Boundaries & Borders – Shabbat Shoftim 5779 (2019)

lo tasig g’vul rei’ekha – Don’t move (or move back) your fellow’s landmark.

So begins the Torah’s statement regarding the inviolability of boundary markers. Here’s the full verse: You shall not move your countryman’s landmarks, set up by previous generations, in the property that will be allotted to you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess.” [Deuteronomy 19:14]

Maimonides summarizes the Talmudic understanding of this norm: “If a man removed his neighbor’s landmark and included some of his area into his own, even as much as a finger’s length, he is deemed a robber if he did it forcibly, and a thief if he removed it secretly. If he removed a landmark in Eretz Yisrael, he has broken two prohibitions: robbery or theft, and: ‘You shall not move your countryman’s landmarks’ (Deuteronomy 19:14). This last prohibition is applicable only in Eretz Yisrael, since it is written in the same verse: ‘In the inheritance which you will hold in the land…'” [Laws of Theft 7:11]

 

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[Border stone from 1763 between Norway and Sweden, located in the Arctic]

 

Our tradition, as is its wont, also reads this command in metaphorical terms. Bible scholar Jeffrey Tigay explains that “in halakhic literature this admonition against encroachment was widely expanded to encompass other types of misappropriation, such as wrong attributions of rabbinic dicta, and eventually to copyright violations.” [JPS Torah Commentary, Deuteronomy, p. 183]

I’m inclined to follow that impulse to read figuratively, and to recognize in the Torah’s command a very suggestive piece of guidance and direction. There are many ‘types of misappropriation’ to ponder from the political to the personal and beyond. National borders and their significance certainly come to mind. Personal boundaries, their protection and their all too frequent violation, come to mind as well.

Respect for appropriate limits is part of the foundation of rabbinic thinking and Jewish ethics. Honoring one another’s boundaries is the starting point of ethical living; knowing one’s own limits is the starting point of healthy living. Hasagat g’vul – litererally ‘the moving of landmarks’  – is the rabbinic phrase for boundary violation writ large. One short verse in the Torah; one very large ethical concern that touches our lives on every level, every day.

Shabbat Shalom!

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Rosh Hodesh Elul – Shabbat Re’eh 5779 (2019)

Ani l’dodi v’dodi li – I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.

These famous words from Song of Songs describe the culmination of a shared search by two lovers for one another’s affection and attention. And the poet’s announcement is clear: they have found one another and are now reciprocally connected.

Medieval philosophers read Song of Songs as an allegory for the spiritual quest. Michael Fishbane brilliantly summarizes the idea that “the self now asserts the Beloved’s reality in its soul. It feels the growing inwardness and actuality of this truth and proclaims this in terms of spiritual mutuality: I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine…The double formulation (being loved and giving love) confirms an entwined spiritual relationship and a sense of the Beloved’s presence – as emotional reality and personal truth.”

Kabbalists associated the Song’s famous line with the month of Elul, the last of the year, and the lead-up to Rosh Hashanah and the beginning of a new year. R Haim Yosef David Azulai (known as Hid”a) – an 18th century mystic and scholar – may have been the first to articulate the connection. “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li is an acronym (rashei teivot) for ELUL. In the month of Elul, the Holy One desires the people of Israel and becomes ‘Beloved’ (dod) to them in order to draw them near in repentance; God is close to those who call to God in this month.”

 

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Hid”a notes that the last letter of each of the words in the Song’s famous line is the letter ‘yud’, which both figures in God’s name and carries the numerical value of 10. The message of the four ‘yuds’? God desires connection and is available to us “not only in Elul which marks the end of the year but also during the ‘Ten Days of Repentance’ which mark the beginning of the New Year.” Forty days of maximal connectivity.

ELUL begins on Sunday. Consider Elul’s beginning as an invitation to us to focus on relationship and connection – with ourselves, with others, with particular special others, with our families, with our people, with God. Song of Song’s best known line can serve as a powerful guide for that journey of reflection and discovery. Start with ‘ani.’ Who am I? And how do I desire to connect with myself and with others? What, really, does l’dodi mean? Lamed can mean with, for, belonging to; which is it for me? Who/what is my beloved? And what of the vav (and) at the center of the phrase? What does mutual and reciprocal relationship look like?

ELUL is high season for that spiritual and personal quest. It begins now.

Shabbat Shalom. Hodesh Tov.

And may we each be inscribed and sealed for a new year of entwined spiritual relationship and maximal connectivity.

God Bless You! – Shabbat Naso 5779 (2019)

Birkat Kohanim, the well known priestly blessing which lies at the heart of Parashat Naso, raises many questions. If God is the source of all blessing, why doesn’t God bless the people directly? If the priest who delivers blessing to the people isn’t the ultimate source of that blessing, what is her/his role? And what does conveying or sharing blessings with or to another person even mean?

A pair of teachings, both found in Midrash Tanhuma, aim to answer the first question.

It does not suit My dignity that I should have to bless My creatures [Myself]. Rather, I am handing the blessings over to Abraham and to his progeny, and so, whosoever they bless, I will back up his blessing, as it is written: “and be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:2)

[Midrash Tanhuma, V’zot ha’Berakha 1]

And it came to pass, [on the day that Moses had made an end of setting up the tabernacle] – the Holy One, blessed be He, said, “In this world, I commanded Aaron and his sons to bless them, but in the future, I, in My glory, will bless them, as it is written, ‘YHWH bless thee out of Zion; even He that made heaven and earth.’” (Psalm 134:3)

[Midrash Tanhuma, Naso 18]

Similarly, Midrash Tanhuma explains the role of the priest.

“In this way you shall bless” (Numbers 6:23) – Speak [amor] to them [using the ‘full’ spelling, i.e. with a vav], thus meaning: Say to them, to the priests, that just because I have told you to bless the people Israel, this does not imply that you may bless them begrudgingly or hastily [b’angaria u’v’vehilut]; rather, you should bless them wholeheartedly, so that the blessings have power for them; and thus is it written amor lahem, using the ‘full’ spelling.

[Tanhuma Buber, Naso 18]

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Put these teachings together and you get a possible answer to my third question. By facing one another and desiring goodness for one another with a full heart, we get to bring a bit of Divine goodness into the world. Priests partner with God to draw down goodness, and, remember, we’re all priests. To bless one another is to increase the flow of love and compassion in the world. No wonder birkat kohanim is (perhaps) our oldest and most beloved prayer!

Shabbat Shalom!

Get up, Stand up! – Shabbat Behukotai 5779 (2019)

An old time Hebrew children’s song, long a staple of Jewish summer camp and preschool, celebrates having one’s cake and eating it too. Sung while dancing in a circle, the song’s very few words are these: oo-gah, oo-gah, oo-gah, b’ma’agal nacho-gah (Cake, Cake, Cake, we celebrate in a circle!); nis’to’ve’vah kol hayom, ‘ad asher nimtzah makom (We’ll spin around all the day, until we find a spot); la-shevet, la-koom, la-shevet la-koom, la-shevet v’la-koom (to sit, to stand up, to sit, to stand up, to sit, and to stand up!). (Hear the best known version of the song here – https://youtu.be/TJ-MAHC4hgg)

Finding a proper place in which to sit (let alone knowing when to sit down) is no simple matter. Summoning up the courage to stand up (let alone when and how to do so) strikes me as even more complex.

 

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[Darren Thompson “Standing Sitting”]

 

Parashat Behukotai features a fascinating interplay of the same two verbs – la-shevet (to sit or to settle) and la-koom (to stand up straight). Behukotai’s central passage describes the blessings enjoyed upon walking in the Divine path and, at much greater length, the curses suffered as consequence of defiance and denial of that path. On the blessing side – ‘you will dwell (vi’shavtem) securely in your land’ and the culminating good: ‘I made you walk upright (kom’miyut)’.

At the other end of the passage, the curse section concludes with these horrors:

“Then shall the land make up for its sabbath years throughout the time that it is desolate and you are in the land of your enemies; then shall the land rest and make up for its sabbath years. Throughout the time that it is desolate, it shall observe the rest (az tish’bat ha’aretz) that it did not observe in your sabbath years while you were dwelling upon it. As for those of you who survive, I will cast a faintness into their hearts in the land of their enemies. The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight. Fleeing as though from the sword, they shall fall though none pursues. With no one pursuing, they shall stumble over one another as before the sword. You shall not be able to stand your ground (v’lo tihiyeh lakhem t’kumah) before your enemies, but shall perish among the nations; and the land of your enemies shall consume you.” [Leviticus 26:34-38]

An inability to stand up represents the epitome of cursedness. Standing tall (as my friend and teacher R Shai Held translates kom’miyut) connotes blessedness. At the end of the day, blessing and curse are a choice. Another old time song, this one courtesy of Bob Marley, completes the circle. Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight! [https://youtu.be/X2W3aG8uizA]

  

Shabbat Shalom!

Let Freedom Ring – Shabbat Behar 5779 (2019)

“Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof Lev. XXV X.”

The Liberty Bell’s well known inscription is taken from Parashat Behar. In Hebrew – וּקְרָאתֶ֥ם דְּר֛וֹר בָּאָ֖רֶץ לְכָל־יֹשְׁבֶ֑יהָ (u’kratem d’ror ba’aretz l’khol yosh’veha). The key word is d’ror. The Bell, which is to say, the King James Bible, translates d’ror as Liberty. Interpreters, ancient and modern, offer up three possible meanings: ‘release’, ‘flow’, and ‘freedom’. Jacob Milgrom (Anchor Bible, Leviticus, p 2167) notes the connection among the possible translations. “One can easily see that the three meanings are related: whatever is released, flows and gains freedom. The first meaning, ‘release’, would be primary, with ‘flow’ and ‘freedom’ as its natural but secondary extension.

It’s worth noting that Behar’s proclamation takes place in the Jubilee year (yovel in Hebrew). Behar’s system of counting years (the Jubilee takes place in the 50th year of the cycle) culminates in a dramatic moment of emancipation. Our nation’s founders certainly understood the significance of the inscription, even if they didn’t choose it. Isaac Norris, Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly, commissioned the bell in 1751; the inscription likely referred back to William Penn’s 1701 ‘Charter of Privileges’ and its grant of religious liberty of Pennsylvania’s people. By 1776, the bell’s role, already well established, was to ‘let freedom ring’. The Liberty Bell’s later adoption by the Abolitionist, Suffragette, and Civil Rights movements makes perfect sense.

 

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[Jean Leon Gerome Ferris The Bell’s First Note]

 

Milgrom calls Jubilee, ‘the priestly solution for economic injustice’, arguing that it ‘has become the rallying cry for oppressed peoples today’. Tamar Kamionkowski is less certain. ‘A key question about Leviticus 25’, she writes, ‘is what it envisions as justice’. Behar addresses ‘socio-economic inequalities’ but not ‘the particular vulnerabilities of women’ nor ‘protections for the poor in urban settings’ nor ‘closing the gap between wealthier and poorer landowners’. ‘Leviticus 25 never uses the terms “justice” or “righteousness”’ she concludes. Later prophetic voices offer much more forceful statements, Professor Kamionkowski reminds us, quoting in full the words of Zechariah (7:9-10): “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another”.

Zechariah (and Jeremiah and Ezekiel) may articulate the demand for justice more forcefully than does Leviticus 25, but Behar begins the conversation. Its clarion call to ‘proclaim d’ror’ resonates and inspires to this day. Especially when accompanied by the blast of a shofar and the pealing of a now famous bell. Let freedom ring.

Shabbat Shalom.

Blasphemy or Exclusion? – Shabbat Emor 5779 (2019)

The entire book of Leviticus contains only two narratives, and both are troubling. In Parashat Shemini, Aaron’s sons – Nadav and Avihu – bring ‘strange (or alien) fire’ to the altar and are incinerated in (apparent) response. This week, in Parashat Emor we read of a fight in the camp between a ‘half-Israelite’ (Israelite mother/Egyptian father) and ‘a certain Israelite’ during which the half-Israelite ‘pronounces the Name in blasphemy.’ At story’s end, the blasphemer is stoned to death by the whole community.

Who is this blasphemer and what’s his story? The early Midrash (Sifra Emor 14) provides a backstory in a few terse lines. “‘There came out among the Israelites one whose mother was Israelite and whose father was Egyptian.’ Where did he got out from? From Moses’ court, for he had sought to pitch his tent in the camp of Dan. They (the other members of the tribe of Dan) said to him: What right do you have to pitch your tent in the camp of Dan? He said: I am descended from the daughters of Dan. They answered that tribal portions followed the flag or house of the father. He appealed before the court of Moses and lost his case, so he rose and reviled God.”

 

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[Mother and Son, Ambrose McEvoy, 1910]

 

The blasphemer’s mother Shelomit bat Divri, is a daughter of the tribe of Dan. We never learn the blasphemer’s name. Brilliantly and poignantly, Wendy Zierler, building on the Midrash, proposes more backstory. (See her piece at http://thetorah.com/a-tribute-to-the-blasphemers-mother-shelomit-daughter-of-divri/) She presents the mother as a ‘struggling ex-slave and single mother who labored against all odds to raise her son and shield him from the prejudice of the surrounding community.’ Of the son, she writes, ‘he saw that he was a second-class citizen in a society of former second-class citizens, that he was not wanted among his would-be brethren.’ Our story, suggests Professor Zierler, is about patriarchy, exclusion, ‘bifurcated identity’ and injustice. In short, ‘a full-blown tragedy.’

I’m persuaded by Professor Zierler’s reading. The Torah’s story of the blasphemer comes to remind us of the human costs of oppressing and excluding others. As the singular narrative in a book whose laws focus over and over on the making of distinctions in the name of holiness, the tale of Shelomit and her son aims to teach us that while some separations promote purity and holiness, others pave the way for unnecessary and unjust pain and suffering. Emor, in its last lines, invites us to understand which ones are which. The blasphemer’s tale is the story of distinction-making run amok. It’s a lesson we badly need to learn.

Shabbat Shalom. 

 

Israel: Land & People – Shabbat Kedoshim 5779 (2019)

I have eretz yisrael on the brain these days. This has been the week of Yom haAtzma’ut, the 71st anniversary of Israel’s independence. And the parashiot (Torah portions) of this time of the year have a distinct focus on the land. Vayikra’s last five parashiot – Aharei Mot, Kedoshim, Emor, B’har, and Behukotai – articulate laws about the land of Israel no fewer than ten times. Evidently, Leviticus has eretz yisrael on the brain as well.

Kedoshim’s land of Israel verses  evocatively describe the relationship between land and people, a centerpiece of the Torah’s theology.

“When you enter the land and plant any tree for food…” [Leviticus 19:23] Sefat Emet, R Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger (19th century), explains ‘that the power of planting has been given to the people of Israel. They are able to plant every thing, to join it to its root, by the power of Torah.’ The ‘religious task’ (R Art Green’s phrase) of the Jewish people is that of connecting each and every thing to its root, fulfilled by both actual and ‘spiritual’ planting. And to start, suggests the Sefat Emet, ‘we have to implant our own souls within their root.’ For Leviticus at least, the physical location of that root is in the land of Israel. As the Zohar puts it, ‘When they are united with the land, they are called a unique nation, but not when they are separate from it.’ [Zohar Vayikra 93b]

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The great Hebrew poet, Rahel (Bluwstein) gorgeously captures the connection in her 1926 poem ‘To My Land – El Artzi’:

I have not sung you, my land,

not brought glory to you name

with the great deeds of a hero

or the spoils a battle yields.

But on the shores of the Jordan

my hands have planted a tree,

and my feet have made a pathway

through your fields.

Rahel proclaims, in her way, that we indeed have the power of planting. I wonder if the tree she planted still stands a century later. I hope it does; next time I enter the land of Israel, I plan to visit.

Shabbat Shalom.