Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Praise Blind Loyalty or Encourage Critical Thinking?

This year,  when we read the Haggadah at the seder,  I discovered two Zionist thinkers' opposing views about the Child Who Doesn't Know How to Ask (she'eyno yode'a lish'ol). 

In the famous passage about the Four Children (in some translations - the "Four Sons") we have 4 different types of children (the Wise Child,  the Rebellious Child,  the Simple Child,  and  the Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask) asking about the Passover rituals, and each one is given a different response tailored to their personality. For the fourth child, the Haggadah says:   
As for the child who does not know how to ask, you should prompt the child. As the Torah says: "You shall tell your child on that  day - it is because of this that God did for me when I went free from Egypt."

In the Haggadah of Mishael Zion and Noam Zion I found a fascinating juxtaposition of the opinions of two modern Zionist leaders.  

Ze'ev Jabotinsky, founder of the right wing Revisionist Movement which later became Likud, wrote:

No! I don't agree with the advice of the Haggadah here. The Haggadah says open the child up to critical thinking. In my judgment the parent should be silent. Just kiss this child on the forehead for faithfully maintaining loyalty to those sanctified traditions. The love of knowledge, the philosophical quest is important, but the supreme wisdom is to accept the treasures of the past without second guessing, without evaluating their historical origins and their pragamatic utility. It is essential to cherish and preserve that kind of respectful wisdom and not to tarnish it with unnecessary talk. 

Yariv Ben Aharon, however, adamantly disagrees. Born in 1934, Ben Aharon is a prominent author and educator in the kibbutz movement, and has led the renaissance in Jewish and Talmudic studies among Israeli secular Jews. He embraces the Haggadah's approach and explains the importance of teaching critical thinking:
Open up the children who have not learned to ask. Lead them on the path to becoming a questioning personality, one who inquires about the way of the world. Open them up so they can formulate their own questions. For without questions, your ready-made answers remain inert and there is no common ground between you. The silence of the child can be thunderous. The silence of the one who does not know how to ask may be the result of not having found an appropriate address to express queries . . . Model for the child; show them adults who know how to ask of themselves questions. As the Rabbis said: "If the child and the spouse are unable to ask, let the parents ask themselves" (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 115a). Then there is a good chance that the child will learn to ask as well.

I agree with Ben Aharon.  Who do you agree with? 

Friday, March 20, 2015

How is Parashat Vayikra Connected to Spring?

Today is the first day of Spring. Is there any connection to this week's sedra, Vayikra? 

At first blush, all you can find are lengthy descriptions of the various types of sacrifices. There doesn't seem to be anything related to the seasons of the year. 

But, when you pay attention to the words, you will find the Hebrew word for Spring - aviv

וְאִם תַּקְרִיב מִנְחַת בִּכּוּרִים לַיהוָה--אָבִיב קָלוּי בָּאֵשׁ, גֶּרֶשׂ כַּרְמֶל, תַּקְרִיב אֵת מִנְחַת בִּכּוּרֶיךָ

If you bring a grain offering of the first fruits to the Lord, you shall bring new ears parched with fire, grits of the fresh grain, as your grain offering of the first fruits (Leviticus 2:14).

So the new ears of the grain are called "aviv." How did we get from here to the modern-day meaning of Spring? 

We have to go back to the Plague of Hail to discover that "aviv" actually means in Biblical Hebrew a "barley ear."  

In the Plague of Hail, the Torah describes the damage that was done to agriculture, and differentiates between types of harvests - one that was ruined because it already ripened and hardened, and one that was spared because it ripens late:  

  וְהַפִּשְׁתָּה וְהַשְּׂעֹרָה, נֻכָּתָה  
כִּי הַשְּׂעֹרָה אָבִיבוְהַפִּשְׁתָּה גִּבְעֹל
.וְהַחִטָּה וְהַכֻּסֶּמֶת לֹא נֻכּוּ  כִּי אֲפִילֹת הֵנָּה

Now the flax and the barley were ruined, for the barley was in the ear and the flax was in the bud, but the wheat and the emmer were not hurt, because they ripen late.  (Exodus 9:31-32)

Because the barley ear ripens at this time of the year, this month became known as the Month of Aviv, and later it came to mean the entire season of spring. 

So all of you who have the name Aviv or Aviva or any derivative - now you know how special you are, and what a history your name has! 

Friday, March 13, 2015

200 Verses to Hammer Home Our Responsibility

This week's double parsha, Vayakhel-Pekudei, contains a very detailed description of the building of the Tabernacle (mishkan), the vessels (keylim), and the weaving of the priestly vestments (bigdei kehunah). 

It is almost identical -- word for word -- to the instructions given in the sedras Terumah and Tetzaveh which we read 2 and 3 weeks ago, respectively. 

Why couldn't the Torah simply say that Moshe, Betzalel and the Israelites did all they were commanded to do by God? This would have saved, roughly, 200 verses! Think about how much faster we would get to the special Birthdays and Anniversaries kiddush, sponsored by our honorees, that's waiting for us this Shabbat! 

Perhaps the Torah wanted to stress how important it was that the Israelites listened to the instructions, and came together to perform this monumental building task. 

That's why we need to hear how some contributed and donated, be it gold or silver or bronze, be it wool or animal skin, be it oil or incense. 

That's why we need to hear how some used their skills, be it designing, drawing, cutting wood,weaving cloths, slicing stones, or hammering pieces together. 

That's why we need to hear how others helped, lifted, transported, measured and relayed messages.  

Under the supervision of Moses and the artisans Betzalel and Oholiav, everyone gave of their money, their skill or their time, in order to build something together – a symbolic home for God's presence. 

During the whole time the Tabernacle was being constructed, there were no complaints, no rebellions, no dissension. What all previous miracles and wonders failed to do, the construction of the Tabernacle succeeded in doing. It transformed the people. It turned them into a cohesive group. It gave them a sense of responsibility and identity.

Seen in this context, this week's sedras are not boring repetition, but an exciting affirmation of the importance of being involved in projects and working together with others for the benefit of the entire community. 

As we mark the Jewish Federation's Good Deeds Day this Sunday, March 15, all of us can be involved in projects for the benefit of our larger community, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Our Religious School students, for example, will be performing songs and music for the residents of the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington.

Of course, Good Deeds Day should extend to Good Deeds Month and Good Deeds Year and beyond. There is no shortage of worthy organizations and projects to ensure our society is filled with justice, caring and compassion. 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Moses Shatters the Tablets to Teach Us a Lesson on Counterfeit Holiness

(Published today in the Washington Jewish Week)

In this week’s parsha Ki Tisa, Moses smashes the Ten Commandments on the foot of Mount Sinai after seeing the Israelites worshiping the Golden Calf.  

Rashi, the great 11th-century Bible scholar, comments - on the last verse in the Torah - that G-d gave Moses a yasher koach for breaking the tablets.  

This is the origin of the custom to congratulate those who do a praiseworthy job by saying yasher koach!

While the proper Hebrew form is yishar kochacha, the saying yasher koach has gotten a life of its own, and its literal meaning is “May your strength be firm.” In essence, you are wishing the person the strength to continue doing good things.

But why did Moses receive a yasher koach for destroying the tablets about which it's written "The tablets were the work of G-d; the writing was the writing of G-d, engraved on the tablets”? What is praiseworthy in shattering what was arguably the holiest object in history?

Or, was it holy? 

The great scholar Rabbi Meir Simcha HaCohen of Dvinsk (Lithuania, 1843-1926) explains this was necessary in order to teach the Israelites – and all of us – an important lesson.  

In his commentary, Meshech Chochma, Rabbi Meir Simcha maintains that at the core of the sin of the Golden Calf lies the Jewish people’s erroneous belief in sources of sanctity outside of G-d. The Israelites perceive Moses as inherently holy and essential to their relationship with the Divine. When Moses disappears, they feel compelled to create another source of supposed holiness. 

Realizing that he must try to cure the nation of its misconceptions, Moses turns to them and effectively says: I am not holy. I am a man just as you. The Sanctuary and its vessels are not intrinsically holy. Their sanctity derives from G-d's presence in our midst. If you sin, these objects lose their holiness.

Even the sanctity of these tablets—the word of G-d—only derives from your relationship with G-d. Now that you have sinned, these tablets are mere stone, devoid of any sanctity. As proof of my point, I shatter them before you!

Rabbi Meir Simcha extends this principle to everything in this world -- physical objects, people and land. Nothing is intrinsically holy -- whether it's a tzaddik or the Land of Israel.  Holiness is a status that is earned by moral and just behavior, and can be lost too - when the behavior of people is corrupted. 

As the Meshech Chochma writes poignantly:
In summation: There is nothing holy in the world deserving of service and submission, only the Holy One, Blessed Be He, is holy in His inevitable existence.

Just as the Tablets and the Tabernacle possess no innate sanctity, so, too, the Land of Israel has no innate holiness. What makes the Land of Israel a "holy land" is performing mitzvot, and building a society based on justice and morality.  In other words, if the Israelites maintain a society which pursues justice, with human rights and equality as core values permeating their social existence – the land becomes a holy land. However, if the Israelites’ country degenerates into a country of oppression and discrimination, the land loses its sanctity. 

To be sure, there are other views about the nature of holiness. But the bold view offered by Rabbi Meir Simcha is supported by other sources, not the least of which is the Prophet Amos who prophesied that the  Jewish people are no different than other nations:  

To me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians -- declared the Lord. True, I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, but also the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Arameans from Kir (Amos, 9:7). 

These striking verses convey an important message about the "Chosen People" concept. Israel has no automatic uniqueness. It is a nation among nations, subject to the same forces of history as other nations. Chosenness is a challenge, not a guarantee of anything. It is simply another way of saying there are stringent moral requirements demanded from the Israeli society. 

It is no accident these verses will be read in synagogue in a few weeks as the Haftarah of Parashat Kedoshim which opens with the command to be holy, alerting us to a deeper understanding of the idea of holiness.  

Only the Jewish people’s actions - when they create a society based on human rights and justice for all - make them a holy nation. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Carl Czerny - Not Just a Master of Technique!

Born 224 years ago today, Austrian Carl Czerny was an outstanding composer, pianist and teacher. He wrote a vast amount of works for piano which are still widely used today by piano teachers to teach piano technique. I played several of his "piano technique" pieces, recommended by my Israeli piano teacher, Ruth Hillman z"l. I bet every piano student has come across Czerny's name. 

Czerny had the privilege of being Beethoven's student, but was modest - maybe too modest - about his abilities. Unlike most composers of his time, he felt the life of a concert pianist was not for him, and instead dedicated himself to teaching. But his lessons were not cheap! In fact, he amassed quite a fortune by teaching up to twelve lessons a day at the homes of the Viennese nobility. Among Czerny's famous students was the great Franz Lizst. 

Today I heard a wonderful piece by Czerny that shows he's not just a great technician but full of imagination and creativity. Click below to hear pianist Stephanie Smith play 
Fantaisie Brillante on Themes from the Opera The Magic of Figaro: 

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Eye for an Eye: An Extraordinary Misunderstanding

In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim,  we find a verse that is familiar to most people in the Western World. It is lex talionis, the law of retaliation:
"An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" (Exodus 21:24).

This passage is one of the most misunderstood in the entire Bible. The Sages in the Talmud explain that “an eye for an eye” does not mean that one loses an eye for injuring another’s eye. Rather, it means monetary compensation only. In other words, a person who inflicts bodily injury on another shall be liable to pay to the injured person the value of the injured body part. The tortfeasor  shall never be physically harmed.

Though Biblical, lex talionis isn't a Biblical creation at all. It was already present in the famous Code of Hammurabi, from the 18th century BCE: “If an upper-class man should blind the eye of another upper-class man, they shall blind his eye,” and so on through breaking bones, knocking out teeth, etc.
Yale University professor Joel S. Baden shows that earlier Mesopotamian law codes, two generations before Hammurabi, take what we would consider a more civilized approach to the matter:
If a man bites the nose of another man and thus cuts it off, he shall weigh and deliver sixty shekels of silver; an eye, sixty shekels; a tooth, thirty shekels . . . 
It turns out that the oldest codes in the Near Eastern legal tradition, Sumerian laws from the 21st century BCE, also have payment in place of retaliation.
Nevertheless, this verse was used by Christians from time immemorial to bash the Jewish religion and malign the Old Testament.  As philosopher Simon May puts it in his book, Love: A History:

The widespread belief that the Hebrew Bible is all about vengeance and ‘an eye for an eye,’ while the Gospels supposedly invent love as an unconditional and universal value, must therefore count as one of the most extraordinary misunderstandings in all of Western history.
One justification for interpreting this verse as requiring monetary compensation is that one person’s eye may be more valuable in his work than another’s eye. Therefore, if the court maims the aggressor, it may actually inflict more harm than the harm he committed.
 Linguistic Support

I believe there is linguistic support to bolster the Sages’ interpretation. Let us focus on the Hebrew words:
עַיִן תַּחַת עַיִן

Our analysis will focus on the preposition 'tachat' which is translated as “for” (“eye for eye”).  The Torah could have used other prepositions
, such as כְּנֶגֶד, opposite (compare: אֶעֱשֶׂה לּוֹ עֵזֶר כְּנֶגְדּוֹ (Genesis 2:18)), or the basic prepositional prefix לְ (the letter “lamed” which usually means “for”), or the prepositional prefix "bet" 
בּ (indeed, this preposition is used in the Deuteronomy version, see Deuteronomy 19:21). 

But the Torah chose for our verse  “tachat” –what can we learn from the use of this particular preposition?

Let’s look at 3 examples in Genesis where this word is used.

Example 1 - A ram instead of Isaac

 In the story of the binding of Isaac, the dramatic climax is where Abraham offered the ram as a sacrifice in place of his son. The Hebrew reads:
וַיַּעֲלֵהוּ לְעֹלָה תַּחַת בְּנוֹ
“He [Abraham] offered him as a burnt offering in place of his son” (Genesis 22:13). The Torah uses the word “tachat” to mean  "in place of" in a case where the substitute is clearly not the same as the original.

Example 2 - Judah instead of Benjamin

Later in Genesis 44:33, Judah pleads with the ruler Joseph –whom he does not recognize –to let Judah remain in Egypt in place of Benjamin:
יֵשֶׁב נָא עַבְדְּךָ תַּחַת הַנַּעַר עֶבֶד לַאדֹנִי
"Please let your servant  remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy.”

Example 3 - Seth instead of Abel

A third  example is the proclamation made by Eve after the death of Abel and the birth of Seth :
 וַתִּקְרָא אֶת שְׁמוֹ שֵׁתכִּי שָׁת לִי אֱלֹהִים זֶרַע אַחֵר--תַּחַת הֶבֶל
" She called him Seth: G-d has appointed me another seed instead of Abel” (Genesis 4:25).

All these cases involve the use of the word 'tachat' to mean "in place of" or “instead of” where the substitute is clearly and significantly different than the original. 

Likewise, in the “eye for an eye” verse, the use of the word ‘tachat’ supports the notion that the first eye is something other than the actual eye. Hence, it must mean monetary compensation.

Revenge is neither sanctioned nor tolerated as a mode of conducting matters in a society based upon law and justice.  In Leviticus 19:18, we find a clear prohibition:
"You shall not take vengeance!”
This warning removes any possible notion that "an eye for an eye" would mean vengeful injuring or maiming. And what is the conclusion of that verse? “But you should love your neighbor as yourself" – a most fitting moral prescription to end with!

(Written together with Charles Shenitz.)