We Can Fix This! By: Yosef Kanefsky

September 4, 2018

 

As we will repeatedly concede during our tefillot over the coming awesome days, it will be up to God to decide much of what will happen in the coming year. But we should not underestimate for a second how much is up to us to decide.

This past year was characterized by incredibly unpleasant, painful, and alienating discourse, around Shabbat tables, online, and almost anywhere. The landscape of 5778’s waning days is strewn with broken friendships, strained families, communities riven apart, and a civil society that is civil in name only.

5779 though, is in our hands. I have found the following Talmudic discussion to be helpful and encouraging, and I hope you will too:

The Torah records two pretty similar mitzvot, one in Shmot and one in Dvarim. In Shmot we’re commanded to help our enemy unload his animal when we see that animal collapsed beneath its burden. In Dvarim, we’re commanded to help our brother reload his animal when the animal’s burden has fallen.

The Talmud puts the two mitzvot into the blender, and then asks: what if you simultaneously encounter your brother’s animal which is collapsed and in need of unloading, and your enemy’s animal which whose burden has fallen and is in need of reloading? Which takes priority? The Talmud’s answer: The priority is to help your enemy to reload. “But why?” the other voice in the Talmud demands. The collapsed-and-still-loaded animal is suffering, and by Torah law we are directed to prevent the suffering of animals! Shouldn’t the mitzva of unloading automatically take precedence over the reloading? Yes”, the Talmud concedes, this line of reasoning would ordinarily be correct, but not in this instance. In this instance the priority is to unload with your enemy as a means of vanquishing your natural inclination to ignore your enemy’s plight. Vanquishing your own nature is deemed an uber-mitzvah, an activity of transcendent worth.

A question though: Exactly which aspect of his human nature is the person being asked to defeat here? Hatred of his enemy? Not a bad one to work on, but it happens not to be the one the Torah is discussing here.

The word for enemy that the Torah uses here is שונאך (sonacha), which we instinctively translate as “someone whom you hate”. But as Torah Temima points out, the Biblical word for someone whom you hate is שנואך (snoo’acha). שונאך (son’acha) by contrast, is “a person who hates you”. Meaning, that what the Talmud is prioritizing as an uber-mitzvah is not the act of vanquishing your inclination to ignore the plight of someone whom you hate (as admirable as this is.) It is rather the act of vanquishing of an entirely different – and much more significant – negative inclination, that of refusing to come to the aid of someone who hates you, in your belief that no act of kindness on your part will ever change that person’s feeling about you. That no matter what you do, it won’t make any difference; there will be no equal and opposite reaction on the other side. This is the human inclination that threatens to trap all of us forever in enmity and bitter opposition. When we believe that our fellow human beings are incapable of change and that we are helpless in the face of minds that have already been made up, we will also believe that it’s completely futile to try to build bridges, or to extend ourselves with decency and kindness in the spirit of shared humanity.

 

And it gets worse. For when multiplied outward, it leads us to the ineluctable conclusion that working to effect positive change in the world is the most futile activity imaginable. For if humans can’t change, nothing can change. So why should I even bother? This is why the Talmud identifies this inclination as the one that we have to grab by the throat and subdue. For when we are willing to believe that change is possible, that sharp edges can be softened, that gestures of kindness and civility can elicit response in kind, then we can restore the bonds of our friendships, the wholeness of our communities, and our inspiration to keep working for a better world.  

This is the crisis of faith that we need to overcome today.  Not a crisis of faith in God. The crisis of faith in humanity.

Avot D’Rebbi Natan declares: Who is the mightiest of the mighty? The person who turns someone who hates him, into someone who loves him.” We can do this. We can fix this. One human encounter at a time.

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Redemption, Israel, and African Migrants. By Yosef Kanefsky

April 2, 2018

והָיָ֞ה כִּֽי־תָבֹ֣אוּ אֶל־הָאָ֗רֶץ …וְיֹאמְר֥וּ אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם בְּנֵיכֶ֑ם מָ֛ה הָעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם׃

וַאֲמַרְתֶּ֡ם זֶֽבַח־פֶּ֨סַח ה֜וּא לַֽה’ אֲשֶׁ֣ר פָּ֠סַח עַל־בָּתֵּ֤י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם בְּנָגְפּ֥וֹ אֶת־מִצְרַ֖יִם וְאֶת־בָּתֵּ֣ינוּ הִצִּ֑יל וַיִּקֹּ֥ד הָעָ֖ם וַיִּֽשְׁתַּחֲוּֽוּ׃

And when you come into the land that God has promised you ….and your children ask you, “what is this service that you are doing?” You shall say, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the LORD, because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.’”  And the people bowed their heads and prostrated themselves.

Well, not all the people. A few hands went up. “Is there time for questions, Moshe? “So you just said, וּלְקַחְתֶּ֞ם אֲגֻדַּ֣ת אֵז֗וֹב… וְהִגַּעְתֶּ֤ם אֶל־הַמַּשְׁקוֹף֙ וְאֶל־שְׁתֵּ֣י הַמְּזוּזֹ֔ת. (Place the blood upon the lintel and the doorposts.) But a few verses ago you said,  וְלָֽקְחוּ֙ מִן־הַדָּ֔ם וְנָֽתְנ֛וּ עַל־שְׁתֵּ֥י הַמְּזוּזֹ֖ת וְעַל־הַמַּשְׁק֑וֹף.  (Place the blood on the doorposts and the lintel.) Does it matter in which order I do it? And if I accidentally do it in the wrong order, do I have to go back and do it again? And with our without a bracha?

According to the Mechilta (an early Halachic work dating from the time of the Mishna), Moshe replied,

יכול אם הקדים מזוזת לתשקוף לא יצא, תלמוד לומר והגעתם אל המשקוף וגו’ הא אם הקדים זה לזה יצא

“you might have thought, based on the earlier verse that the order matters, therefore I started the second verse, to teach that you fulfill the obligation either way.”

And if you wanted to you could also infer from the Mechilta that people asked other questions too. Whether the blood should be on the inside half of the doorframe or the outside half, and whether the stipulation that the Pesach be roasted, not cooked, disqualified meat that was cooked first and afterwards roasted.  You could actually imagine, if you were so inclined, Moshe was there the rest of the afternoon and half the night answering Pesach shailos.

And while we might be tempted to say that this is nothing more than the rabbis retrojecting Talmudic methodology onto the Exodus narrative, we would be missing something huge if we didn’t understand the Mechilta’s larger point. And that is, that in the eyes of our tradition, Redemption, at its core, is not the movement form bondage to non-bondage, it is rather the acquisition and enactment of a corpus of law that dignifies, sanctifies, and elevates our thoughts and actions, both individually and nationally. The real catastrophe of the Egyptian bondage was that is suspended the project initiated by Avraham

 “אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְצַוֶּ֜ה אֶת־בָּנָ֤יו וְאֶת־בֵּיתוֹ֙ אַחֲרָ֔יו וְשָֽׁמְרוּ֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ ה’ לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט”

who aspired “to instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is upright and just”.  Living under the thumbs of our taskmasters and of Pharaoh, the project stalled completely. We were deprived of the circumstances necessary for developing a corpus of national law that would embody tzedakah and mishpat, and which would mold us – as a nation –  into its image.  The sudden burst of halachic inquiry imagined by the Mechilta were the first sparks of redemption.

For it wasn’t only ritual Halacha that we were now receiving and engaging as we were becoming redeemed.   Moshe was also giving us law right then about how and when  we are to include the stranger who desires to celebrate the Pesach with us, and how more generally we are to establish “one law and one Torah” for the native born among us as well as for the stranger. For Redemption – at its deepest root – is the taking possession of, and ultimately creating a society based upon, a corpus of righteous law, that embodies the way of God.

And throughout our exiles, even as we continued to practice our ritual laws, we recognized that we were again in a state of unredemption – not simply because we had lost our land, but more so because we had lost our sovereignty, and with it our capacity to actualize an economy, a government, an army, a foreign policy entirely built on the foundations of – and forged in the furnace of – tzedek umishpat. We were living in unredemption because our law was in exile.

And our vision of re-Redemption is no different than that of the original. The days of the Messiah, as Rambam extensively describes them, are not about lions lying down with lambs, or fiery Temples descending from Heaven, or chocolate mousse not having any calories.

אַל יַעֲלֶה עַל הַלֵּב שֶׁבִּימוֹת הַמָּשִׁיחַ יִבָּטֵל דּבָר מִמִּנְהָגוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם. אוֹ יִהְיֶה שָׁם חִדּוּשׁ בְּמַעֲשֵׂה בְּרֵאשִׁית. אֶלָּא עוֹלָם כְּמִנְהָגוֹ נוֹהֵג

It should not occur to you that during the days of the Messiah the world will function differently or that there will be something novel in the Creation. Rather, the world will continue in its customary way

 

Rather,

אִם יַעֲמֹד מֶלֶךְ מִבֵּית דָּוִד הוֹגֶה בַּתּוֹרָה וְעוֹסֵק בְּמִצְוֹת כְּדָוִד אָבִיו. כְּפִי תּוֹרָה שֶׁבִּכְתָב וְשֶׁבְּעַל פֶּה. וְיָכֹף כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵילֵךְ בָּהּ וּלְחַזֵּק בִּדְקָהּ. …. הֲרֵי זֶה בְּחֶזְקַת שֶׁהוּא מָשִׁיחַ

If a king should arise from the House of David who studies the Torah and engages in its Commandments … in accordance with both the Written and the Oral Torahs, and he enjoins all of Israel to follow in its ways and encourages them to repair its breaches … then he may be presumed to be the Messiah.

For us, the Jewish people, Redemption was, is, and will always be for us, the emergence from political and legal impotence into the sovereignty necessary to create a national project of our own, which emerges from the womb the spiritual and moral vision as expressed in our Law. This is why we refer to Medinat Yisrael as “the first flowering of our Redemption”, for although Medinat Yisrael isn’t and perhaps shouldn’t ever be a Halachic State in the strict sense of the term, it possess enormous potential to become the full flowering of what Avraham and God together envisioned, וְשָֽׁמְרוּ֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ ה’ לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט

Nowhere has the potential been more on display in recent weeks, than in the serious, difficult, complex conversation about the fate of the thousands of asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea. Yes, there have been some very “unredeemed” comments like those of interior minister Aryeh Deri, which attempt to reduce the issue to a slogan. “עניי עירך קודמים!” – your own poor come before the poor of others”.  But as everyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of how Halachic discussion works knows, the actual process is a dialectical one, in which competing halachic and spiritual values are carefully weighed against one another. And these are the conversations that have been happening in Medinat Yisrael. The Halachic and spiritual value of self-preservation is being weighed against the halachic and spiritual value of not oppressing the stranger. The halachic and spiritual value of giving priority to your own poor, is being weighed against the value of supporting the poor more broadly, consistent with the “ways of peace”. Our historical uber-value of maintaining a Jewish majority in the State, is being weighed against our historical uber-value, obtained through our blood and tears, of shielding and taking in the refugee. And all sides in the debate are now openly acknowledging the fact that unfortunately Israel never established a proper process for Refugee Status Determination, that thousands of the asylum requests have not been reviewed, and that as a consequence no one really knows how many are economic migrants and how many are true refugees.  This conversation –and may it lead soon to a proper and worthy resolution – is the conversation of a redeemed people. A conversation worthy of the “first flowering of our Redemption”

On this Yom Tov of Redemption, we resonate with the sentiment articulated by Rav Avi Gissar, the Rav Hayishuv of Ofra, “a moral and legal challenge like this must be resolved in a way that is “mat’im” fitting for us, worthy of us, reflecting the entirety of our moral and spiritual heritage.  Ken y’hi ratzon. May it be God’s will, V’nizkeh l’geulah shleyma.  and may we merit the full Redemption.


The Dietitian’s Davening Challenge, by Yosef Kanefsky

February 18, 2018

So who’s been to cardio-rehab? It’s a hoot, right? I remember the day that I had my mandated get together with the staff dietitian. She was a lovely woman, who I’m sure has no idea that the most impactful thing she said to me had absolutely nothing to do with my diet.

“I see you’re a rabbi”, she said, as she leafed through my records. “I’m sure that means that you spend time daily in spiritual meditative practice. That’s really good for you”. I nodded in enthusiastic agreement, even as I was hoping she’d soon change the subject to something else….like tofu.  I was thinking about what morning minyan is actually like for me – cranking  through several thousand words in the tight space of 28 minutes, while simultaneously mentally composing a D’var Torah that will hopefully be not only interesting but inspiring, AND wondering whether I have enough Ralph’s cards left for the crowd that I can hear gathering outside. I was pretty sure that this didn’t qualify as the sort of meditative spiritual practice she had in mind.

The dietitian’s in-passing comment stuck with me with though, and over time I have come to embrace it as a challenge – the dietitian’s davening challenge.  Because I know that prayer is intended to be something a whole lot more thank it typically is, and that my life is the poorer for not attaining that something more.  And this morning – in the spirit of Parashat Terumah – I’d like to formally extend the dietitian’s davening challenge to every one of us here.

You’re probably thinking, “Parashat Terumah?! Terumah says not a word about the ritual act of prayer.  But that’s precisely my point.  The first step in embracing the challenge comes with the recognition that prayer as a ritual act is not indigenous to the Jewish tradition.

The Mishkan, described in Parashat Terumah,  not conceived, designed, or ordained as a house of ritual prayer. Nor, by the way, was it conceived, designed, or ordained as a place where animals and grains would be offered in sacrifice – though provision for this function was clearly made therein. No, the Mishkan was constructed simply to dramatically shrink the gap between God and people, and in doing so to invite relationship, even intimacy.  Whereas until this point in the Biblical narrative God dwelled only in the heavens, making one cameo appearance on the top of a mountain, with the construction of the Mishkan,  God would become a shachen, a neighbor. I have a memory of Rabbi Soloveitchik, in his Tuesday night parasha shiur at Yeshiva University, likening the Mishkan, with its menorah that remained lit throughout the night, and the loaves (lechem hapanim) always on the table, to the home of a dear friend, whom you can visit at any hour – any hour at which your heart is troubled and you’re in need of company. THIS is our original conception of prayer. Simply the human heart opening and unburdening itself in the soft presence of God. It was what we might call a spiritual, meditative practice.

When King Solomon built the MIshkan’s successor upon the Temple mount several hundred years later, this is how he described the prayer that he hoped would happen there:

כָּל־תְּפִלָּ֣ה כָל־תְּחִנָּ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר תִֽהְיֶה֙ לְכָל־הָ֣אָדָ֔ם …  אֲשֶׁ֣ר יֵדְע֗וּן אִ֚ישׁ נֶ֣גַע לְבָב֔וֹ וּפָרַ֥שׂ כַּפָּ֖יו אֶל־הַבַּ֥יִת הַזֶּֽה׃

“[Receive] every prayer or supplication offered by any person —each of whom knows the affliction of his own heart —when he spreads his palms toward this House,

כִּֽי־אַתָּ֤ה יָדַ֙עְתָּ֙ לְבַדְּךָ֔ אֶת־לְבַ֖ב כָּל־בְּנֵ֥י הָאָדָֽם׃

as You alone, You uniquely,  know the hearts of people.

Prayer, at the roots of our tradition, is the act of unburdening, of revealing, of seeking the counsel and assistance of the – יוצר יחד לבם, המבין את כל מעשיהם – the one who designed the human heart, and who understands what churns therein.

And so we turn to the dietitian’s davening challenge: How do turn our ritual act of prayer into this spiritual meditative practice? I think that this involves two steps, two components, neither of which is simple, but both of which are attainable.

The first has to do with developing a different relationship with the words. The larger question as to why our Sages decided to write words for us – even as they were fully aware of the downsides of doing so – will wait for a longer discussion, one which is already on the Summer 2018 Nosh n Drosh calendar. Meanwhile, in terms of finding a new way to relate to the words, I share a wonderful thought from the pen of Rabbi Art Green:

My life as a religious person means that I seek to live in the presence of God always,.[1] [What then is it “to pray?] To pray is to choose a particular time and place to notice that presence, [to] stop everything else I am doing, [to] leave behind all the bustle and activity … , and [to] come to God saying “Here I am.”

And the words of prayer – when at their best – function as a key. They press against the lock or crack the inner shell in just the right way as to let me in, to let me be in here with You. These ancient keys, gifts of my ancestors’ wisdom, I continue to carry in my pocket. I try to keep them polished, working well, free of the rust that comes with age – both their age and mine. To my delight – even surprise – they work pretty often.

He’s describing a relationship with the words that is not mechanical but meditative, not rote but rhythmic.  And this is the first step.

The second is what we’d call pre-meditative. As often as we can, we need to take two minutes – or even one minute – before we begin and ask ourselves:  What is it that I bringing to this prayer, and what am I seeking to achieve by the time my davening is done?

Working personally on this step over these past few years, I have:

  • brought my moral dilemmas to my davening, seeking to achieve clarity.
  • I have brought my frustrations to my davening, seeking to achieve equanimity.
  • I have brought my confusion, while seeking truth;
  • My guilt, while seeking the path toward repair;
  • My love, while seeking better ways to share it;
  • My longing, seeking a way to concretely translate it.

This is the dietitian’s davening challenge. It has made my prayer life much richer and my life much better.  And this morning, I extend the challenge to each of us.


Violating Other People’s Shabbat, by Yosef Kanefsky

January 26, 2018

Several months ago I decided that there was a topic that deserved our attention, and that a thoughtful communal discussion about it could make a positive material difference on the quality of our lives.  I was just waiting for an open Shabbat. So here goes:

We’ll start with a Biblical verse that is so familiar to us, that we couldn’t imagine its being interpreted in any other way.  “Sheshet yamim ta’avod…” for six days you shall work, “v’asita kol m’lachtecha”, and do all manner of work. And on the seventh day etc.  Pretty straightforward. Yet, the Mechilta (20:9), an ancient Midrash Halacha reads the middle phrase a little differently: “Sheshet yamim…” for six days you shall work, “V’asita kol m’lachtecha …” and you shall completely finish all your work. All of it! All done! An interesting read, which leads the Mechilta directly to the question:

וכי איפשר לו לאדם לעשות מלאכתו בששת ימים!?

Is that even possible?! Have you ever met anyone who arrived at candle lighting time on Friday afternoon and said, “Wow! I got everything done. There is nothing at all that I didn’t get too!”??  What does the Torah mean here? Which in turn leads the Mechilta directly to the punchline that it had been wanting to get to from the outset:

אלא שבות כאלו מלאכתך עשויה.

What the Torah is telling us is to rest on Shabbat as if all our work is completed. As if it’s all done. With the phrase “v’asita kol m’lachtecha….” the Torah is describing for us the quality and nature of Shabbat rest. “ שבות ממחשבת עבודה , the Mechilta continues, “don’t even think about work.”  For while it is through refraining from 39 particular acts of melacha that we observe Shabbat technically, it is through completely clearing our minds from our work that we observe Shabbat essentially.   

The Mechilta’s teaching is echoed in a great story on Shabbat 150b:

מעשה בחסיד אחד שנפרצה לו פרץ בתוך שדהו, ונמלך עליה לגודרה, ונזכר ששבת הוא, ונמנע אותו חסיד ולא גדרה. ונעשה לו נס, ועלתה בו צלף וממנה היתה פרנסתו ופרנסת אנשי ביתו

There was one a Hasid, a pious person. At some point during the week a breach opened in the fence surrounding his field. He happened to be walking by there on Shabbat, noticed the breach and thought to himself, “Right after Shabbat I’ll run out to Home Depot and buy that thing, and …..”, and suddenly he thought to himself, “What am I doing? Why am I even thinking about this today? It’s Shabbat!” And he decided right then and there, as a sort of tikkun, that he was never going to fix that breach. And then God intervened, and caused a caper bush to grow in the breach, and the Hasid became the caper berry baron of the Middle East, and his family was supported for generations…. That’s the story.

What’s remarkable here is that just lines earlier the Talmud had concluded that while speaking about work on Shabbat was forbidden, merely thinking about work was technically permissible. And yet, the Talmud decided to give the Hasid and his story the last word – literally.  Why? Because the Hassid understood the essence. His story illustrates what Shabbat is ultimately about.

As does a great animated video that I saw 30- something years ago – and which – God bless YouTube I was able to find again, this past Thursday night. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uICsouiEBqE  The video opens on a Friday morning along a busy, commercial street, and very strikingly all of the characters – instead of having heads, have some oversized work implement sprouting from their necks. One character is calculator-head, another is typewriter head, the car mechanic is wrench-head, the dentist is giant tooth head. The video then pans to an office clock, as it spins toward late Friday afternoon, at which point calculator-head turns to typewriter head and says, “I think we can finish this next week”. And the he says the magical words “Shabbat Shalom”. And instantly both his head and typewriter head’s head become normal human heads. And as he leaves the office and wishes Shabbat Shalom to each of the characters he had encountered on the street earlier in the day, each one of their heads becomes a normal human head. This 30-something year old video has remained lodged in my memory because it’s such a great symbolic representation of what Shabbat is intended to be. One day of the week when we are NOT “what we do”; we are simply “who we are”.  שבות כאלו מלאכתך עשויה – Pretend that all your work is done. So that we can get our actual heads back for a day.

To be clear:  the Jewish tradition has nothing against work. L’hefech, there are actually rabbinic sources which understand the very same phrase “sheshet yamim…” as constituting a mitzva. “Six days you should work!”     “אהוב את המלאכה”, “love your work!”, we’re taught in Pirkei Avot. But we urgently need to take one day every week to not be what we do, but to simply be who we are.

There is, of course an unsettling inference that have no choice but to draw from this. And that is that when we can’t free ourselves, when we fail to fully turn our heads back into our plain human heads, we are failing – on an important conceptual level – to observe Shabbat. We are in fact, being מחלל שבת ;  we are …. violating Shabbat. Which would all by itself qualify as a worthwhile teaching for this morning, except there’s something even more important that I want to say.

 

We all struggle in our personal performance of certain mitzvot. But even as we are struggling ourselves, the last thing we’d ever want to do is to impair someone else’s ability to perform that mitzvah.  And yet, when it comes to this aspect of Shabbat observance we are guilty of doing exactly this, even sometimes right here in shul.  We actually violate someone else’s Shabbat.  It can very innocent, as we ask a friend whom we haven’t seen in a week how that big project went this week. Sometimes, because we are dealing with a particular issue or matter, we seek out the professional opinion of one of our fellow parishioners, as we both eat chulent at Kiddush. The worst of it though is when we engage our friends who are our children’s teachers, or their school principals, or lay leaders at the school, in conversations about specific things that are going on in our child’s classroom or in the lunchroom, or in the board room. We’re blowing their heads off! We are violating their Shabbat when we do these things.

The saddest thing that I ever hear is a Jewish professional telling me that he or she is not coming to shul anymore, because it’s just not a safe space for their observance of Shabbat. Let’s do better. Let’s be better.

We’ll conclude the Aruch HaShulchan’s codification of these laws (Siman 306)

ולא התירו חכמים ההרהור אלא כשאין לו טרדת הלב ודאגה בהרהור, כגון שעסקיו הולכין בטוב בהצלחה ובלא פיזור הנפש. אבל כשיש לו על ידי ההרהור דאגה וטרדת הלב – אסור, שהרי אין לך ביטול עונג שבת גדול מזה.

ואיתא במכילתא: ‘ששת ימים תעבוד ועשית כל מלאכתך’ – שתהא כל מלאכתך בעיניך עשוי בהגיע שבת קדש, שהרי אין אדם יכול לעשות כל מלאכתו בשבוע אחד, אלא יראה אדם בכל שבת כא(י)לו מלאכתו עשויה, ואין לך עונג גדול מזה

The Sages permitted thinking about our work on Shabbat only when these thoughts do not produce anxiety and heaviness of heart. But otherwise such thoughts are forbidden, for there is no greater negation of “oneg Shabbat”, the delight of Shabbat, than this.

And as the Mechilta teaches, you should feel as if all of your work is done, for there is no delight greater than this.

Let us all delight in our Shabbat. Let us, for a day, be who we are, not what we do. And even more importantly, let us become the keepers of our bothers’ and sisters’ Oneg Shabbat.


Our Tradition,Ourselves: Desire, Power, and Abuse. Posted by Yosef Kanefsky

December 25, 2017

From Kiddushin 81a : Young women whom the community had just redeemed from captivity were brought to spend the night in the upper story of the home of Rav Amram the Pious. When one of them stepped out for just a moment, Rav Amram the Pious grabbed a ladder that ten men together could not lift, and began climbing.   כי מטא לפלגא דרגאן, when he was halfway up the ladder, he locked his knees and cried out: There is a fire in the house of Amram. Upon hearing this, the Sages came and found him in that position.

The urgent and ubiquitous social discussion about sexual misconduct and power differentials, presents us with invaluable opportunities. As people, to ask why are things going so terribly wrong? And as Jews to look with fresh eyes at our own sources, for the guidance that they offer us, and so that we can raise  the important questions that we might need to ask. Of course this is a very large discussion, but let’s start it by suggesting some of the points of departure.

While not the central issue of the stories breaking every day, these stories nonetheless give us the opportunity to think hard about the surprising – even shocking – power of illicit sexual desire. On Kiddushin 81a the story of Rav Amram Chasida is just for starters:

רבי מאיר הוה מתלוצץ בעוברי עבירה יומא חד אידמי ליה שטן כאיתתא בהך גיסא דנהרא לא הוה מברא נקט מצרא וקא עבר כי מטא פלגא מצרא שבקיה אמר אי לאו דקא מכרזי ברקיעא הזהרו בר’ מאיר ותורתו שויתיה לדמך תרתי מעי

Rabbi Meir would ridicule transgressors by saying it is easy to avoid temptation. One day, Satan appeared to him as a woman standing on the other side of the river. Since there was no ferry to cross the river, he took hold of a rope bridge and crossed the river. When he reached halfway across the rope bridge, the evil inclination left him and said to him: Were it not for the fact that they proclaim about you in heaven: Be careful with regard to Rabbi Meir and his Torah, I would have shattered your reputation, and reduced your value to two ma’a.

And then, the same story, this time with Rabbi Akiva!

Rabbi Akiva would likewise ridicule transgressors. One day, Satan appeared to him as a woman at the top of a palm tree. Rabbi Akiva grabbed hold of the palm tree and began climbing. When he got hallway up the tree…

The surprising power of illicit sexual desire.

Bur the Talmud doesn’t tell these stories simply for their shock value. As the best way it knew how to explain the rabbinic injunction of yichud – the prohibition upon placing ourselves in situations in which we are alone with someone of the opposite sex. And laws that limit physical contact, and laws that demand that we examine and take responsibility even for our thoughts. Current events, though primarily about something else, still invite us – indeed urge us! – to think seriously about these halachot.

What current events are primarily about of course, is the exploitation of power differentials.  Which is a theme that is central both to scripture and to halacha. The abusive potential of the power differential between creditor and lender, produces scriptural laws forbidding the taking of interest, preventing creditors from invading the homes of borrowers and seizing collateral – in particular from widows, and even from subjecting the borrower to subtle social humiliations. It produces laws that determines when wages are due and forbids employers from delaying payment, laws that hold employers liable if they cannot produce the work opportunities that they had promised, and even laws that give a slight legal advantage to employees locked in a wage dispute with employees. The concern over the exploitation of power differentials produces laws which guarantee the stranger equality under the law, specifically forbids taking advantage of the stranger’s unfamiliarity with the local commercial practices, and even prohibits – in the strongest terms – verbal bullying of the stranger. The sin for which King David is sentenced to suffer for the rest of his life is the sin of abusing his power in taking the wife of, and then directing the death of Uriah the Hittite. The sin that seals King Achav’s fate is not idolatry, rather the convening of a kangaroo court to sentence a commoner named Navot to death and to then appropriate his vineyard to the crown. And, among the sins that bring the priests Chofni and Pinchas to their untimely ends is their taking advantage of their position to lie with women who had come to offer sacrifices to God.  Intentional abuse of power to bring suffering and ruin upon the weaker, is reckoned in our religion as a direct affront to God, a shameless denial of the sacredness of the human being, a mocking of the image in which all were created.

 ה’ שֹׁ֘מֵ֤ר אֶת־גֵּרִ֗ים יָת֣וֹם וְאַלְמָנָ֣ה יְעוֹדֵ֑ד וְדֶ֖רֶךְ רְשָׁעִ֣ים יְעַוֵּֽת׃

God watches over the stranger, encourage the orphan and the widow, and confounds the ways of those who exploit them.

And we also need, at this moment in time, to also acknowledge that when it comes to the power dynamic between men and women, our very same Biblical and rabbinic tradition strikes notes that are unsettling and problematic to the modern ear, notes which can be used – and have been used – to justify dangerous, abusive behavior. We think about the fundamental structures of the marriage and divorce laws, the barring of women from positions of judicial, and religious legal authority even when the matters being deliberated materially affect their welfare. Even the subtle yet deeply affecting matter of who “counts” and who does not. Current events have given us the opportunity, and frankly the responsibility to continue thinking about how – as people faithful to Halacha – we work to mitigate the potential and real abuses of our system.

In this vein, I will leave us with a few quotes (my translations) from a shiur that Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l gave 20 years ago. Rav Licthtenstein was reflecting on the punishment the Torah metes out to the rapist, who is required to pay 50 silver shekels to his victim’s father, and offer to marry her.

“The perpetrator is perhaps punished, but the victim’s suffering is not addressed. One must honestly admit that it is difficult to digest this approach…, and that through modern eyes we would certainly take the assault itself much more seriously.

One cannot claim that our disgust at violence arises from reading too many romantic poems or too much 18th century French philosophy. It arises from our cleaving to God and the values of kindness and mercy with which our entire tradition is shot through.

If we were functioning today according to Biblical law, would we apply the laws of rape as they appear in the Torah, or would we say, “this is our eternal Torah, our Torah of truth, but in our present reality in which rape has an entirely other dimension, causing trauma that perhaps didn’t exist in bygone days, we must address the matter differently?”

אני סבור שהתשובה השנייה היא הנכונה

I believe that the second answer is correct.”

This is our eternal Torah, our Torah of truth. And, we must know how to apply and live it so that no one winds up abused by it. There is a fire in the house. It is our opportunity to think deeply about desire, power, and about our religion.


Hanukkah’s Light, and God’s Light, by Yosef Kanefsky

December 19, 2017

 

 

 

 

Judaism has many lights. The lights that we kindle on Friday night. Yahrzeit lights, the light of Havdalah, and of course the Hanukah lights. All are Judaism’s lights. But none is the one that earns the moniker נר ד’ – God’s light. That designation is reserved for something else.

In a habit as old as time itself, every tribe, every people, seeks to isolate the one or two traits or qualities that define that tribe’s, that people’s essential nature. It is true that the habit has a downside. Over the course of human history it has frequently led nations to the invariably mistaken belief that these noble qualities are not found among others, a belief which then fuels dangerous forms of chauvinism and ultimately legitimizes unconscionable deeds. That having been said, there is also considerable value to this old habit as well. For when a people explicitly identifies its essential qualities, it is implicitly challenging itself, and challenging each of its constituent members to strive hard to embody these qualities. Proclaiming “This is who we are; this is what we are”, is a powerful means for bringing out the best in one’s folks.

We, the Jewish people, have engaged in this too. In several places, the Talmud lists the essential qualities that make us the Jewish people, implicitly charging us to live up to them. What essential Jewish qualities would you guess the Talmud came up with? Wisdom? It’s not a bad guess, as it written, רק עם חכם ונבון הגוי הגדול הזה. But that’s not it. Rugged stubbornness? Yes, we are the עורף עם קשה but this too is not the Talmud’s answer. It’s not even the capacity to stand alone against the world – though the verse עם לבדד ישכון praises our ability to so when necessary.

When our Sages looked to define who we are and what we are, this is what they said:

(Yevamot 29a)

שלשה סימנים יש באומה זו הרחמנים והביישנין וגומלי חסדים

There are three distinguishing marks of this nation, the Jewish people. They are merciful, they are sincerely humble, and they perform acts of kindness.

Rambam codified this statement as Halacha in several places in his Mishna Torah:

 

(Issurei Biah 19:17)

כֵן כָּל מִי שֶׁיֵּשׁ בּוֹ עַזּוּת פָּנִים אוֹ אַכְזָרִיּוּת וְשׂוֹנֵא אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת וְאֵינוֹ גּוֹמֵל לָהֶם חֶסֶד חוֹשְׁשִׁין לוֹ בְּיוֹתֵר שֶׁמָּא גִּבְעוֹנִי הוּא. שֶׁסִּימָנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הָאֻמָּה הַקְּדוֹשָׁה בַּיְשָׁנִין רַחֲמָנִים וְגוֹמְלֵי חֲסָדִים.

(Gifts to the poor 10:1)

חַיָּבִין אָנוּ לְהִזָּהֵר בְּמִצְוַת צְדָקָה יוֹתֵר מִכָּל מִצְוֹת עֲשֵׂה. שֶׁהַצְּדָקָה סִימָן לַצַּדִּיק זֶרַע אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ “

(Avadim 9:8)

וְאֵין הָאַכְזָרִיּוּת וְהָעַזּוּת מְצוּיָה אֶלָּא בְּעַכּוּ”ם עוֹבְדֵי עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה אֲבָל … יִשְׂרָאֵל שֶׁהִשְׁפִּיעַ לָהֶם הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא טוֹבַת הַתּוֹרָה וְצִוָּה אוֹתָם בְּחֻקִּים וּמִשְׁפָּטִים צַדִּיקִים רַחְמָנִים הֵם עַל הַכּל. וְכֵן בְּמִדּוֹתָיו שֶׁל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא שֶּׁצִּוָּנוּ לְהִדָּמוֹת בָּהֶם הוּא אוֹמֵר (תהילים קמה ט) “וְרַחֲמָיו עַל כָּל מַעֲשָׂיו“..

You have to admire the tactical brilliance of the Talmudic tradition in choosing these as our essential aspirational qualities. The Talmud – in the second and third centuries – is operating against a backdrop of no small amount of anti-Jewish hostility that’s out there in the world. And it presumes that Jewish history will continue to generate within us ample emotional, intellectual and even moral justification to be suspicious of those outside of tribe, indifferent toward their needs, and to focus of all our efforts, energy, and emotional capital inward. And so, it davka insists that the qualities of compassion, humility, and kindness to all of  God’s creations, are the qualities that make us who we are, and that if we were to abandon them, we would cease to be worthy of our name, worthy of our God.

We are lucky and blessed to be living in a time and in a land in which anti-Semitism is not a feature of our daily, personal routine; it isn’t an obstacle that stands in the way of our reaching our best Talmudic Jewish selves. The great head wind today, is something else. It’s the prevailing, pervasive, and pernivious social and political culture “out there”, of denunciation, mockery, and civic warfare. We’ve all been affected by it, and have been changed by it. We’re all more condescending and sarcastic, quicker to go on the attack, slower to listen and to engage. Not by conscious decision, God forbid, just through daily exposure to zeitgeist. And we’re drifting. Drifting from Yahadut, from the qualities of Jewishness that are so basic that we really aren’t Jews without them: instinctive compassion, reflexive humility, indomitable kindness – like Avraham’s.

Yet, there’s every reason to have confidence in our ability to reroot ourselves. Because in the end we are way too stiff-necked a people to be torn from our moorings by prevailing cultural winds. We are way too willing to be a people that dwells alone, that is countercultural, one that champions civility rather than warfare in debate, and which religiously extends kindness to God’s creation. And we are way too wise a people to think that anything good will ultimately come from interminable line-drawing, labeling, and confrontation.

שלשה סימנים יש באומה זו הרחמנים והביישנין וגומלי חסדים

This is who and what we are, when are truly ourselves.

Judaism has many lights. But only one is identified as the light of God. נר ד’ נשמת אדם. The light of God, is the soul of the human being. The light of God exists neither as particles nor as waves. It is not on the visible spectrum. The light of God is seen and felt in only one way. Through the religiously inspired soul of the human being. The kind of soul which sees the sorrow of another, and runs to bring comfort. Sees the anxiety of another, and offers an ear that listens and a heart that feels. One that senses the potential for strife, and projects the humility that is the trademark of peacemaker. This is how the light of God manifest. Through the compassionate, humble, and kind human soul.

Every Friday night we recite the Mishna that asks, במה מדליקין …..?. It’s a question about materials, about oils and wicks. The same question is of course also asked concerning the lights of Hanukkah. And as important as it is to use the right kind of oils and wicks, the ultimate question we think about as we light is not “which oils and wicks will produce a fitting Chanukah light?”, rather which qualities of the soul will produce the light of God?”  We are blessed with one more night to go.

(Tehillim 18)

כִּֽי־אַ֭תָּה תָּאִ֣יר נֵרִ֑י ה’, אֱ֝לֹקי יַגִּ֥יהַּ חָשְׁכִּֽי׃

It is You who lights my lamp; the LORD, my God, lights up my darkness


For the Friend I Buried Today. By Yosef Kanefsky

February 24, 2016

I buried a friend today. A friend, who four weeks ago was healthy and well, and was living the life of kindness, friendship, community, and family that had endeared her to everyone. A tower of emotional strength and personal determination, a person whose love was both fierce and tender. A friend, who suddenly and without warning tumbled into a coma, then hovered for four weeks between this world and the next, until finally, on Monday night, leaving us completely. At this very moment, as I look at my shoes still covered with cemetery dirt, I – together were an entire synagogue community – am not only pained and saddened, but also shattered and stunned.

I can’t help but also think about the family and friends of David Wichs a”h, a man described as an angel, who lost his life in the blink of an eye about three weeks ago when a huge construction crane hurtled to the ground exactly where he happened to be standing. How surreal and startling, how impossible-seeming it surely sounded to his loving wife, to his co-workers, to his synagogue community. What an unfathomable loss. May his family somehow, at some point, know comfort.

It is at moments like these – and they seem to come with almost numbing regularity these days – that we gently check our notions of individual Divine Providence at the cemetery door. For while the idea that God knows and responds to each of us individually in accordance with our deeds is often both inspiring and spiritually useful, there are just times when we need to place it in a quiet corner for a bit, as we recognize with pain and sorrow, that life, Judaism, and God are just a whole lot more complicated, and a whole lot more inscrutable than that. There are just times when we must hang our theological hats on the teaching of the Talmudic sage Rava, who said that “length of life, children and sustenance depend not on merit, but on Mazal.” (Moed Kattan, 28a)

Which is not to say that events like these simply plunge us into a religious vacuum. Really just the opposite. This is when Jewish practice, with its overwhelming and unvarying emphasis on גמילות חסדים (acts of love and kindness) achieves the apex of its religious strength. We are battle-ready and trained. To visit the sick, to comfort the mourner, to cook the meals, to drive the carpools, to hug and embrace our fellow the way we would ourselves want to be hugged and embraced. Yes, in quieter and happier times, we can afford the luxury of the doctrine of individual Divine Providence. But on days like today, we just thrust ourselves headlong into the holy trenches of the hands-on mitzvot.

There’s a peculiar choreographic moment at the end of the daily Tachanun prayer. After petitioning God to forgive us our sins and to save us from bad occurrences, we come to the words “we don’t really know what to do”. We don’t really know the magic formula either for obtaining forgiveness or for securing protection. But remarkably, precisely as we say these words which carry such an air of resignation about them, we ritually rise from our chairs and stand upright. Yes it’s true that we don’t really know. But when confronted with not knowing, with not understanding, we respond by rising to the occasion, by embracing the certitude of goodness and kindness practiced toward those who are suffering the most.

For even Mazal can bend to Chesed.