Monthly Archives: February 2015

Shabbat Zakhor 5775: Confronting Today’s Amalek

I recently read Roz Chast’s memoir about the senescence and death of her parents entitled, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” The title refers to her parents’ strident refusal, even in their mid-90s, to discuss their failing bodies and to prepare for the inevitable. The book is a brutally honest memoir by their daughter of the ways that she too avoided but then engaged with the pain, frustration, and sorrow of her parents’ final years.

It is hard to blame anyone for wanting to avoid discussing the “unpleasant” parts of life, even though responsible adults and also children are generally better off when confronting the reality before them with candor. Two researchers, Peter Dodds and Chris Danforth, have developed what they call a “hedonometer” to monitor pleasure in millions of human expressions (in print media, Twitter, etc.). The most widely reported result so far is their “Geography of Happiness,” but as John Tierney discusses this week in the Science Times, they also show that people have a persistent tendency to frame their lives in positive terms, even when discussing negative events. He writes, “When terrorists commit an atrocity, we quickly respond with prayers and donations for the victims. Journalists covering the devastation of an earthquake look for stories of heroic rescue workers and of victims found alive in the rubble. Even when a bad event is being described, there can be an effort to counteract its impact by using positive language.”

In other words, when horror confronts us, we have a strong instinct to find the silver lining—the redemptive elements even in catastrophe. The researchers speculate that this could be an adaptation—maintaining a positive outlook in life is an attractive feature that can help a person find a mate. But I suspect that this is also a strategy for maintaining mental health. When life seems chaotic and threatening, a person may be tempted to become inactive. Grasping for even small elements of hope can help a person become active so that they may address a threatening situation rather than waiting for it to get worse. Still, it cannot be a positive adaptation to ignore real threats and pretend that they don’t exist.

The common predisposition to ignore or soft-pedal painful realities is my “kavanah” or meditation while approaching Shabbat Zakhor. The Torah commands Israel to, “remember that which Amalek did to you on your way out of Egypt…don’t forget.” This command to remember was listed as a positive commandment by medieval mitzvah counters such as Rambam (Aseh #189) and the Sefer HaHinukh (#605). The Talmud and early Midrashim ask the reasonable question of what does it mean to “remember”? Can this be accomplished “in the heart”? The rabbis conclude that the end of the passage, which adds, “and don’t forget,” refers to the heart, so the first command must call for something more expressive—remember with your mouth and don’t forget in your heart. Thus, the command to speak about Amalek’s treachery explicitly in public, and in doing so, never to forget. Continue reading

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Shabbat Terumah 5775: The Architecture of Holiness

Supreme Court Building

There are few structures in America to match the splendor of the United States Supreme Court building in Washington. Built during the Great Depression at the urging of former President and then Chief Justice William Howard Taft for less than $10 million dollars, it is a Neo-classical temple of justice. Architect Cass Gilbert studied the great temples of Europe and designed this building to embody the mission above the entrance, “Equal Justice Under Law.” White marble from Vermont, Georgia and Alabama clads the steel structure, and sculptures of historic law givers such as Solon, Moses, Muhammad and Confucius appear on the eastern pediment. Within the building are portraits and statues of great justices of the Court, and on the upper level is a gorgeous library. However, the holy of holies is the Court Chamber, a formally designed room dominated by the mahogany “bench” at which the justices sit. Details of their dress, entrance and exit, their order of seating and speaking, and other court procedures, are all governed by tradition. The overall effect is to exalt the principle of justice. When the cornerstone was dedicated in 1932, then Chief Justice Charles Evan Hughes stated, “The Republic endures and this is the symbol of its faith.” While the Capitol building is much larger, and the White House effectively exalts the power of the President, it is the Supreme Court which most feels like a mishkan, a tabernacle where the highest ideals of the nation are embodied. 

Turning to our parashah, until this point the Torah has focused on people—the stories, struggles and lessons of their lives. We have not yet encountered any building other than the tent of Abraham and Sarah. The remainder of Exodus will focus heavily upon the great project of constructing a mishkan—a dwelling place for God—which will contain symbols of divine presence and instruction, and will also be the locus of Israelite worship. Diagrams of the tabernacle compound show it to be a rectangle made of two contiguous squares. At the center of one is the altar; the second center is the holy ark. This design implies a symbiosis, with Israel sending its devotion skyward, and treasuring the revelation that was received from heaven. While this vertical metaphor for divinity has been much maligned, the instinct to “lift my eyes to the mountains, from where will come my help” gave our ancestors a sense of transcendence that allowed them to transition from slavery to freedom.  Continue reading

Shabbat Mishpatim 5775: Bribery in the Torah and in NYS

With fifty-three mitzvot, 24 positive and 29 negative, Parashat Mishpatim is aptly named. Doubly so, in fact, since the word “mishpatim” can mean both “rules,” and “sentences,” and most of the rules are issued in brief units of a sentence or two. A striking feature of these rules is their apodictic nature. That is, they are for the most part stated without a rationale, unlike casuistic, or justified law. Don’t murder; don’t lie; don’t curse God; don’t steal. As Moshe Weinfeld explains in his 1973 essay, “The Origin of the Apodictic Law: An Overlooked Source,” (Vetus Test.23:1) the laws of this section of Exodus are distinguished from most codes of the Ancient Near East by their use of the second person singular command form, and can be understood only within the context of a covenant binding Israel to God. Israel does not need to be convinced; it is already covenanted to God (though these rules are stated prior to the covenantal ceremony of chapter 24).

Still, our text does periodically break from its blunt format in order to offer explanations. In 22:21-23, God promises to avenge oppressed orphans and widows. In 22:26, God explains the rule given in the prior verse not to keep the garment used by a poor person to guarantee a loan overnight, saying, “for it is his only clothing, the sole covering for his skin. In what else shall he sleep? Therefore, if he cries out to Me, I will pay heed, for I am compassionate.” An explanation is offered in 23:9 for the command not to oppress the stranger, “for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” In each of these cases, the format of apodictic law gives way to a statement of moral indignation over the oppression of society’s most vulnerable classes. Another example involves the prohibition of bribery in 23:8, “for bribes blind the clear-sighted and upset the pleas of those who are in the right.” (all translations from NJPS).  Continue reading

Shabbat Yitro 5775: It Takes Two to Get God’s Word

אַחַת דִּבֶּר אֱלֹהִים שְׁתַּיִם־זוּ שָׁמָעְתִּי

Psalm 62 is a paean to divine power, culminating with the tantalizingly opaque statement, “One thing God has spoken, two things have I heard: that strength is but God’s, and Yours, Master, is kindness, for You require a man by his deeds” (trans. Robert Alter). What does it mean that God spoke one thing, but two were heard? One explanation is literary—the Psalmist employs here a poetic device of intensification called a “numerical ladder” (Dahood). God spoke not only once, but twice. However, this explanation is not particularly illuminating—what then were the two divine words? When were they uttered? How does this claim relate to the rest of the passage? Maroon Bells

A different interpretation relates to the reception of revelation. When God speaks, the words are multivalent, and thus more than one meaning emerges. In this Psalm, God speaks only once of “paying back” for human conduct, but this expression indicates two opposite things—divine justice, and also divine mercy, punishment and reward. This Psalm points toward the paradox of divine utterances and actions—from a human perspective they may appear to be in direct contradiction, but somehow, opposites are reconciled in the infinite realm of the divine.

Our verse is important for understanding Parashat Yitro, for as the house of Yishmael taught, the revelation on Sinai was like a hammer striking a rock, sending sparks of illumination in all directions (B. Sanhedrin 34a). One utterance; many meanings, not necessarily consistent. In the Decalogue, God commands Israel, “Remember (זָכוֹר) the Sabbath day,” but in Deuteronomy 5:12 a different verb is employed: “Guard (שָׁמוֹ) the Sabbath day.” In the same page of Talmud, Abbaye says that “one verse yields several meanings,” but this only further obscures the phenomenon. After all, we have two different written versions of this divine utterance—so are these two utterances, or two receptions of one? In Talmud B. Sh’vuot (20b) we read that both versions of this command were uttered simultaneously, “what a mouth cannot say, and an ear cannot hear.” God spoke once, but the people heard two things. Continue reading