Refugee and Reproductive Rights Shabbat

Parshat Mishpatim contains many laws that are necessary for society to function. Two of them deal with special Shabbatot that are this month. One is the HIAS Refugee Shabbat. As it teaches in Mishpatim, “You should love the stranger: for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”[1] The term “ger” means one who arrives from another land who seeks to live with of another people. Today we see many people who are refugees leaving carnage in hopes of a better life. One of them is the Shpilman family, who came from the destroyed Ukranian city of Mariopul to Sacramento thanks to our Welcome Caravan. Mishaptim reminds us that we never fit in Egypt and that we need to remember those who are at the margins of societies.

Parshat Mishpatim also relates to the NCJW Repro Shabbat. As we look at a series of laws relating to damages, we come across this statement: “When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”[2]

It is telling that in causing a miscarriage a person is fined whereas in harming one who is born the punishments are far more severe. In order to understand why this is the case we need to look at the Mishnah where we have the following statement: “If a woman is having trouble giving birth, they cut up the fetus in her womb and bring it forth limb by limb, because her life comes before the life of [the fetus]. But if the greater part [of the fetus/baby] has come out [of the person giving birth], one may not touch it, for one may not set aside one person’s life for that of another.”[3] As soon as the head crowns, one is considered a human being-until that point, lesser than a human. Another section of the Talmud illustrates this further: “If she is found pregnant, until the fortieth day it is mere fluid.”[4]

These are well-known texts, which I taught at my class on abortion in August and in the first Jewish Take video produced. It is important to acknowledge that Judaism does not permit abortion on demand. Furthermore when a baby is born all efforts must be made in pikuah nefesh, saving the life. Concurrent we must acknowledge that Judaism does allow abortion not only to save the mother’s life but when the birth of a child threatens emotional well-being. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut, who not only received rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Soloveitchik but also a PhD in English Literature from Harvard, wrote “saving a life is not the only sanction for permitting an abortion. It would seem to me that issues such as kavod ha’briyot (human dignity), shalom bayit (domestic peace) and tza’ar (pain), which all carry significant [Jewish legal] weight in other contexts, should be considered in making these decisions.”[5] This is a broad definition of emotional harm, including the need for peace in the house as a reason why an abortion may be permitted.

Returning to our Torah portion, it is important to acknowledge that at a very different time period than ours, one where slavery wasn’t allowed and where women’s rights was certainly not primary, a distinction is made between a miscarriage and a baby who is born. At the same time I would be remiss to not touch on a related topic also of emotional harm: the couple who strives to have a child only to not be able to become pregnant, who becomes pregnant only to miscarry or who has a pregnancy where they find out that the baby will not have a quality of life and that termination of the pregnancy is recommended. In each of these cases, there is so much emotional harm-just as we see in the stories of our matriarchs who wanted children yet struggled to become pregnant. We need to acknowledge that we are dealing with real people and that everyone’s situation is unique from others. Whenever we take an ideological position, be it “Life begins with conception” or “Abortion should always be allowed” we deny the voices of people who are going through very personal struggles. We need to spend more time helping people realize, in the words of Dear Evan Hansen, that “You are not alone.” Our feelings, our emotions and our stories matter. Similarly, often in life we feel one way until we meet someone from a different lived experience that changes our perspectives. As we gather together in a month that has become known for both Refugee Shabbat and Reproductive Rights Shabbat, let us not lose sight of this-that when we truly make an effort to get to know the other, we have the potential to go through transformative experiences.

[1] Exodus 22:21

[2] Exodus 21:22-25

[3] Mishnah Oholot 7:6

[4] Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 69b

[5] Aharon Lichtenstein, “Abortion: a Halachic Perspective,” in Tradition: a Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, Summer 1991, Page 10.

Where is Tziporah?

How blessed I am to have reached my installation weekend as rabbi of Mosaic Law Congregation. In so doing I want to relate a section of Torah on which we might not agree but which teaches us some valuable lessons.

We spend a lot of time looking at Moses’ greatness. We are amazed by his impeccable work ethic, his humility, his ability to challenge God. Yet there is one area in which Moses was not successful: his family. Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro, tried to convince Moses not to burn himself out through bringing in other judges.[1] Yet there is another, less commented upon verse at the beginning of the portion to which I want to bring your attention. וַיִּקַּ֗ח יִתְרוֹ֙ חֹתֵ֣ן מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶת־צִפֹּרָ֖ה אֵ֣שֶׁת מֹשֶׁ֑ה אַחַ֖ר שִׁלּוּחֶֽיהָ׃  And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Tziporah, Moses’ wife, after she had been sent home.[2] Why was Tziporah sent home, and why doesn’t she appear in the story after this point?

          The Midrash quotes the following story: When God said to Moses in Midian, “Go, return to Egypt … and Moses took his wife and his sons…..Aaron went forth towards him and met him at the Mount of God.”[3] Aaron said to Moses, “Who are these people?” Moses answered, “This is my wife whom I married in Midian and these are my children.” Aaron then asked Moses, “Where you taking them?” and Moses replied, “To Egypt.” Aaron then challenged Moses, asserting, “We have cause to grieve over the Israelites already there, and you propose to add to their number?!” Moses therefore said to Tziporah, “Return to your father’s house” — she took her two sons and went away.[4]

          This is certainly not the story of a happy marriage. I agree with the opinion that Moses divorced Tziporah and that is what Miriam and Aaron were gossiping about in the Book of Numbers.[5] Moses sending Tziporah away as mentioned in our portion is the sign that he divorced Tziporah. Sending away ones wife with young children would create permanent scars. As a matter of fact, Moses’ children, Gershom and Eliezer, are not heard from again after this week’s Torah portion, and according to one tradition his grandson Yonatan created an idol![6]

          This has much to do with why we are here this special Shabbat. I am honored to be installed as Rabbi of Mosaic Law Congregation, a position I feel privileged to have and which I hope to keep for decades to come. I am  excited about all the things we can achieve together to strengthen the Jewish community in Sacramento. At the same time, I recognize that in loving this work it can become easy to be swept up into it and not make time for my family. The work-life balance is always challenging: we read about the challenge in Moses’ life. Perhaps with spending more time with his family and by working on his weaknesses, including his anger, Moses’ teachings would have lived on through his children and grandchildren. Instead, not only do we not know where Moses’ is buried,[7] we also don’t know what happened to his grandchildren. Aaron’s grandson is Pinhas, Ruth’s great-grandson is King David, and Moses’ progeny (besides being of the Levitical line) are unknown.

          I choose to share this Torah not to castigate Moses but to remind each and every one of us that no one gets everything in life. Moses received legacy in being known by every Jew for time immemorial. Yet he lost opportunities to parent. He didn’t even fulfill his obligation of brit milah by circumcising his own son![8] At times we can get so busy with work, with hobbies or with what we are passionate about-or unfortunately various addictions we might have-that we neglect our loved ones whom we care most about.

I want to share the story about when I knew I wanted to propose to Karina. After dating for under two months I found out that my position as Rabbi Educator in Tucson was being eliminated. I drove to Karina’s apartment, tears streaming down my eyes. While sobbing, I said to her, “I’m going to have to move. I know you didn’t sign up for this.” I expected our relationship to be over: such had occurred when I met someone near the end of my year in Israel. Karina instead replied to me, “I didn’t sign up for this. I chose this.” In so doing she made me the happiest man in the world. In raising our two daughters, Ariela and Leora, I am grateful to be in a position where I can spend time with them-not every evening but many-as well as Shabbat afternoons and many Sunday afternoons. I am grateful to my parents, Bruce and Laurie Herman, for having given me the strong foundation and instilling in me a love of Judaism that I have taken with me wherever I go. I feel that the rabbinate is a calling-it is more than my job-it is my way of life. At the same time, I have learned that the identity “Rabbi” can too easily take over the identity of “Ben.” Both identities are important together. I hope I not only can successfully model-at times with your help-not only how to be a good rabbi but also how to be a good father, a good husband and a good son. It is a blessing to be able to work on this with you, my dedicated congregants, growing a little more into the person I’m meant to be each and every day.

[1] Exodus 18:17-18

[2] Exodus 18:2

[3] Exodus 4:19-20

[4] Mechilta of Rabbi Ishmael Chapter 18 Mishnah 2

[5] See Rashi on Numbers 12:1

[6] Look at Judges 18:22 and the hanging nun turning the word Moshe into Menashe.

[7] See Deuteronomy 34:6

[8] See Exodus 4:24-26