Wednesday, April 30, 2008

God and Parents

Every man shall revere his mother and his father, and keep My Sabbaths...
(Leviticus 19:2)

The verse at the beginning of Parshat Kedoshim issues two commandments - revering one's parents and keeping the Sabbath. Is there a connection between these two commandments? Does revering one's parents have anything to do with keeping the Sabbath?

The love children feel for their parents impacts their lives beyond the immediate child-parent relationship itself. A good example of this is a child learning a certain type of behavior from their parent, such as courage or generosity. The deepest impact of this relationship, beyond that of the role model, might be connected to the relationships a person develops (or does not develop) with God.

This would give us a hint as to why the verse links revering one's parents to keeping the Sabbath. Beneath it's prohibitions, the Sabbath is about recognizing God as creator. This recognition is reverence of God.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Levitivus 10-16: A Model for Religious Leadership

The past couple of weeks have particularly difficult as far as reading the weekly Torah portion is concerned. The chapters in Leviticus that form the weekly portions have concentrated primarily on in-depth instructions for the Cohen to deal with blemishes that might appear on a person's skin or on their home. The Cohen had the authority to both quarantine a person who had these markings (described in great detail), and to have the house with these markings destroyed.

We don't know much about these markings, other than their verbal descriptions. The Torah was transmitted through the generations as a text only, with no accompanying images!

So I'll start my comment on these chapters by quoting Rabbi Lewis Barth, who shares with his readers a Midrash about the importance of re-interpreting the Torah in each generation:

In a comment on the importance of Torah, "For this is not a trifling [lit., ‘empty'] thing for you"(Deuteronomy 32:47), Rabbi Akiva (or Rabbi Yishmael) said, "If the Torah is an empty thing, it is because of you, because you don't know how to expound it"

Accordingly, the Sages in the Talmud interpreted the blemishes described in the text as signs from G-d that a person had spoken about others in an immoral manner. They were acutely aware that "Lashon Harah" (evil speech) was a societal problem in Israel, and their approach also had sound textual support from other examples such as Miriam leprosy, which was connected to her speech.

However, I believe their is also another lesson to be drawn from these chapters. Both Maimonides and the Ibn Ezra
point out that the blemishes described in the text were contagious, and thus they posed a health risk to the community at large. Although they do not elaborate on this point in their commentaries, I believe their point has deep significance.

The message from the Torah to the Cohen, is that his responsibilities are not only the community's spiritual well being, but it's physical well being too.

After the Temple was destroyed and Israel was exiled from it's home, the Cohen's communal role was significantly reduced. Responsibility for spiritual leadership of the community moved to the Rabbi. And what marvelous stories we have, of Rabbis such as Reb Chaim of Brisk who it is said would not rest until he knew those in his community without wood for heat in the bitter winter had been looked after.

So this for me is one message, based on the positioning of these instructions at the center of the other (non health related) instructions - the message that Jewish leadership involves caring for people bodies, not just their souls.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Psalms 37:25 - an explanation for a difficult verse

One of the hardest verses to understand in Tanach is found in Psalms 37:25

I was young now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging for bread

How is one to read this verse without images in their mind that contradict the simple meaning of the verse?

In To Heal a Fractured World, Jonathan Sacks provides an explanation that he believes originated with Rav Joseph Soloveitchik.

The Hebrew word for the verb seen is Raiti. According to this explanation, the verb seen [Raiti] should be read in the same manner that it is found in Megillat Esther. There, (Esther 8:6) we find Esther pleading with Achashveirosh
, and she says

How can I bear to see [Raiti] disaster fall upon my people?

"To see" here means to stand still and watch. Thus the verse from Psalms should be read as

I was young now I am old, yet I have never stood still and watched while the righteous were forsaken or their children begging for bread