Friday, August 29, 2014

Torah Thoughts on Shoftim – Separation of Church and State

This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (Deut. 16:18-21:9) lays out the judicial system that will govern the Israelites as they go forward into the land.  “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice”. (Deut. 16:18).  In the Jewish Study Bible on Deuteronomy, Bernard Levinson writes that this is “the first blueprint for a constitutional government in which no single branch of government and no single religious institution should have sole power”.

This portion also draws a line between religious and civil matters.  The Torah, and this book of Deuteronomy in particular, insists on the people having one central place of worship.  The courts of law, though, are to be set up in each community so that justice is easily at hand for all.  The lawgivers who are to be appointed are not priests or Levites, they are laypeople, and they are not being chosen by God but by the people in their local communities.  

This wall between “church and state” that the Torah describes began with Aaron and Moses.  From the beginning, Moses was the lawgiver and Aaron the religious leader.  This separation is one that served the Israelite people well in the wilderness and beyond, and has served these United States very well from it’s very beginnings.  It is a shame to watch these laws now eroding.  As we see more and more crèches and Chanukiahs on city hall lawns, and more court cases allowing the religious beliefs of the few to affect the lives of the many, we should hearken back to the wisdom of the Torah and strengthen the wall between religion and civil law.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Torah thoughts on Re’eh

This week’s Torah portion, Re’eh (Deut. 11:26 - 16:17) includes a restatement of the laws of the shmittah year, the seventh year in which the land rests and in which debts are remitted.  These laws are designed to help people avoid long-term entrenched poverty.  Loans to the poor are encouraged and two of the years of the seven year cycle are ma’aser ani, a tithe for the poor.  Deuteronomy 15:4 promises, “There shall be no needy among you since the Lord your God will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion”.  The commentator Rashi finds a contradiction between this verse and verse 11 of the same chapter, “for there will never cease to be needy ones in your land”.  Well?  Is God telling us there will always be poor among us, or not?

To answer, Rashi points us to verse 5, the follow-up to the promise of a land with no poverty, “…if only you heed the Lord your God and take care to keep all this instruction that I enjoin upon you this day”.  We easily forget that God’s promises are one half of a covenant, and the other half is for us to uphold.  If we can make things fairer for those who are struggling, give generously to those who can’t put enough food on their tables, make it easier for them to obtain loans at fair terms, then someday there truly will be no needy among us.  The Torah is more than just words on a scroll, it is an instruction manual.

Friday, August 15, 2014

“Enough” - Torah Thoughts on Eikev

This week’s Torah portion, Eikev, (Deut. 7:12 – 11:25) contains a verse used in the liturgy of the grace after meals.  The Jewish tradition is to say a very short grace before meals—a simple nine-word blessing over bread—and a very long one at the conclusion of the meal.  And the prooftext – the Biblical justification for grace after meals—translates to English as “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to Adonai your God for the good land given to you” (Deut. 8:10).  But the English doesn’t quite give the same sense as the Hebrew.

The Hebrew word “Sova” means “satiety”.    We are not enjoined to eat every morsel we possibly can, but until we have had enough, until we are satisfied.  Today we live in a world where things to eat are all around us, advertised on television, the internet, billboards and magazines.  It is all too easy to overindulge, to eat far beyond the point we are satisfied.  

And it’s not just about eating.  Our society encourages us to want more and more of everything.  What is enough to satisfy us?  The dream house?  The ideal job?  The perfect lover?  How do we know a better one won’t come along tomorrow?  

One of the many teachings this verse brings is to remind us to be satisfied with “enough”, and to give thanks for its blessings.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Torah Thoughts on Devarim

This week’s Torah portion, Devarim (Deut. 1:1-3:22) begins the book of Deuteronomy, the fifth and last book of the Torah.  In this book, Moses reviews the events of the forty years in the wilderness, and the laws that God gave to the Israelites.  

Moses begins by recounting the story of the scouting of the land, which had taken place 38 years earlier, to these young Israelites, the generation that will enter the land.  He says that he told the people that the land was theirs for the taking and that God was inviting them to take possession of it.  But they insisted that Moses send scouts first, and when they heard the report of the scouts, that the land was good but the inhabitants were numerous and powerful, they panicked and refused to enter the land.  Then God grew angry with them and ordained that the people would stay in the wilderness until all the generation that were slaves in Egypt had died. (Deut. 1:19-33)

But wait a minute.  That’s not how it was told in the book of Numbers, chapter 13.  There, it was God who ordered Moses to send the scouts, and the panic came at least partially from the report of ten of the twelve scouts themselves.  In the original, the people were not nearly as much to blame as Moses makes out in the retelling.

Events happen and facts are facts, but feelings color our memories of those facts and events.  Had the Israelites been ready to enter the land the first time, Moses would have triumphantly led them there.  Now, he is old and going to die in the wilderness as the next generation takes over.  The way he remembers things is not necessarily the way they happened.

The land of Israel has always been and still is the subject of conflicting desires, feelings, memories and hopes.  If even one as great as Moses lets his feelings get in the way of accuracy, what of the rest of us?  We would do well to set our feelings aside and try to learn the facts.