood. These days, not causing cruelty to animals requires that we rethink our approach to the farming of animals and their slaughter, their testing for cosmetic products and many other related issues. That most of us consume animals does not absolve us from thinking about and taking responsibility for how they live and how they die. Our daily choices have life-long consequences.

If we are to be “a little lower than the angels” we must look at our fellow animals with eyes that are not merely human but humane.

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This week’s Torah portion provides us with a beautiful, luscious description of the land of Israel; a place dripping with honey, flowing rivers and streams, a rich, fertile land which will provide more than enough for the needs of the people about to enter. A land where they may “eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing” (Deut 8:9); an idyllic paradise. But it comes with a warning not to imagine that this good fortune comes our way because of any intrinsic merit within us. We are not to grow haughty and arrogant, to believe that we are better or more worthy because we have a newfound abundance. Instead, we are to always remember our humble beginnings, to appreciate what we have and to be grateful for the blessings in our lives. How wise the Torah is about human nature! How often do we see people attaining wealth or power and becoming more convinced of their own invincibility and their own entitlement with every dollar they amass? How often have we seen fame and power change a person and the way they treat the world and those around them? We often hear about faith in times of adversity, but in some ways it can be more difficult to hold onto our faith and our ideals in times of abundance and plenty for it is then that we are vulnerable to feelings of superiority based on our comfort levels, complacency which is born of lives of material wealth and security. The Torah reminds us in these moments to take stock, to recognize that the blessings we are fortunate to enjoy in our lives are gifts, not entitlements. They are beautiful, precious presents which we have been lucky to receive, and for each one we should be grateful.

Judaism is not an ascetic religion, it impels us to enjoy the world and its abundance but not in an unfettered way. We are to share our blessings with others. But we cannot do that unless we recognize the gifts we have been given, to take moments to be grateful for what we have. Today, we hear much about the need to be mindful and practice mindfulness. Judaism calls to us to take time every day to give thanks for what we have. We are to say 100 blessings every day, each one an opportunity to stop and appreciate what we have and to acknowledge our good fortune; to be mindful of the blessings of the everyday, which we may otherwise take for granted.

I pray that we can all be thankful for the gifts in our lives and accept them with humility, grace and goodness.

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In this week’s parashah, Moses teaches us the words of the Shema: “Hear, Israel, Adonai is Your God, Adonai is One”. For millennia this has been the first declaration taught to our children, and also recited on one’s deathbed. According to the tradition, the recitation of this line is the acceptance of God’s sovereignty over us. The concept requires deep reflection, thus the tradition that many cover their eyes when reciting this first line of what has since become the three paragraphs of the Shema. (In addition to this line, three paragraphs of Torah have been placed in our liturgy, which elaborate what we are to do with this teaching of the unity of God: to love, to teach about love, and to remind ourselves about these mitzvot at the center of our lives, with the reminders of tefillin, mezuzah and tzittzit).

In Moses’ time, his challenge was to get the people to believe in One God, as opposed to panoply of deities. In our time, the challenge is to get people to believe in God at all. Unfortunately, too many of us feel the need to attach to God ancestral stories, whether from the Bible or later legend. Yet the rabbis themselves taught that “the Torah is written in the language of men,” meaning much stated about God is metaphorical and allegorical. One of the great medieval rabbis, Moses Maimonides, then taught is much simpler to describe what God is not than what God is. Maimonides, in his Principles of Faith, presents the parameters of Judaism’s teaching of God: God is one, eternal and beyond compare. God is the totality of all that is.

In fact, the Hebrew word we read as “Adonai” is actually a form of the verb to be. That is, God is another word for “all that is”. The declaration of Shema calls upon Jews to consider, every evening and morning, that all life is interconnected, that we are all just part of a greater unity. From the minute quark to the expanse of the universe, existence is one and we are one with it. The declaration of Shema affirms that truth, with the implication being that we will thus take responsibility for our being and relationships. The following verse teaches what we are called upon to do: to love being with all our heart, soul and might. Even more than a statement of theology, the Shema is a declaration of awareness and duty.

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