Friday, 28 February 2020

Shabbat Zachor Short Reflections

This Shabbat we read Parashat Zachor – 3 pesukim which command us to remember what Amalek did to us after we left Egypt and to utterly destroy their memory. This has to be one of the hardest mitzvot in the Torah to understand from a moral/ethical standpoint. Hashem is asking us to commit genocide. For sure Amalek committed a heinous crime by attacking the old and the young but how can we justify the killing of an entire nation – men, women and children? Not to mention this law doesn’t apply to the Egyptians or the Greeks or the Romans who caused great harm to the Jewish people over the years.

So what was so bad about their attack? The nation of Amalek were descended from Esav. Although Esav made a tentative peace with Yaakov, Esav still passed on to his children and grandchildren a hatred for the Jewish people. A hatred so severe that they were willing to travel hundreds of miles from their home to kill innocent Jews. Amalek were unlike any other nation because they attacked us for no reason other than pure hatred. We weren’t looking to conquer their land and we didn’t stand in their way either.

The Rambam in his Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Melakhim 6:1-4) explains that the commandment to wipe out Amalek is only applicable when Amalek refuses to keep the 7 mitzvot that Noah was commanded (Not to murder, not to steal, not to commit sexual immorality, not to worship idols, not to blaspheme the name of God, not to eat an animal while it is still alive and to set up law courts.) In a way, the Rambam is saying it is the behavior of Amalek that is the problem, if we were to re-educate them, they would no longer be Amalek.

Amalek also had another problem other than their lack of moral behavior and hatred of the Jews and that was that they didn’t believe in God. The verse states that ‘he did not fear God’. This was the very reason that Amalek attacked the way they did when they did it. All the other nations were terrified of the Jewish people and Hashem but Amalek said we don’t fear God and went off to attack us. Amalek failed in their mission to destroy us but they did succeed in their audacity to attack God. Hashem said the problem with Amalek was they were the moral opposite of us. That is the reason we have to blot out their way of life completely. However, if they change their ways then the mitzvah no longer applies.

Shabbat Shalom,

Geniza Day - Yevar La Ley

Our Sifrei Torah do not last forever. We have several Sifrei Torah that are too old and worn out to be used, the writing is too cracked and faded and the parchment too fragile. In Jewish Law and tradition, we bury Sifrei Torah that are too old to be used. Al Maimon pointed out to me in his father’s writings an old custom called Yevar La Ley which means burying holy objects. Every two to three years the Sephardic community would go to the cemetery and bury old prayer books and Rabbinic works.

It is our desire to bring the whole community together to take part in this noble endeavor of burying our holy Sifrei Torah together with old Humashim, Siddurim and the like. Please save the date of May 3rd at 11:00 AM at the Seattle Sephardic Brotherhood Cemetery for this auspicious occasion.

Please note Shabbat programs, photocopied sheets, synagogue newsletters and Jewish magazines etc. do not need to be put in geniza and should be wrapped in a paper bag and recycled. 

Burying Holy Objects (Yevar La Ley) by Sam Bension Maimon

Aside from the burial, there are several other occasions at which time Jewish people go up to the cemetery, referred to as Beth Hahayim (house of the living).  For example, such as going to unveil a tombstone, or going to make a “visit” to our dear departed, or going to say prayers on Erev Rosh Hashanah or Erev Yom Kippur.

One such special event that was prevalent in the early days of our Seattle Sephardic community was the custom of making a pilgrimage to the cemetery for the purpose of yevar la ley, literally “to carry the law.”  This was done probably once every three years, and most often coincided with the Sunday or the week of Lag La Omer.

To understand this practice, we would do well to review, in short, the rabbinical rule that anytime any religious object got worn out or became unusable, rather than throw it in the junk heap, we are bid to put it away in the geniza (a small storeroom or a cupboard).  This is done to avoid the desecration of the name or names of God that these objects might contain.  A torn out page from a Bible, or an old mezuza contains the name of God.  It’s our duty to treat these names of God with dignity and respect and not to discard them wantonly, without regard to its sacred contents.

Every synagogue has a geniza, where members bring in their worn out leaves from tefilah (prayer) books, old talets (prayer shawls), mezuzot (small parchment with biblical passages affixed to doorpost), tefilin (phylacteries), etc.  When these storerooms or cupboards get too full, all the contents of the geniza were gathered and taken to the Beth Hahayim to be buried in a special grave set aside for this purpose.

In our Seattle Sephardic community, when the men in charge had determined that there was enough ojas de ley (torn pages from sacred books, etc.) to warrant such a pilgrimage to the cemetery, this geniza material was filled up in several gunny sacks.  The general public also accompanied this procession, which included singing and dancing.  People today still talk about this as a very unusual and happy occasion.

When the people reached the cemetery, the chairman then would announce that there were so many gunny sacks filled with la ley and that each gunny sack was to be auctioned off, the highest bidder thus acquiring the privilege of accomplishing the mitzva of enterar la ley, or burying that particular sackful in the appropriate “grave,” and so the chairman would sing, “Kuanto dan por el primer saco de la ley?” (“How much is offered for the first sack of the law?”) Each gunny sack that was sold was accompanied to the place while the audience would sing appropriate songs including Bar Yohay, a song which Jewish people usually sing on Lag La Omer in tribute to the memory of the saintly Tanna Rabbi Shimon Ben Yohay who died on Lag La Omer.

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Is God in Our Synagogues?

In this week’s Perasha, God tells Moshe to “make for me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst” (Shemot 25:8). Note that God plans to dwell among the Jewish people and not in the sanctuary. The Ohr HaHaim (17th Century Moroccan Rabbi) explains that this refers not only to the mishkan – Tabernacle and Batei Mikdash – Temples but also to our synagogues when we are in exile. This means that when we show our devotion to God by praying to Him in kal, he will rest his divine presence upon us. As Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (19th Century German Rabbi) explains the true meaning of the verse “is the proximity of God in our midst”.

The Ohr HaHaim bases his explanation on a verse from Yechezkel (11:16) “Thus said the Lord God, ‘Although I have removed them far away among the nations, and although I have scattered them among the lands, yet I have remained for them a small sanctuary in the lands where they arrived.’” Rashi explains that the small sanctuary, the mikdash me’at is the synagogue.

The Gemara in Masekhet Megillah (29a) explains that the mikdash me’at can also refer to Batei Midrash – study houses. Indeed, when the Mashiach comes, these mini sanctuaries will be uprooted and transported to the land of Israel. In Masekhet Berakhot (6a) the Gemara tells us that prayer is only truly heard in synagogue as that is where God is found. The Gemara (Berakhot 8a) also tells us that one who spends long hours in the synagogue and study houses will have length of days – a blessing reserved for one who lives in Israel as the verse states “that your days mays may be multiplied and the days of your children, upon the land”. The Gemara explains that the synagogue is an extension of the Land of Israel.

The Ramban in a long passage to Shemot 13:16 explains “the purpose of synagogues and the merit of praying with a congregation is this: that people should have a place they can gather and acknowledge to God that He create them and caused them to be, and where they can publicize this and declare before Him “we are Your creations” This the intent of Chazal in what they said “and they shall call out mightily to God”. From here you learn that prayer requires a voice, for boldness can overcome evil.” From the Ramban we see the significance of synagogue as actualizing our ability to pray to God.

However, if we aren’t truly calling out to God in prayer, does God really rest his divine presence in our synagogues? Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo argues that God is preparing to leave our synagogues as we aren’t fulfilling their purpose. It is only when we use the synagogues as they are intended that we can hope to have Hashem’s divine presence upon us. It is a call to challenge us to not only build the synagogue, not only visit the synagogue, but to call out fervently in prayer to our Father in heaven.

Monday, 17 February 2020

An Eye for an Eye

This week’s Torah portion contains one of the most misunderstood passages in the entire Torah. In Shemot (21:22-25) we have the following section of verses: “And should men quarrel and hit a pregnant woman, and she miscarries but there is no fatality, he shall surely be punished, when the woman's husband makes demands of him, and he shall give restitution according to the judges' orders. But if there is a fatality, you shall give a life for a life. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot. A burn for a burn, a wound for a wound, a bruise for a bruise.”

Throughout the centuries many have misunderstood “an eye for an eye” to be revenge punishment. In the 20th Century, Martin Luther King said “The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.” And Mahatma Ghandi said “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.” Even Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof says “The whole world will be blind and toothless.”

But our Oral Tradition has always understood these verses to be talking about monetary repayments. As Rashi citing the Talmud writes “If a person blinds his neighbor’s eye, he must give him the value of his eye, which is how much his price to be sold in the marketplace has decreased without the eye. So is the meaning of all of them i.e., all the injuries enumerated in the following verses, but not the actual amputation of a limb, as our Rabbis interpreted it in Perek Hahovel” (commentary to Shemot 21:24).

Many think that this means that our written Torah was humanized by the Rabbis centuries later. But this is not the case as we know that God gave Moshe not only the Torah Shebichtav – The Written Torah but also the Torah Sheba’alpe – The Oral Torah.  Rabbi Shmuel Goldin writes in his excellent work Unlocking the Torah Text Why doesn’t the Torah simply say what it means? Over the ages, the “eye for an eye” formula has been cited by critics as proof of the vengeful, primitive nature of Mosaic Law. If the Torah never meant to mandate physical punishment in cases of personal injury, why wasn’t the text more clearly written? A great deal of misunderstanding, misinterpretation and trouble could have been avoided had the Torah simply stated, ‘The court shall levy the appropriate compensatory payment in cases of personal injury.’”

Rabbi Goldin explains “the Torah confronts a serious dilemma as it moves to convey its deeply nuanced approach to cases of personal injury: using the tools at its disposal, how can Jewish law best reflect the discrepancy between ‘deserved’ and ‘actual’ punishment?

“The gravity of the crime is such that, on a theoretical level, on the level of ‘deserved punishment,’ the case belongs squarely in the realm of dinei nefashot (capital law). The perpetrator truly merits physical loss of limb in return for the damage inflicted upon his victim. Torah law, however, will not consider physical mutilation as a possible punishment for a crime. The penalty must therefore be commuted into financial terms. Had the Torah, however, mandated financial payment from the outset, the full gravity of the crime would not have been conveyed. The event would have been consigned to the realm of dinei mamonot (monetary crimes), and the precious nature of human life and limb would have been diminished. The Torah therefore proceeds to express, with delicate balance, both theory and practice within the law.”

Shabbat Shalom

Sunday, 9 February 2020

Dvar Torah on Parashat Yitro

Amalek and Yitro: Non-Jewish attitudes towards Jews

At the end of last week’s Torah portion we read about Amalek’s attack on the Jewish people. This week we read about Yitro’s arrival in the Israelite camp to reunite Moshe with his wife and children. According to rabbinic tradition Yitro came to convert to Judaism. So at first glance there doesn’t seem to be many similarities between these two stories. However, our Rabbis have used the two stories to learn about the different attitudes that the non-Jewish world can have for us.

Amalek responds by trying to exterminate the Jewish people. Because Amalek is represented as the paradigm of an evil nation that fears and negates the presence of God, the Jewish people is enjoined to wage a war against Amalek, and all of those who are like him throughout the generations. Yitro on the other hand represents the righteous gentile, who upon hearing of the wondrous events of the Ten Plagues and the splitting of the sea comes to visit the Jewish people in the desert. Indeed Yitro praises God for all the goodness that befalls the Jewish people.

The Ibn Ezra notes that the Torah chooses to place the two stories together to contrast Yitro and Amalek.  On the one side we have the evil that Amalek perpetrated against Israel and on the other the goodness of Yitro and his kind counsel.  Unlike Yitro, the Amalekites seek out Israel not to attach themselves to their exalted destiny, not to embrace the word of God that they journey towards Sinai to receive. Quite the contrary, Amalek brutally attacks in order to emphatically dispel those very truths that the people of Israel represent. 

However, if we take a deeper look at Yitro, there are some interesting things to be learned. The Torah says that Yitro was חד. This is a very difficult word to translate. The most common translation is that he rejoiced coming from the Hebrew word חדוה. Rashi also brings a Midrashic interpretation too. He writes that “Yitro’s flesh became prickly with goose bumps חִדּוּדִין חִדּוּדִּין because he was upset about the destruction of the Egyptians.

Rabbi Gabe Pransky, a fellow graduate of Yeshivat Hamivtar writes on the significance of Yitro’s goose bumps. “This Midrash teaches us something about the complexity of the human heart. Although consciously and overtly identified with the Jewish people, Yitro cannot, apparently, simply erase who he was and how he once felt. On a visceral level, he still retains his feelings for the Egyptian nation. His newer relationship with Moshe, God, and the Jewish people does not erase his old personality, or his old sensitivities. We are complex beings. We can consciously choose and espouse one set of values and beliefs, while at the same time, on a deeper, more intuitive level, harbor within us very different, even opposing, emotional connections and responses.

“It is not an accident that the Rabbis see Yitro’s body – his flesh – as the thing that gives him away, and reveals to us, and to him, who he really is, underneath. In addition to the conscious, intellectual choice which Yitro has made to praise God and recognize the miracles He has done for His people, he also has a set of deeply felt emotional commitments which he cannot simply decide to undo. Like the rest of us, Yitro lives somewhere in between who he is, and who he would like to be.”