Archive for Agost de 2017

Justice, Justice, you shall pursue!” is one of the key phrases from this week’s Torah reading. Moses instructs the leaders of the Children of Israel to appoint judges and gives details about giving testimony and how each individual has the right to be judged fairly.

The sages ask: “Why is the word justice (tsedek) repeated twice?” One explanation is that there are two types of justice: strict justice – black and white with no wriggle room; and justice that is informed by compassion, a justice that considers the person, their intention, their history including social considerations.

The main text of the Kabbalah, the Zohar, states that justice combined with understanding and compassion is a higher principle and one that is worth striving to live by. Even though you might not be a judge, each of us makes judgment calls many times each day. This week the Torah invites us to consider how we judge things and how much understanding we apply to our discernment process.

This is also the first Shabbat of the Hebrew month of Elul, the month leading up to Rosh ha-Shana, the Jewish New Year. It’s a time of reflection and self-judgement in which we think about the year gone by and ask ourselves: “What went well in the last year?” “How can I improve?”. It’s not a black and white process, we have a whole month to consider different aspects of our life – our health, our emotional wellbeing, our finances, our intellectual endeavors. How can we improve as individuals, a community and a society? This is the process of repentance, teshuvah, which literally means “to return”. Return to what? Return to our essence and to connect to what is truly important in our lives. It is a time to make amends, to find healthy ways to forgive and ask for forgiveness. It is also a time to notice where we need help and to ask for it.

The name of the month, Elul, is the acronym of this phrase from Song of Songs: “Ani Le’dodi Ve’dodi Li – I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is mine”. And so it is important that the process of teshuvah is meant to be a compassionate one, where we act with gentleness in our judgment towards ourselves as well as others.


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Are we animals or just lower than the angels? A little bit of each, according to our tradition, which teaches that we are physically the same as animals but intellectually and morally superior to them. As our tradition has evolved, so too has a discussion about our greater similarity to animals – and therefore what is the “ideal” form of kashrut, or fit manner of eating. In parasha Re’eh, the laws of what animals are “tahor”, pure to eat, and which are “tamei” or forbidden, is repeated. The land animals that are “tahor” must chew the cud and have a cloven hoof, the pure sea animals must have fins and scales (NB, all fish that have scales have fins, so it is the former characteristic that is determinative), and only birds that can be domesticated are “tahor”. It seems that the Torah suggests that our superiority to animals enables us to eat them. Yet, nearly all the laws of kashrut are to limit our eating of animals. Is eating kosher animals an ideal or an accommodation to human nature?

All evidence indicates that one of the things that has distinguished the human animal from the other primates is our ability to kill animals and eat their flesh. Perhaps the development of human civilization stems from our being carnivores. Again, the mythic stories of Torah hint that this might be the case – after the disaster of the flood, the Noah story describes humans as over and against animals: “the fear and dread” of us is upon all the animals. The question with which we must grapple is what is the ethical approach to animals. We are clearly animals – if we are to be “a little lower than the angels” we must look at them with eyes that are not merely human but humane.

Many traditional rabbis look back to the opening story of the Torah, the beginning of all life in the imaginative Garden of Eden and say that the ideal human relationship to animal is to recognize the sacredness of all life, and not to consume animals at all. That story teaches that we should eat a vegan diet: “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food.” (Genesis 1:29). According to the great 20th century mystic, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, vegetarianism is the ultimate ethical way of eating. Chasidic traditions have disagreed, teaching that to eat animals elevates their souls.

While the Jewish jury is out on what is the ideal approach to eating animals, Judaism clearly states that we must not treat animals cruelly. These days, that requires that we rethink our approach to the farming of animals and their slaughter, their testing for products and many other issues. This week’s parasha tells us that we will have blessing if we follow “the commandments of God”. Throughout the Torah the notion of blessing, life and good are interconnected. If animals, as it is suggested, are driven by instinct, then humans have the power of discernment and the ability to make moral choices. That most of us consume animals does not absolve us from thinking about and taking responsibility for how they live and how they die. That we are permitted to eat them does not require us to do so, and now more than ever we should reflect on the Torah’s dietary options. Our daily choices have life long consequences.

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In this week’s parashah, we find the well-known words from Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals); “V’achalta v’savata u’veirachta et Adonai Elohecha al ha’aretz hatovah asher natan lach – when you have eaten your fill, give thanks to Adonai, your God, for the good of the land which God has given you” (Devarim 8:10).

Our sages taught that it is this verse that forms the basis for the commandment to give thanks after we partake in a meal. While the main foundation for the rather involved Birkat Hamazon lies in the verse quoted above, we learn that it is actually made up of four different blessings. Perhaps even more surprising is that three of the blessings are not food-based. The four blessings are; a blessing for God Who sustains the world with food and nourishment, a blessing for the land of Israel, a blessing/request for the protection and renewal of Jerusalem, and a universal praise of God.

So, why all these blessings? And why do we recite the Hamotzi blessing (over bread) before we eat and the Birkat Hamazon after we eat? Most other times, we recite blessings before or at the time of the event, not afterwards. The Ramban (Nachmanides) says that the Birkat Hamazon is actually a response to arrogance and pompousness. Just a few verses later in this week’s parasha, Moses warns against the eating of the land and enjoying the earth’s abundance without recognition of from where it is that we get our riches, imploring us to remember our history. In a land as good and abundant as the one described in the Torah, it is too easy to enjoy the wealth and opulence, and to forget the source of our blessings.

In that light, the intent of the Birkat Hamazon is to act as a shield to help avoid the lonely emptiness that results from self-gratification and arrogance, and to ensure that we act with humility.

It is a reminder that, in case we forgot, the food that we are so lucky to be able to enjoy, did not just appear out of nowhere, and that there are many factors involved with growing, sourcing, and preparing that food. Moreover, it is a reminder that there are many people who are not as fortunate as we are, who struggle each and every day to get enough food just to survive. Acknowledging their difficulties when we have so much helps us to realize that we need also to show humility, especially during fortunate times.

Reciting Birkat Hamazon, after we have finished enjoying our meal, and doing so with appropriate intentions, allows us to properly express our gratitude and fortune, acknowledging the many aspects that resulted in the food on our plate, and how lucky we are.

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This week as we continue Moses’ journey back through the Israelites’ wanderings we find him recalling the moment when he pleaded with God to reverse the decree and allow him to enter the Promised Land. Moses made one mistake and as punishment he is denied the fulfillment of his life’s work, his dream; to bring his people to the land God promised. For more than 40 years Moses has dealt with the stubborn, rebellious Israelites, he has tended to their needs, ministered to them, navigated their relationship with God and after everything, he is told not only will he not go with the Israelites but he must prepare Joshua the next leader who will succeed him.

Imagine the pain of that position, the struggle he must have had, to realize that his dreams would not be fulfilled, that another will go in his place and more than that, he must prepare that person. It would have been tempting to walk away, say: “I am too old, you take over, good luck!” to allow bitterness, anger and jealousy to cloud his actions. But Moses did not do that. He accepted his fate, confronted his mortality and his humanness and sat together with Joshua, teaching and guiding him, as he had the Israelites throughout the years. Moses then turns to the people he so loves and does the same for them, he instructs, he nurtures and he continues the work he has been doing for 40 years. And through this teaching he secures his legacy and ensures his dream will be realized, if not through his own hand.

Moses this week teaches us all an important lesson about disappointment, accepting who we are and being content and proud of having done enough. Few of us, if any, will achieve all our dreams, will reach all our goals, will have lives where we fulfill all our desires. As Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein writes:

…maturity impels us to confront our own limitations, to accept what cannot be changed, in the faith that with all our failings and weaknesses, with all our unfulfilled dreams and our disappointed hopes, each one of us in our unique individuality is cherished by God, who wants us to be the very best we can be but who accepts our humble contrition over what we did not achieve.

(Reform Judaism 10 Minutes of Torah)

Moses reminds us that we are not perfect, not even he who is described as the greatest prophet that ever lived or will live, the one who was chosen by God, who met God face to face, spoke directly with the Divine, even he was flawed, even he made mistakes, and so do we.

Too often the messages we receive are that every avenue is open to us, that we can be and do and achieve anything of which we dream, that all we need to do is work and it will happen. But that is not the reality of the world. I may want to be a world class violinist, I may have dreams of becoming a world changing scientist who discovers a cure for cancer, I may want to be an opera singer, but I will not become any of those things. I can dream and hope and wish but that will not guarantee my success and that is ok. We need to learn from Moses that even one of the greatest leaders did not achieve all that he wanted and that was ok. We possibly won’t do or become everything we hope but Moses teaches us how to be gracious when we don’t, to not berate or blame ourselves but instead to be proud of what we have achieved, to find the good in the steps along the way and to celebrate all that we are rather than mourn what we are not.

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