Saturday, August 25, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Ki Tetze (The Lighter Side of ... God)

Mad Magazine Reference...

If last week's Parasha is filled with laws of vigilante justice, this week's is filled with mercy and compassion (besides the case of the Ben Sorer U'Moreh which I have discussed for the past two years so I will not cover this year).

One is to show compassion for one's enemy. Even in ancient military victory where the spoils went to the victor, In Judaism had to be compassionate for the captives they took. If one wanted to take a wife from a defeated heathen they must first allow her to mourn for her life that she lost and take safeguards prevent her from entering into a loveless marriage where the only consideration would have been her beauty. One must return stray livestock to one's enemy as well. It is possibly from here where the shock and disdain at the events of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa emerge.

Respect for the dead, even those who were executed at the hands of the court, forbade the indignity of anything but immediate burial. Further, if a married man died childless, then his brother is supposed to marry his widow and have a child to perpetuate the name of the dead. We see example of this in the case of Ruth

Respect for one's body and for procreation. One who causes themselves to be unable to procreate, such as "crushed testicles" in the words of the Torah, is forbidden to enter the Congregation of the Lord. If another person purposefully causes him to become impotent, they will be punished (the example given is if two men are fighting and the wife of one grabs the testicles of the other her hand gets cut off).

Respect for family's, even of non-humans. Shooing a mother bird so she doesn't have to witness you taking her eggs would bring length of days, a mitzvah on par with "Honor thy mother and father".

Further kindness to animals, animals of different strengths and speeds, say an ox and a donkey are never to be forced to pull the same plow. When any animal is worked in the field, one may not muzzle it, it must be allowed to graze and water freely.

Kidnap and rape would be dealt with capitally. They are absolutely abhorrent to God and the perpetrators would be put to death.

Business practices must be fair and honest. Charging interest to another Jew taking a loan is forbidden. Taking something they need to survive or make a livelihood as collateral is similarly forbidden. One must pay a laborer no later than the promised paydate. Doctoring weights on scales will also be dealt with harshly.

Escaped slaves will not be returned to their masters.

God is merciful to the destitute. The widow, the stranger, the orphan, animals, slaves, poor, children (except for exceptionally rebellious ones), enemies, the condemned, the dead -- all are subject to the mercies of God.

Finally we have a commandment which above all else must be heard at least once a year: to remember what Amalek did to you. Amalek wasn't kind to women, children, weak, and elderly when they attacked from behind and murdered the defenseless stragglers. We must remember this abhorrent injustice always and do our best to eradicate it.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Shoftim (The one with the violent rules of justice)

Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof "Justice Justice Shalt Thou Pursue", probably the most famous line of this Torah Portion, introduces a series of laws that could best be described as tough justice. For the next few weeks we will hear of laws that are so reprehensible, the rabbis decreed they could never be carried out, such as the Wayward and Rebellious Son (Ben Sorer U'Moreh). They are also laws that offend our modern sensibilities. How do we, as Jews, defend the law of proscription, especially in a post-Holocaust age? The truth of the matter there is that the nation of Amalek at which this is especially directed attacked us from behind, preying on the women, children, elderly, and weak of Israel. The other nations, if Moabites and Amorites can serve as an example, even with peace offers and requests to merely walk through the land they sought to destroy us. It says in the talmud "if your enemy awakens early in the morning to kill you, you must wake up earlier than him to kill him first". This is based on self-defense. There can be no real comparison to the genocides of the 20th century here.

Lest we think there is only vigilante justice, let us examine briefly the other Attribute of God that is commanded onto us: mercy. There really are morals here to protect both the individual and the army. Those with things left to do that will otherwise distract them from the war are excused from duty. For the sake of themselves and others whom they might lead to stray from their tasks in the holy wars of which they are commanded, they must go home, though they will have a part in the booty. The standing army must remain strong.

Pretty good for a couple days late and currently completely distracted...

Friday, August 10, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Re'eh (Death Eaters need not apply)

In this week's Torah portion, among many other things, we get the source for the taboo on tattoos. You shall not make a gash in your body for the dead. There seems to be an ancient pagan mourning practice to injure yourself when someone dies. Our Rabbis have expanded this to forbid tattoos and excessive piercings.

In a few weeks (next week for Sephardic Jews) we will begin to recite Selichot, the penitential prayers for the Days of Awe. We recite "the soul is yours and the body your handiwork... the soul is yours and the body is yours..." Our bodies are on loan to us from God, a temporary housing for our souls. We therefore need to treat this gift from God with respect. We mustn't mutilate it by tattooing it or piercing it excessively, nor abusing it with too much (or too little) food, alcohol, drugs or other detrimental things. Instead we must try and keep healthy. Remember that everyone's bodies eventually return to God, and you're going to want to get your security deposit back...

Monday, August 06, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Ekev ("Evil will always triumph because good is dumb")

A point to the first person who comments with the source of this quote without having to google it.

In this past week's Torah portion, Ekev, we have the much maligned middle paragraph of the Shema, the quintessential source for reward for following mitzvot and punishment for shirking them, all in the form of the most essential boon for members of an agrarian society: rain, whether sent in abundance or withheld in drought, rain marks the difference between life and death. Even today, though I live in a city, I would be ultimately affected by drought. It could be much worse than a whopping $24 for a case of cantaloupe as a result of this year's drought...

But it would be foolish to say that drought and starvation is a direct result of evil. I cringed when a famous yet infamous rabbi said that Hurricane Katrina was a result of lack of Torah study in New Orleans. This very need to justify everything with a reason for divine retribution kept the Rabbis of the Talmud up at night. A famous example in the Talmud involves a son climbing a tree to fetch some eggs, in doing so fulfilling the two mitzvot that carry with them a reward of long life, that is honoring his father (#1) and shooing the mother bird (#2) to fetch the eggs. The kid, in doing these two things fell from the ladder and died. The rabbis tried to reason this: the kid wasn't intending to fulfill the mitzvot, he was going to grow up to be a murderer, and so forth. Finally a rabbi steps in and says two words: Sulam Rakua, a faulty ladder. If you step on a broken ladder, don't expect a miracle. It's going to break. Rain will fall even if you are evil. Drought will happen even if you are good.

The reason we say this second paragraph silently, I said, is so that the common person does not question the fact that the content is patently false. The wise, however, will examine it and come to the conclusion that there is free will given to the universe, and that goodness will result in human goodness in turn and evil will be repaid in human evil. Don't look for the salvation of God in the face of the deluge, as we find in a famous joke. Rather look for God in the rescuers he sent with the two boats and the helicopter.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Attending the Asterisk? Ah, no...

Last night I attended the second game of a three game Dodgers home series in which they faced their archrivals the San Francisco Giants. Now, this would normally be a ticket I would especially love to get my hands on, but this series in particular, when Barry Bonds is one home run shy of tying Hank Aaron's most important record in sports history, the lifetime homerun count, that would lead one to kill to attend. I went so far as to get bleacher tickets in the All You Can Eat section, at $45 a waste for me as I keep kosher, but I could buy millions of kosher dogs if I caught that home run ball...

This is the first time in the hundreds of games I have attended at Dodger Stadium that I sat in the bleachers. In fact, I have sat in every section but the bleachers.

The fact that Bonds is a lefty and I had seats in the final row (Section 310, row Z, seat 10 to be exact) of the Right Field Bleachers made it a prime target -- er -- spot to try and catch number 755* or 756*. Unfortunately, no such chance came as Barry Bonds sucks. At least that is what the fans around me yelled. You see, the Bleachers bring out the worst in a person. I know this from attending a Yankee game, the only other time in my life I sat in a MLB game in the bleacher section. People threw beer at my friend who was rooting for the other team, a team which doesn't even have an existing rivalry with the Yanks (Like the Rabbis in the story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa, I kept my silence lest I get murdered by the rabid fans as well). This Dodger Game was especially nuts because of the team we were facing, our archrivals, the San Francisco Giants. Anyone who walked by wearing the halloween colors of the Giants was immediately booed. Some people even had things thrown at them, such as peanuts, and at one point, a baseball glove. The man in the orange in the third picture, obviously a dedicated fan of the Giants, pictured was kicked out of the game by ushers, security guards, and armed officers of the LAPD, fans of my section chanting "Kick him out! Kick him out!". On the other hand, Dodger fans who were kicked out (and there were many) were cheered "Let them stay! Let them stay!". Due to the possibility of homicide or riots resulting in someone catching the home run ball, there were dozens of cops packing heat in our section.

I was cheered on two separate occasions, both for tripping for climbing on slippery objects, the first time some wet steps, the second time on wet seats. Gevald, I'm such a klutz and my shins really hurt.

Notwithstanding my idiotic injuries, I would have to declare this the best Dodger game I ever attended. Not just because of the amazing back to back comeback we made in the 8th inning, indeed I have been to Dodger games where historic things have happened: Shawn Green getting four home runs in a single game in a three game streak of seven. Hee Seop Choi hitting three home runs (three more than he usually hits in a game), two of the only rain-outs in Dodger Stadium history, and yet I declare this the greatest game because of the electricity in the air. I spent most of the game on my feet because of the excitement in the section. True, lashon hara abounded, particularly against the center-fielder a couple of feet away (you could also tell when Bonds was up to bat as a loud roar of boos filled the stadium, everyone got to their feet, and everyone in the sold-out capacity crowd was blinded by tens of thousands of flashbulbs). So maybe he gets his asterisk tonight. I don't think it honorable to recognize the record of someone who uses performance enhancing drugs. No, I think we need to revert to the record of the Great Bambino; Babe Ruth's anti-drug was hot-dogs, beer, and women. The Sultan of Sw(e)at never needed to run because he kept hitting them out of the park; the big guy could just amble at a leisurely pace around the diamond.

I wouldn't mind catching that 755th ball, though. I told the woman sitting next to me that should I need to defenestrate myself (I was in the last row and there was no backstop preventing me from falling out of the stadium a la Maude Flanders or the bad guy in Naked Gun). I could always replace my bones with the millions of dollars I would get for catching that ball... I would want to stay if I caught the record-tying 755 so perhaps I could also catch the record-breaking 756, but a police officer told me that they'd escort you out of the stadium so quickly once you caught that ball, lest you be murdered.

And on that cheerful note, goodbye.