Friday, February 13, 2015

Don't Touch That Dial! - Reflections on Parashat Mishpatim 5775

(For an earlier blog post on Mishpatim, click HERE.)

Up till now, the Torah's narrative has been intense, dramatic, emotional: the Creation of the Universe, the Great Flood, the lives of the Patriarchs, the vicious enslavement of Joseph and his meteoric rise to Viceroy of Egypt, slavery and the Ten Plagues, the Parting of the Sea, the Revelation at SInai. Woof! What a ride! It's the kind of heady stuff that captures your imagination and keeps you glued to your seat.

But in Parashat Mishpatim, the Torah abruptly changes gears and deals with dry matters of law. Damages. Torts. Booooring!! Where's the passion? Where's the plot? Where's the conflict? So (true confessions) Mishpatim is where many people sort of...tune out, eyes glazing over. Ready to turn the dial to another channel. 

Consider the first case in our Parasha, the laws of owning a Jewish slave. We moderns shake our heads at these laws. Slavery? The entire civilized world has condemned slavery. A thing of the past, you'll tell me. Barbaric. How can these laws possibly have anything to say to modernity? Moving on.

But hold on to your hats: I'm about to argue that the Jewish laws of slavery are directly and immediately relevant and applicable to our lives, so don't touch that dial quite yet.

It is true that de jure slavery - the institution that permitted a human being to be the property of, and wholly subject to, another - has thankfully passed from this earth, or at least from open view. But there are other, less egregious, forms of slavery. Political slavery, for example. Or economic slavery.

A person working three part-time jobs just to make ends meet, because employers can no longer afford the onerous payroll burden of carrying full-timers - that person is a de facto slave. Part-time employees, in whom only a bare minimum of training or skill development is invested, who are treated as disposable - those people are economic slaves. An employee who can't speak freely for fear of being fired is a slave. 

The working poor are America's most vulnerable underclass, no different than coal miners or piece workers in the needle trades a century ago. (Right now, you are probably wearing clothes make by someone in a third-world country working for about a dollar a day.) And like the slaves of yore, today's workers are grateful for the few crumbs they are thrown, because they are all too aware that many have even less.

The threat of job loss is a form of slavery through economic intimidation, because you are wholly subject to the whims of another human being. Being economically dependent on another is a form of slavery, because your personal autonomy has been effectively stripped from you. "Work or starve" is not a meaningful choice.

Now I'm not going all Che Guevara on you, I'm simply trying to disabuse you of the notion that slavery doesn't exist in the United States of America today. 

And it was to this kind of slavery which Rav Avraham Isaac HaCohen Kook was referring when he said that slavery is part of the human condition. 

Whether we like it or not, slavery exists, and since it exists, the Torah deals with it, insisting that it be humane, limited, regulated; that the slave be given rights under the law; that his servitude is a form of indenture for which he is entitled to compensation. The Torah's conception of limited slavery was a method of economic rehabilitation through which the servant could learn a trade at the side of his master, and upon his emancipation in six years (or less), be self-supporting. 

And how could a Jew become a slave to another Jew anyway? In only one of two ways: either, due to his desperate circumstances, by offering himself into servitude in exchange for room and board, or else a thief who cannot make restitution is sold to his victim to repay his debt through labor. A thief, who stole out of dire necessity. Do you see any passion here? The conflict behind the law? 

The verse later states, "And when you lend money to My people, the poor in your midst, don't constantly dun them for payment..." (Shmot/Exodus 22:24) Rashi states that "Gcd's people" are defined by the next phrase: the poor, the oppressed, the widow, the orphan, the disadvantaged. "Gcd is close to the brokenhearted, and those who have had their spirits crushed, He saves." (Psalms 34) "The outcry of the poor You surely hear; the moans of the indigent You pay close attention to, and save them."

The grand, unifying theme throughout all the 53 laws laid down in our Parasha is how we, as individuals, must treat the poor. We dare not avert our eyes to their plight, or leave it to others to deal with it. Not to be treated as pitiable charity cases, but whenever possible, helping them grow out of slavery and into more productive, more enriching, more ennobling work.

That is why the Parasha opens with a case deliberately designed to shock us out of our complacency: a person so desperate, he is willing to ransom his very liberty for a mere crust of bread. 

It's easy to profess love of Gcd, to declare from the mountaintops your belief in the Ten Commandments which immediately precede our verses. But if you truly wish to "Seek out Gcd where He is to be found," Parashat Mishpatim gives you a pretty strong hint where to look. 

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

A Horse Named Shabbat - Reflections on Parashat Yitro 5775

(To view earlier blog posts on this parasha, click HERE and HERE.)

The story is told about a very special horse named Wildfire (my apologies in advance to Michael Martin Murphey). Wildfire had won the Triple Crown, and almost every other race in which he had ever competed. Wildfire was in the prime of his career, and the talk of the sports world; the kind of horse with a storied history that only comes around once a century. Understandably, Wildfire was worth untold millions of dollars.

But Wildfire loved to run and needed lots of space. So Wildfire's owner built a huge enclosure just for him, a broad, treeless field, 39 miles around the perimeter. And every day, that rancher would spend hours inspecting that perimeter, never taking his careful eye off that fence. He would be out there at first light, rain or shine, snow or blistering sun, scrutinizing fence posts, cross bars, wires, barbs, fasteners - he would stop and repair even the smallest breach right there on the spot with an expertise born of long experience. After all, even one small break and Wildfire, the culmination of his life's work, his multi-million dollar investment, could be gone forever. 

The neighbor boy, a clever ten year old, had been watching this strange fence ritual for many months with growing curiosity. On day, that bright young feller and the rancher happened past each other on the path. The boy said, "Mister, you must sure love that fence."

The rancher thought about that for a second and burst out laughing.

This week's parasha describes in vivid detail the Ten Commandments, or more accurately rendered from the Hebrew, the Ten Utterances. For these were the Ten Categories of Torah Law, spoken by Gcd Himself to the Jewish People, as they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai in the presence of Almighty Gcd.

Number Four is about Shabbat, the Sabbath Day:
Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it distinct/separate/holy. For six days you should work and engage in all manner of creative endeavor; but the Seventh Day is Sabbath to the Lcrd Your Gcd: do not do any creative work - you, or your son or daughter, your manservant or maidservant, your animals or even the resident alien who dwells in your gates. For in six days did Gcd create the heavens, the earth, the seas and all that dwell therein; and He Himself rested on the Seventh Day; therefore, Gcd blessed the Seventh Day and made it holy. (Shemot/Exodus 20:8 - 11)
Shabbat is a big deal in Judaism. Shabbat is our frame of reference in all things: either we are savoring the lingering essence of the Shabbat that just was, or we are anticipating the Shabbat that approaches. It is our guiding light; the brightest star in the Jewish constellation.

But the specifics of how to do Shabbat right, with all the attendant "do's" and "don'ts" in Gcd's Book, can be quite detailed, and take up a significant hunk in Jewish Lawbooks. And understandably, many people not schooled in Shabbat observance from an early age are intimidated and overwhelmed by its minutiae. Like the little boy, people tend to focus on the fence and lose sight of what it protects.

So what is inside the fence exactly? What is this horse called Shabbat? Is it merely a day off from the J-O-B? A day of leisure? recreation?

Although I have never seen it framed in quite this way, in my view Shabbat has five key components:

1. Communion with Gcd: Six days a week, we assemble for daily prayers for a few minutes before and after work. However, we are mere mortals, and the reality is that many of us are often only half awake, rushed, harried, distracted.  As we mumble the proscribed prayers, we worry about catching the 7:37 or traffic or the big meeting or the shopping list or the car repair.

Comes the Shabbat! and all the "have-tos" are put on ice. We can focus on our prayers without the distractions of the work week. Indeed, we add extra psalms to our Shabbat devotions because we have the luxury of time to revel in the poetry and timelessness of the liturgy.

2. Torah Study: Six days a week, we struggle to spend sufficient time drinking from the vivifying waters of Torah. Comes the Shabbat! and we have the luxury to spend extra time learning Torah in depth, studying with our kids, sharing our insights with our families, and in turn, turning them on to the beauty of Torah study.

3. Family: Six days a week, the brushfires of our lives deny us the time with those most precious to us. Comes the Shabbat! and we gather about the sparkling table dressed in our finest clothes, enjoy long, lovely meals together, singing songs, telling stories - but mostly, enjoying each other's company; saying, in effect, that there's no place in the world I'd rather be than spending time with you. 

4. Physical rest: Shabbat is indeed a day of rest. Six days a week we burn the candle at both ends, but comes the Shabbat! and we can sleep in a little, or grab a little afternoon kip as one of the delicious joys of the day.

5. Introspection: Shabbat provides a regular opportunity to reflect on the week that was, on the week that lies before us, and the general path of our lives. Shabbat encourages us to take stock, to make sure that are lives are headed in a meaningful direction, and provides the context for the course corrections we may need in coming week.

These five elements of Shabbat can't be achieved at the movies or on the golf course or playing video games. And I suggest that true Shabbat observance is not in the punctilious performance of the minutiae; the particulars must of course be observed, but with a constant eye on what they are intended to protect. There's no way around it: without careful maintenance of the fence, the horse - that ethereal, delicate, precious Spirit of Shabbat - is sure to escape. 

There is also little doubt that the devotion of the Jewish People to Shabbat observance has been one of the defining factors in our miraculous, 4,000 year old survival story. Jews can no more survive without Shabbat than a fish without water. And Shabbat observers will tell you that the sublime, restorative spiritual high of Shabbat cannot be shared or described, it can only be experienced. 

Yet today, as in many generations past, well-meaning but misguided thinkers have attempted to construct a fence-less Shabbat, more suitable, they argue, to modernity. Predictably, all they have accomplished is the destruction of the greatest Jewish diaspora since the Golden Age of Spain. For the vast majority of American Jews, Shabbat is but a dim memory.

The only way to be a part of the Jewish future is to 'Remember the Shabbat and keep it holy.'

So if you're not a regular Shabbat observer, what to do? where to start? First of all, take a deep breath, don't be overwhelmed, don't be intimidated by supposed "experts", those who are three pages ahead of you in some method book. 

Begin by making the commitment to keep Shabbat, and start integrating Shabbat into your life gradually, in doable doses. It takes a little time, but once you get the hang of it, it's not that hard; any ten year old with twenty years of experience can do it.

Here are a few suggestions:

- Go to and register to be hosted for a Shabbat meal;
- Call your local rabbi and arrange for an invite or ask for a reading list;
- Drop in to shul on a Shabbat morning;
- Start lighting Shabbat candles on Friday before sunset;
- Contact me directly and I will help get you started on the path to Shabbat observance.

Shabbat Shalom - may you truly experience the transcendent peace and tranquility of the Holy Sabbath Day.