Thursday, May 4, 2017

Love Your Neighbor or Love Your Life? You Choose...

If you were asked to pick one verse from the Torah that captures the essence of Judaism, what would that verse be?

Three rabbinic sages in the Talmud took a shot at it. The most famous is a verse from Parashat Kedoshim, one of the two Torah portions we read this week.

In the midst of a series of commandments that reflect the Torah’s desire to create ethical relationships amongst people, the Torah commands:

“You shall love your neighbor as (you love) yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).

From this verse came the oft-quoted teaching of the rabbinic sage Rabbi Akiva, who said: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself – This is the greatest principle of the Torah.”

Rabbi Akiva drew inspiration from Hillel, a brilliant rabbinic sage and teacher from an earlier generation. The Talmud records the famous story about Hillel and Shammai’s encounter with a potential convert to Judaism:

A certain heathen came before Shammai and said to him: “Convert me to Judaism on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Shammai shunned him away with the stick in his hand. He then went before Hillel with the same request, and Hillel responded: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor – that is the whole Torah, while the rest is commentary thereof; now go and learn it.
                                                                                                (Talmud Shabbat 31a)

Rabbi Akiva’s “greatest principle of Torah” is rooted in Hillel’s teaching. Together, these two teachings form the greatest “one-two punch” of great Jewish slogans that make us proud to be Jewish. After all, these “Golden Rules” of ethics can apply to all of life, and they present such a great face for Judaism. Can there be anything greater in the Torah than Hillel and Akiba’s “Golden Rules”? Who would dare to challenge such ethical greatness?

In the face of this moral grandeur comes the rabbinic sage Ben-Azzai, who, in response to Rabbi Akiva’s “You shall love your neighbor as yourself – this is the greatest principle of the Torah,” boldly – yet peculiarly – said: “This is the Book of the Story of Adam (Genesis 5:1) – this is even a greater principle.”

What can Ben-Azzai possibly mean by this? How strange! Can you imagine? Juxtapose the “two greatest verses” in the Torah:

                        “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”


                        “This is the Book of the Story of Adam”

This does not seem to match up evenly. Looks like no contest! What lies behind Ben-Azzai’s choice of an obscure, non descript, mechanical verse from the Book of Genesis as his choice for being an “even greater principle” than loving your neighbor?

Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (known as “The Netziv”) offers a deep and wise insight on Ben-Azzai’s teaching.

He says that the verse “This is the Book of the Story of Adam” is not to be understood as a mechanical or descriptive verse, but as a metaphor for the human condition. “The Book of the Story of Adam” is the story of Adam’s first day on earth, which according to rabbinic tradition, started out by Adam being created in the morning, and – twelve hours later, on the very same day – Adam had already sinned and found himself expelled from Eden.

The Netziv says that “The Book” being referred to here is a story that took place in one day, a day that started out on a positive and creative note, and ended up in negativity and downfall.

“This comes to teach us life’s wisdom,” says the Netziv, “that man has the potential to destroy his lot in life in one short day.” This wisdom, according to the Netziv, is applicable to everyday life, and serves as a powerful reminder to each of us how to approach each day of our lives. Conventional wisdom often teaches, “Each day of life is a page in a book.” Ben-Azzai’s teaching, as seen by the Netziv, argues something even greater: that each day of life is a book unto its own, and man is the author of that book on a day-to-day basis. This deep self-reflective wisdom may, indeed, outshine Rabbi Akiva’s “Golden Rule.”

So what is the greatest principle of the Torah? Loving one’s neighbor? Treating each day like a complete book?

You make the decision...

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Broken Tablets

A mere 40 days after hearing God’s voice pronounce the Ten Commandments, the Israelites suffered a serious setback. Unable to comprehend the idea of an invisible God speaking in a Divine voice, they returned to the more familiar, simplistic, man-made idols of their immediate Egyptian past — the golden calf. Upon shaping the golden calf, Aaron declared, “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4).

Moses, who spent those same 40 days atop Mount Sinai with God, then descended the mountain “with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, written on both sides” (Exodus 32:15).

Who had shaped and written these tablets?

“The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God” (Exodus 32:16).

Carrying in his hand the weight of “God’s word,” Moses looked down at his own brothers and sisters. “And it happened when he drew near the camp that he saw the calf and the dancing, and Moses’ wrath flared, and he flung the tablets from his hand and smashed them at the bottom of the mountain” (Exodus 32:19). In one dark moment, the romanticized fantasy of one people becoming the bearers of God’s word was shattered to pieces.

Next came the real challenge: Where do we go from here?

The Talmud teaches: “Rabbi Judah bar Ilai said - Two arks journeyed with Israel in the wilderness — one where the Torah was kept, and one where the tablets broken by Moses were kept. The one containing the Torah was kept in the Tent of Meeting; the other, containing the broken tablets, would come and go everywhere with them” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Shekalim, 1:1).

Another Talmudic teaching goes one step further: “Both the new tablets of the law and the broken pieces of the first tablets were kept in the same Ark of the Covenant” (Talmud Bavli, Berakhot, 8b).

How did Moses and the Israelites move beyond their breakdown? Realizing their mistake and what they had potentially lost, the Israelites searched for remnants of the first tablets, collected the broken remains of their first encounter with God, and they gave them to Moses. Fortunate enough to be given a second chance, Moses brought down another set of God-given tablets and placed them alongside the broken pieces.

Both Talmudic teachings (“separate arks” or “the same ark”) offer us a powerful reminder that wholeness and brokenness share equal spaces in life. The Tablets of the Law, in both whole and broken form, serve as a metaphor for the human condition — striving for perfection, all the while embracing imperfection. Both the whole and the broken are considered sacred in the Jewish tradition. They are both “Devar Hashem – the word of God.”

Failures, broken dreams and shattered fantasies are an inevitable and natural part of life. Indeed, Shevirat Luhot -- the symbolic “shattering of tablets” -- is often a necessary gateway through which we must pass in order to reach the greater heights that we seek in life. In other words: no pain, no gain.

Through the episode of the golden calf, the broken tablets, and the second tablets, Moses and the Israelites teach us a very powerful lesson in life, one that has been part of the Jewish experience for thousands of years: when we experience a breakdown, it is still possible to “pick up the pieces” and start all over again.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Rav Uziel's Vision for Rabbinic Leadership

On November 26, 1936, Rav Ben Zion Meir Hai Uziel delivered a lecture to a large gathering of rabbis in Jerusalem. Titled The Seat of the Rabbinate, Rav Uziel’s words were delivered as an introduction to that day’s elections for the Council of the Chief Rabbinate of the Land of Israel. Speaking to rabbis who would potentially join him as part of the Land of Israel’s national rabbinic leadership, Rav Uziel articulated a vision for what he felt were the priorities of the rabbinate in the Yishuv in Erets Yisrael (which eventually became the modern-day State of Israel):

                  When it comes to public and national matters, the issue of Mishpat (The Torah’s Civil Laws) is a weighty and burdensome responsibility on a rabbi, for it is these matters that establish the path of life towards success or disaster, peace or dispute. God thus commanded us: “Execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates” (Zecharia 8:16).

When Rav Uziel used the term “mishpat” to describe the Torah’s civil laws, what was he referring to?

“And these are the rules (Mishpatim) that you shall set before them.” With this opening verse from Parashat Mishpatim, God begins to legislate the detailed version of the Torah’s system of civil legislation. The word Mishpatim refers to civil laws and ordinances, and by making these laws the first set of legislation following the Aseret Hadibrot (Ten Commandments) at Mount Sinai, God sends a very powerful message about how the Jewish people should go about building a truly “religious community.”

Most people looking to create a “religious community” would begin by building a house of worship. In the Torah, God sees things differently. As the Jewish people are in the initial stages of building their own religious community, civil laws governing relationships between people (Bein Adam L’Havero) are legislated before the laws on building a house of worship. Batei Din (courts) come before the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and Dayanim (judges) precede Kohanim (Priests). Parashat Mishpatim deals in matters that don’t seem “religious or spiritual” to most people -- personal injury, damages due to negligence, paying employees on time, borrowing items or lending money, to name just a few – but these actually form the core of how the Torah envisions the definition and governance of a Jewish religious society. God knows that it’s much easier to behave “religiously” within the comfortable confines of a synagogue. The true challenge is maintaining that religiosity in the workplace and at home, which is the domain of Parashat Mishpatim.

In keeping with this core value, when he wrote his Mispetei Uziel halakhic responsa, Rav Uziel devoted a special introduction to the volume on Hoshen Mishpat (the section of the Shulhan Arukh that deals with Mishpatim):
                  Amongst all of the various disciplines and halakhot, the Torah of Mishpatim -- which legislates financial laws -- distinguishes itself, as it guides and directs the way of life for all areas and aspects of society. This body of laws reflects the unique character of Judaism, whose glorious splendor is manifest through Tsdedakah (Charity) and Mishpat (Justice), which are the legacy of Judaism’s founding father (Abraham), about whom God said: “I have singled him out so that he will command his children and his household after him, that they will keep God’s way, doing Tsedakah (Charity) and Mishpat (Justice)” (Genesis 18:19).

Rav Uziel’s vision of a Mishpatim-centered society was inspired by a long and rich tradition of sources that emphasized the centrality of this vision in Judaism.

The Book of Psalms teaches: “Tsedek and Mishpat are the base of God’s throne” (Psalms 89:15). On this verse, the 13th century Sephardic Talmudist Rabbeinu Yonah comments: “Whoever upholds justice (Mishpat) upholds God’s throne, and whoever perverts justice defiles God’s throne.”

The largest and most complex section of the Talmud is Seder Nezikin (The Order of Damages), which contains the expanded halakhic/legal details of the civil laws/mitsvot found in Parashat Mishpatim. In one of the most popularly studied tractates in Seder Nezikin – Tractate Baba Kamma – we are taught: “Rav Yehudah says: He who wishes to be a pious person (hasid) should seek to fulfill the halakhot in Seder Nezikin” (Baba Kamma 30:a).

Three times a day in our liturgy, we pray in the Amidah for the restoration of our Jewish legal system, and we refer to God as Melekh Ohev Tsedakah u-Mishpat – The King who loves righteousness and justice.

Rav Uziel’s innovation was less in the concept of articulating the centrality of Mishpatim, and more in elevating this to the highest priority for rabbis in the Land of Israel. His vision was for rabbis to fully engage themselves in the domain of Mishpatim, and by doing so, they would help shape the moral and ethical character of the emerging Jewish State, and potentially bring unity to the Jewish people:

As you approach the seat of the rabbinate that you will sit upon after your election, take to heart that the full domain of mishpat -- including all of its problems and issues -- has been placed in your hands, and it will be upon you -- through trustworthiness, love honor and admiration -- to bring the entire nation closer to the values of Jewish Civil Law. Mishpat, Tsedek and Din Emet L’Amito-- judgment, righteousness and the truthful execution of the law to its fullest extent of truth -- serve as the foundations for the unity of our nation.

Sadly, Rav Uziel's vision is a far cry from today's Chief Rabbinate. His vision for a moral, ethical and Mishpatim-based rabbinic leadership is the need of the hour in the State of Israel today.