Friday, February 9, 2018

The Blood Of A Jewish Man: Mishpatim.18

The Blood Of A Jewish Man
Sermon for Shabbat Mishpatim
February 9, 2018
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

Towards the end of the wonderful musical Fiddler On The Roof, when the residents of Anatevka are ordered to leave their homes, a villager cries out, “We should defend ourselves! An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”  “Very good,” replies Tevya; “That way the whole world will be blind and toothless.”

It’s the wisdom of the ages, attributed to—among others—Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.  Yet this logical and higher answer to the primal cry for vengeance actually goes back much farther than our own times.

Yes, vengeance is sweet, but like most sweets, it’s empty calories.  The satisfaction lasts no more than a minute and is soon followed by a letdown, not to mention a few other emotions—such as shame, guilt and anger.

And yet, we want revenge.

Last Monday, a 29-year-old Jewish man was stabbed to death in Israel by an Arab terrorist.  In Gaza and in other Islamist strongholds, Arabs celebrated.  In the Jewish city of Ariel, some 24 miles east of Tel Aviv, the man’s wife and four children sit in mourning, surrounded by family members as well as many of the man’s students.  He was, after all, despite his youth, a rabbi, a teacher of Torah.

On the social media, I’ve been seeing calls for vengeance. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” seems to be a common denominator to these postings.

And I—I admit—I am torn.  My heart goes out to this rabbi, to his family and his students.  My heart goes out to my people, the Jewish people, who have seen so much suffering, who have been stabbed, lynched, drowned, burned, gassed and buried alive for the sole reason that they were Jews.

I know about hate.  I feel the anger and the urge for vengeance, and I am torn.  What good will it do? This has been going on for millennia.  Jewish blood is for the taking, wrote Chayim Nachman Bialik, a key Jewish poet of the late 19th and 20th century.

I am torn because I believe in self defense, and because I believe that force must be met with force, that the Jewish People have the right to defend themselves, to assert themselves, to walk with pride, free from fear of violence and hate.

I am torn because a killer is still walking free while his innocent victim’s blood is calling out from the earth.

And I am torn because I know that vengeance is wrong. Hate breeds hate, and killing only brings more killing.  So what to do?

If I were born in a different time and a different place, I too would be seeking this killer’s death.  If I were of a different culture, born to a different civilization, a different way of thinking, I too would be calling out “Revenge!”

So what stops me? The Torah stops me. The sure knowledge that if everyone thought this way, the entire world would be blind and toothless.

In more primitive times, some 3700 years ago, there was no question to ask.  Vengeance was the law.  Hammurabi, King of Babylon, spelled it out in no uncertain terms.  An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life.  Period.  No questions asked.  Yes, some allowance was made if the dead man was a slave, versus a free man.  Slaves were, after all, property, and as such, their lives were only worth their monetary value.  Not so, however, in all other situations.  The penalty was the same as the crime.

But then things changed.  The People of Israel emerged from Egyptian bondage, and civilization was born.

To be civilized doesn’t just mean that you speak the same language or follow the same laws.  To be civilized means to be respectful, not demeaning; to speak courteously, not disparagingly; to be honest, not to cheat.  To be civilized means that you are able to learn, to grow, to understand, and—most importantly—to see hope and to forgive. 

To be civilized means you don’t take justice into your own hands, but rather entrust it to a chosen body of judges and lawyers, even to your own peers as jury and witness.

To become Israel, the recently freed slaves had to do more than just sing and dance their way out of Egypt.  They had to accept the obligations of civilized law.

Hammurabi’s Code was well known throughout the ancient world.  It wasn’t the oldest, but it was the most thorough and it formed the basis of subsequent law systems.  Moses’s code, however, picks up where Hammurabi Code leaves off.

Yes, this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (“laws” or “ordinances,” Exodus 21:1—24:18) does include those infamous words, “A life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth… a bruise for a bruise.” Actually, this portion also contains some other doozies, such as  “You shall not suffer a witch to live;” and the law that permits you to sell your daughter into slavery; not to mention the one that allows you to kill your son if he so much as raises his hand to strike you—or (better yet!) disrespects you.  For anyone who wants to point to the primitive nature of the Mosaic Law Code, there’s no need to go any further than this portion. 

But to stop there would be a gross misunderstanding of this most civilized of all law codes. 

For each of these statutes is then followed with an entire paragraph of argument and discussion.  To quote these laws literally and out of context is to misinterpret the entire setting and purpose of the portion.

What the Mosaic Code actually succeeds in accomplishing here is to start a discussion.  The purpose of quoting the Hammurabi law is merely to establish a baseline.  It is as though Moses were saying, “Here is the way things are now. But let’s follow through, people. Is this where we are headed? Is this what it means to be a chosen people?” Not long after, the prophet Isaiah will express it more poetically: “I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness, and will hold your hand; I will keep you and set you… as a light to the nations: to open blind eyes, to bring out… those who sit in darkness from the prison house.” A direct line extends from the law of Moses to the vision of Isaiah.  The legal discussion does not end with Torah; it begins with Torah. 

It’s true: the state of the “civilized” world in Moses’s time, three and a half millennia ago, was lamentable.  It was primitive and cruel.  Slavery was a more than a fact of life; it was a way of life.  Rape and physical abuse were widespread, as were cheating, stealing and oppression.  This portion, Mishpatim, portrays the ancient world through clear glasses, and what we see isn’t pretty.  But what it also does is to set humanity on another course, on a new course. Whereas the Hammurabi Code relies on vengeance, Mishpatim calls for justice, not revenge; for compassion, not oppression. Considering oppressing the widow, the orphan or the stranger in your midst? Don’t even think about it! “For if he cries out to me,” God warns, “I will surely hear his cry." There is a higher justice in this world, Mishpatim teaches, and God is the ultimate judge.

And then, the Torah takes its concept of civilization even further, as it chides us and reminds us that our humanity must not be directed only towards people; we must also be compassionate towards animals.  Even they deserve a Sabbath, a day of rest.  A wounded animal—even if it belongs to your enemy—must not be allowed to suffer injury without remedy.  You must help it out.  If it is lost, you must return it—even if it means that you knock on your enemy’s door to fulfill your humane obligation.  And it is in this portion that the most basic and elementary law of kashrut—the Jewish code of dietary laws—is spelled out: “You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.”

Compassion is humanity’s saving grace, its most noble ideal.  That is the lesson—the first lesson—that the Jewish People must learn upon being freed from Pharaoh’s cruel tyranny.  It’s the start of a new day, the gateway to a new age: The Age of Humanity.

The laws of Mishpatim, as laid out in this portion, are only in their infancy.  Over the next centuries and millennia they will be expounded, discussed, modified, annulled, improved and expanded.  Each age will bring its interpretation, furthering the discussion, lifting us all to a higher state of being, raising us to the potential embedded within us.

And yet, the dichotomy, the dissonance between what is and what can be, is sometimes heart wrenching.  What we see, read and hear about every day is enough to make our blood boil. “Just five minutes,” pleaded the father as he looked with hate at his gymnast daughter’s abuser in the courtroom last week. “An eye for an eye, a life for a life,” calls out the outraged Jew as he sees the blood of the murdered rabbi spilled on the pavement, upon the most sacred soil of the Land of Israel, our land and the land of our ancestors. 

But then comes Mishpatim and reminds us that to be civilized means that you restrain your hate, and curb your urge to vengeance. The crime will not go unpunished, but we may not take justice into our own hands. Self-defense is permissible, but vengeance is not.

It’s hard to be a Jew.  It’s hard to be civilized in a world of benighted, ignorant people programmed to hate.  And as much as we would like to avenge the pain of our people, we will continue to exact a higher sort of justice.  We will continue to be better than them; we will strive to reach our highest potential.  In an uncivilized world, we will continue to be civilized as we understand and define the term.  We will not demand an eye for an eye, because our purpose will continue to be, as it has been for thousands of years, “to open blind eyes,” not to bring about a whole world full of blind and toothless people.

Despite them, in spite of them, we will pursue our covenant and obligation as a people and as a civilization.  We are sworn to do so.

But justice will come; of that you can be certain.

© 2018 by Boaz D. Heilman

Friday, January 26, 2018

A Role In Redemption: B’shalach 2018

A Role In Redemption: B’shalach
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
January 26, 2018

This week’s Torah portion, B’shalach (Exodus 13:17—17:16) is filled with enough stories and lessons for a whole year’s worth of sermons.  In this portion we read of the manna from heaven; the water that bursts forth from the rock; Israel’s ongoing and seemingly endless battle with its evil adversary, Amalek; and, of course, front and center—the spectacular parting of the Red Sea.

But tonight I would like to focus on something else: not an image, not a miracle, not even the debate between God’s hand vs. human hands in causing miracles and delivering victories.  Rather, tonight I would have us focus on the opening of this portion, particularly the verb that gives it its name: B’shalach.  “When he sent forth.”  The “he” in this case is Pharaoh, and the action this verb describes is the release of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery.  Thus, B’shalach Par’o et ha’am,  “When Pharaoh let the people go.”

A question is raised by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, may the memory of the righteous be a blessing.  Why is Pharaoh given credit for releasing the Israelites? It wasn’t of his own free will, after all.  Didn’t God harden Pharaoh’s heart to the point where he had no choice but to let the Israelites go?

Expressing both kindness and wisdom, as well as the Chassidic belief in the goodness inherent in every aspect of God’s creation, the Rebbe answers his question by teaching that while some people “express their positive intent from the outset, others like Pharaoh, require effort and even transformation before their positive qualities come to the surface.”  The Rebbe gives even Pharaoh credit!

In light of world events, and human behavior in general, this is a difficult philosophy to accept.  We don’t often see evil people transform into saints.  At times evil intentions do turn out to have exactly the opposite result, but rarely because of a change of heart. Much more likely is a miscalculation, an error in the planning or execution, or perhaps because of the intervention of some outside force.

Still, the word, b’shalach, implies that even the wicked Pharaoh, who had commanded the killing of innocent children, had some goodness within him, some lofty—if unrecognized— purpose that moved him to free the Israelite slaves.  Compare this instance with another story where the same verb, shalach, is used. This occurs earlier in the Torah, the story of Noah.  In search of hope and some dry ground, Noah releases—shalach, sends forth—a dove. The Torah describes Noah as a righteous man, and this action speaks volumes about the love and compassion that Noah had in his heart. 

Not so Pharaoh, however.  What noble purpose moved Pharaoh to release his slaves? What hope for redemption did he have in his heart? Up until that moment, his arrogance and stubbornness had done nothing but bring misery to his people and country.  At this point, with his own first-born child lying dead before him, was there anything but despair and hopelessness to look forward to?

Or was there more to him, some remnant of humanity, a touch of the spark of tzelem Elohim—God’s sacred Image—lying dormant, deep within his hardened heart?

The righteous Lubavitcher Rebbe believed that within every entity, within everything that exists, a measure of goodness can be found, if looked for hard enough. Even Pharaoh.

I envy this belief and such perfect faith. 

And yet, goodness can come out even out of the whirlwind.

The good that emerged from the tragedy and devastation that Pharaoh had brought upon himself and upon all Egypt was the birth of the Jewish Nation. 

It is possible that B’shalach points not necessarily to a transformation in Pharaoh’s nature, but rather to his fatalistic realization that he must obey God’s command. Shalach et ‘ami, spoke God, “Let my people go.” Shalach, send forth, liberate, release. Brought to his knees, Pharaoh realizes that he has no choice but to bend to God’s will.  He no longer has the will or ability to impede the trajectory of history’s imperative, and so he becomes one with it and liberates the Israelites. God’s command, Shalach, becomes Pharaoh’s b’shalach.

The teaching that everything and everyone in God’s world has a function and purpose, is one of Judaism’s great lessons.  Pharaoh’s role was to help bring about the birth of the Jewish People.  He wasn’t particularly happy about it, but ultimately he had no choice but to play his part.

The lesson the Lubavitcher Rebbe would have us learn from this story is to be willing partners in God’s work; to learn to recognize that within us—and, despite all seeming evidence to the contrary, within others—lies embedded the potential for goodness.

It isn’t an easy teaching.  We plead weakness, or perhaps are too proud to see the good in others. Anger and hate stand in our way.  Our faith is too feeble. After all, even Moses was at first reluctant to heed God’s call.  Yet this recognition, this understanding that every being has a role to play in God’s larger plans, ultimately only results in bringing greater light, more goodness and hope both into our own lives, and also to the entire world around us.

Perhaps this is the transformation that the Rebbe speaks about: For if even Pharaoh was capable of this realization, how much more so we, who are steeped in love, kindness and compassion.

May we all come to recognize the potential for holiness implanted within us and within all beings. May each moment bring with it the opportunity to bring righteousness into this world.  And may we all be willing partners, each of us playing his or her part in God’s great vision of a world filled with light and holiness for all.

© 2018 by Boaz D. Heilman

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Difference Between Greatness And Arrogance: Va'era/Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.18

The Difference Between Greatness And Arrogance
D’var Torah for Parashat Va’era—Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
January 12, 2018

Exodus, the second book in the Torah, contains some of the most dramatic and spectacular moments in all literature.  It is, after all, the story of the birth of the Nation of Israel.  Among other scenes, here we find the burning bush, the ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, and the giving of the Ten Commandments.  And that’s just the first half of the book!

The gripping story of the freeing of the Israelite slaves has been set and reset countless times, in song, painting and sculpture, in liturgy, spirituals, movies and even an opera.  In fact, every year, at the Passover Seder, we retell this story, often adding to it the account of our own family’s survival and how we, our parents or our grandparents, made it across deserts and oceans to our own day, to our own time and place.

Over the millennia, the book of Exodus has served to inspire and give hope to millions of impoverished, downtrodden and enslaved people in their search for freedom and dignity.  Moses, the hero of this story, has been the model for generations of people who saw in him a paradigm for their own struggles.  What makes Moses such a good example is not that he was a perfect man.  He wasn’t.  He had both physical and emotional problems to overcome.  Nor is his fame rooted in noble or miraculous birth.  He was not born to royalty.  At most one could say that his family and clan had dedicated themselves to being teachers, with their goal to foster and reinforce faith and hope.  There was no such thing as Judaism in their time.  There was no Shabbat, no Torah, no Ten Commandments, no Hanukkah or Passover.  All that the ancient Israelites had to hang on to was an age-old memory of long-ago ancestors and a promise made by God to redeem them from slavery.

It’s hard to keep hope alive when you are overwhelmed by misery.  Even as Moses reminds his people of God’s vow to lead them to freedom and to a Promised Land, they do not listen to him.  “They did not heed Moses,” reads the text, “because of anguish of spirit and cruel bondage.” But Moses is not put off by their refusal. He understands the soul of the oppressed and presses on with his message of hope.

Moses’s determination, the resolve he showed when facing Pharaoh, was equally hard won.  Power did not come naturally to him.  Not destined for the throne of Egypt, decision-making was not part of his training.  Moses was a man conflicted within himself.  A stutterer, a descendant of slaves, he somehow found himself raised in the lap of luxury, catered to by servants whose whole purpose in life was to make his life easier and more comfortable.  Fearful of the anger he felt within himself, frustrated by his own powerlessness, Moses at first flees from responsibility.  However, as the story progresses, we can see him gaining strength and confidence.  Moses overcomes his anxieties.  Learning to control his anger, he redirects it instead towards the real source of his pain: Pharaoh.

The Torah describes Moses as the most humble of men.  Not so, however, was his opponent.  Pharaoh was born to great and unquestioned power.  He could not see or understand the pain of the oppressed.  In Pharaoh’s world, he was a god.  He was the law and above the law.  He could wield power at will; he could command life and death, with nary a court or judge who would ever dare stand up to him or challenge his edicts.  Pharaoh’s power extended to the heavens as well as to the lowest depths of the netherworld.  He could do no wrong.

What were people, mere humans—let alone slaves!—to a man of such outsized ego?

Some see in the story of the Exodus a struggle between Pharaoh and God. And yes, in the larger picture, that is true.  There IS a greater law in the universe, far greater than any of us mortals can grasp or understand.  Call it entropy, call it God, call it Justice, it’s really one and the same. 

But really, this story is not about God.  It’s about people and human emotions.  It’s about power, strength, courage, compassion and faith.

Though the Torah does present God as the great force behind everything, its lessons are really for and about people. If there is one moral that the story of the Exodus holds out for us, it is that we are free to choose who we will be and what our role in life is going to be.  It isn’t your birth that determines whether you will be winner or loser, it’s the choices you make in life.  It isn’t the empire, or power, or money you might inherit from your father that will determine your greatness, but rather the strength you find within yourself to be compassionate and just, and the courage that impels you to proclaim liberty to the oppressed, even if it costs you your life.  

This week we will celebrate the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who clearly modeled himself after Moses.  Like his Biblical hero, Martin was not born to royalty, but rather to a poor sharecropper family from a farming community.  His handicap was not only his skin color, but also his lifelong depression that stemmed from the discrimination he saw around him.  The Rev. King’s oppressor, however, was more than any single person.  It was an entire culture, which saw people like him, people of color, as inferior beings.  Like many others of his generation, Martin Luther King could have acquiesced and become part of the system.  He could have remained silent and risked nothing.  But instead, he chose to rebel.  Like Moses, Rev. King summoned his faith and courage to demand freedom and equality for his people.  Overcoming fear, he stood up to an almost overwhelming institution that had existed unquestioned, unchallenged, for hundreds if not thousands of years.  Like Moses, he challenged a system that believed in its own superiority, a system that held as law—both human and divine—that some people were more worthy than others merely by reason of the color of their skin.  In doing so, Rev. King upheld the truth of the story of the Exodus—the truth that history is made by people, by individuals like you and me, who are not afraid to stand up for their convictions, who believe in the eternal laws of justice and morality and who are not afraid to challenge long-held notions of arrogance and prejudice.

This year, the convergence of Martin Luther King Day and the reading of the Exodus story from the Torah could not come at a more critical moment.  We are witnessing today a steep rise both in racism and in anti-Semitism—the delegitimization of the people, religion and Land of Israel.  Today we see a surge in the power of huge corporations and self-interest groups while the gulf between rich and poor continues to widen.  Both in our own country and all over the world, there are still many Pharaohs who believe that their word is supreme law, who subjugate their own people and oppress others out of ignorance and fear. 

The truth of the Torah is demonstrated and made evident by the actions of human beings. The course of the future will be determined in no small measure by the choices we make today.  We can acquiesce, or we can rise up against hatred and prejudice wherever we see them. My hope and prayer is that we follow in the footsteps of Moses and Rev. King, two men who showed us the path towards a future where all humankind, and indeed all life, can exist in harmony and peace, with dignity and justice for all.

© 2018 by Boaz D. Heilman

Friday, January 5, 2018

Change And Transformation: Shemot 2018

Change And Transformation
D’var Torah for Shabbat Shemot
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
January 3, 2018

The more things change, goes the saying, the more they stay the same.  Though things may seem to, nothing ever really changes.  We see the same stories repeating through the generations, the same mistakes made, with lessons still unlearned.

And yet, is it really so? Is change imaginary, something we only think we see?

The belief that nothing changes goes back to the earliest time of human thinking. Even as far back as the Book of Ecclesiastes we read, “There is nothing new under the sun.” But the Bible does not doom us to eternal boredom.  Repetition can lead you to greater understanding.  Think practicing a dance move, or perhaps the movie Groundhog Day, where Phil, the weatherman, is doomed to repeat his mistakes day after day until he finally makes a breakthrough and starts fixing things rather than breaking them.  It’s Hollywood’s version of Tikkun ‘Olam, the Jewish teaching that repair of the world is both possible and necessary.

Though history is rooted in the past, things can, and do in fact, change. Every dawn brings something new into the world, something that was never there before: New babies are born; new thoughts and new ideas emerge. New technologies arise, shedding new light on the way we see ourselves and the world around us. And we change. We aren’t merely cogs in some perpetual-motion machine, plugged in, occasionally repaired, until at last we fail and are replaced. 

Our very humanity enables us to bring change into our lives at every moment, with every breath we take.

Even our religion has changed since it first appeared, nearly 4000 years ago.  Periodically, historical events have force us to rethink and redefine our relationship with God. In Jewish history one can see an ongoing process of persecution and destruction inevitably followed by rebirth and regeneration.  Each new eon raises difficult questions that demand new answers. Our sacred texts, from the Torah through the Talmud, to the various medieval commentaries and down to the questions and answers of our own day—collectively known as Responsa—our texts serve as a mirror through which we can perceive and understand the ongoing evolution of our faith. 

Even within the Torah itself, our first and most fundamental text, we can already discern at least two distinct eons.  The first is the period of the Patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In their stories we see the struggles of men trying to figure out what it means to believe in a single God. In a benighted world where people called both objects and ideas gods, Abraham’s understanding that there is a single force that extends beyond the material world, beyond human grasp and comprehension, was revolutionary.  Freed from prescribed dogmas, the Patriarchs and Matriarchs sought for themselves and their children new, uncharted paths through the wilderness to this almighty, infinite, eternal God.

The God that this first generation of Jews perceived was a one-on-one entity.  Each saw a vision particular only to him- and herself.  In Genesis, the first book of the Torah, Israel was the name given to one—and only one—individual: Jacob. Exodus, the second book, picks up several hundred years later, with Israel now the name of an entire people.  Much else in the world had changed too.  The major power in the world was no longer Mesopotamia, but rather Egypt, and even this empire was on the verge of collapse, with a new star rising elsewhere.

Shemot—Exodus— begins with a listing of the names of Jacob’s sons.  As brothers of Joseph, who had saved Egypt from utter collapse, the brothers and their families were at first honored and respected.  However, in the ensuing 400 years their status changed.  A new power—Greece—was emerging.  The Greeks brought with them a new way of seeing the world, new philosophy, new art, a new religion, all supported by a vastly superior army.  Fearful, and for good reason, the latter-day Pharaoh issued harsh and restrictive measures meant to keep his kingdom stable.  But it wasn’t meant to be.  The ancient Egyptian empire was about to be brought to its knees, though not by an army, but rather by a single individual.

Moses wasn’t a prince by birth.  He was born to a nation of slaves, part of a clan whose role was to reinforce during difficult times, through story and song, Israel’s belief in the God who had promised to redeem them.

Pharaoh decreed genocide against the Jewish people, commanding the killing of all newborn males. However, pockets of resistance arose: Shifra and Puah, the Jewish midwives, defied Pharaoh’s orders.  Jewish mothers hid their babies. Even Pharaoh’s own daughter—unnamed in the Torah but given by the Rabbis the name of Batyah (Daughter of God)—resisted, taking her place in a secret underground railroad whose purpose was to save Jewish children, thus becoming the first recorded Righteous Gentile.

As the rebellion grew, it became clear that what was happening was more than ordinary political unrest and upheaval.  Something new was coming into the world: the Jewish People, and along with it, a new vision of God. No longer only the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, this was the God of all Israel. It was a new, improved version of the ancient religion, a Judaism 2.1. 

The Book of Exodus is thus much more than merely a story of miracles and wonders. Exodus dares us to refute the ancient belief that change is impossible. It challenges us, instead, to work to improve the world, to make life better, to be agents of change where accepted beliefs fail.

Through the Commandments, Moses eternally linked God and Israel. By transforming a nation of slaves into a Kingdom of Priests, he changed history forever.  Empowering each of us, from prince to pauper, to participate in the act of bringing holiness into the world, Moses brought freedom not only to himself, but also to his whole people and, by extension, to all humanity. 

It’s a lesson that bears repeating.

© 2018 by Boaz D. Heilman