Friday, January 31, 2014

The Monopoly Metaphor - Reflections on Parashat Trumah 5774

So there I was, playing Monopoly with my kids. The turn passed to my youngest, who was down to her last few bucks (and no, I don't play cutthroat with little kids - don't even go there). She asked me, "Abba, what should I do? I'm almost out of money." I responded, "Give Tzedakah [charity]." 

She thought about that for a minute. Her situation was truly dire. The tension around the board was TV game-show level. All eyes were upon her - what was she going to do? Finally, she took her last two dollars and pitched them on top of the bulging pot in the middle of the board. She rolled the dice, and lo and behold! - doubles, and the massive pot became hers. The crowd goes wild...true story.

I'm not dispensing financial advice here, but Number Four Daughter learned a very valuable lesson that day: the more you give, the more you get. In other words, the way to grow your stash is not to hoard it, but to give it away, and that is a seriously important life-lesson: to give tzedakah freely and with an open heart.

This week's parashah deals with the contributions collected by Moses for the construction of the Mishkan, the tabernacle in the wilderness. Among the items collected were gold, silver, copper and "red skins," pelts of a reddish goat. 

The Midrash Tanchumah sees a deeper meaning in these items. It brings verses to suggest that these items foretell the rise of the four Great Empires. The gold is a hint to the rise of Babylon, the silver to Persia, the copper to Greece, and the red skins to Rome, (and by extension) to Western Civilization.

OK, very clever...but what does predicting the future have to do with building the Tabernacle in the wilderness? What is the sub-text of the midrash and how are we to understand it? 

The Kli Yakar, the Chief Rabbi of Prague in the early 17th century, helps us out. He suggests that the gold that was given by the Jews in the wilderness was able to preempt -  or at least mitigate - the destruction that Babylonia would later wreak. The silver was a palliative against Persia, the copper contributions against the chaos brought by Hellenism, and the red skins against the depredations of Rome. We didn't survive unscathed, but we nevertheless survived, and the Kli Yakar wants us to know that our very survival can be attributed in some measure to the tzedakah given so freely in the wilderness all those millenia ago.

There are a lot of good reasons to give tzedakah - first and foremost, it is a Biblical commandment to provide for the poor, so much so that if one doesn't give tzedakah, he or she is reckoned as an idol worshipper. (harsh!)

Secondly, by giving tzedakah we act as responsible stewards of Gcd's abundance that flows through our hands. That's why tzedakah is not charity in the way it is commonly understood; we are not parting with that which is ours, we are merely passing forward that which is Gcd's.

Thirdly, we are taught that it is a powerful atonement for our sins, our past failings.

But the insight that the Kli Yakar brings is truly remarkable: that the giving of tzedakah today can help mitigate future unforeseen disaster. Kind of like a spiritual "Get Out of Jail Free" card. And who couldn't use one of those?

So give tzedakah! Be pro-active, don't wait for some needy person to knock on your door. Better to give a penny every day with an open and loving heart than a million dollars with resentment. It is said that if we donated the amount of money we spend on coffee everyday in America we could cure a major disease. 

Create opportunities to give. Find excuses to give. If you don't have one, buy (or better yet make) a tzedakah box for your house. It's a great project to do with your little ones. Get in the habit of throwing a coin in there every single day (except Shabbat, derp.) 

Me? I had an uncle that would stand around for hours and just run his fingers through the change in his bulging polyester pants pockets. It sounded like there was four or five thousand dollars in nickels in there. Ever since, the old-man sound of jingling-jangling pocket change drives me nuts, so into the box it goes.

In the grand and unpredictable Game Of Monopoly, I may be the shoe and you the top hat, but my advice for winning is still the same: give tzedakah. You always get back way more than you give.

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Stuff - Reflections on Parashat Mishpatim 5774

Remember George Carlin's shtick about "stuff"? That your house is really just a place to keep your stuff while you're out buying...more stuff?

Stuff. We all have stuff. Some of us have quite a lot of stuff. Carlin lampooned the mindless accumulation of stuff. And this week's parashah deals a lot with stuff (it also deals with a lot of stuff, but that's a different matter altogether.)

What struck me in re-reading Mishpatim this year is the careful language the Torah utilizes to describe a person's stuff.

Here's the case: Reuven is going on vacation and asks Shimon, as a favor, to keep any eye on his stuff. When Reuven returns, Shimon tell him, 'Bad news, bro. Your stuff was stolen.' Witnesses? None. Thief? Slipped away. 

So the two obvious questions are (1) Did Shimon steal the stuff himself? and (2) even if Shimon is innocent of the theft, does he bear any responsibility for making good on the stolen stuff?

The second question is dealt with at length in the gemara, Tractates Bava Kama and Bava Metzia. As to the first question, listen to the language of the Torah: If the thief is not found, then the householder will approach unto Gcd [and take an oath in Gcd's name] that he did not extend his hand against the work [במלאכת] of his friend." Exodus 22:7

Why does the Torah use the curious term "melachah" to describe Reuven's 60 inch HDTV? Further, "melachah" means productive, creative work, as opposed to "avodah", routine chores or mundane labors. What are we to learn from this?

By way of context: Judaism teaches that we none of us truly own anything, even if we did pay for it. The A-lmighty is the "koneh hakol", the owner of everything, by virtue of having created the elements, molecules, and compounds which compose the flat screen TV, and the laws of physics which govern how it works. Gcd apportions His assets to whom He sees fit, when He sees fit; we are, at most, stewards of Gcd's stuff.

Stuff, in and of itself, is meaningless. If you've ever had the regrettable task of sorting through the stuff of someone who has passed away, you're struck by how trivial are the things that once meant so much; a favorite handkerchief or a pair of slippers or a chipped coffee mug. The detritus of a life stripped of its context.

But "melachah" - creative, productive, goal-oriented work - is meaningful. Melachah is associated with the creation of the universe; so it is that we abstain from melachah on the Sabbath. When we harness our creative energies to build and improve the world, we partner with the A-lmighty in the unfolding process of Creation.

And to be a builder, you need tools. You need your stuff. Painters need easels, canvases, brushes. Writers need quill and ink. Stuff only has purpose and meaning in the context of its contribution to the greater creative enterprise.

Every one of us is a builder and creator. The purpose of Jewish Civil Law, with which this parashah deals, is to create a level playing field where everyone is free to dream, to conceive and to build - their lives, their homes, their fortunes, their families. (The Hebrew words for sons and daughters - Banim & Banot - derives from the Hebrew root Boneh to build.)

Therein lies the answer. While the immediate matter at hand is Reuven's missing stuff, Shimon must swear that he has not extended his hand to jeopardize Reuven's melachah, his life's work. For only in the context of our life's work does the stuff have value, relevance and importance.

What are you building these days?

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Biomolecular Structure Of Torah - Reflections On Parashat Yitro 5774

Judaism is dogma-averse, and there are very few religious axioms that we are asked to accept on faith alone. Maimonides named thirteen. Some say three. Perhaps there's only one - that Gcd simply is.

We proclaim one of those axioms after every public Torah reading. The Torah scroll is hoisted aloft for all to see the words inside, and we proclaim in unison: "And this is the Torah that Moses placed before the Jewish People, from the mouth of Gcd through the hand of Moses."

Within 100 years of Jesus' death, there were many wildly discordant accounts of his life & times; in the end, only four were selected by the early Church to be included in their canon.

Seven variant texts were incorporated into the standard Uthmanic Koran, and Moslem scholars freely admit that transcription errors have crept in over the centuries.

400 years on, there are several variants of Shakespeare's works (or is that Bacon's works warmed over?)

But there's only one Torah. We have intact Torah scrolls dating back to the 12th century, and fragments going back two millennia. And they're all identical. Stop and think about that.

On a stormy summer Saturday morning 3,325 years ago, at the foot of a nondescript hill in the middle of nowhere, millions of people were eyewitness to the Revelation of Sinai. But, incredibly, we don't have millions of versions of what happened there. This is all the more remarkable in light of the overused aphorism about Jews: 'From two Jews, you'll get three opinions." (have you ever been to a synagogue board meeting?) We have only the one. No variants, no alternative fragments, no extra or deleted verses. No Torah of Korach the Rebel. No Sadducee Torah. No Karaite Torah. No Sephardi Torah, no Ashkenazi Torah. Just the one Torah, the very text given by Gcd to Moses, and faithfully and painstakingly transmitted from generation to generation since.

Understanding the provenance and authority of Torah is central to understanding who we are as Jews.

From a cryptic story told in Tractate Chagigah 14b, we learn that Torah study is divided into four layers of increasing complexity:

- Pshat: the plain meaning of the verses;
- Remez: hints, i.e., esoteric meanings of the verses beyond the simple;
- Drash: homiletics; and
- Sod: the deepest secrets of the verses.

The acronym for these layers is "Pardes" meaning orchard, and is the source for the English word paradise.

This gemara has always made me think of - proteins. 

When you stop sniggering I'll explain.

Proteins are the backbone of life. DNA are tinkertoys compared to the complexity of proteins. Beyond the structural value of proteins like muscle, hair and organs, thousands (millions?) of metabolic processes in the human body are mediated by enzymes (which are a form of protein) custom engineered to their specific task. Without enzymes life is not possible.

Proteins also have four levels of structure:

- Primary: the simple string of amino acids that forms a polypeptide chain, often millions of amino acids long;
- Secondary: complex loops, helices and or pleats are formed in the string of amino acids by hydrogen & sulfide bonds;
- Tertiary: the pleats, loops and helices fold over each other creating a three dimensional structure; and
- Quaternary: several of these 3-D polypeptide chains interlock.

The primary structure of proteins corresponds to the pshat of Torah: like amino acids, letter follows letter, word follows word, all in perfect order. This is the simplest meaning of Torah, the "quaint Bible stories" that most third graders know. 

The secondary structure of proteins corresponds to the remez of Torah: heikesh and gezaira shava (hermeneutical tools) are like the hydrogen bonds that create loops and helices in the text;

The tertiary structure of proteins is the drash: how we connect incidents in different parts of the Torah to each other and what those connections teach us; and

The quaternary structure of proteins corresponds to sod: how the Five Books of Moses work seamlessly to create one integrated, organic whole.

Instead of thinking of the Torah as a string of words that tell a story, try to picture the Torah in 3-D: not so much a beginning, middle and end, but more like words linking words, folding, twisting, reaching out from Genesis over to Numbers, Exodus to Deuteronomy, creating a complex 3-D structure of ideas. 

And just like an enzyme, any minor alteration of the primary structure will affect the final 3-D structure and functionality of the whole. Every word and space MUST be in it's proper place.

The metaphor can be extended. One idea of how enzymes work is called the lock-and-key model. The 3-D structure of the protein creates a highly specific receptor designed for a specific substrate. When the substrate 'locks' into the enzyme, it alters the 3-D structure of the enzyme-substrate complex. The metabolic process occurs, the substrate is released, and the enzyme returns to its original shape, ready to accept another substrate.

If Torah is the enzyme, then the substrate is the human mind. Like an enzyme, Torah is powerless by itself. But when we engage Torah, study it, grapple with its difficulties, reflect on it, laugh with it, we are both miraculously changed and amazing things happen in the universe.

The Torah is a singular document. It's not Shakespeare or Melville. The more we study it, the more it reveals it's depth, it's eloquence, it's complexity; the more it becomes apparent that no human - not even a Moses - could have been brilliant enough to forward-engineer a document that works on so many independent levels, and levels within levels. 

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that direct analogues exist between the way we're built and the way the Torah is built; after all, each was designed for the other and both share a common Author.

Now that's an axiom I can hang my hat on.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Bumper Sticker Theology - Reflections on Parashat Bo 5774

A bumper sticker caught my eye the other day. It joyously proclaimed the bumper stickee to be at "One With the Earth." 

Things that make you go hmm...What does it really mean to be at "One With The Earth"? If you're literally One With The Earth, you've achieved ambient temperature, taken the dirt nap, are pushing up daisies, etc. (But they drive a car, so they can't be dead. Are zombies One with the Earth?) Hmmm...Anyway, it probably means living in synchronicity with the Earth, maybe rising at dawn and sleeping at dark...nope, that would be One with the Sun. How do you apply for "Earth-Onedness"? Is there a test? Written or oral? Is it graded on a curve? (Hopefully it's a self-test.) The questions just keep coming.

And that, in turn, got me thinking about this week's parasha (naturally)

In Parashat Bo we read of the final three plagues against Pharaoh and Egypt, of the first mitzvot commanded by Gcd to the Jews, and of the final preparations before emancipation. 

There is a very rich wellspring of commentary on the ten plagues, making sense of the whys and the wherefores, insights on their specific order, how the punishments befitted the crimes, and how each plague exposed a specific Egyptian deity to ridicule and abuse, and more. 

But apparently this brilliant body of commentary is not enough, for I am going to intrepidly suggest an understanding of the ten plagues based upon the above-mentioned bumper sticker.

These are the ten plagues: 
1. Starting with the Nile, all the water in Egypt turns to blood;
2. Frogs come up from the Nile, infesting all of Egypt;
3. Lice;
4. Rampaging wild animals;
5. Animal fever, which kills off the horses, mules, camels, sheep and cattle;
6. Boils;
7. Fiery hail;
8. Mega locust attack;
9. Darkness; and
10. The death of every first-born Egyptian.

The first two plagues are grounded in water - they both start in the Nile River.

The next three are grounded in earth. Moses and Aaron are commanded to hit the 'dust of the earth' to begin the plague of lice. (Exodus 8:12) Plagues Four and Five focus on land animals.

The next two are grounded in fire. Moses and Aaron are commanded to take furnace ashes and throw them into the air to begin the plague of boils. (Exodus 9:8) And the hail was famously fire wrapped in ice.

The next two plagues are grounded in air. The locust swarms attacked from the air and were so dense that they blotted out the sun. And darkness speaks for itself. 

Leaving the most horrific plague - death - for last.

Water. Earth. Fire. Air. The four ancient elements.

Pharaoh steadfastly rejects the Divine Command to release the Jewish People from bondage. Like every anti-semite before or since, his beef is not with the Jewish People per se, but with what - and whom - we represent. Pharaoh's fight was with Gcd.

And in response, the A-lmighty says (as it were): "If you stand in opposition to Me, then you will find that all of nature, my entire created universe, will stand in opposition to you: water, earth, fire, air. And if you persist in your rebellion, you make yourself the enemy of Life itself (the Tenth Plague)."

We are taught that every aspect of the universe, animate and inanimate, serves Gcd in its own unique way. Dogs bark, cats meow, wolves bay at the moon, and dolphins click. "Fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind all fulfill His word." (Psalm 148)  Even the celestial orbs praise Gcd, oscillating in their orbits (and the oscillations make them - literally - hum. Re-read Psalm 19:2). 

Of all Gcd's creations, only humans have the power to disobey Gcd.  But as Pharaoh learned to his detriment: when we choose that path, the universe becomes our enemy. We're like the one rogue car, driving the wrong side of the busy superhighway of life.

To be as one with a universe that serves Gcd, we too have to serve Gcd. We accomplish this, not by reducing our carbon footprint, driving hybrids or recycling, but by subordinating our will to Gcd's Will; living with the recognition that whatever I want to do at any given moment in time is less important that what Gcd wants me to do with that moment.

What is Gcd's Will? Open the Torah, study the laws. Like the old spaghetti sauce ad, it's all in there. That's how we achieve genuine synchronicity, balance and inner peace.

So on the whole, I'd rather be one with the Creator of the Earth than with the earth itself. 

Now, if we could only figure out how to recycle poopik lint or the green effluent of little children's noses, we'd be set...

Shabbat Shalom.