Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A Parsha Thought - Kedoshim

At the beginning of this week's Parsha is the sentence איש אמו ואביו תיראו - Each man shall fear his mother and father. On one level it speaks to adults, who are obligated to observe mitzvot. One must not sit in a parent's chair, contradict a parent publicly, and so on as set forth in Yoreh Dei'ah Ch. 240. On another, superficial level and in keeping with outdated child-rearing practices, the sentence can be understood as meaning that children ought to be afraid that if they misbehave their parents will beat them or do them some similar physical harm. Spare the rod and spoil the child (itself a sentence in Mishlei) - literally. Praise God, few modern Americans of any religious persuasion raise their children that way, and those who do risk trouble with the law. For those who are tempted to beat their children, know that you will be the last person on earth that your child comes to with a problem. I and my wife run a nonviolent home by conscious choice. My children, to the best of my recollection, never even saw me take off my belt in the course of undressing; I did not want them associating my belt with horror stories they might have gleaned from schoolmates. So what is the meaning of "fear" in the context of parents and children? Hazal tell us that parents are partners with God in making a child; when children honor and fear their parents it is as if they honored and feared God and, God forbid, the other way around. Thus, we can acquire insight into this fear from the concept of yir'at Hashem, fear of God. At first children do mitzvot because they fear physical punishment from God - or from their parents! This "fear" soon evaporates; few of us are afraid that God will strike us dead if we eat on Yom Kippur or live with our wives at the wrong time of the month, but we continue to live Jewish lives because we develop a deeper fear. We become aware of God's majesty reflected in the world and we feel His presence in our lives (see my earlier post, see also here). In modern English (and most of our translations of Tanakh are in medieval English) such fear is referred to as "standing in awe" of someone. The majesty of God is so evident in His creation and in current events, in particular the events that we are about to celebrate in Hodesh Iyar, that we want to be avdei Hashem. Our parents are such good people that we naturally look up to them and want to be like them. But are they? If you're a father, take a good look at yourself in the mirror. Take it from me; if the image in the mirror is that of a pregnant woman your children will have a hard time looking up to you. Are you teaching your children (or having them taught) the concepts of lashon hara and rekhilut and then indulging in idle (or, worse, malicious) gossip about third parties? Are you telling them about the importance of honesty in one's dealings with other people, Jews and Gentiles, and then inventing all sorts of excuses for being less than honest? Do you insist that your children fulfill their responsibilities at home and school, and then use every trick in the book to get out of jury duty, in the absence of a military draft our only obligation to our country (other than paying taxes) that entails significant sacrifice? Worse, do you then complain that Brooklyn juries don't deliver justice, as most of us did in the Lemrick Nelson case? Do you cheat on your taxes and then complain about the quality of government services (see here)? As a parent, then, I read the sentence as a challenge to parents: Be the kind of people that your children, and others, can stand in awe of.
As Nisan winds down, we hope and pray that Mashiah will appear before Rosh Hodesh. But if the conditions we live in have tainted our souls, made us all teme'ei nefesh, so that we don't deserve the completion of the ge'ula in Nisan, we'll take it in Iyar. Ha-meivin yavin.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

We were slaves. . .

One of the beautiful things about being American is different groups being able to enjoy one another's culture and learn from their positive aspects. African-Americans deliberately drew on our Torah for encouragement in their struggle against slavery and, later, against Jim Crow. And Jewish musicians, Subliminal in particular comes to mind, draw upon hip-hop to express their love of Israel and defiance of the evil forces seeking its destruction.

There is a rich trove of narratives handed down by successive generations of African-American slaves and later committed to writing (sounds like our gemara?). Many of these tales are included in the anthology "To Be A Slave" that is used in New York's public schools. When my sister was waiting several years for her get (!), she and her children would come to me for the sedarim and I could not rush through the Haggada as I am often tempted to do when we do not have "guests." I selected several slave narratives from that book and had each of the children read one. One of those narratives spoke of how each slave had a quota of cotton to pick, and would be beaten if he failed to meet it. When I first read that it hit me like - like a ton of bricks. Doing my best to keep a poker face, I asked the child whom I asked to read the narrative if it reminded him of anything. I got a blank look and a negative answer. Going around the table, I got the same look and the same answer. I had to explain to the kids (all three of my nephews and my niece were going to haredi yeshivot, but my children's yeshivot were no better) about the quota of bricks that Parshat Shemot tells us had to be made by each Jewish slave, and the whippings if the quota was not met.

Let us keep this in mind whenever racist thoughs enter our heads and whenever we are tempted to let racist words escape our lips. It is at the core of our belief system (see Parshat Lekh-lekha) that we did not end up in Egypt by happenstance. We were sent there for a purpose; it was all planned out centuries in advance, if not before the creation of the world. Time and again we are told to observe various mitzvot bein adam la-havero "because you were slaves [or strangers] in Egypt." It never ceases to amaze me that Jews in the ante-bellum South fought for the Confederacy - how did they keep a straight face when they sat their children down and repeated the age-old formula beginning with the four Hebrew words for "We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt?" It was no coincidence that Jewish Americans were in the forefront of the struggle against Jim Crow half a century ago (as I tell my students, I'm old enough to remember Martin Luther King but a mite too young to have been a freedom rider). And when people say that Jewish Americans live like WASPs and vote like Puerto Ricans I take it as a compliment: it confirms that we are being true to our calling.

Hag Kasher V'sameah.

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Special hametz pickups

Once again we in Brooklyn will benefit from special garbage pickups by the Sanitation Dep't arranged through our local elected officials so we can have the hametz out of our sight before the zman ha-bi'ur (see my previous post). Remember, the sanitationmen are doing us a favor, above and beyond their normal duties. Hakarat Ha-tov is a desideratum in the Jewish scheme of things. True, they are being paid overtime out of our taxes, but that does not absolve us of our obligation to treat people who work for us, Jewish or not, like human beings. Everybody likes to feel appreciated, and sanitationmen are still too often the targets of undeserved derision and abuse. So let's follow the guidelines set out in the leaflets we received. And if we see the sanitationmen going about their duties, a "Hello" or "Good morning" will brighten up their day at no cost to us. This applies all the time, but especially Friday morning when they will be doing the extra pick-ups as a favor to us.

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Friday, April 11, 2008

The four metzora'im - then and now

First, I could have titled this post "The four lepers" in accord with most English Bible translations, but that would be incorrect. From the description of tzara'at and the metzora in the Torah, it is very unlikely that the Torah is referring to what was known as leprosy and is now known as Hansen's Disease. I have had issues with Artscroll (see Kosher Textbooks: Boon or Boondoggle) but they are to be commended for transliterating rather than attempting to render into English tzara'at and its cognates, and stating flat out that the words are impossible to translate accurately. One of my teachers in Yeshiva of Flatbush, Dr. Joel Wolowelsky, taught us that tzara'at was not a physical disease but rather a "theological disease" that no longer occurs. Nevertheless, there are timeless lessons to be drawn from its former existence, and so it was included in the Torah.

This week's haftara deals with four metzora'im who figured in a disastrous siege of Shomron, capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, by its perpetual enemy Aram. The famine was so desperate that mothers were cooking and eating their own children, lo aleinu. The four metzora'im were living outside the city gates as halakha requires (a halakha that apparently was observed even though most of the Northern Kingdom was enmeshed in avoda zara!) and were so hungry that they decided to throw themselves on the enemy camp. When they entered the camp, they found it empty of soldiers but full of food, equipment and animals that the enemy abandoned in panic. The haftara tells us how the Arameans heard mysterious loud noises in the night, told one another fantastic tales about powerful outside nations coming to the aid of Israel, and fled in fear. When the metzora'im came inside the gates and told the king's courtiers what they had seen, the king did not believe them and needed to be persuaded to risk two chariots and horsemen to investigate. They came back reporting that the entire road was littered with clothing and equipment that the Arameans had thrown away in panic so as to run away from the Jews faster. The king's right hand man, who had mocked Elisha the day before when the prophet foretold a miraculous deliverance, was assigned to patrol the gates and trampled to death by the people who were rushing out to buy food at unbelievably low prices, as per Elisha's prophecy.
Those of us who lived through the Six Day War will recognize some beautiful parallels. When it became clear that the Arabs were going to lose and lose miserably, Nasser of Egypt and Hussein of Jordan concocted from whole cloth a story about the Americans and British entering the war on Israel's side. And the demoralized Arab soldiers, the Egyptians in particular, left mountains of shoes in the desert so as to run faster (they couldn't outrun Israeli tanks and so many were captured that the Israelis did not have where to put them). At the time there were no specialized running shoes; if there were and I was an ad man for a running shoe company, I would have written the mother of all running shoe ads - if the Egyptians were running in our shoes they wouldn't have left them in the Sinai Desert.
The haftara tells of a highly placed Jew of little faith who could only mock when a prophet of God told him of the coming salvation, and today we are sorely plagued by highly placed men of little faith who wring their hands at the present situation and, sixty years after the founding of the State, openly ask if it can long endure. We have to learn to take yes for an answer; there is a God and he is running things. He works in strange ways, and salvation can come from a time and place when we would least expect it.

Quick - gotta ban it!

This from a bodybuilding site about a bodybuilder with a decidedly Jewish name - Joshua Katz:

I lifted my first weight when I was 13 years old. My cousins who were practicing physical therapists at the time gave me the book "GETTING STRONGER" by Bill Pearl. This turned out to be the most pivotal and life changing gift I have ever received. I proceeded by lifting weights and following the diagrams in that book religiously (for lack of a better word). While other kids my age were playing soccer and baseball and any manner of other sports, I was in my basement lifting weights and training like a bodybuilder.The rush I got from that type of training hooked me and has never let me go. I got so muscular from lifting in my basement for 2 full years that I outgrew the equipment that I had. I asked my parents if I could join a gym and they took me to the local Powerhouse Gym in Freehold, New Jersey; they signed the papers for me and the rest is history. I entered my first bodybuilding contest at the age of 19, the 1995 Gold's Gym Classic held in Lakewood, NJ [emphasis mine] . I took the overall teenage title and took second in the novice lightweight class. A year later I competed in the same contest as an Open Men's Lightweight and took second place.

Huh? How can the Kotlers and Salomons blithely ignore such a toeiva in their own backyard? Such a breach in the wall of our holy Torah? Boys will be led into the path of sin. Girls may actally turn their heads and look at the athletes walking down the street. They might even fantasize about going to a concert with them. Oy vey! There's no time to waste. Get out the kol korei pen and write the usual imrecatory screed. Can't let the mitzva become hametz.

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