Friday, January 28, 2011

Parshat Mishpatim - פרשת משפטים

" כִּי תִקְנֶה עֶבֶד עִבְרִי, שֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים יַעֲבֹד; וּבַשְּׁבִעִת--יֵצֵא לַחָפְשִׁי, חִנָּם - When you buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve; and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing."
(שמות כא:ב)

Growing up as a religious Jew, I never thought to question the ethics and morals of slavery within Judaism. Of course I knew that slavery was "wrong," but I never stopped to consider how it could be that a Jew could be a slave to his fellow Jew. Now that I think about it, the question seems glaring; how could such a thing be defensible on any level?

One of my favourite books, the Yalkut Leckach Tov, quotes Rav Simcha Zissel of Kelm, Lithuania, who explains that we must pay attention to the circumstances of these slaves. He points out that it wasn't possible to simply elect to become a slave; slaves were people who had been found to be thieves but didn't have the means to pay back the victim of their crime. Instead, they would have to effectively loan themselves out on a long-term contract so that they would be in a position to repay their debt. This raises another question, though - who would willingly take a thief into their home? With a distinct possibility that this person (a convicted criminal, no less) would be tempted to take the opportunity to pilfer from his house, what kind of homeowner would knowingly take a slave who was liable to steal?

In order to understand this, we must understand the Torah's concept of punishment. Here we learn something very interesting. Torah law does not condone incarceration as a punitive measure. This stands in stark opposition to almost every (if not every) other judicial system in existence. Hunting around on the web, I found an essay by a certain Rabbi Naftali Silberberg (click here for the full text,) where he explains the rationale: "A person who does not deserve to die must be allowed to be productive in the fullest sense, a prospect which is impossible when confined in prison.

"Indeed, it can conceivably be argued that long term incarceration violates the Eighth Amendment of the [American] Constitution which prohibits 'cruel and unusual punishment.'" Is depriving individuals of the most basic human desire, freedom, any less cruel than inflicting physical pain, he asks, before stating, "I believe that any prison inmate will answer that question in a nanosecond."

The point is well made. The Jewish way of thinking dictates that we don't want a thief to be in prison for a number of reasons. First of all, there is a very real chance that he may be influenced and learn from the other inmates. Moreover, by staying in an environment such as a prison, the convict remains unable to get away from his crime - the stark surroundings are a constant reminder to his mistake. After leaving the prison, it is a well-document a phenomenon that criminals have trouble adjusting to a new way of life and find it hard to go back to work. In addition to all this, a prisoner's family will be left to fend for themselves for the time that he is locked up. If the going gets tough for them, it is eminently possible that they will also turn to a life of crime. All in all, prison has many negative effects and so it seems quite understandable that Jewish law doesn't utilise this option.

Instead, in our case, the thief is taken into somebody else's home. When he is in close proximity to decent, honest people, it is almost assured that he will learn from their proper conduct. Moreover, many laws govern how a homeowner may treat his slave. Indeed, "slave" is hardly a fitting description for the position the former thief fulfills. For example, we learn in the Talmud Yerushalmi that if the homeowner only has one pillow available between the two of them, he is commanded to give it to his "guest" and sleep a little rougher than he usually might.

Yes, all this sounds rather altruistic, but apparently it worked to good effect in days gone by. It is also interesting to think now that the slavery described above is actually a good and moral way of correcting a person's character instead of forcing them through the purgatory that is prison. The concept of "Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh laZeh - All of Israel are responsible for one another" is one that echoes deeply in Jewish thought. There is no distinction between Jews; we are not allowed to think merely for ourselves. If we see that another Jew is having trouble in some way, it is our duty to come to his aid. And that holds true for both physical and spiritual needs.

I can't offer a full explanation as to why someone would choose to take a slave in, but it seems clear that the chance for restitution and rehabilitation is something that we must be careful to permit.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Parshat Yitro - פרשת יתרו

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, לְחֹתְנוֹ: כִּי-יָבֹא אֵלַי הָעָם, לִדְרֹשׁ אֱלֹהִים. כִּי-יִהְיֶה לָהֶם דָּבָר, בָּא אֵלַי וְשָׁפַטְתִּי בֵּין אִישׁ וּבֵין רֵעֵהוּ; וְהוֹדַעְתִּי אֶת-חֻקֵּי הָאֱלֹהִים וְאֶת-תּוֹרֹתָיו. - And Moshe said to his father-in-law: 'Because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they will have a matter, it comes unto me; and I judge between a man and his neighbour, and I make them know the statutes of God, and His laws.'
(Exodus 18: 16-17)

In previous Divrei Torah on this Parsha, I have taken a look at why Yitro's story is told before that of the the giving of the Torah. This year I continue with that theme, albeit from a different angle.

In his commentary on this passage, Rashi goes to great lengths to explain how, even though it is possible that this series of events was preserved and written down in their true order, we should not consider this as far more likely than the possibility that its chronology was purposely rearranged. Irrespective of whether or not this episode was told out of sequence, we can be sure of one thing: there is a definite meaning to the fact that Yitro's story is related before that of the giving of the Torah. But what could that meaning be?

One event related is when Yitro rebukes his son-in-law, Moshe, for sitting in judgment before all of Israel. Yitro felt that it was improper for one man to be the sole judge over an entire nation and suggested that he should set up an hierarchical system instead. (Not too dissimilar to the kind of judicial system we are familiar with, might I add.)

I would like to tender that the reason this episode had to come first was so that we understand the nature of the ten commandments. These commandments were split into two categories; commandments that man was to keep between himself and God, and commandments than man keeps with others.

Looking at the verses above, we see that Moshe writes "כי יבא אלי העם - When the people will come to me", with the word יבא in the singular, but a little later the plural להם (to them) is used when it says, "כי-יהיה להם דבר - When they will have a matter". The explanation for this descrepancy sheds light on why this entire episode is placed here in the first place.

In D'rash V'Iyun, it is written that whereas people are often very particular with laws between themselves and God, they can often be less pernickety when dealing with the laws pertaining to inter-personal relationships. If someone has reason to believe that they might have mixed their meaty and milky utensils, for example, some people will be sure to go to their Rabbi and ask what to do. But when it comes to accidentally charging someone too much for something, for example, some people might permit themselves a degree of slack that would be inconceivable to them in the framework of the commandments that are related more directly to God. This was precisely the case in the verses above; the people would come to Moshe so he could settle disputes between them, but only when they had another reason for doing so. Only when the people had what they thought to be a more pressing concern - an issue pertaining to their observance of commandments in the category of Bein Adam l'Makom (Man-God commandments) - would they come before Moshe.

In setting up more courts, we may contend that Yitro encouraged the Jewish people to stop prioritising their relationships with God over their relationships between themselves. To be truly holy, it is necessary to observe both aspects equally. For this reason, I believe, this episode was related before that of the giving of the Torah; its lesson had to be absorbed first.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Parshat B'shalach - פרשת בשלח

"וַיְהִי בְּשַׁלַּח פַּרְעֹה אֶת-הָעָם, וְלֹא-נָחָם אֱלֹהִים דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּים כִּי קָרוֹב הוּא: כִּי אָמַר אֱלֹהִים, פֶּן-יִנָּחֵם הָעָם בִּרְאֹתָם מִלְחָמָה וְשָׁבוּ מִצְרָיְמָה. וַיַּסֵּב אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָעָם דֶּרֶךְ הַמִּדְבָּר יַם-סוּף; וַחֲמֻשִׁים עָלוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם - And it came to pass when Pharaoh had let the people go, that Hashem led them not by the way of the land of the P'lishtim, because it was near; for Hashem said: 'Lest the people reconsider when they see war, and they will return to Egypt.' So Hashem turned the people about by the way of the wilderness by the Red Sea; and the children of Israel went up armed out of the land of Egypt."
(שמות יג:יז-יח)

The verses above, as is fairly clear, are part of those detailing Am Yisrael's exit from Egypt. The famed exodus, we learn here, did not take place in the most straightforward manner possible; namely that the Am Yisrael did not leave Egypt from the Northern tip of its Eastern border, head North-East through the desert along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea (through modern-day Gaza,) and finally reach the closest part of the Holy Land; South-West Israel.

Instead, Hashem guided the Israelites to their destination in a rather roundabout fashion. As it says above, "וַיַּסֵּב אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָעָם דֶּרֶךְ הַמִּדְבָּר יַם-סוּף - So Hashem turned the people about by the way of the wilderness by the Red Sea." Instead of heading North-East, the Jews are instructed to go first East, cross a sea, and then turn North so that they may finally enter the land of Israel from the West by crossing the Eastern bank of the Jordan river. We may picture their route as roughly two sides of a triangle, with the "hypotenuse," being the shorter, more direct and seemingly more sensible route. Why did their path meander so? Why couldn't the Jews simply take the shortcut?

Rashi and the Ramban, though, give this question fairly short shrift. They point out that there was a need for Hashem to take Am Yisrael on this indirect and drawn-our route precisely because it was indirect and drawn-out. If the Jews had traveled along the Mediterranean coast, they would have passed through a place we call "Philistia" in modern English, the home of the fearsome and belicose P'lishtim. (Otherwise known as the Phillistines.) Hashem knew that the people would lose heart and turn back to Egypt were that to happen, and so He had them enter the Holy Land another way. By forcing them along a tortuously indirect route that took them far from Egypt, He made it hard for them to even consider turning back. As we see, Amalek did attack the Jews, and Hashem' plan was vindicated as nobody pleaded to turn back.

So far, so biblical. There is an axiom in Jewish thought, though, that each and every word mentioned in the Torah is mentioned because it is relevant to every generation. So what may we learn from this? If I may, I'd like to leave the commentaries here, and make my own observations. (And all faults found herein are my own.)

The question that I'd like to pose is why Israel deserved to be taken back to Eretz Yisrael? They exited Egypt on the lowest level possible and committed numerous despicable sins on the way. Had Hashem at any time decided to call it off, His decision would have been entirely justified. Indeed, after the Cheit Ha-Egel, Hashem initially informs Moshe Rabbeinu that He plans to destroy Am Yisrael. However, He signals to Moshe Rabbeinu that this decision is negotiable. Hashem tells Moshe, “וְעַתָּה הַנִּיחָה לִּי, וְיִחַר-אַפִּי בָהֶם וַאֲכַלֵּם; וְאֶעֱשֶׂה אוֹתְךָ, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל - And now leave Me and I will destroy them and make you a great nation” (Sh'mot 32:10).

Rashi, citing Chazal, notes that although Hashem speaks seemingly unequivocally, He implies that He will not destroy Am Yisrael if Moshe does not “leave Him alone.” To use an Orwellism, why the doublespeak?

The answer could well be that Hashem wants to communicate a complex message*. On the one hand, Hashem wishes to say that this sin is one for which Bnei Yisrael really do deserve to be destroyed. On the other hand, there is room for them to recover from this ugly incident. In the end, Moshe's pleas are heard, Am Yisrael are not destroyed, they continue on the journey to Israel and ultimately end up in the Holy Land with the Beit Hamikdash.

What may we learn from this episode? Although the answer that Hashem guided the Jews to Israel via an indirect route so as to avoid being attacked is a perfectly viable and correct answer, I'd like to suggest another aspect. It was to take us through a rollercoaster ride in which we would be completely exposed. In the desert we fell apart time and again, only for Hashem to forgive us each time and not destroy us. We reached Eretz Israel not because we deserved to on our own merits, but with the help of Hashem, we were permitted to reach the promised land.

I can't remember where I heard it, but I once heard an intriguing question posed; when the redemption finally comes, will the generation that is alive at the time will be considered as more virtuous than previous generations? Will the Moshiach's arrival really be because of their merits? To make an even more pertinent point; if we are taught to expect the arrival of the redemption at any given moment, then are we to say that if the Moshiach arrives in our time, or generation will have deserved it more than all previous ones? Could we really say that all the incredibly wise Rabbis of previous generations "didn't deserve" such a merit while we did?

The answer is a resounding no. When the Moshiach does come, we learn, his arrival will be due in part to all the merits of previous generations. We must regard the coming of this moment as the result of an accumulation of the merits of the generations, not as the result of the events of only one.

While the Bnei Yisrael in the desert scarcely seemed to deserve passage into the Holy Land, merit this incredible prize they did, because their attempts at becoming close with Hashem, coupled with the merits of previous generations was enough. We may look back at the long, winding route taken with a degree of recognition - we all have our moments of doubt, but if we cast a look at Am Yisrael's travails in Egypt, we may remind ourselves of our final destination: Eretz Yisrael and the ultimate redemption. As this blog is called — Destination: Israel!

*I found this online, in a D'var Torah by Rabbi Chaim Jachter, here.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom :)

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Parshat Bo - פרשת בא

“החודש הזה לכם ראש חדשים ראשון הוא לכם חדשי השנה – This renewal of the moon shall be for you a beginning of new moons; it shall be for you the first among the months of the year.”
(Exodus 12:1)

Aside from detailing the last three of the ten plagues, this week's Parsha, Bo, is noted as it contains the first mitzvah commanded of the Jewish nation – that of Rosh Chodesh.

Harmless as this mitzvah is, many have wondered why it was selected to be the first mitzvah given to Am Yisrael. Surely there were other, more significant, (or at least more symbolic,) mitzvot that could have been chosen instead of this seemingly trivial commandment? What is so important about Rosh Chodesh?

There is a famous Pasuk that refers to the Chagim, “אלה מועדי ה' מקראי קודש אשר תקראו אתם במועדם – These are God’s appointed times for meeting, convocations to the sanctuary which you must proclaim at the time appointed for them.” To understand the concept of Mo’ed, normally translated as a time or meeting, one must refer to our Pasuk here.

Rav S. R. Hirsch proposes that all the Chagim are based on a concept of מועד, of coming together. But what is the connection between Rosh Chodesh and these מועדים? Rosh Chodesh isn't a מועד; it has no specific historic or seasonal associations. What indeed what is מועד? Does this word constitute a simple reference to time, to meeting, or is it rather to both?

Explaining his answer, Rav Hirsch continues by noting that מועד refers to a place or a time designated for meeting. In the pasuk above, the word has the latter connotation. מועדים are times or seasons designated for our meeting with Hashem. (Note that during these 'times' we confirm our religion. Shabbat is considered a testimony, as are the festivals. Indeed, the root of the word for testimony is עד. It should therefore be unsurprising that these two letters appear in the word מועד.) Explained in human terms, this meeting is to be a voluntary act for both parties. It is not to be a matter of a master summoning his servants into his presence.

For this reason only general terms are specified regarding the time of Am Yisrael’s coming to Hashem; He allows us a certain leeway in setting the conditions, as it were, for meeting up with him, so that the meeting may be of mutual choice. If it were that Rosh Chodesh were fixed, then all the chagim would be fixed too, and then it would be that we would have no input in arranging the time of our meeting with Hashem, and that we would be effectively tied down to a fixed schedule. In fact, it could be somewhat perversely argued that if the beginnings of months and hence also the festivals with them were to be tied inextricably to the astronomical phases of the planets so that the lunar calendar automatically determined the מועד and the מועדים, then we and Hashem would (l’havdil) appear bound to the blind, unchanging cycle of nature. That is absolutely not the case.

There is another aspect to this mitzvah that we may learn from. The moon itself has special value for the Jewish people. Unlike the sun which blazes intensely all day long, the moon is seen as somewhat inferior. But a better understanding of the nature of the moon is revealing. The Medrash explains that just as the moon waxes and wanes, so too does the Jewish people. Just at the moment when the Jewish people seem to be on the verge of extinction, they experience a turnaround in their fortunes. At the time of the giving of this mitzvah, the Jews were at the lowest level they had ever been at. Deeply affected by their experience in Egypt, the Jews were in a bad state. But just around the corner was one of the greatest events in the history of the Jewish people; the giving of the Torah at Sinai. (Similarly, we might note how the Holocaust was followed by the rebirth of the Jewish state.)

The Sfat Emet makes a similar point, claiming that while other nations are more linked to the sun, and can only stand 'during the day, when the sun is shining over them', only to fade away later on, the Jews do not need such external aid. On the contrary; in hard times, the Jewish nation emerges stronger instead of disappearing from view.

With the above in mind, we may now answer the question posed regarding the importance of this mitzvah. In a way, we can say that this mitzvah is parallel in function to the first letter of the Torah. Whereas the Torah could easily have started with the letter Aleph, it commences with a Bet to signify two roles and our entering into a holy partnership with Hashem. In a similar manner, the mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh demonstrates the qualities that set the Jewish people apart.