Friday, August 28, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Ki Teitzei 5775

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei (Deut. 21:10 - 25:19) is a collection of diverse laws dealing with social concerns.  Two of these laws have to do with kindness to animals.  In Deuteronomy 22:6-7 we are commanded that when we take eggs from a bird’s nest, we are to first shoo the mother bird away, that she may not see her offspring taken.  Deuteronomy 22:10 commands that an ox and an ass may not be yoked together to plow, as the weaker animal would be physically overwhelmed.  An ox must not be muzzled when threshing corn, (Deut. 25:4) that it may satisfy its hunger as it threshes.  

Later Jewish law expanded on the laws found in this portion and in other sections of the Torah to prevent cruelty to animals.  This set of laws, which prohibit tza’ar baalei chaim, pain to living things, is in accord with the laws of bal tashchit, wasteful and destructive acts, which were enumerated in last week’s parshah.  By these laws, God is telling us that we are not the only beings on earth that matter. Rather, as the stewards of the earth, it is incumbent upon us to have compassion for the creatures that we domesticate, and even the creatures whose lives we take for our food.  We may be the most intelligent form of life on earth, but the Torah reminds us that all forms of life must be given regard.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Shoftim

This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, (Deut. 16:18-21:9) begins with the commandment for the Israelites to appoint officers and judges when they settle the land, in order that the people be judged righteously.  The third verse of the parshah is the well-known, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” “Justice, justice, you shall pursue”.  This is followed by a compendium of laws, including laws of warfare.  At the end of that section comes the following verse:  “When in your war against a city you have to besiege it for a long time in order to capture it, you shall not destroy its (fruit) trees, wielding the axe against them.  You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down.  Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? (Deut. 20:19) 
Based on the phrase “lo tashchit” (you shall not destroy) came the laws of “bal tashchit”, an entire category of destructive and wasteful actions which were prohibited.  According to the understanding of Moses Maimonides and other sages, the fruit tree in time of war was only one example of the way in which we are enjoined to treat property – our own, or that of others.  Maimonides wrote:

…Whoever cuts down a fruit-bearing tree in a destructive manner is liable to lashes.  But it may be cut down if it damages other trees or causes harm to neighboring fields or because it fetches a high price.  The Torah only forbade willful destruction.  This is the case not only with trees.  But whoever breaks utensils, tears garments, demolishes a building, stops up a well and willfully destroys food violates the prohibition of “you shall not destroy”. (Mishnah Torah, Melachim)

The prohibition, according to Maimonides, is against meaningless destruction, not only of God’s creation, but of any property.  In American law, you are free to destroy your own property.   You paid for it, it’s yours, and you can do anything you want to with it.  Not so, says Maimonides.  Pointless destruction of any kind is forbidden.

If that was true in the times of Maimonides, then it is even truer today.  The Founders’ Statement of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, written in 1992, reads:  

For Jews, the environmental crisis is a religious challenge…Where we are despoiling our air, land and water, it is our sacred duty as Jews to acknowledge our God-given responsibility and take action to alleviate environmental degradation and the pain and suffering that it causes. 

We are the spiritual heirs of Maimonides.  The laws of Bal Tashchit remind us that even if we are the purported owner, everything on earth is God’s, not ours.  All of it is precious, and none of it should be wasted.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Torah thoughts on Re’eh

This week’s Torah portion, Re’eh (Deut. 11:26 - 16:17) includes, for the first time in the Torah, instruction on how to slaughter and eat meat when it is not part of a sacrificial ritual.  “When the Lord enlarges your territory, as He has promised you, and you say, ‘I shall eat some meat’ for you have the urge to eat meat, you may eat meat whenever you wish” (Deut. 12:20).
Rav Avraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel and a devoted vegetarian, commented on this verse as follows:
The Torah alludes to the moral concession involved in eating meat, and places limits on the killing of animals. If “you desire to eat meat", only then may you slaughter and eat (Deut. 12:20). Why mention the ‘desire to eat meat’? The Torah is hinting: if you are unable to naturally overcome your desire to eat meat, and the time for moral interdiction has not yet arrived — i.e., you still grapple with not harming those even closer to you (fellow human beings) — then you may slaughter and eat animals.
In parshah Bereshit, Adam and Eve are vegetarians; God lets them know that all that grows from the earth is theirs to eat.  After the flood, God tells Noah and his family that they may add certain animals to their diet as long as they do not eat the blood or tear a limb from a living animal.  Rav Kook understands this as a temporary concession to human moral frailty.  In the future, he says,
This suppressed concern for the rights of animals will be restored. A time of moral perfection will come, when “No one will teach his neighbor or his brother to know God — for all will know Me, small and great alike” (Jeremiah 31:33). In that era of heightened ethical awareness, concern for the welfare of animals will be renewed.
Both the Torah and subsequent Jewish law put great restrictions on the consumption of meat – strict requirements for humane slaughter, stringent removal of the animal’s blood, and separation of utensils used for its preparation. 
Those concerned with ecology also tell us that a reduction in raising animals for slaughter would greatly benefit the health of the planet, and nutritionists tell us that eating fewer animal products would benefit our personal health.  Perhaps this is something we should all consider.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

First Harvest

Here's what's in the bowl:  okra, collard greens, kale, Napa cabbage, potatoes, and a very small carrot picked by mistake while I was pulling a weed.
We got a late start this season and so the eggplant has yet to bloom.  The tomatoes large and small are getting ready to fight off squirrels.  Cucumbers are beginning to look like what they will soon become.  The watermelon, pumpkin and zucchini are blooming.  The cantaloupes kind of fizzled.  The beets and carrots (minus one) are in the works.
I harvested the potatoes out of curiousity.  They could probably wait awhile.
Last night I sauteed in olive oil everything harvested except the okra which will soon play a key role in a gumbo.
The apple tree went into some sort of shock.  I'm hoping recovery will come with spring.
We learn as we go - in all things but especially, it seems, in gardening.  I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

He Was A Good Robot, Apparently

He was just three feet tall and weighed only 25 pounds but he was really all heart.  No.  Wait a second.  That's not right.  He was really all circuits and wires and stuff.  At any rate, all he wanted to do was hitch hike from Boston to San Francisco.  His name was hitchBot.  Oh, yeah.  And he was a robot.  He'd already hitched across Canada and parts of Europe.  He had plans to see Mount Rushmore and the Grand Canyon.  Oh, wait.  He was a robot.  Nevertheless, his dream and his robotic life ended in Philadelphia.  He left Salem, Massachusetts, on July 17 and made stops in Boston and New York City.  And then it happened.  In a Philadelphia alley, hitchBot lost his head.  Literally lost his head.  Someone took it.  Philadelphia police aren't investigating the incident because the Canadian universities that created hitchBot aren't filing a criminal complaint.
"We just want to remember the good times," the team behind the project said in a prepared statement.  They hope hitchBot's friends and family will do the same.
Just remember the good times.
The team ended the prepared statement with these wise words, "Sometimes bad things happen to good robots."
And as Mr. Rogers often said, "Sometimes good people do bad things."
There's so much to think about here.
I'll keep you posted.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Eikev

This week’s Torah portion, Eikev, (Deut. 7:12 – 11:25) continues Moses’ second discourse to the Israelites, warning them of the dangers that might beset them after the conquest of the land, if they turn away from God’s commandments.  Towards the end of this portion comes a familiar passage, one that is said both morning and evening in daily prayer – the second paragraph of the Sh’ma (Deut. 11:13-20). This paragraph tells of the rewards that will come to the Israelites and to the land if they follow the laws of Torah, and the punishments that will befall them if they do not. 

For a long time, the prayerbooks of the Reform Movement omitted this paragraph. Perhaps the rationalist editors found it too superstitious and childlike to align human adherence to the Law to the behavior of wind, rain and sun.  However, in our day, when we are already beginning to experience the effects of climate change on our world, we should take a second look at this passage.  So many of the laws of Torah are agricultural in nature, and are about respecting the earth: letting land lie fallow between plantings, allowing fruit trees to develop for three years before eating the fruit. Still others have to do with community, with sharing, and with living together in peace.  Perhaps, rather than reward and punishment, these verses may be seen as cause and effect.

Complaining Won't Cool Off A Hot Day

My weather app tells me that the temperature right now is 90 degrees and the humidity is 39 percent.  Okay.  Sounds fine to me.  It would also sound fine to me if the temperature was 95 degrees and the humidity was 60 percent.  Know why?  Because it's summer and summers on the East Coast are generally hot and humid.  Knowing this and expecting nothing different, though, people still complain about the weather.  Come winter those same people will complain about the cold or the snow or the ice.  The other day a neighbor asked me if it was hot enough for me.  My response was that I didn't understand the question.  Whereupon he launched into not what would have been a perfectly reasonable exhortation about my social stupidity but a tirade about how much he hated hot weather.  This is the same neighbor who can't stand the cold weather of winter.  Finally I asked him why he didn't move someplace where he liked the weather.  He had no response but just shook his head and walked away from me.  Apparently complaining is the only thing we can do about the weather except that I don't.  Nor do I understand those who do.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Revolutionary War Really Did Have A Poet

And his name was Philip Freneau.  He was born on January 2, 1752, and died on December 18, 1832.  He was a newspaper editor, a sea captain, and a poet which is apparently why he was called the 'Poet of the American Revolution'.  What's interesting about this is that Freneau lived in the West Indies for a good part of the Revolutionary War.  While there he wrote about the joys and beauties of island life.  I guess that little glitch shouldn't be too surprising because he later was hired by Thomas Jefferson to be a translator for the state department even though the only language he spoke, other than English, was French.  Jefferson apparently got a little criticism for that hiring choice.
His final career was farming.
Now, why am I talking about this at all you may well ask and to that I reply, "Good question."
There's a little shopping center in Matawan, New Jersey, called Poet's Corner.  The shops are about as uninspiring as Freneau's poetry.  However, the shops are built on what was once the headquarters of the Freneau farm.  The shopping center is close to the Philip Morin Freneau Cemetery on Poet's Drive also in Matawan.  That's where Philip is buried along with his wife and mother and doubtless others.
What makes Philip Freneau remarkable, in my opinion, is not his life but his death.  He froze to death while trying to find his way home.
The middle of December is really cold here in New Jersey and deserves the heaviest coat available.  I'm thinking that poor old Philip either got lost on his own farm or became lost in memories of the War and the West Indies where coats were never needed.
At any rate, RIP Phil.