Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Identity Formed Through Others' Stories and other Interfaith Insights - Webinar for the Sydney Jewish Museum

 

Vrbow, Slovakia, Synagogue ruin in 2008 

According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, history answers the question: what happened? While memory answers the question: who am I? To know who we are is in large part to know, and to remember, of which stories we are a part (1).  


One story that I am part of is the story of Jewish suffering. My maternal grandfather came from Vrbow in Slovakia that had a thriving Jewish community. My wife and I visited there in 2008, and saw the ruins of the big terracotta synagogue on the main street of the town. The shell of the building remains but the people are completely gone, either murdered by the Nazis or escaped. My grandfather never spoke about what happened there. 


Instead, my grandfather told us at the Passover Seder how he and a group of Yeshiva students danced on a shaky boat as they departed from Vladivostok during the war. In his haunting, deep voice my grandfather would sing the same song at the Seder that the students danced to on the sea. The song speaks of the Jews being persecuted in every generation, with our enemies seeking to annihilate us, and God saving us. 


The prophet Jeremiah tells us that Jews, in the aftermath of the devastation of Jerusalem and its people, would cry out to travellers when passing them on the road: “Look, and see, is there any pain like my pain?!” (2) I know that our Jewish historical pain is great and unique. Yet, if I want to understand and connect with others, I need to learn about their pain and their stories.


In 2001, I started on my interfaith journey, hearing the deep spiritual feelings, everyday anecdotes, religious experiences and personal stories of Muslims, Christians, and Aboriginal people (click here for one example) https://youtu.be/yyXCvOgx3mw. These interactions changed me and my identity. I now identify as both deeply Jewish and as a human being with deep connections to people of other faiths.


Hugh Mckay wrote that we are the authors of each other’s stories through the influence we have on each other, and the way we respond to each other (3). He says that these stories answer another question, where do I belong? My answer is with my Jewish community, as well as with my interfaith intercultural community with people like Mohamed, Calisha and many others Australian Muslims, Arabs and people of many backgrounds. 


My closeness and my work with Muslims has not all been smooth sailing. I sometimes had doubts about what I was doing. I was accused of siding with the enemy. On the evening of 15 December 2014, Sydney held its breath during the Lindt Cafe siege. My colleague, Lebanese Australian Shaykh Wesam Charkawi was praying for the victims on the steps of Lakemba Mosque. I stood beside him and recited psalm 23 in Hebrew. The next day we learned that two hostages were killed. That afternoon, I got an angry phone call from a stranger accusing me of being a traitor to the Jewish people.  


Negotiating questions of loyalty is tricky against a background of conflict. Some Arabic Australian teenage boys struggled with their learning about the Holocaust. I talked to the boys at their school. I was joined by three other men. The Sheikh, Wesam Charkawi, Peter Lazar, a Holocaust survivor and father Shenouda Mansour who is a Coptic Orthodox. The priest told the students that the Sheikh and I were his dear brothers. One of the students from that group asked Father Shenouda, “aren’t you a traitor to your religion by being friends with the Sheik and Rabbi Zalman?” Sheikh Wesam explained to the students that as Muslims, it was entirely appropriate to learn about the suffering of others, including the Holocaust. The survivor, Peter Lazar, then told his story. 


One of the principles of countering prejudice through conditions for the success of intergroup contact (4) is to have the sanction or permission from authority figures on both sides of a divide for interacting with people on the ‘other side.’ At Together For Humanity we always have Muslim, Christian and Jewish facilitators when we bring groups of students together. In this way it is clear that this contact is Kosher. Involvement by the principals and teachers is also very important. 


I sought this kind of sanction in writing from a Palestinian Sheikh, Ahmad Abu Ghazaleh. I asked him to write a rationale for working in interfaith from the perspective of Islamic sacred texts. He wrote a beautiful one page article that ended with a verse from the Quran that essentially said: “Allah does not forbid you to deal righteously and kindly with those who have not fought against you on account of religion and did not drive you out of your homes. Indeed, Allah loves those who act justly”. (5)

 

I wasn’t  too happy with this verse. I told the Sheik that the verse says Muslims should not be belligerent toward those who have not harmed you or stolen your lands. Which means that if one accepts the Palestinian narrative about Israel, then Jews are fair game. He is one of the most gentle and delightful people I know and he said in his gentle voice, Zalman, I can only give you what is written in the book, I can’t make it up.  


This Sheikh did an enormous amount of work for Together For Humanity, talking to thousands of children and teachers alongside a Jewish colleague, Ronit Baras. I count him among the people I am most grateful for having become part of my life. I needed to accept him as he is, and he has done the same for me. 


Notes

1) Sacks, J. (2019)  Covenant and Conversation, Deuteronomy, Maggid, Jerusalem, p. 223

2) Lamentations, 1:12

3) Mckay, H. (2014), The art of belonging, Sydney, p. 22

4) Alport, G, (1954) the Contact Hypothesis. 

5) The Quran, al-Mumtahanah 60:8.


Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Love flourishing or turned to hate - The cases of two prince-rapists Amnon & Shechem and the war beauty


I have been thinking about the struggles of couples to realise true love of each other in light of the craving to have their own needs and desires met, and the various pressures each of us deals with. The Torah reading this week mentions hatred of wives seven times (1) as well as some guidance for newlyweds, so it might contain some clues. I also investigate the cases of the Bible's two prince-rapists who claimed to love their victims. 


The first lesson is deceptively simple, although I will argue below that the truth is more complex. Physical desire that inspires feelings of instant “love” (2) might soon be replaced by loathing (3). This message is conveyed by the juxtaposition of two cases in the Torah. The first is about a soldier who sees a “beautiful woman” captive, and craves her, then marries her (4). This case is immediately followed by the case of a man with two wives, one of whom is referred to as “the hated one” (5). The hint is that the former is likely to end up the latter.

The replacement of self centred “love” by hate is tragically illustrated in the story of the princess, Tamar, who was raped by her half brother Amnon. Amnon was so in “love” with Tamar that he felt sick (6). He grabbed her, and despite her impassioned pleas, Amnon overpowered Tamar and raped her (7). However, immediately after the crime, “Amnon hated her with very great hatred, for greater was the hatred with which he hated her than the “love” with which he had “loved” her” (8). Tamar was utterly devastated, tearing her clothes and “screaming as she goes” (9). Amnon’s shift from “love” to hatred is attributed to shame and self-loathing, projected onto the person -“object” - that he used in his self-debasement (10). 

The prudish inference that body-based “love” and sexual desire is bad, but mind-spirit love is good, is disproven in the case of the other biblical prince-rapist (11) Shechem. Shechem is not motivated by animal desire of his body, but a higher attraction in his soul (12) to his victim’s spirit (13). After he raped her, he did not hate her, on the contrary, we are told that he loved her and that he, sickeningly, spoke to “her heart” (14), perhaps expressing his twisted soulful desire in fancy love poems. Shechem’s lack of hatred and self-loathing is an interesting contrast to Amnon’s post rape reaction. In the end, however, what matters is the common lack of consent by their “love interests,” and their shared, utterly selfish disregard of their victims’  will and dignity. In fact, the Midrash puts Tamar’s exact words (15) into Dina’s mouth, she too says “and I, where will I take my shame?” (16). If we are ever caught up in our inner spiritual needs in our relationships, let us remember that spiritual narcissism is contemptible!  

The message of tuning in to one’s partner is conveyed strongly in the law of the exemption from war given to newlywed men who must, instead, spend a year making their wife happy (17). This message is read in three ways. One translator alters the meaning somewhat to replace a man selflessly making his wife happy to say that he should rejoice with his wife (18). It is healthy when joy is mutual and for spouses to be assertive and proactive about meeting their own needs and desires, while also being attentive to their partner. This variation from the plain meaning of the text is emphatically rejected as a “mistake” by another commentator, perhaps seeking to keep the emphasis on the value of focusing on the needs of one’s spouse (19). A third commentary suggests that physical intimacy for 364 nights over that first year is hinted at in the numerical value of the Hebrew word “VSimachושמח - to make happy (20). The bottom line is that it is not about how one expresses care and true love of another, but the authenticity of truly loving them, rather than loving only one’s self.    

For the full lesson on this topic click here  


Notes


  1. Deuteronomy 21:15, 21:6, 22:13, 22:16, 24:3
  2. Alshich - beginning of Ki Tetze, p. 237
  3. Rashi to Deuteronomy 21:14, based on Sifre to 21:14 and Talmud Sanhedrin 107a
  4. Deuteronomy 21:10-14
  5. Deuteronomy 21:15
  6. Samuel II, 13:1-2
  7. Samuel II, 13:11-14
  8. Samuel II, 13:15-17
  9. Samuel II, 13:18-20
  10. Abarbanel and Malbim’s commentary. 

אברבנל: הפועל המגונה זה דרכו שבהשלמתו יקנה האדם  ממנו חרטה רבה ושנאה גדולה, וכמאמר המדיני הרשעים מלאים חרטות, ולכן אמנון לא עצר כח לראותה עוד בהתחרטו ממה שעשה.
מלבים: וישנאה אחר שהיה תאוה כלביית מיד שנכבה רשף התאוה חלפה האהבה שלא היתה אהבה עצמיית, ואז בהכירו תועבת הנבלה הזאת שב לשנוא את הנושא שעל ידו נסבב לו זאת, וזה שכתוב גדולה השנאה מהאהבה שהאהבה בעצמה סבבה את השנאה שכשזכר תועבת האהבה הזאת, אשר היתה עתה לזרה בעיניו, נהפך לבו בקרבו לשנאה גדולה:

11.           The designation of Shechem as a rapist in Genesis 34:1-11  is less clear than the case of Amnon but is supported by Ramban’s commentary to Genesis 34:2 

12.           Genesis 34:3 & 8

13.           Alshich to Genesis 34, p. 305

14.           Genesis 34:3  

15.           Samuel II, 13:13

16.           Bereshit Rabba to Genesis 34, 80:10 

17.           Deuteronomy 24:5   

18.           Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel  

19.           Rashi to Deuteronomy 24:5 

20.           Baal Haturim, the Gematria of the word ושמח is 364. The night of Yom Kippur is the one exception to this recommended daily expression of love. 

 


Friday, August 14, 2020

Beirut Bereavement - A Torah Discussion

On Sunday night, I dedicated my Torah study session to those who lost their lives in the terrible explosion in Beirut. In this blog post I share some key ideas of that talk, as a small gesture of solidarity. 

When my dear friend Mohamed’s father passed away overseas, I was invited to attend a Koran reading session with members of his community. The practice of reading sacred texts when someone dies is also part of Catholic custom, as I learned last week when the father of a Catholic colleague died. What is it about reading scripture when someone dies?

The following story offers a clue, from a Jewish perspective: 

Rabbi Akiva was walking in a cemetery… He came across a naked man, with skin as dark as coal, who was carrying a huge load of thorn branches on his head. Rabbi Akiva noticed that he was running like a horse. Rabbi Akiva ordered him to stop and asked "How did you  get into this situation of such difficult work? Are you a slave? If so I will buy your freedom…"

The naked man replied: "Please do not detain me, lest my overseers be angry with me. "What's the story here", asked Rabbi Akiva. "I'm actually dead", the man explained, "and every day they send me to cut down trees."

"What was your job when you were alive", Rabbi Akiva asked. "I was a tax collector", the man answered, "and I would favour the wealthy and kill the poor."

Rabbi Akiva then asked him whether there was any way he might be relieved from his punishment. The dead man explained that he could get relief if his son would say a prayer praising God in the community. Rabbi Akiva found his son and taught him to say the prayer and indeed the dead father was released from his torment. (1) 

This story illustrates the concept that the living can provide benefit to the souls of the departed through good deeds or worship. In my community, when someone dies, friends and family will divide up the entire set of 63 books of the Mishnah between them, each studying one book to add to the merits of the departed soul. My study session on Sunday was intended as a similar effort for the benefit of the souls of those who died in Beirut.

In addition to trying to assist the dead, religious texts and ideas also comfort the living by providing a different perspective on death. The Torah forbids excessive displays of mourning, (2) such as pulling chunks of hair out of one’s head when someone dies (3). The constraints on sadness are based on the idea that, while the dead will lose the companionship of their loved ones on earth, they are now with their loving Father in Heaven (4). The bereaved are instructed to think of it as the departed being a child returning home to loving parents (5). The mourners have lost one cherished family member, but grief without restraint would deny the continued existence of a more honored relative, namely God, in Whom they can continue to place their hopes (6). 

Bereavement is a very personal and intense experience. Yet, our sages seem to offer comfort by suggesting that despite the legitimate pain and feelings of loss, death must also be regarded as a good thing, because it comes from God Whose benevolence is beyond our understanding (7). Another perspective is to contrast the experience of a polytheist, who could legitimately feel victimised by a harsh god who killed his relative, with the experience of a monotheist, whose one God is the source of both death and mercy. That being the case, every act of a unified God includes an element of mercy (8).   

I offer these traditions with a recognition that words might fail to be of any use to people confronted with the tragedy unfolding in Beirut. In fact, the laws of comforting mourners advise those seeking to offer comfort to talk less and wait for the mourner to speak first (9). However inadequate these words might be, this is what I have. I offer this in a gesture of solidarity to my Lebanese friends in Australia and in Beirut at this difficult time with my prayers for the living and the dead. 

PS. In addition to prayers and gestures, we must also donate to relief efforts to alleviate the suffering of those rendered homeless and without basic necessities.    


Notes

1) Machzor Vitri, Laws of Shabbos 144, cited in Leon Wiesielter, L. (2000) in Kaddish, Vintage books, New York. Translation is based on https://www.sefaria.org/Machzor_Vitry%2C_Laws_of_Shabbat.144.2-12?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en with some modifications by the author. 

2) Talmud Moed Kattan 27b.

3) Deuteronomy 14:1. 

4) Ramban on Deuteronomy 14:1. 

5) Ohr Hachayim on Deuteronomy 14:1.

6) Seforno on Deuteronomy 14:1.  

7) Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 14:1.

8) Gur Aryeh on Deuteronomy 14:1.

9) Maimonides laws of mourning chapter 13, 1-3, and 9.

 

Friday, July 24, 2020

Breaching Spiritual Language Barriers - Devarim

L-R Jarrod McKenna and Aboriginal Aunty Ellen Gaykamangu 


It’s shame, miss”, said the 10 year old cheeky Aborginal boy to the deputy principal of his school an hour from Darwin. When he first introduced himself to me and my Together For Humanity interfaith team he gave us a false name, then added; “just gamin'”, which in local slang meant that he was playing with me. For me, his name became, “just gamin'”.

Mohamed Dukuly, Jarrod McKenna and I led a game that illustrated inter-dependence. This Aboriginal boy was very generous in the game, giving away most of what he had. The deputy principal, a non-Aboriginal recent arrival from a far away big city, praised him. The minute she did that, he put his hand over his face. She asked the boy why? He told her it was “shame!” She responded that he had nothing to be ashamed of. She was right, about the English word 'shame'.

The next day our team of a Muslim, Christian and a Jew were joined by an Aboriginal elder, Aunty Ellen Gaykamangu. The elder explained to the deputy principal and the students that, for her people, the word “shame” was actually about respect and being humble. The boy did not want to be put above his peers; for him it was important to behave in a way that everyone is shown the same amount of respect. The road to respect for the boy was through an Indigenous spiritual tradition that no doubt has a word for it in their own language. However, Australia is a land dominated by the English language. So, the original idea is now carried by an English word which does not capture its original flavour and spirit.

As a Jewish boy growing up in New York, I spoke two languages, English and Yiddish. While some elements of Jewish spirituality were expressed through Yiddish words we used, a lot of the sacred texts were in Hebrew, which I did not fully understand at the time. There was also a disconnect between our daily conversation which we held in English and religious guidance which was often given in Yiddish. This sometimes diminished its relevance. Even the English some of our teachers spoke had such heavy Yiddish and Eastern European accents, they might as well have been speaking a different language. Things only really clicked for me when I had an American born teacher who I felt I could relate to.

Spiritual language barriers are important because every language carries its own energy. If our spiritual traditions were formed in a different language, there can be an element of alienation between us and the different vibes that pull us in different directions.

I was delighted to find that this tension is alluded to in my tradition, in this week’s Torah reading. At the end of Moses’ life, he explained the Torah (1). This is interpreted to mean that he explained the Torah in seventy languages (2). It has been suggested that this was for the benefit of the non-Hebrew speaking Israelites in the desert (3). However, another approach is that in Moses’ multi-lingual expounding of the Torah he was laying the groundwork for future exiles among different language groups and their “life force”, or spirit. In some mystical way, Moses was breaching the spiritual language barrier to enable Jewish exiles to live their spirituality wherever they find themselves (4). With the support of the Together For Humanity team, Aunty Ellen did the same thing for young “just gamin”.     

1)    Deuteronomy 1:5.
2)    Midrash Tanchuma Devarim, 2.
3)    Levush Haorah on Deuteronomy 1:5.
4)    Kedushas Levi, Parshas Devarim, Ohr Hachayim edition, p. 325.





Friday, July 3, 2020

Anger vs Flow Chukat

Photo by Luke Addison, published under creative commons
license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
 https://www.flickr.com/photos/1uk3/1677426833 
There is a lot of rage and pain in the world right now. Rage about racism. Anger about loss of income and COVID19. Indignation about statues and what they represent.

I have felt very angry recently. Anger can be a healthy response to violations of principles of right and wrong (1).

I learned from the following experience that showing anger is sometimes necessary. As a young Rabbi I supervised several youth workers. One was a brash New Yorker (NY) who I could not trust to be appropriate in a summer camp. Another was a fancy dresser-apparent narcissist (FDAN) who never took any notice of my polite guidance, or criticism of his careless performance. One day I mentioned to FDAN that NY was not welcome in camp because I was not happy with him. FDAN turned to me with the question: “Are you happy with me?” I was so shocked by the question that over a decade later, I remember exactly where we were during that conversation. It had never occurred to me that he cared! Yet, I had deprived him of the essential information that his failure to follow my instructions made me angry.  

On the other hand, more often than not, I think my anger (on the rare occasions that I dare to express it), is destructive and often does little to alleviate the suffering or evil that provoked it in the first place.

This post is not about the situations in which anger is necessary and constructive but those in which a calm and positive approach is helpful.

Research into anti-racism approaches found that accusing people that they are racist does not work. Instead, the literature advises that one must seek to engage people in an open exploration of the issues (2).

This mode of influence is also highlighted in a discussion of the Torah reading this week (3).  Moses was punished during the episode in which the Israelites in the desert were provided with water when he hit a rock.  Prior to hitting the rock, Moses became enraged with the people because of their complaints. He denigrates them by calling them, “You rebels”.  Some opinions view his anger as the problem (4), while others insist that he should have spoken to the rock, instead of hitting it (5).

However, a champion of love, the Chasidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, insists that the two explanations are one (6). There are two modes of influence. One is kind and seeks to focus on the positive characteristics of the person one seeks to influence and the joy and benefit of improving behaviour. The other is harsh and denigrating. If Moses had chosen the former approach, water would have flowed from the rock easily. Because he opted for the latter, it was impossible for him to get water out without a fight. He needed to hit the rock!

Sometimes, one can be an activist or seek to address wrongs in a calm and pleasant way. There is a tendency for activism to be forceful rather than go with the flow. This is not an argument for the one right answer, but to consider the various options available to us and to choose the appropriate tool most likely to achieve a result in the situation.  

Notes

2)   Pedersen, A., Walker, I., & Wise, M. (2005). Talk Does Not Cook Rice: Beyond anti-racism rhetoric to strategies for social action. Australian Psychologist, 40, 20-30.
3)    Numbers 20:1-13
4)    Maimonides
5)    Rashi
6)    Kedushas Levi, Chukas, p. 303

Friday, June 12, 2020

Cohen's Blessings


Bless you! We say when someone sneezes. My Facebook feed was overflowing the other day with Eid blessings, Eid Mubarak - literally blessed festival - between Muslim and non-Muslim friends. The Torah contains a blessing ritual (1), which would normally have been performed as part of the recent Shavuot festival (at the end of May). With the gradual reopening in Australia, these blessings would have been my community’s first gathering since March. Unfortunately, the opening of Synagogues in Sydney was postponed after a child in the community tested positive to COVID-19. However, the following Saturday our community did indeed hold the blessing ceremony for the first time ever (in our community) on an ordinary Saturday that was not a festival.

Blessings are a curious thing. On one hand, the notion that ‘we tell the universe what it is that we want, and we will get it’, makes little sense to me. Yet, I think there is something mysterious and perhaps event potent about the energy of blessings and curses. The Talmud advises that the blessing of an ordinary person should not be taken lightly as they can be fulfilled (2).

The idea of an “evil eye” is the opposite of a blessing. If someone sees a neighbour’s good fortune and is envious and resentful, there is an implicit desire that the blessing should be reversed, and the object of envy lost or destroyed. In fact, the need to counter the evil eye is one explanation for the introduction of the ritual of blessing in the first place (3). The Torah appears to take other curses seriously too, as we can see from the Jews being reminded that God transformed Balaam’s intended “curses to blessings because he loved you” (4).

For religious people, the idea that humans could wield such power can appear to infringe on the power of an omnipotent God (5). Despite such concerns, such a ritual is not just tolerated but required in certain contexts as an everyday ritual (6). It is suggested that this concern is addressed by the ritual being highly formulaic, rendering the priests as mere functionaries. Those performing the blessings were instructed to do it exactly “like this” (7). The procedure for the blessings is that the cantor (the person leading the prayers) leads the blessing reciting each word, one word at a time, and that word is repeated one word at a time as prompted.  The implication is clear, the priest has no magical powers and is merely a messenger from God to deliver a blessing (8).

If we assume the priest is unimportant in the operation of blessings, it would follow that that the quality of the priest – even if there are rumours circulating about him being a murderer – is irrelevant as it is God who blesses the people rather than the priest (9).

I am drawn to the opposite approach that sees humans engaged in blessings using a power handed over to them by God (10). This would fit with the requirements that the blessings be done with full intention and heart - not quickly or rushed (11). A mystical teaching explains that while the blessings ultimately come from God, these blessings can sometimes be delayed by divine judgement of human failings. The power of the priests was to accelerate the delivery of the blessings to arrive with great speed, like “rushing water too powerful to be slowed by a watermill” (12).   

One beautiful explanation of the blessings is that the intention of blessings is to provide a loving God with the pleasure of acting on His benevolent nature. This approach points to the peculiar way that hands are displayed during the Cohen’s blessing ritual. It is different to the familiar prayer pose which is to have ones’ hands extended out, palms flat and facing heaven symbolising supplication and seeking a handout from God. During the blessings, the hands are held in the opposite position with the back of the hand toward heaven. This suggests that rather than asking for something from God, we are providing an opportunity for Him to enjoy giving (13).

The business of blessings can get quite sensitive. In fact, the translation of the text of the blessings was withheld from the ignorant masses who did not understand Hebrew (14). The controversy relates to an apparent contradiction between the blessing that God “will turn his face to you” signifying forgiveness (15), and the contradictory verse that states that God will not turn his face to show favouritism - and forgive sins - nor accept bribes (16).  There are complex resolutions of this apparent contradiction such as forgiveness being applied when we sin in ritual matters but withheld when harming other people (17). Unfortunately, it was assumed that the common man would find this confusing. I am pleased that modern translations of the Torah do not censor the blessings and appear to trust the masses with, rather than shield the masses from, the complexity.  

This year on Shavuot, a 3000-year-old tradition of the blessing ceremony was interrupted for many Jewish communities. Perhaps there is a dual message to consider. On the one hand, some humans are not feeling very blessed at this difficult time, as they struggle with loss of loved ones or livelihoods, or their sense of security and social connection. On the other hand, for those of us who have our health and our needs met and our loved one around us - in my case all of my six children have been together under the same roof for over two months - let us redouble our awareness of the blessings we have been granted. Perhaps that was the purpose of the blessing ritual in the first place, to assist us in being grateful for the blessings we have been granted (18).  

Notes
1) Numbers 6:23-27
2) Talmud, Megilah 15a
3) Bamidbar Rabba 12:4, p. 99
4) Deuteronomy 23:6
5) Chido, p.25, 34
6) Sefer Hachinuch Mitzva 376
7) Numbers 6:23
8) Samson Raphael Hirsch in his commentary on Numbers 6:23-27
9) Jerusalem Talmud, Gitin, 5:8
10) Midrash Rabba 11:b
11) Rashi on 6:23
12) Derech Mitzvoteacha, Mitzva Birchas Cohanim, p. 112
13) Kedushas Levi, Naso, p.277
14) Talmud, Megila 25a & b
15) Rashi
16) Deuteronomy 10:17
17) Talmud Rosh Hashana 17b







Friday, May 15, 2020

Sabbatical of the Torah and Corona Behar -Bechukotai

In this 2008 photo a resident of Holon, Israel,
announcing that the fruits on the trees in his
backyard are 
hefker (abandoned property) on the
occasion of 
shnat shmita, the Sabbatical year. 


At this terrible time for those who lost their lives or livelihoods it would seem wrong to talk about anything else. However, alongside care for those who are suffering, there are other valid concerns such as the emotional wellbeing and spiritual development of all people.

People like me still have jobs and our health. Yet, there is something that feels a bit off for me. It is hard to put my finger on it. I feel disoriented after not having gone to the office for two months and a little detached from the world of work, despite working long hours.

I wonder if this “disruption” might lead to a social reset so that when it is over we might be better for having been through this. My colleague, Shaykh Wesam Charkawi thinks it is possible. He wrote that “in this current time, people are faced with a situation that [forces them]... to disengage from the general worldly interactions into the sphere of “tajrid”, …similar to what the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) did when he went into the cave to contemplate and reflect” (1).

The Torah’s process of a Sabbatical year once every seven years has some interesting parallels to our current experience. The Sabbatical year requires withdrawal from harvesting, planting and any way of showing ownership of one’s land (2). Instead of the normal farming process, the people were meant to live off their savings and surplus from other years and to share whatever grew by itself between landowners, all people and animals.

While some would explain the Sabbatical as a form of land management (3) this seems implausible in light of the emphasis on this practice as a Sabbath for God (4). Instead, it is explained as a year of withdrawal of one's focus from material matters, to be redirected to spiritual ones (5). It is a time for finding joy in both body and soul, in reading the Torah and away from the hassles of business (6). 

The Sabbatical year is a time for developing the capacity to let go and be more relaxed about ownership of our possessions, to relinquish control, and have faith that things will be OK (7). While private ownership is legitimate according to the Torah, it exists side by side with an obligation to ensure that the poor also have what they need. The Sabbatical year that loosens the grip of owners on their land for a year is meant to be a time for reinforcing caring for the poor. This link is clear when this practice is introduced in the Torah. It states: “Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but in the seventh [year] you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beasts eat” (8).

Desmond Tutu said, “I am not interested in picking up crumbs of compassion thrown from the table of someone who considers himself my master. I want the full menu of rights.” There is something of this spirit in one tradition of the Sabbatical that forbids owners displaying ownership of their crops by gathering the produce into their homes and then distributing some of these to the poor. Instead the owner is told that by right they should be required to smash breaches in their farm fences, so that the poor can help them to produce as equals to the owners (9).

At its heart, the Sabbatical year is a radical ritual of disruption of the normal order of things. In addition to not working the land, all debts were meant to be forgiven. It has been described as “a harsh, severe and far-reaching reminder, the test of which, in reality, the people of Israel “never [fully] withstood”… instead finding and creating loopholes to get around at least some of the requirements (10).  One of my favourite stories in the Talmud involves priests working the land during the Sabbatical year, two scholars making excuses for them while their fiery colleague points out their failure to adhere to the rules of this ambitious social experiment (11).

There is a real risk that when this time is over we will all go back to normal in the sense of having learned nothing from it. I hope this is not the case. Over the long term, it is vital that we all learn to balance a sense of ownership of that which we are fortunate to have, with solidarity for our neighbours and fellow human beings so that all have what they need.  

Notes

1) Charkawi, Shaykh Wesam, 5/5/20 on Facebook.
2) Leviticus 25:2-7, see rashi.
3) Maimonides in the Guide for the Perplexed 3:39, also cited in Klei Yakar to Leviticus 25:2
4) Kli Yakar ibid.
5) Seforno  to Leviticus 25:2
6) Torat HaChido, p. 118.
7)  Sefer Hachinuch, p 193, Mitzvah 84, and as adapted by Alex Israel in a Facebook post 11.05.20.
8) Exodus 23:10-11 See Lichtenstein, A. https://www.etzion.org.il/en/shiur-22-conceptual-foundations-shemita
9) Mechilta, In Torah Shlaima, p.187, 140.
10) Lichtenstein, A. ibid, here refers to Pruzbul and Heter Mechira.
11) Sanhedrin 26a.