Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Parashat Shoftim - Lady Justice personified...


Words of Torah
Parashat Shoftim
Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9



"You shall not pervert justice; 
you shall not show favoritism, 
and you shall not take a bribe..."
~~Deuteronomy 16:19


There are many people around the globe who may at first glance be able to identify Lady Justice (pictured above).  However, if one was to ask what were the symbols that identify Lady Justice, significantly fewer would be able to answer.  Then, if you were to ask what these symbols might mean or from where these symbols obtained their meaning, even fewer, if any, would be correct. Yet, it is in this week's parsha, where we read of the origin of these three metonymic attributes.

"You shall not pervert justice" speaks to the origin of the sword.  We are obligated to ensure that the process of justice is allowed to take its course and that causing delay or unnecessary obstruction needs to be addressed with the swift stroke of the sword.

"You shall not show favoritism" personifies the balanced scales.  Justice cannot "tip the scales" in favor of, or in opposition to, any judicial process.  For justice to work it needs to take its course void of any influencing factors.

"You shall not take a bribe" is highlighted by the blindfold.  If justice cannot see who is in the court to support one side or the other, then justice will not know from whom a "gift" or bribe may come. Justice is "blind" to the pressures of those who would try to influence her.

It is of no coincidence that the very next verse in the Torah following the above justice attributes is the famous "tzedek, tzedek tirdoff" ("justice, justice shall you pursue"), Deut 16:20. Although our great sages ranged from attributing this repetition from being a literary device for emphasis, to the dual stage of not only pursuing justice but also the righteous court that can and will provide it, however, to me the timing of this verse with the above three attributes is not so random or disconnected.

When I was first introduced to the concept of "pursuing justice" it was to help me understand that justice will not happen passively.  Rather, it is our obligation to be active participants in ensuring it's righteous resolution.  If allowed to float down the stream of cultural norms and society's indifference, justice will never be able to come to shore.  Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to "pursue" it.

Yet, at what cost should this pursuit be done?  To the ultimate death?  To one's personal discomfort?  

This is where the repetition comes in to play.  I believe that the repeated "justice" in the quote is to let us know that it is incumbent on us to pursue justice as long as one of the three attributes above is still in place.  As long as there has been no perversion, no favoritism, or no bribery, then we must still pursue the justice.  However, if it reaches a point of all three having been compromised, then we are to stop because it is now in the hands of Gd.  In situations where all three justice attributes have been compromised, then this verse teaches us that the judicial system has become so corrupt that it is beyond our human capacity to pursue...and as we have learned from history, there have been numerous times when our society has in fact compromised all three, only to experience the consequences of these corrupt societies.

Let us continue to pursue justice in order to right the wrongs and repair the ills.

Shabbat shalom

Friday, May 13, 2016

Parashat Kedoshim: otherwise possibly known as the most optimistic of Torah portions.


Words of Torah
Parashat Kedoshim
Leviticus 19:1-20:27



"Every [person] shall fear his mother and father..."
~~Leviticus 19:3


I doubt there are adults, especially parents, who have never quoted or at least referenced the words of the fifth commandment when speaking about the relationship and expectations of a child to their parent; "Honor your father and mother." 

However, this week, in the Torah portion titled "Holy Ones" (Kedoshim) we read the above "revised" obligation for a child to a parent.  

The idea of a child "fearing" a parent goes against the common culture of the western world when it comes to raising children. Do we really want our children to "fear" us as parents?  "Honor" we can certainly live with. "Respect" would be lovely. But "fear"? Really?

The idea of a child fearing a parent goes against most "normative" and commonly accepted parenting handbooks found in any modern society library or bookstore.  So why does the Torah, in the portion titled "the holy ones" (Kedoshim) use fear as the definition of the expected behavior between a child and parent?

The easy answer, of course, is that the Torah was given to us in a time when fear was an acceptable emotion for children to have toward their parents.  In fact, one need only go back a few generations in this country to know that the use of fear in parenting was a common and accepted form of raising children.  So, why wouldn't it make sense when taken in the context of the time the Torah was written?

The reason for my difficulty with this passage is because I genuinely believe that although the text may be dated, the lessons to be learned from the text are eternal. So what does it mean that a child "fear" their parent in the context of today's society?

As an educational administrator I have often had conversations with teachers on the topic of discipline. "How can I get them to behave the way I want?" "I'm not a mean or strict person, so scaring them doesn't come naturally to me" are common variations of beginning teachers perceptions about how they need to manage their classrooms. They genuinely believe that discipline comes from the creation of a fearful environment and so scaring the students into submissive behavior is how they will have respectful students in their classroom.

On the other hand, "master teachers" (whom I differentiate from veteran teachers - which is a separate discussion for another blog) have come to understand that a respectful classroom environment does not mean that every child is always on task and/or never disruptive.  The master teacher develops a culture of dignity in their class, respect to oneself, others, and the inanimate room and objects themselves. Of course, the master teacher will never define this environment as originating from a sense of "fear", but the sociologist may argue differently!

"Fear" is defined as "an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous." Sociologists will tell us that the reason someone follows the rules is because they are not interested in suffering the consequences if caught breaking the rules.  It is natural to balance the risk vs reward of choosing to behave poorly, but if the risk is too great the choice is rarely too difficult.  In other words, the master teacher has established an environment where the common understanding of the community is to follow the accepted norms.

So why use "fear" in the Torah to describe the relationship between a child and parent? Because Gd is simply saying, kids, just know that the risks and consequences to mistreating your parents is way too great for you to even consider...just don't bother.  It takes the discussion off the table with the intent that the optimal behaviors will follow.

Here's to my (and apparently Gd's) eternal optimism!

Shabbat shalom.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Parashat Vayikra - what does it mean to sacrifice?


Words of Torah
Parashat Vayikra
Leviticus 1:1-5:26



"When a man among you bring an offering to Hashem..."
~~Leviticus 1:2

Welcome to the most challenging of Books of the Torah to understand...let alone teach! However, that being said, it is referred to by some as the easiest to interpret.  Because of the clear dictums, directions, authoritative statements, and commands, it is assumed that there is less interpretive room to personalize the texts...which also assumes that it provides us with more clarity for how the ancient Hebrews lived their ritual lives while wandering in the desert.

In my interpretive reading, this book is a little different.  Although there are clear statements of how to perform certain rituals, and how to specifically behave under certain circumstances, for me this book is a lot about the ethics and morals of living a Jewish life in the 21st Century.

For instance, I was told at a young age that Gd does not want Jews today to actually perform the sacrifices as described in these chapters of Vayikra (Leviticus).  In fact, according to the rabbis, Gd actually prohibits us from performing these sacrificial rituals while our people are living in a "post-Temple" Diaspora without a Beit Mikdash in Jerusalem. My rabbi taught me many years ago that we pray three times a day instead of performing the three described daily sacrifices.  Each service, the shacharit, mincha, and maariv services were designed to replace the formal morning, afternoon, and evening sacrificial rituals respectively.

Today, when I look back at this explanation, although it was "sensible" and rationale back when I was a pre-bar mitzvah teen trying to understand the why behind prayer, I am  pretty sure that either I didn't truly understood my rabbi, OR, maybe my rabbi only explained it with enough depth to simply appease me with my limited adolescent understanding.  Today, however, I reflect on the explanation that I received back then and am challenged with its simplicity.  Today, I need more than "we've simply switched sacrifices for prayer services" as my answer.

When I consider what sacrifice means, "to give up something that you want to keep in order to get or do something else or in order to help someone else," I am immediately struck by its similarity with my own definition of tfillah!  When I pray, I basically give up my time in order to be part of a community and to help be there for someone else who might need a community with whom to pray.  Is this true?  Am I actually performing a "sacrifice" when I pray?  OK, maybe it's not the year-old bull or first fruits that I'm bringing to the alter, but maybe it's my time, my energy, my commitment, and my support, that I am sacrificing in order to fulfill this priestly mitzvah?

So maybe Vayikra after all is not just about the disconnected and irrelevant sacrifices that were performed in biblical times, maybe these sacrifices are actually happening in different forms all over the world each day, multiple times a day?  At least, that's what I believe...

Shabbat shalom!

Monday, February 15, 2016

Parashat Tetzaveh - the sanctity of purple...


Words of Torah
Parashat Tetzaveh
Exodus 27:20-30:10



"And they shall take the gold, and the blue, and the purple, and the scarlet..."
~~Exodus 28:5


Last week the color purple appeared in our Torah, but even though this obscure and rare color in ancient times is mentioned, it is only referred to in both last week's and this week's text preceded by the mentioning of blue and followed with reference to red.

A number of years ago I had the opportunity to sit with a group of lay leaders and discuss our then school colors of blue and white.  There was no question that these colors had obvious connection and meaning to the Jewish community, Israel, and to the children whom we served.  Yet, once we began to discuss our potential color palate it was clear that the connection to the blue and white, albeit for very good reasons, did not differentiate us nor create a compelling reason for the children to take particular pride in our school colors.  When speaking to the children they felt pride with their blue and white, but expressed it as if it were the "given" color of the Jewish people, not because they felt a bond to the reasoning or rationale for our school displaying these great colors.

It was because of these discussions that I sought broader counsel and investigated the history of a variety of colors that have been part of our people's tradition for centuries.  It was as part of this research when I was exposed to a wonderful midrash (rabbinic explanation) about the color purple, which ultimately directed our decision to pursue it as our school color.

The midrash that was shared could also not be told without first, like in this week's parashah, bringing our attention to the blue and red origins of this color. It was explained that blue has always been the color associated with the Divine.  Blue represented the heavens and referenced Gd.  Red, on the other hand, represented humanity and the life blood that flows through living creatures.  Consequently, where the Divine and human meet, where these two colors mix and create the color purple, is in the school setting.  When education possesses a Divine quality, when schooling is not only about the academic experience, but rather about the human experience and search for wisdom, then the blue and red mix to create a true purple.

Ironically, since we selected this as our school color we have had many people over the years ask about its rationale.  Not that these individuals are particularly interested in the why behind the choice of purple, rather, more often than not, they want to know why we chose such a "non-Jewish" color.

Obviously, I have learned over the years that there are so many reasons to not engage someone who approaches life in this closed-minded manner, and maybe this will be a good subject to discuss in a different parashah   Yet, this always awaken my constant amazement of how so many of our Jewish traditions and concepts have been "taken over" over the years to the point that if mentioned from a Jewish perspective people truly believe that they have no reference point in our Jewish tradition.  Gd's covenant with Noah following the flood was a rainbow. I once, as a single young Jewish adult just starting in the classroom as a Jewish educator, drew a rainbow on the whiteboard in preparation for the next class.  It wasn't until I was married a year later that one of those students shared with me that the students at the time thought I was making a statement about my sexuality. The fact that it happened to be a class on Bereisheet and the story of Noah and the flood somehow missed got lost in their perceptions.  Or, how about angelology?  Mention an angel and people begin to think of cherubs flying around on St. Valentine's Day with bows and arrows and not the angels who came to visit Abraham, or those who appear time and time again in the stories of our prophets.

So yes, maybe purple has become associated with the general non-specifically Jewish world, but if it symbolizes the place of connection between the Divine and human, then that's still good enough for me!

Friday, February 5, 2016

Parashat Mishpatim - no cheeseburgers for me!



Words of Torah
Parashat Mishpatim
Exodus 21:1-24:18




"Thou shalt not boil a baby goat in its mother's milk."
~~Exodus 23:19



This week's Torah portion is a little out of character compared to the story-telling nature of the rest of the Book of Exodus.  This week's parshah (portion) is more of a long list of mishpatim (decrees) on how we are to live our lives.  In fact, this week we read 53 of the 613 total mitzvot...although even this isn't the most mitzvoth in any one parshah.

Even so, it is the above brief sentence that I believe has brought me to where I am today.  It is this compact statement that has been interpreted by the rabbis for many centuries as the prohibition from eating meat and milk together that has been my driving force into Jewish education...so no cheeseburgers for me!

When I was a young child it baffled me that the rabbis used the rationale and clearly obvious prohibition as a statement of ethical behavior (don't milk a goat and then kill it's baby and cook these two items together), yet, did not extrapolate this exact theory for doing likewise with chicken???  Have you ever had a schnitzel (fried chicken breast that was dipped in eggs and coated with bread crumbs)?  I DON'T GET IT???  If it would have only applied to goat's meat and goat's milk I probably would have stopped there.  But turning it into no cheese of any kind with no meat (and now no poultry) of any kind seems disingenuous to the intent of the mitzvah.

As a child I asked my rabbi about this and got some complicated round about non answer that left me scratching my head and feeling like the idiot that ultimately got kicked out of my Hebrew school.  Actually, my parents were politely asked to not have me return, but either way I never went back soon after voicing this confusion.

Is an egg not a by product of a hen?  Is a chicken breast not the previously living offspring of another hen?  So why are they not prohibited to be used together???  

Again, please don't get me wrong.  I am not looking for any more laws of kashrut to prohibit my love of eating.  What I am searching for is to better understand the duality of these two experiences.  

Now, maybe I'm not destined to solve this dilemma in this lifetime.  Maybe for me, asking the question, and ultimately becoming a professional Jewish educator committed to getting my students to ask their own driving questions is my purpose in this life.  But if there is anyone out there that has any perspective on why these two are not the same, I would be forever grateful!

PS using the old "chicken is poultry" and therefore exempt from this category of "meat" doesn't fly since the rabbis bundled chicken with meat from a "no meat and milk" perspective...last time I checked chicken parm was still a no go.