Saturday, May 24, 2008

DVAR TORAH S3: Bechukotai/Lag BaOmer (Curses!)

Once I write this Dvar Torah I will be caught up. This week we read the infamous curses of the final parasha of Levitucus, known as the Tochecha, the rebuke. With filial cannibalism, and skies of lead, the curses are pretty bad. Once we exhaust our chances and continue on wayward paths, God condemns us to punishment that increases in severity sevenfold four times, 74, ending up a total of 2,401 times more terrible than the initial punishment. Pretty crappy. But God will not allow us to be utterly destroyed.

A Lag BaOmer story. Shimon bar Yochai, known as the father of Jewish mysticism, has been condemned by the Romans for teaching Torah. He goes out and hides in a cave with his son for twelve years, sustained by a miraculous stream and carob tree and study the entire time. They finally emerge after the twelfth year. Rashbi finds people working a field. He is furious that people are fulfilling laborious pursuits and not studying Torah. He is so spiritually charged with rage that anything that he gazes upon is consumed in a fiery blaze (see my blogspot profile). A heavenly voice yells, "you emerged to destroy the world I created? Go back to your cave!" And so they returned to the cave for another year. They emerged to find a man carrying two omers (bundles) of grain. Upon their asking, he told them that they were in honor of the upcoming Shabbat, the mitzvahs of Shamor (negative commandments of Shabbat) and Zachor (positive commandments of shabbat).

Not only is this one source why we have two challahs on Shabbat and a good source for bonfires on Lag BaOmer, the holiday we are celebrating today, but it also could be applied to this week's Torah Portion. When they emerge from the cage they notice the neglect of Torah and through their strict interpretation of justice they destroy. God does not allow the world to work that way. Reward and Punishment was a real issue when God destroyed His world in The Flood and following it decided that a world judged strictly on justice could not exist. Instead mercy must abound. Innately, people are good. Not everyone can study Torah 24/7/365(353-385)/12 like Rashbi and son. The famous prayer of Rabbi Nechunya upon leaving the Beit Midrash is inherently flawed:

"I am thankful to You, the Lord my God, that You have placed my lot among those who dwell in the beit midrash and not with those who hang around street corners. They arise early, and I arise early. I arise early for words of Torah, and they arise early for idle matters. I toil, and they toil. I toil and receive reward, and they toil and do not receive reward. I run, and they run. I run to the life of the world to come, and they run to the pit of destruction."

This is R' Shimon bar Yochai's justice. This is not God's Justice. God will not utterly abandon us, no matter what we do. This is His promise. So we celebrate the cessation of the plague which destroyed 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva's students. We mourn but after the storm there is a rainbow (as was the incredibly strange case yesterday afternoon with an incredibly rare May rain and thunderstorm in Los Angeles). "Return us, God, to You and we will be returned, renew our days as days of old".

Shabbat Shalom and Lag BaOmer Sameach!
Chazak Chazak v'NitChazek!

DVAR TORAH S3: Behar (Shemita during Shemita)

Every seventh year we are to have a remission of debts, freedom for slaves, and a chance to give rest to our land. Thus is the law in the land of Israel. This parasha is especially appropriate this year because it happens to be the seventh year in the Sabbatical Cycle, and is therefore the Shemitta year. One is not supposed to work the land nor sell their produce. This is literally a year of Shabbat, a year off from the back-breaking labor of being a farmer. One should only provide for their own family from the produce of the field. All other years we have certain mitzvot of the field for the poor, that we must leave the edges of the field for the poor as well as the gleanings that have been left after one pass for them. But this year it is basically a free-for-all. Everything is hefker, legally ownerless. I could go into anyone's field and according to Jewish law I can take anything I want. I don't know if this is the policy of the state of Israel and I don't know if a shoter, a police officer, would arrest me for trespassing or for stealing. I do know that some of my professors at Pardes mentioned that they keep signs in front of their fruit trees this year that say that anyone who wants can pick fruit from their trees.

There have been a few interesting legal fictions created for the Shemitta Year. Last year I lamented the lack of Wikipedia article on Prozbul. Now there is indeed an article. In fact, I wrote it. I have already written on prozbul, which allows debts to be collected and not cancelled. Another legal fiction applies to the state of Israel and is similar to selling Chometz on a massively grand scale. The entire State of Israel was sold to a Druze guy in the Golan. In this way the land can still be worked by Jews because it is not legally owned by us. Hooray for loopholes. The problem is what if Muslim extremists find this guy, whose identity and location are not disclosed? I imagine it being like on Family Guy when Peter Griffin borrows the "Free Tibet" sign from a protester and then calls China, offering Tibet in exchange for all the tea in China. There probably are also loopholes making this non-transferable.

However, this now makes my school, the American Jewish University, with its main campus, Brandeis-Bardin Institute, and Camp Ramah in California the largest Jewish landowner in the world for the year. Neat.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, May 23, 2008

DVAR TORAH S3: Emor (Who is a Jew?)

Time to play a little bit of catch up, as I have been quiet for a few weeks due to finals. Two weeks ago (sigh) we read Emor. This parasha is full of laws that apply to the purity of the Kohen and the series of Jewish holidays, including the mitzvah of counting the Omer, a period which we are always in when this parasha is read.

The narrative at the end is interesting. A man who is halachically Jewish (his mom is an Israelite from the smallest tribe of Dan) but his father is Egyptian gets into an argument with someone. It is interesting that they refer to one man as "an Israelite man" and the other one as "the son of the Israelite woman".

We define someone as Jewish by their mother, but this is due to gentile soldiers raping our women and causing them to conceive. Would these kids be non-Jewish? Mamzerim (Halachic bastards)? The Rabbis decided that Judaism must go by Maternal Descent so that no matter what happens, the child will be considered Jewish because of the woman. Whereas there are times you may have unanswered questions about paternity, it less likely you would have questions about maternity.

However, in the time of the Torah it seems that it is through the father. This man of Dan is part of the Israelite community but is also an Egyptian due to his father, not a whole Israelite. There are certain people whom Israelite women are forbidden to marry, such as Moabite and Ammonites. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, etc, marry non-Jews and yet their kids are Jewish. We don't hear of any sort of conversion until Ruth. The position of Karaites is still that of strictly Paternal Descent(see Wikipedia)

And yet the rabbinic Tradition is presented in Mishnah Kedushin 3:12, that is one of confusion and various traditions.

There are reasons for both sides, but I argue that we should maintain the status quo of Maternal Descent. It would create a great rift amongst the Jews throughout the spectrum. Reform and Reconstructionists accept Paternal Descent. Orthodox and Conservagtive only accept Maternal Descent. The change from current Conservative policy would change thousands of years of a general halachic definition of Who's A Jew and would create a further distance between ourselves and the Orthodox. Unfortunately, people are still raped and some people otherwise don't know who is the father of their child and there still can be confusion. I therefore support Maternal Descent to be maintained as the status quo.

For further information please see here ,here, and here.

Shabbat Shalom.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

DVAR TORAH S3: Kedoshim/Yom Haatzmaut (Holy Horticulture in our Homeland (with Honi))

Parashat Kedoshim - Holy Horticulture in our Homeland (with Honi)
Matt Rutta – Delivered before AJU Hillel 5/2/08
This week we read parashat Kedoshim, also known as the Holiness Code. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am Holy!” There are over 50 mitzvot in this Parasha. Many of them have been over-analyzed and cliché: don’t put a stumbling block before the blind, love your neighbor as yourself, don’t steal, observe my laws, Harry Potter is liable to the death penalty... It goes on like this. The other mitzvot in this parasha include prohibitions of idolatry, agricultural laws, and sexual taboos. So I will discuss the subject I think you are the most interested in: agricultural laws!
A good number of the agricultural laws in this parasha apply in the land of Israel. When one can harvest, what one can harvest, the time one must wait after planting a tree before one can eat from the tree, and a promise that God is bringing us to a land flowing with milk and honey.
A story about Honi the Circlemaker who is probably best described as a mystical shaman from 2000 years ago. Besides the famous story of how he brought rain to the drought in Jerusalem, there is another story in which he has a real problem with understanding Psalm 126, which we will read tonight as Shir HaMaalot, the introduction to Birkat Hamazon: “A song of ascents, when God will return the exiled of Zion, we will be like dreamers.” The Talmud records a tale that he finds an old man preparing to plant a carob tree. He tells the man that he is foolish to plant a tree that takes 70 years to bear edible fruit, well past his lifespan. The old man acknowledges his mortality and says that he’s doing it so his future generations will have carobs to enjoy, just like his ancestors had planted for him. After Honi stopped berating the man he sat down to eat and fell asleep. Rocks concealed him and he slept for 70 years. He awoke because he saw the same old man and thought he had just taken a small nap, but then saw a gigantic tree overflowing with carobs, he asked the man if he had planted the tree and the man said that it was his grandfather who planted it 70 years ago, well before he was born, and Honi realizes he’s been asleep and dreaming for 70 years. I think the lesson Honi realized then that though the life of one person may be fleeting, the acts that we do can long outlive us. The old man had lived his lifespan, appreciating the contributions of his ancestors. Then the newly planted tree as well as Honi himself remained dormant for 70 years, which incidentally is the same amount of time that our ancestors were exiled in Babylon after the First Temple was destroyed and then we woke up from our exile. Our people were again removed for 2000 years, the song of ascents we may recite for this exile would be that we were in a nightmare. But finally we returned to the land of Israel and in 1948 we once again began to enjoy the fruit of the land.
The Haftarah this week, the ninth chapter of Amos, ends “Behold the days are coming, declares the Lord, when the plowman will meet the reaper, and the treader of grapes, him who holds the bag of seed, when the mountains shall drip wine and all the hills shall wave with grain. I will restore my people Israel. They shall rebuild ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine; they shall till gardens and eat their fruits. And I will plant them upon their soil, nevermore to be uprooted from the soil I have given them – said the Lord your God.”
We have been restored and have begun to rebuild, with bountiful and varied produce, the new vineyards are some of the finest in the world, and we have caused the desert to bloom. It has been sixty years since statehood, there are still ten years left until we can enjoy carobs that were planted since the rebirth of the State of Israel, reishit tzmichat geulateynu, the first sprouting of our Redemption, a land which our grandparents fought for so that we could live free in a land of our own. We must continue to fight for it, and plant in it, not just trees, but the seeds of peace. And much like a strong-rooted carob tree, we will never again allow ourselves to be uprooted from the land. For if we will it, it is no dream. Shabbat Shalom.