Sunday, April 11, 2010

Meditation for Yom HaShoah

As I light this Yellow Candle, I vow never to forget the lives of the Jewish men, women and children who are symbolized by this flame. They were tortured and brutalized by human beings who acted like beasts; their lives were taken in cruelty. May we be inspired to learn more about our six million brothers and sisters as individuals and as communities, to recall their memory throughout the year, so that they will not suffer a double death. May we recall not only the terror of their deaths, but also the splendor of their lives. May the memory of their lives inspire us to hallow our own lives and to live meaningful Jewish lives so that we may help to insure that part of who they were shall endure always.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Parashat Lech Lecha and George Orwell’s 1984

Comparing the Torah, a book handed down from God containing timeless truths for all humanity, with a work of fiction may seem odd, even blasphemous. And for the most part, the comparison is silly. But there is one line in 1984 that could have come straight out of this week’s paraha.

Remember that 1984 is tells the story of Winston Smith, a functionary at the Ministry of Truth, whose work consists of editing historical accounts to fit the government's policies. Towards the end of the book when Winston has been captured and about to be “reeducated” he utters a line that we can picture Avraham having said. I’ll get to the line in a minute

Remember, we don’t meet Avraham until he’s in his 70’s. He grew up in a world full of idolatry, his father was the cities chief idol maker – you would certainly expect him to be full entrenched in that world. However, he wasn’t.

As a child, Avraham came to the realization that there must be a single, all powerful God. The midrash relates a wonderful story of Avraham as a child working in his father’s idol shop. When his father goes out and leaves Avraham in charge, he takes a hammer and smashes all the idols, except the biggest one. He then places the hammer in the remaining idols hand and waits for this father to return. When his father returns and sees the mess he asks Avraham what happened. Avraham answers, "it was amazing dad, the idols got into a fight and the biggest one won." Of course, his father tells Avraham that that he’s lying, since the idols are just stone and can not do that. So Avraham responds, "if they are just stone, why do you worship them." Obviously Avraham discovered a fundamental truth.

What’s truly amazing about Avraham’s realization was that he did it totally of his own logic – he did not experience revelation until 50 or so years later when God speaks to Avraham is in this week’s parsha when God tells him to move to Israel. Imagine that, for 50 years you have a belief that no one else around you shares, one that is directly contrary to that of everyone you know. And you believe it so deeply that, despite the opposition, you set out as your life’s goal to spread the message.

You could imagine Avraham (or Avram as he was still known) being confronted about this. You can picture someone saying “Avram, why do you cling to such silly beliefs, no one else in the word agrees with you, did you ever consider that maybe you’re just wrong.”

This is where the line from 1984 comes in. As Winston is about to be reeducated he is confronted about his beliefs, his response: “There are truths, and there are untruths. Just because you’re in a minority of one, doesn’t make you wrong.”

What a line, exactly what Avraham would have said. In fact, this line sums up the history of our people. For 1000+ years after Avraham brought monotheism to the world, the Jews were the only people in the whole world to believe it. Every time a new power came to the region (Syria, Greece, Rome…) they would have challenged the Jews as to why they hold on to such a silly concept. But we kept at it, an slowly people started to come around. Today, half of the world has come around.

But it doesn’t stop there. Look at modern Israel. How many times has it had to do something that the entire world condemned, but we knew was right? Bombing the Iraqi nuclear facility. The entire world condemned it at the time, but 10 years later, during the first Gulf War. I’m sure coalition troops were happy Israel did that. And more recently, the security fence, unilateral withdrawals, the list goes on and on.

We all need to head this lesson, in our religious life, and outside. If you know something is right or wrong, we can’t bow to public opinion or political correctness, we need to stand up and advocate and heed the advice of Avraham via Winston.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Parshat Noah - The forecast calls for Rain

The Torah is filled with mitzvoth – 613 of them in fact. Some are big ones, like "Thou shalt not murder." It’s easy to see the implication of these. Others seems smaller, more mundane, like "Men must not shave the hair off the sides of their head" – it’s a little harder to see the impact of these ones.

However, Jewish tradition doesn’t differentiate between these, all mitzvoth come from God and, accordingly, all are important. This week’s parashah speaks to that.

We read about Noah and how he was righteous in a world of corruption. In what way were the people of Noah’s time corrupt? The sages describe their crime as being theft; but not ordinary theft. If an man was walking through a crowd with a basket of peas, the thieves would not snatch the basket, in stead everyone in the crown would take a single pea, leaving the owner with an empty basket at the end of the walk. You could imagine each thief rationalizing his actions by saying "What’s the big deal, I only took one pea, worth less than a penny. And everyone else is doing it, so why shouldn’t I?"

You see how little missteps can have disastrous consequences.

So, what was God’s response? He could have caused a one gigantic calamity to punish the people, like an earthquake or meteor strike, but instead He used rain. Each individual rain drop is basically harmless, it’s only when you pile millions upon millions of drops in a row that rain can cause destruction and devastation. God’s response was measure for measure – lots of tiny, seemingly harmless, sins leading to a corrupt world brings lots of tiny, seemingly harmless, rain drops leading to utter devastation.

This is more than an interesting observation, it’s actually fundamental Jewish philosophy – the little things count. You don’t read any sages saying "not killing anyone will get you a good portion I the world to come", but we do read that "Whosoever recites Psalm 145 (the Ashrey) three times a day may feel certain of having a portion in the life to come."

I think the lesson is that the big things you do because of their obvious benefit. The benefit of the small things is not as obvious, but just as real, in fact, even more. While I’m proud to say I have lived every second of every day of my life without violating the commandment "Thou shalt not murder", I’ve never really been in a situation where that choice was difficult, so living by that commandment is not something that will alter my character, and bring me closer to God. However, the little things are things we struggle with every day, and living by those will have an impact on your character.

Most of us (I hope) would not steal a bag of food from the grocery store, but how many of us would sample something from the bulk containers? If we avoid that and stive for total honesty in all our dealings, we’ll become a better person, and move closer to God. But if we rationalizing this by saying "What’s the big deal, I only took one nut, worth less than a penny, and everyone else is doing it, so why shouldn’t I", you may want to keep an eye out for rain.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 24, 2008

A new cycle of Torah has begun, and this seems like the perfect opportunity to up my learning.

For the past year I’ve been participating in the "Perek Yomi" program where you read a chapter of the complete bible per day. I’m going to continue that program this year (it takes 3 years to complete the Bible), and I hope to write about that occasionally, but I’d like to do more than that. I’d like to study the weekly Torah portion and blog about that weekly, as well as about any other thoughts I have.

So this week, we start the Torah anew, with Parashat Bereshit – one of my favourite. There is so much in there; it’s hard to decide what to write about. In the past I have bloged about the scientific aspect of creation, and I could write about that all day, but this time, I want to talk about something different.

Everyone knows the story of Adam and Eve. They are told they can eat from anything in the Garden of Eden, except the fruit of the "Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil". So what do they eat? The one thing they are not supposed to.

Adam and Eve, the first people, created in the “image of God” and one of their first acts is to do something so stupid that it changes the course of human history – how could they do something like that?

To understand what’s going on, you need to look at this in a different light. We usually view Adam and Eve as being full grown adults when they do this, but really, this episode happens just a few verses after Eve’s creation – Adam and Eve were merely children! Ok, perhaps I’m taking some liberties here, perhaps they were created as fully formed adults, but their behaviour certainly is that of children. Looking at it in that light, with Adam and Eve being children and God being the parent, you’ll immediately be able to see what going on. As a parent of two young boys, I see this same thing every day.

God (the parent) lets Adam (his son) and Eve (a friend they invited over for a play date) play in Dad’s office and says “You can play with any thing in here, but don’t touch the vase, it’s very breakable.” God then leaves the room to let the kids play and hears a crash. He comes back in and sees the kids hiding behind the couch (of course, being kids their bums are sticking out). God knows exactly where they are and knows exactly what they did. But instead of yelling, he calmly asks “Kids, where are you”.

Adam and Eve sheepishly come out from behind the couch and say, nervously, “we’re right here, Daddy”.

God asks Adam (his son), “what happened here?” pointing to the broken vase.

Now the moment of truth, Adam can fess up and claim responsibility, and probably be forgiven for his mistake (imagine what the world would be like if he took that path - now there’s any idea of a paper). But what does he do instead, he blames Eve. He says “It was her, the person YOU invited over.” Not only does he fail to own up, he actually blames God!

God then turns to Eve and asks “Is this true” and Eve fesses up, but denies responsibility by saying “I was tricked into doing it.”

What a mess. Some honestly and simple apology would have probably cleared the whole thing up, but instead the relationship is irrevocably harmed, and the kids are banned from Dad’s office for life.

So, what’s the lesson? Well, I think we have two. The obvious one is to take responsibility for your actions and own up immediately when you do wrong. Such a simple lesson that, if everyone heeded would make the world a much better place.

But as a parent of a 4 year old and 2 year old, I see another lesson. If Dad would have just put the vase on the top shelf, we would not have gotten into that mess. Sometimes and with some kids, you need to trust your kids and let them play near breakable stuff, so they learn what they can and can not do. But other times, with other kids, you need to build their confidence by not put them in a situation where they can possible fail.

Just as the Rabbi’s build "fences around the Torah" to make sure we don’t accidentally transgress a commandment, perhaps a fence around the "Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil" would have been in order.

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, October 19, 2007

Joshua - Chapter 15

1. What type of "map" would the author have had available in order to decline the borders, as he has, in such detail?

Maps have been in use long before Joshua's time, so it is possible a map was available; but I don't think a map is needed to explain this language. Remember that God is the general here, and from his vantage point, he doesn't need a map to define borders.

2. In verse 2 we find reference to the "Salt Sea." What does that tell us regarding the "natural characteristics" of the land thousands of years ago?

The Salt see is probably what we call the Dead Sea today - clearly the "natural characteristics" have not changed much in 3500 years.

3. In verse 4 there is reference to the "Nahal Mitzrayim." Does this have anything to do with the Nile?

Traditional interpretation ascribes this to the Nile - but perhaps a more reasonable position is that this "brook" refers to the Pelusian arm of the Nile.

4. The term "yamah" means seaward. What direction is this and, when text refers to "yam," what body of water does it invariably have in mind?

Yam, is talking about trhe Mediterranean Sea - so the direction would be west.

5. Why, in verse 8 is it necessary to add the sub-explanation "it is Jerusalem" and, further, what is "gey-hinom" and what has it come to mean subsequently?

Jerusalem had many previous names - perhaps this subtext is just there to clarify that Jebusite is really Jerusalem.

6. Why, adjunctive to the description of the boundaries of the Judea "portion," do we immediately follow with that for Kalev ben Y'funeh?

Kalev is from the tribe of Judea - so The tribal land for Judea includes that of Kalev.

7. In verse 15, there is a reference to the "city of the book." What would this imply about that particular location?

Perhaps this was a city known for its learning - perhaps set up by Noah's sons, or as a aresult of influence before the Jews went to Egypt.

8. In verse 51, there is a reference to the place named Goshen. Is this the same location as that which appears in the Egypt narrative?

Probably not the same place - since the land of Israel did not extend that far into Egypt.

9. Verse 63 confirms that the Jebusites dwell among the Judeans in Jerusalem "to this very day." What might be derived from this particular passage?

It would seem that although the Jews did not conquer Jerusalem, they still lived there - along side the previous inhabitants.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Joshua - Chapter 14

1. What is the relationship of verse 4 to verse 33 in the prior chapter?

Both talk about the tribe of Levi, and that they were not given land of their own. Verse 4 indicates that although Levi was not given their own "heritage", they were given cities to dwell in, and fields for their livestock by each of the other tribes.

2. What is the claim of Kalev ben Y'funeh? With different vowelization, what would Kalev possibly sound like -- and what is a dominant characteristic of that particular domestic animal?

Kalev, claims that he was one of the 12 spies sent by Moses to scout the land - before the 40 years of wandering. Kalev and Joshua were the 2 spies to bring pack favorable reports, the other 10 bringing negative ones leading to 40 years of wandering. Kalev claims that as a reward for his faith in God, Moses promised that the land he scouted would be his heritage - that land being the city of Hebron.

Kalev, with different vowelization, would be kelev - meaning dog.

3. Once again, the phrase "to this very day" is encountered (verse 14); to what time does the phrase refer?

Traditional opinion is that the book was written by Joshua, with some small parts written by Pinchas the priest after Joshua's death. Others say it was written by a contemporary of Joshua - in any case, the book was written around the time of Joshua's death. The phrase "to this very day" certainly suggests some time has passed between the vents and the authorship of the book. (See wikipedia for an explanation of other positions). Perhaps the books is based on writings of Joshua, but compiled at a later date - that would seem to still attribute "authorship" to Joshua, but explain the "to this very day" phrase.

4. In verse 15, there is the refrain that "the land was quiet." Is there any reference to warfare since the earlier appearance of this refrain?

The last time this phrase appears is the end of chapter 11. Chapter 12 can be read as talking about new warfare.But there is no reference to war between chapter 12 and 14 - in which a lot of time seems to have passed.

Favourite Quote : "Perhaps Hashem will be with me, and I will drive them out, as Hashem has spoken." Verse 12

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Joshua - Chapter 13

1. How does the beginning of this chapter seem to take issue with verse 23 at the close of chapter 11?

Chapter 11 closes by saying "Joshua took the entire land"; but this chapter starts by indicating that there is more to conquer.

2. How does verse 7 (and those which follow) relate to verse 23 at the end of chapter 11?

Similar to question 1 - chapter 11 says the land was divided among the tribes according to the ordinances God set to Moses; but here in chapter 13, Joshua is told by God "now divide the land" among the tribes. It would seem that much time has passed between the close of chapter 12 and the start of 13, and perhaps God is now reminding Joshua that he has a conquest to finish, and he'll need to redivide the land according to the new area they will soon conquer.

3. In verse 22, Bilaam is given an adjectival descriptive. Is that the same description which appears in the Five Books?

In the 5 books, Bilaam is never called a "sorcerer", as he is here. But from the context of the story in the 5 books, that is clearly a reasonable description of him.

Favourite Quote : "You have grown old, you are well on in years, and very much land still remains to be possessed." - Verse 1