Rational Versus Irrational Laws

Before I became a rabbi I wanted to be a lawyer. I thought it would be so much fun to litigate, arguing a case before a judge. I had been on the debate team in high school and really wanted the opportunity to argue for a living. My freshman year of college at UW-Madison, I took a Hebrew course for the retrocredits on the Haskalah, or Jewish enlightenment. The course touched my soul, as I recognized that the maskilim, though largely secular, knew their Bible cold, wrote in beautiful Hebrew and had a deep connection to the Land of Israel. In contrast, my Poli Sci 101 course was very dry. I changed paths from majoring in History and Poli Sci to History, Hebrew and Jewish Studies. The rest shall we say is history.

I have often admired lawyers for being like G-d in making order out of chaos (though as Don says, criminal defendants make chaos out of order). At the same time, I must admit that any lawyer who can make rational sense out of the “decree of the Torah” as follows is clearly a genius: “ויקחו אליה פרה אדמה תמימה…והוציא אתה אל מחץ למחנה ושחט אותה…והזה אל נכח פני אהל מעד מדמה שבע פעמים ושרף את הפרה לעיניו…ולקח הכהן עץ ארז ועזוב ושני תולעת והשליך אל תוך שרפת הפרה וכבס בגדיו הכהן ורחץ בשרו במים ואחר יבוא אל המחנה וטמא הכהן עד-הערב.” [1] Follow all that? A synopsis is “The Israelites shall bring you an unblemished red heifer which shall be killed outside the camp. The Kohen shall sprinkle its blood seven times and then burn the cow. The Kohen as well as the one who performed the burning shall wash their garments in water, bathe in water and be impure until evening.

What is the basis for such a law? The rabbis themselves were perplexed as to why this חק, or ritual law that cannot be easily understood, was part of Jewish tradition. They do not have a great rationale for the red heifer, especially now that we no longer have a Temple, yet they were not the first to struggle with the reason for its existence.[2]

In the Talmud[3] we read about Dama ben Netina, a Gentile during the Second Temple period who owned a very special stone. Rabbis visited him to purchase a special stone for the Hoshen (breastplate) for the Kohen Gadol (high priest). The problem was, the stone was in a locked box, the key was under Dama’s father’s pillow, and he happened to be sleeping. The rabbis offered up to 10,000 gold shekalim for the stone, which Dama refused so as not to wake his father. G-d took note of this and rewarded Dama with a red heifer, which he could sell to the rabbis.

While laws like the red heifer might seem to us to be strange or out of place, there are equally bizarre laws in our own State of New York. Among them are the following: “It is illegal to congregate in public with two or more people while each wearing a mask or any face covering which disguises your identity” (By the way, Purim need not be cancelled because we consider the synagogue a private domain,  רשות היחיד).[4] It is against the law to throw a ball at someone’s head for fun. Slippers are not to be worn after 10:00 PM. While riding in an elevator, one must talk to no one, and fold his hands while looking toward the door (that’s also why you can’t talk to people on the subway). A person may not walk around on Sundays with an ice cream cone in his/her pocket. My personal favorite is the following: a fine of $25 can be levelled against you for flirting.[5] Marty-on the High Holidays you are the Usher in charge of directing people on and off of the bimah: now we can also put you in charge of ensuring that there is no flirting.

The next time we find a law from our tradition to be bizarre, let us remember that plenty of laws that have been created by our own state (and every other state for that matter) are strange as well: the difference is that the law of the red heifer stems from G-d whereas the laws of New York State come from man. Just because we find something unusual does not mean we should cease and desist from learning about it. Perhaps we will find some new insight or special merit as to why it is “on the books.” That is why Ben Bag Bag says הפך בה והפך בה דכלה בה, “Keep turning it (the Torah) around, for everything is in it.”[6]

We close out our year of honoring those who work in professions with this Shabbat. Thank you to the lawyers who work so hard enforcing our laws and regulations, ensuring that we are safe and in good shape. Whether you work in real estate, alcohol, tax, immigration, criminal, corporate, litigation or another area, we appreciate all that you do and that you are so devoted to the Jericho Jewish Center. We hope you get some rest and relaxation this summer from the grinding work weeks that you put in and that all goes well for you. The next time you get stumped by some law, remember that you are also blessed with “the gift of gab” to defend it. As Marty taught me, you don’t have to take a position but when you do you better defend it. Mazal Tov on joining us for this celebratory day.

[1] From Numbers 19:2-7

[2] Bamidbar Rabbah Hukkat 19:3 (Solomon said: “I have understood all of these things, but the section about the red cow I researched, questioned and prodded, ‘I said: “I will get wise” but it is far from me).

[3] Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 31a

[4] New York Penal Law 240.35(4)

[5] For more, see http://www.dumblaws.com/laws/united-states/new-york

[6] Pirkei Avot 5:22

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An Offer They Couldn’t Refuse

Allow me to return to last week’s Torah portion, a perfect one for our Retirees Shabbat. The generation of Israelites who had been brought out of slavery are given an offer they couldn’t refuse: to wander aimlessly for forty years in the desert until they die off and a new generation will take over. Because the spies were in the desert for forty days, the people were punished a day for a year, bearing the burden of their iniquity for forty years.[1] Not exactly the cheeriest picture. Imagine if you knew you were going to wander from place to place for thirty-eight years, not finding rest or meaning in it until reaching your final resting place in the desert. I’m guessing you would think “What’s the point?” or bitterly “What did I do to deserve this?”

Why should the Israelites as a whole have been punished for the bad reports of the spies, the many punished for the deeds of the few? Aren’t we against collective punishment? Rashi emphatically states that we are not, asserting תשאו את עונותיכם, “you must bear your sins” (as a nation), continuing שתי עונות-של עגל ושל תלונה, “two sins: that of the calf and that of the complaint.”[2] Yet why does the entire nation of Israel have to bear these sins? The classical answer given is that the entire people were stilted by being slaves in Egypt so a new generation which had never known slavery had to emerge in order to conquer the Promised Land. Is this accurate however? Certainly there were Israelites who were glad to be free and moving towards their own land.

Kli Yakar asserts that the spies were only punished for forty days but that it was one day per year (Tisha B’Av), stretching out that punishment over forty years.[3]  On Tisha B’Av the Israelites dug their own graves and lay in them, with many not waking up the next day. After forty years they all woke up and realized that the punishment was over. Not the most appealing image.[4] Nowadays we punish ourselves on Tisha B’Av by fasting, wearing sackcloth and ashes, reading kinot (dirges) and lamentations.

The answer that I prefer, however, is from Tosafot Yom Tov,[5] who asserts that the forty years was actually an act of kindness. After all, G-d said to Moses אכנו בדבר ואורישנו, “I shall smite them with the plague and annihilate them.”[6] Moses pleaded with G-d, which caused G-d to have mercy and allow our ancestors to live for forty more years. Each individual twenty and up died at age sixty (now an age at the prime of one’s life-makes us feel grateful for our length of years J).

Today we honor our retirees, many of whom are working part-time or full-time as volunteers for the Jericho Jewish Center, attending minyan, planning programs and serving on our Board of Trustees. Research demonstrates that retirees who stay busy doing what they want to do tend to have greater longevity and greater health. As a matter of fact, the Lubavitcher Rebbe viewed retirement as worse than death, stating “I don’t understand the word ‘retirement;’ it’s not in my vocabulary,” and “How can a person even think of retiring from life?”[7] That’s why so many of our retirees stay busy doing things that they enjoy, and the Jericho Jewish Center is one of the many beneficiaries.

Thank you to all our retirees who make JJC into the strong, enriched place that it is. We are so grateful that you joined us for this Shabbat and wish you a summer filled with only warmth, joy and spiritual fulfillment.

[1] Numbers 14:34

[2] Rashi on Numbers 14:33 ד”ה ארבעים שנה

[3] Kli Yakar on Numbers 14:34 ד”ה יום לשנה

[4] Eicha Rabba Peticta 33.

[5] Tosafot Yom Tov Sota, Chapter 1 Mishna 9

[6] Numbers 14:12

[7] Joseph Telushkin, Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History (New York: Harper Collins, 2014), p. 129.

The Next Generation

Why do we do half the things we do? Whatever the answer is, it changes when we have a child. At that point it’s no longer about “me myself and I” but rather about raising the next generation. Today we are blessed with a triple baby naming and I’d to illustrate the blessing of new life by means of a story.

The doorbell rang when the obstetrician was not at home. His five-year-old daughter answered the doorbell. “Is your daddy in?” asked an excited stranger. “No, he’s gone,” the little girl replied. “When will he return?” ” I don’t know. He’s out on an eternity case.” Rabbi Sidney Greenberg writes: “The birth of a child is such a commonplace thing. It happens 200,000 times a day. And yet each child is an original, altogether unique and so enormously special. Each child is a miracle, a tiny bundle of infinite possibilities, mysterious and unpredictable.”[1]

Often we’re told that we are a product of nature vs nurture, that our genes and our upbringing combine to mold us into who we are. Yet which dominates? If nature, then one can exonerate him/herself from wrongdoing, simply saying “It’s my nature.” If nurture, one can blame their upbringing for who they have become and never truly experience growth.

Two anecdotes, one from this week’s parsha the other from next week’s, illustrate the debate between nature vs nurture. This week we learn about the מרגלים, the spies who gave bad reports, not believing that G-d could help them conquer the land of Canaan. As a result, an entire generation had to be wiped out, making way for a new generation who had never known slavery to emerge. Yet this new generation was very different from the previous one. Whereas the previous generation had been afraid to move forward, their children did so with ease, conquering the entire land of Canaan. If nature predominates, then they should have been genetically predisposed to the same fear as their parents. Yet with Joshua as their general, they proceeded forward with unabated vigor.

For those who think nurture is more of a central focus, we need to look no further than Korach in next week’s portion to see that it is not necessarily the case. Korach challenges Moses and Aaron’s authority as leaders of Israel. He went to them with three other leaders and 250 priests and basically said, “What am I, chopped liver?” stating רב לכם כי   כל העדה כולם קדושים ובתוכם ה ומדוע תתנשאו על קהל ה  “It is too much for you! The entire nation is holy and Hashem is in their midst. Why do you lift yourselves up over Hashem’s congregation?”[2] Moses could not believe his ears, proceeding to fall on his face. After all, we learned two weeks ago that he was the humblest of all people[3] and yet he was accused of taking too much for himself.

Korach’s punishment for his incitement was to be swallowed up alive, going into the underworld of Sheol.[4] However, Deuteronomy states ובני קרח לא מתו, the children of Korach did not die.[5] As a matter of fact, they became the משכילים, or enlightened ones, who wrote psalms, including the one we say every Monday.

How could it be that Korach had such great hubris, challenging G-d’s appointment of Moses and Aaron as the spiritual heads of Israel, while concurrently having children who were G-dfearing and who wrote psalms used in the Temple? If he was so self-serving, how did his children turn out to be mentschim? Clearly, nurture, or learning by example, is not the only way in which we are shaped. Rather there is a balance between our genetic predisposition and what we learn from others, most notably our parents.

Jennifer and Daniel, Lauren and Ben-as parents you are bound to make mistakes. As a result, you may lose your temper, have regrets, worries, frustrations and anger. Having a child however causes us to strive to modify our behavior, as we know that our children emulate us. You have brought beautiful little Lilah, Ellie and Ryan into the world, with so much potential and excitement, wanting only the best for them. Having children is such a wonderful privilege and causes us to try to do the best we can in raising them, making them as calm, confident and worry-free as possible.

My prayer for you, Jennifer and Daniel, Laruen and Ben, is that no matter what bumps in the road you face, you always strive to be present and mindful of your children, giving them the best of everything you have to offer. After all, it’s all about what we can do in raising the next generation in the fullest sense. Mazal Tov on reaching this joyous day! So that we can celebrate together, let us turn to Page 840 and read the sections designated for us.

[1] Rabbi Sidney Greenberg’s book Lessons for Living, page 89.

[2] Numbers 16:3

[3] Numbers 12:3

[4] Numbers 16:32-33

[5] Deuteronomy 26:11

Asking the Clergy: Why (or how) are the faithful called to help the poor?

Rabbi Ben Herman Jericho Jewish Center

The Torah contains numerous verses on our duties toward the poor. As the Torah teaches, “If there is among you a needy person, one of your brethren, within your gates, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your needy brother.” (Deuteronomy 15:7) How is this done? Through working at soup kitchens to ensure that people have food, through working at homeless shelters to ensure they have a place to sleep and (most importantly) working to eradicate poverty.

The ideal state is a few verses before this one: “There shall be no needy among you.” (Deuteronomy 15:4) The reason given for this can be problematic: “For God will surely bless you in the land which God gives to you as an inheritance as long as you observe and do all the commandments that I command you this day.” (Deuteronomy 15:5) As there is no shortage of poor people in our midst, does that mean they (or we) are being punished for forsaking the commandments? Rather than examine from that perspective, I prefer the approach of what we can do, moment by moment and day by day, to create a world in which there will be no poor people. One must also note the myriad times in which the Torah asks us to help “the stranger, the orphan and the widow,” imploring us to protect the most vulnerable members of our society. We are implored to remember when we ourselves were vulnerable and exploited, most notably as slaves in Egypt (mentioned 36 times in the Torah) and thus must ensure that we protect those who are vulnerable and in need today.