Interpersonal Commandments by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

March 2, 2017

 

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Abraham welcoming the three men

Recently I was in a community populated by older people.    After davening I was sitting in the passenger’s seat of a car and moved to the back to accommodate an older man who walked with a cane.   His friend, an older holocaust survivor, who has lived for all of his post war years in Brooklyn, sat in the back with me and commented that he was very impressed that I gave up my seat.  He said it is not common anymore for people to show honor to the elderly.

 

The next morning as I put on my tifilin I wondered if he would have been as pleasantly surprised that I, an observant Jew, had put on tifilin.  Probably not -and yet these actions, wearing tifilin and standing for the elderly, are both biblical commandments.

 

Maimonides in his book of law puts it this way:

We must stand up for one who is very elderly, even if the person is not a scholar.  And even a someone who is a scholar must stand for an elderly individual…We also honor an elderly non-Jew and lend them a hand, for the verse, “stand before the elderly,” applies to anyone who is elderly, (Laws of Torah Study 6:9).

 

Why is it that we expect religious Jews to be punctilious in performing commandments between people and G-d and not between people and other people?  What would observant Jewish life be like if we, like our ancestors, were more careful and paid more attention to the details of interpersonal commandments than those between us and G-d?

 

Which of these, in fact is more important?   If a ritual and interpersonal commandment are in conflict, which should win out?

 

It is clear I think, that commandments between us and other people come first, and indeed can trump those between us and G-d.  According to the Talmud we learn this from Avrohom who leaves G-d’s presence to welcome three people who he thinks are idolatrous nomads, walking in the desert.  From here the Talmud concludes, “Greater is the welcoming of guests than receiving the Divine presence.”

 

If one were in the middle of praying to G-d and a newcomer entered the synagogue that needed to be welcomed should we interrupt our prayer to welcome them?   Indeed, it is said of Rabbi Chaim of Veloshon that he did push aside prayer in order to welcome guests.

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Progress to Redemption by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

January 20, 2017

This Shabbat we begin the second book of the Torah in which we read about the enslavement in Egypt and the subsequent redemption process. On Passover we drink 4 cups of wine to symbolize the four steps of redemption mentioned here. I will take you out, I will save you, I will take you culturally out of Egypt, and I will redeem you. Some even say there’s a 5th cup – and I will bring you to the land of Israel.  

The question is asked why 4 cups of wine to represent the four steps of redemption? Why not four matzos or four pieces of meat?  Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin explains that this was a process the Jews had to go through in order not just to be taken out of Egypt but to actually change from being slaves to becoming to Jewish people.  
Wine is like that. It is a progression. We drink one cup and we feel it a little bit, we drink a 2nd cup and we feel it more and more. it builds on itself and takes us from one place to another if done correctly. 
The point is an important one – that change and redemption does not happen in the blink of an eye, it happens rather through a process. Human beings don’t change easily but they can change. Each of us is more flexible than we realize, though often we are afraid of change.  
And so part of the message of these parshiot and the redemption from Egypt is that God is there with us to help us and that there is a process to undergo. Positive change doesn’t just happen overnight. So too with our own spiritual lives. we have to engage in the process, we have to cry out to God to begin the process, but then God will help us. What process can we begin this Shabbat to help us to progress toward becoming more morally and spiritually developed human beings and Jews?


Parshat Vayeshev – Being a Tzadik, by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

December 20, 2016

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This week’s Torah portion, Va’yeshev, begins by describing the relationship between Joseph and his brothers when Joseph was 17 years old. The Torah tells us that when Joseph was tending sheep with his brothers “…Joseph brought slander about them to his father. Israel loved Joseph more of all the brothers….and they (his brothers) were unable to speak with Joseph peacefully…” Certainly everyone, no matter how righteous, sins at times. But why does the Torah specifically tell us this sin of Joseph’s, that he spoke badly of his brothers to his father? In addition, how could he, Joseph the Tzadik, the righteous one, be guilty of such a crime?
Some commentaries justify Joseph’s actions, proposing that perhaps he saw evil in his brothers and meant to tell their father in order that Jacob would discipline them. Some also judge the brothers favorably explaining that what Joseph saw was not what was actually happening. Still others (the Seforno) blame Jacob for his bad parenting in favoring Joseph over his other children and thereby causing hated among them.
The Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, does not apologize for Joseph’s, or his brother’s, or their father’s actions. He says that indeed Joseph was guilty of the sin of slander and that this is the reason he must descend to Egypt. Latter he will become Joseph the Tzazadik, Joseph the Righteous. The job of the tzadik, the righteous Jewish leader, says the Sefat Emet, is to take the good deeds of the Jewish people and bring them before G-d, ignoring the people’s evil deeds. Joseph needed to learn this in order to create unity among his people. This is the lesson he learns in Egypt through the trials and travails, the tests and his time in prison. Only after the experience of Egypt is he complete and ready to be Joseph the Tzadik.

What adversity and what sins do we need to navigate in order to become the tzadikim that can help to facilitate the true end goal of Jewish unity?


Make America Civil Again by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

November 9, 2016
Clinton, Trump pick up big wins

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are tightening their grips on the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations.

One of my congregants watched the presidential debates with their 9 year old child. After a few minutes the child stood up and said, “we are not allowed to watch this.” When they inquired why she replied, because it is lashon hara, (Hebrew for evil speech, slander), which the Torah forbids (Leviticus, 19:16).
Judaism teaches us that leaders should be examples of nobility, caring, and humility. It is no coincidence that Moses was, “the most humble man who ever lived.” That God chose him not because Moses had a plan for leading the people, or because he had the skills for leadership, he did not. God chose Moshe because Moshe cared about individuals and was willing to put himself on the line for them. He killed an Egyptian who was beating a Jew, stopped two Jews from fighting and rebuked one for hitting the other, and defended the powerless among the Gentiles when he protected the daughter of Yitro from shepherds who refused to give her access to the local well. These three stories are all we know about Moses the individual before he was elected leader by God.
To Jews who believe that nothing is more powerful than speech, nothing more sacred than our character, and nothing more precious to God than how we care for the orphan, the widow and the foreigner, how should we relate to an era which produces candidates who, a child reminds us, speak words to which it is forbidden to listen because they are so malicious? How should we react to living in an era when ego, not humility, wins the day? When candidates who propose to lead us are being investigated by the authorities? When we cannot allow our children to hear the misogynistic words spoken by the leader of the free world? How do we teach and learn nobility and respect in such a world? How should we respond to living here, to living now?
Finding ourselves in a place whose culture produces bad models for us and our children, Maimonides recommends moving to another society or living alone in a cave (Hilchot Deot 6:1).
I would like to suggest a third approach. As my brother-in-law put it, “Instead of mourning – organize.” I think this means that we can feel empowered to build a society with a more noble vision than the one our leaders paint through their actions. We can use what feels like a time of strife, and for half of America, disappointment and fear, to empower ourselves and others by coming together to make something better. You may not be able to fix Washington but you can impact the world around you, and by extension, America’s acrimonious culture which has dominated the public square these many months.
Here is a suggestion. Make a list of the 3 values you hold most dear, the ones you would like to inculcate in your children. Then make a list of 2 ways you can live out those values. Call someone you know to discuss ways to actualize one of them, maybe each of you in your own way, or by teaching them to people around you, or by joining with people or an organization who are committed to the same value.
Instead of feeling the anger, strife, slander, and suspicion of these many electoral months, become empowered to act. And every day ask yourself: Am I closer to or farther away from the life I think I and my neighbors should lead?


The Seder as a Tikun for the Sin of Joseph and his Brothers -By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

May 4, 2016

Our seders are held primarily in homes and involve families discussing the Exodus and eating the symbols associated with it.  Without relating to another, no seder is complete. The child must ask, and the parent must answer. If there is no child, adults must ask each other. Jewish law, in fact, sees dialogue as so intrinsic to the seder that even if one is alone, that person must ask and answer the questions, creating a kind of interrelating even where there is none.

Why all this emphasis at the seder on familial relationships?

Perhaps the answer lies in the nature of Passover itself.   According to the Midrash, the Jewish people were enslaved in Egypt due to the sin of Joseph and his brothers. The sale of Joseph eventually resulted in, and some say was a punishment for, the exile in Egypt.

If we look closely at the Passover seder, we see that it is a reenactment not only of slavery and freedom but of the story of Joseph and his brothers that led the Jewish people to Egypt in the first place.

We begin the seder with the strange custom of dipping a vegetable into salt water. This dipping is called karpas. The word karpas means “colored cloth” (Esther 1:6). This recalls Joseph’s colored coat that his brothers dipped in goat’s blood and brought to their father when they sold him into slavery saying that he had been eaten by an animal.

In preparation for the karpas, we wash our hands but without a blessing. This looks like we are washing for bread, but we do not eat bread or matzah; it is a different kind of ritual washing than we are used to. This recalls that the first thing Joseph’s brothers did after they threw him in the pit was sit down to eat bread. They eat bread, but the Torah does not record them washing their hands, so we wash our hands, after which we do not eat bread (or matzah).

We then break the matzah. Generally, the bread one blesses should be whole. On this night, we bless a broken piece.   Perhaps this recalls, in addition to slavery, how that which should have been whole, the Jewish family, was broken.

We drink four cups of wine. The Talmud says that we drink four cups because when Joseph was sold into Egypt and ended up in jail, it was through interpreting the dream of Pharaoh’s wine steward that he was eventually freed from bondage, and in this dream narrative the phrase “cup of wine” is mentioned four times.

We then begin the story part of the Haggadah, which strangely does not include the verses of the story of the Exodus from the book of Exodus but instead a four sentence summary of the story of the Jewish peoples’ descent into Egypt and subsequent redemption as told by the farmer who brings his first fruits to the Tabernacle in the book of Deuteronomy.

This recitation begins, “An Aramean tried to destroy my father, and he (my father) went down to Egypt.” We usually assume this is talking about Laban the Aramean, who tried to overwork Jacob, and Jacob, who many years latter went down to Egypt.

But the word “Arami,” “an Aramean,” can also mean a “deceiver.” There was a person whom “Arameans,” that is, deceivers, tried to destroy, and then he immediately went down to Egypt, namely Joseph whose brothers deceived him and sold him into Egyptian slavery.

Perhaps, in addition to the telling of the story of the slavery and redemption, we are also telling the story of the strife among Joseph and his brothers and hoping that through bringing families and the Jewish people together in a remaking of this encounter we can create peace and ultimately undo the cause for which we went to Egypt in the first place, hatred, which is indeed the cause of all exiles.


The Mystery of Sacrifices by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

March 23, 2016

In this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, the torah continues its description from last week of the sacrifices and their rituals.   For us who live in the current period of time in the Western world animal sacrifice is fairly foreign and seems in many respects barbaric.   To us perhaps reading about the sacrifices in the Torah , imagining the most central national Jewish space as a place of burning animal carcasses, flowing blood, incense burning and priests bathing, seems very…well, un-Jewish.   How are we to understand the fact that the laws of the tabernacle and its sacrifices take up such a large portion of our holy Torah?

 

In the history of Jewish thought several well known approaches to sacrifices are presented.   I will discuss two classical ones and one modern.

 

Nachmonides (b. 1194) saw the tabernacle and its sacrifices as a continuation of the Mount Sinai experience.  God was revealed to us at the mountain and in the tabernacle and its successor the temple, God “dwelled” among the Jewish people.  Sacrifices were used to atone for sin according to Nachmonides in order that the one who brings the sacrifice will comprehend that, “there but for the grace of God go I.”  Since human deeds are committed with thought, speech and action, the hands are first laid upon the sacrifice, verbal confession is then said, and the animal’s body itself sacrificed before God, utilizing metaphorically all one’s facilities for goodness in place of their use for the sin committed.

 

Maimonides (b. 1135) in his book of Jewish philosophy, The Guide for the Perplexed (3:32), in contrast to Nachmonides, sees prayer as the true mode of relating to God, but he says, God gave sacrifices to the Jewish people at that time since after living in Egypt they were used to the idea of idol worship. And so God said, instead of sacrificing animals and bringing incense to idols do it for me in a temple of God.   But sacrifices, while required by that generation of Jews, is by no means the best way of connecting to the Divine.

 

Lastly, I would like to quote the words of a modern Reform Jewish commentator, Rabbi Gunther Plaut who emphasizes the sanctity garnered from the sacrificial rite: “I object vigorously when I hear people say that we moderns have progressed beyond such practices (of sacrifice)….we have retrogressed in essential areas upon which biblical sacrifice was founded…Most of the offerings were shared meals…in an atmosphere of prayer and devotion…an experience in an awe inspiring religious setting which impressed itself more on the participants than a mumbled berkat hamazon (grace after meals prayer)…offering the olot (totally burnt offerings) meant to give a valuable animal without deriving any measurable human benefit from them, purely for the love of God.  How often do we do this in any form or fashion?”

 

Though we do not have sacrifices today, and perhaps that is for the best according to Maimonides, it seems we have much to learn from our Torah’s teachings about sacrifices.


The Purpose of Mitzvot by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

February 15, 2016

mosesDo mitzvot have reasons or are they purely a Divine decree?  Should we live lives insulated from other cultures or integrated with them?   Is religious life an ascetic one or should we take advantage of life’s pleasures?  Lots of theological profundities which impact the way we live our lives are the subject of much difference of opinion in Judaism going all the way back to the Talmud.

 
Different eras have required different answers to these fundamental questions.  For instance, the German Pietists in the 12th century were insular ascetics while at the same time in Spain the Sephardic sages were engaged in Spanish life, its pleasures and its poetry.

 
How should we see such central theological questions in our own time?

 
We are in the midst of reading on Shabbat about the crafting and erection of and the services within the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.  The Ark served as the hidden power center of the Tabernacle.  It contained the tablets of the law and was flanked on top by two golden kiruvim, cherubs.

 
We understand the need for an ark to honor and hold the tablets, it is something we ourselves have in our synagogues, but why golden cherubs?  Indeed, their idol-like appearance seems like a dangerous risk.  In fact there are those who say the heads of the cherubim were, like in the vision of Ezekiel, the heads of a shor, a cow, forming a sort of golden calf.

 

Maimonides (who very much believed that all mitzvot have reasons) in the Moreh Nivuchim, the Guide to the Perplexed, 3:49, writes:
Most of the “statutes” (hukkim), the reason of which is unknown to us, serve as a fence against idolatry. That I cannot explain some details of the above laws or show their use is owing to the fact that what we hear from others is not so dear as that which we see with our own eyes. Thus my knowledge of the Sabean doctrines, which I derived from books, is not as complete as the knowledge of those who have witnessed the public practice of those idolatrous customs, especially as they have been out of practice and entirely extinct since two thousand years. If we knew all the particulars of the Sabean worship, and were informed of all the details of those doctrines, we would clearly see the reason and wisdom of every detail in the sacrificial service, in the laws concerning things that are unclean, and in other laws, the object of which I am unable to state.

 
According to encyclopedia of myths and legends:

The cherub itself can be traced to mythologies of the Babylonians, Assyrians, and other peoples of the ancient Near East. In these cultures, cherubim were usually pictured as creatures with parts of four animals: the head of a bull (cow, calf), the wings of an eagle, the feet of a lion, and the tail of a serpent. The four animals represented the four seasons, the four cardinal directions (north, south, east, and west), and the four ancient elements (earth, air, fire, and water). These original cherubim guarded the entrances to temples and palaces.

 
The cherubim created the expectation of a deity in their center, but in the Mishkan, instead of an idol between the cherubs as in the ancient Near East, there was empty space.  It is from that space that the Divine voice emerged, teaching the Jewish people that their G-d is not concrete, not limited, without image.   That in the emptiness the Divine emerges.

 
We live in an era in which taamey hamitzvot, understanding the reasons for mitzvot as impactful in physical, emotional and spiritual ways is important.   Today the majority of the Jewish people do not find much meaning in keeping the Torah just because they are commanded.  They are proud to be Jewish but it is the nature of our era that without a profound sense of why mitzvot are beneficial, there will be little interest.  If we do not choose the correct attitudes for our era, we will be bereft.