Of War & Shalom: A Devar Torah on Parashat Mas’ei 5774

Formatted version of this Devar Torah, which has been modified from its original version.


Not formatted below (delivered in modified form this past Shabbat):


הָרְֿשָׁעִים בִּרְשׁוּת לִבָּם…
אֲבָל הַצַּדִּיקִים לִבָּם בִּרְשׁוּתָם.
The wicked are controlled by their conscience…
The righteous control their conscience.1
All of Jewish history can be summed up as one war that has never ended. For as long as there have been rabbis, rabbis have alluded to this never-ending war. In the ancient collection of rabbinic wisdom Pirkei Avot (פִּרְקֵי אָבוֹת), the sage Ben Zoma asks:
אֵיזֶהוּ גִבּוֹר?
Who is a hero?
הַכּוֹבֵשׁ אֶת יִצְרוֹ!
The one who conquers their [evil] nature!2
There is an ongoing war the rabbis talk about called Milhemet HaYetzer (מִלְחֶֽמֶת הַיֵּֽצֶר), “The War of Nature”—a war between the Yetzer HaRa (יֵֽצֶר הָרַע), humanity’s “Evil Nature” and the Yetzer HaTov (יֵֽצֶר הַטּוֹב), humanity’s “Good Nature.” When a person chooses the Good, the Yetzer HaTov, and rids one’s self of the Evil inclination with which we are born, the Yetzer HaRa, is the moment when the Good Yetzer HaTov begins to win in the battle of Milhemet HaYetzer.
One of the greatest opponents of the Yetzer HaRa, Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamares, lived towards the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century—around the time when Zionism began to activate, leading Jews from the lands of their birth, towards the Land of Israel. At the turn of the 20th Century, such active Zionism came at a cost, of which our hero in Milhemet HaYetzer disapproved. Jews were moving into parts of the Holy Land where locals, already settled, were resistant to and even violent in response to the influx of Jewish newcomers. Whether it was how Jews entered the land, or how Arabs held onto their land, realizing this Zionist dream meant Jews and Arabs would break into war—an aggression that epitomizes the worst of the Yetzer HaRa.
Calling Lithuania his home, and guarded by the shield of Torah, Rabbi Tamares authored a book that focused on what once might have been hypothetical in nature, but was now a serious question with practical implications: Keneset Yisra’el UMilhamot HaGoyim (כְּֿנֶֽסֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל וּמִלְחֲמוֹת הַגּוֹיִם), The Assembly of Israel & Wars of the Nations. The very title of the book alludes to his assertion that war is what he calls “עֲבוֹדַת אֱלִילִים מוֹדֶֽרְנִית” (“the modern worship of false gods”).3
His opposition to Zionism4 was not uncommon in the Jewish world when he was writing. We might like to think that common Jewish public opinion on the necessity of a Jewish homeland would have changed by the time the Holocaust had demonstrated that a post-Enlightenment Europe is no cure for anti-Semitism. Yet, even in 1948, Professor Louis Finkelstein of the Jewish Theological Seminary—where I am in Rabbinical School today—refused students’ request for permission to sing “HaTikvah,” the unofficial anthem of the newly formed Zionist State. Finkelstein was one of the many Jewish leaders who felt that the militancy involved in maintaining a Jewish state in the Land of Israel was antithetical to Jewish religious values.
Yet, today we are dealing not with a hypothetical question of whether or not we should set up a State of Israel. There already is a State of Israel in the Middle East. Israel proclaims itself a Jewish state. And that begs those of us concerned with the Jewish values of a Jewish state to ask the question: Where are we now?
Ari Shavit, a relative leftist in the Israeli political sphere, wrote recently that, despite whatever ways we might be able to critique Israel, we must confess that “Israel is in the right.” Shavit writes that the terrorist organization Hamas has become a bunch of “neo-Nazis.” In the few years since Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, Hamas has become a totalitarian government, oppressing Gazan women, oppressing the gay and lesbian people of the Gaza Strip, and—quite frankly—oppressing everyone in Gaza. Instead of directing their attention to providing the resources that are so sorely lacking in Gaza, Hamas spends millions of dollars on weapons to be used against Israel. On top of that, whenever they go to war against Israel, Hamas uses Gazan civilians as human shields.5
A nation that has worked so hard to become who it is today is not so quick to leave. If Israelis’ strategy for surviving Hamas’ constant rockets is anything other than leaving Israel, the Israel Defense Forces must work towards demilitarizing the untrustworthy terrorists of Hamas, who even fire at Israel during mutually agreed upon “time-outs” from armed activity.
In demilitarizing Hamas, Israel is left with the terrible quandry of how to remove missiles from an organization who uses innocent Palestinians as human shields to protect their weaponry. Indeed, a midrash in the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) teaches that, in Genesis Chapter 2, Adam was created alone to teach us a very important lesson: Were anyone to kill a single human being in the time that Adam walked the Earth alone, that would have been the end of human life on Earth. And so it is with any single human being today. We destroy all the humanity of the universe whenever we bring one person’s life to an end.
Because murder is forbidden—and the stakes of the humanity of the universe are so high at war—we must be careful in any instance when human life is in our hands. We might want to resort to claiming the value of Pikku’ah Nefesh (פִּקּֽוּחַ נֶֽפֶשׁ, literally “the guarding of a soul”)—the principle whereby Jews are permitted to commit acts that would be considered sins were our lives not in danger at that moment. But, Pikku’ah Nefesh is a principle that the rabbis generally permit—but not always. The three common exceptions are:
(1) גִּלּוּי עֲרָיוֹת (gilluy arayot)—sexual impropriety: Rather than be forced into conducting a sexually immoral act, this tradition tells Jews that they should prefer death.
(2) עָבוֹדָה זָרָה (avodah zarah)—pagan worship: Rather than worship a foreign god—when we are told, “Bow down to this God, or die,”—we Jews must say, “I’d rather die.”
(3) שְֿׁפִיכוּת דָּמִים (shefikhut damim)—the spilling of blood: Rather than spill the blood of our neighbors, we Jews are commanded that we should, instead, take our own lives. Better that they should spill our blood than we spill an ounce of theirs.
So, if spilling anyone else’s blood is worse than us permitting ourselves to be killed in the name of the Jewish tradition, we must find another way of defending the work of the IDF. And their work can be—from a Jewish legal, Halakhic, perspective—defensible. After all, the lives of soldiers in the IDF are not merely the only lives that are in danger. The lives of all Israelis are endangered when the IDF fights. The IDF soldier does not choose between one’s own life or an enemy’s life; the IDF soldier chooses between the destruction of all inhabitants of the State of Israel or the destruction of enemies. Moreover, Pikku’ah Nefesh still applies for the other mitzvot that are being threatened during war in Israel: for example, all the mitzvot that are connected with settling in the land of Israel. We have a basis on which to say that Pikku’ah Nefesh can still apply in the doings of the IDF.
Yet, we must not gloat over the right to self defense. Having to perform one aveirah (עֲבֵירָה)—one transgression—in order to fulfill a mitzvah is never the ideal way to perform a mitzvah. The Gemara imagines, for example, Sukkot is coming up, and someone needs to shake a lulav and etrog—the special species of the holiday—but the person can’t afford a lulav, so that person steals one. The Gemara asks: Did this Jew fulfill the mitzvah of shaking a lulav? The answer: Our protagonist shook the lulav but did not fulfill the mitzvah.6 Mitzvah habba’ah ba’aveyrah eynah mitzvah (מִצְוָה הַבָּאָה בַּעֲבֵירָה אֵינָהּ מִצְוָה—“a mitzvah that is made possible only by way of a transgression does not count as a mitzvah”). Going through the physical motions of the mitzvot does not suffice. The IDF should not have to rely on Pikku’ah Nefesh—the permission to kill—in order to defend Israel. When we rely on Pikku’ah Nefesh to permit the performance of other mitzvot while bystanders are killed, we can bring to life only a non- ideal, adulterated Torah. Bringing Torah to life is not about the exception to the rule; the Torah of shalom—of peace—is about bringing the rule to life.
The vitality of Judaism depends on our ability to strive towards shalom. The Mourner’s Kaddish, the Amidah and Birkat Ha-Mazon all conclude with prayers for peace—Oseh shalom bimromav (עוֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם בִּמְרוֹמַיו, “The One who makes peace up high”), Sim shalom (שִׂים שָׁלוֹם, “Bring peace”), and Yevarekh et ammo vashalom (יְֿבָרֵךְ אֶת־עַמּוֹ בַשָּׁלוֹם, “God will bless God’s people in peace”)—because Torah itself must be a means towards the ends of shalom. Moreover, the rabbis of the Middle Ages debated matters of Jewish law that often resulted in specific legal decisions intended to be upheld mippeney darkhey shalom (מִפְּֿנֵי דַרְכֵי שָׁלוֹם “because of our concern for peace”). When we are living a form of Torah that prevents us from experiencing shalom, we are living a compromised Torah—a Torah of the exception, not the rule.
In the Parashah we read today, Mas’ey (מַסְעֵי) we read about the journeys of the Israelites as they leave Egypt and venture into the wilderness. The Hasidic master Rabbi Kalonimos Kalman Epstein (1751-1823) of Krakow, known best for the anthology of his teachings on the Torah, Ma’or VaShemesh (מָאוֹר וָשֶֽׁמֶשׁ), highlights several pieces of the Israelite itinerary recounted in our Parashah. He notes that, before embarking on a journey towards Sinai, where the Torah would soon be received, the Israelites set up camp in a place called Refidim (רְֿפִידִים). Though Refidim is not a name of a place we would recognize today, Ma’or VaShemesh identifies Refidim as a spiritual lowland and sees the Hebrew letters of Refidim as an abbreviation for, and an allusion to, Rippuy Yadayim (רִפּוּי יָדַֽיִם), “a weakness of the hands.” Ma’or VaShemesh sees this Rippuy Yadayim as a lackluster handiness: that is to say, laziness. He imagines the soul of the Israelite nation sitting in Refidim, the land of Rippuy Yadayim, all too slothful to be able to take in any words of Torah.
In a way, this conjures up the scene that Rabbi Tamares paints in the beginning of Keneset Yisra’el UMilhamot HaGoyim: Two Jews sit across from each other at a house of Torah. Their Gemara lies open in front of them, and the two friends are positioned, ready to study the words of the tradition. But the words that exit their mouths are not words of the book in front of them; their mouths merely whisper anxiously about the war going on outside their Lithuanian hometown. War dominates, and it dominates their opportunity to seek new spiritual heights and insights. War is the only thing that they can talk about, and all the torah that lies in front of them remains dormant until the Jewish soul can overcome the temptation of the Yetzer HaRa—that selfsame Yetzer HaRa from which war is promulgated, and by which the study of Torah is obstructed. The war on the physical battlegrounds has brought Milhemet HaYetzer—the war between the good nature and the evil nature of humanity—into the house of study. Though the words of the sages sit exposed, waiting to be read, the house is filled with the quietly whispered words of violent fear, of nationalist pride, of gossip, of distraction.
This moment that Ma’or VaShemesh would call the moment of untapped potential, of the weak hands of Rippuy Yadayim, will finally come to an end when the Israelites are ready for Sinai. For Rabbi Tamares, Sinai will be the moment when the words we say are exclusively the words of shalom.
Revelation at Mount Sinai will be the moment when shalom is not the exception. Sinai will be the moment when shalom is the rule.

 

1. All translations here are original to this devar torah. This saying (with the ellipses omitting prooftexts from Psalm 14:1 [“אָ֘מַ֤ר נָבָ֣ל בְּ֭לִבּוֹ,” “A scoundrel says in one’s conscience...”], Genesis 27:41 [“וַיֹּ֨אמֶר עֵשָׂ֜ו בְּלִבּ֗וֹ,” “Esau said in his conscience...”], I Kings 12:26 [“וַיֹּ֥אמֶר יָֽרָבְעָ֖ם בְּלִבּ֑וֹ,” “Jeroboam said in his conscience...”], Esther 6:6 [“וַיֹּ֤אמֶר הָמָן֙ בְּלִבּ֔וֹ”, “Haman said in his conscience...”]—proving a wicked person always speaks “in one’s conscience,” “בְּלִבּוֹ”) is a direct quote from Esther Rabbah 10:3 on Esther 6:6. (Following the second half of the quote above are prooftexts from I Samuel 1:13 [“וְחַנָּ֗ה הִ֚יא מְדַבֶּ֣רֶת עַל־לִבָּ֔הּ,” “Hannah was speaking of her conscience”] and 27:1 [“וַיֹּ֤אמֶר דָּוִד֙ אֶל־לִבּ֔וֹ,” “David said to his conscience”], Daniel 1:8 [“וַיָּ֤שֶׂם דָּֽנִיֵּאל֙ עַל־לִבּ֔וֹ,” “Daniel placed upon his conscience”], and Genesis 8:21 [“וַיֹּ֨אמֶר ה֜' אֶל־לִבּ֗וֹ,” “God said to God’s conscience”]—all proving that the righteous do interact with their conscience, but never “in one’s conscience,” “בְּלִבּוֹ.”) This teaching also appears (sometimes with minute differences in phraseology and spelling—most significantly, yet still relatively insignificantly:הָרְֿשָׁעִים הֵן בִּרְשׁוּת לִבָּן… אֲבָל הַצַּדִּיקִים לִבָּן בִּרְשׁוּתָן, a mere reflection of different trends in the grammar of Rabbinic Hebrew) in Genesis Rabbah 34:10 on Genesis 8:21, Genesis Rabbah 67:8 on Genesis 27:41, and, later in the history of Jewish literature, Ecclesiastes Rabbah 5:1 on Ecclesiastes 5:2 (with the addition of Psalm 37:15, speaking of the wicked—“חַ֭רְבָּם תָּב֣וֹא בְלִבָּ֑ם,” “their sword shall enter into their heart” [“into their heart” and “in their conscience” each being able to be understood from the Hebrew “תָּב֣וֹא בְלִבָּ֑ם”]).
2. 4:1.
3. Warsaw: 1920, p. 16; הרב אהרון שמואל תמרת.
4. His opposition may have also been rooted in what he saw as a secular movement. In the same book, he writes, “כׇּל־בַּֽיִת שֶׁאֵין דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה נִשְׁמָעִים בּוֹ… סוֹפוֹ נֶחֱרַב” (“Any home in which words of Torah are not heard… will in the end be destroyed”), and explains that he means this to refer also to the building of nations, not simply physical homes (p. 17). It is possible that his disillusionment with political Zionism may have even be based in his own understanding of Torah differing from the religious political Zionist peers of his.
5. “In this sad war story, Israel is in the right,” Haaretz, July 24, 2014, accessible at http://tinyurl.com/o93y5q6.
6. See in the Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 30a.


JTS Purim 5774 Roundup (Part 2 of ?)

The following is the script which, for reasons related to length, I cannot post into a YouTube video that may or may not one day be made available to the public.

For the meantime, enjoy CPE as CJLS.

=========================================================

Co-written by Jonah Rank and an anonymous ghost writer. Presented on Purim 2014 at JTS Purim Se’udah 5774.
OFFICIAL SCRIPT
EMCEE: For the first time ever, the Committee on Jewish Law & Standards of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly has elected among its members only rabbis who have been trained in the methods of clinical pastoral care. These new rabbinic legal authorities are specialists in opening up the heart and awakening the soul to the depths of humanity.
Today’s topic is eating hot dairy out: Pizza, pasta, and soul food.
RABBI SPRINGER: As the supervisor, I am here for you. This is your time. What is everyone sitting with?
<awkward silence>
RABBI NEVINS: Rabbi Springer, why is there an empty chair?
RABBI SPRINGER: Rabbi Nevins, According to Maimonides’ Laws of Inter-Personal Relations, every IPR group must sit in a circle. Today, we are processing our spiritual reactions to eating hot dairy out.
RABBI ROTH: It is asur! Food manufacturing and processing is so complicated in our times, you can’t know what is in anything unless there is proper supervision.
RABBI SPRINGER: Rabbi Roth, it sounds like you’re having a strong reaction to that.
RABBI ROTH: Of course I am! Kulei de’alema are chosheshin!
RABBI SPRINGER: Rabbi Barmash, how does it feel to hear Rabbi Roth say that?
RABBI BARMASH: It resonates with me. I too am deeply committed to the importance of halakhah and correct niqqud.
RABBI SPRINGER: Rabbi Nevins, how are you experiencing the interchange between Rabbi Roth and Rabbi Barmash?
RABBI NEVINS: I feel saddened and concerned. I’m wondering what it is that’s causing Rabbi Roth to feel such distress. I would like to join in empathy with his experience of struggle.
RABBI ROTH: Rabbi Nevins, this is about respect for the tradition of our ancestors! Minhag avoteinu beyadeinu!
RABBI SPRINGER: Rabbi Roth, how are you experiencing Rabbi Nevins’ concern?
RABBI ROTH: Well… for instance, non-kosher dyes are used in many foods. And a grill is often used for meat, dairy, and vegetables at the same time. There is also the matter of knives cutting a dvar harif. It is simply not possible to eat kosher in a non-kosher establishment.
RABBI BARMASH: Davar charif is interesting language to use in this context. It means a sharp matter. Are you experiencing this question as particularly sharp? Is there maybe some transference about a sharp person in your life?
RABBI NEVINS: Bringing in my own story, I found that as I learned chassidut, some of the sharpest and most harif questions strengthen our faith the most.
RABBI SPRINGER: That resonates with me as well. I remember this one time, I was on call in a hospital and I was asked to…<interrupt>
RABBI ROTH: <Interrupting>So, about my teshuva…<interrupted>
RABBI SPRINGER: <Interrupting> Rabbi Roth, we are here for each other. The whole point of the book of Shemot is that we and God become irrelevant if we do not suffer.
RABBI ROTH: First off, you should read Sarna’s commentary on Exodus if you want to know the whole point of Sefer Shemot. Second, I don’t care where the Torah comes from or if it has a point. We have to follow it anyway!
RABBI NEVINS: I’d like to share my personal story.
RABBI SPRINGER: Please do.
RABBI NEVINS: Several decades ago, when I was a new ordainee of the Seminary, I had a congregant come up to me and ask if me it was okay to eat davar charif in The Kitchenette. Who cares that they were asking about a place in Manhattan, when we were in Michigan? As we say, ani bamma’arav velibbi bammizrah–I am in the West, my heart is in the East. Typically, I would have said “No” to this question, but the difference between a good rav and a good posek is the rav can feel the pain of the Jew asking the question. In that moment, I became one with the entire people Israel, and I felt as if I was saying “Yes” to every question rising in the hearts of every Jewish neshamah.
RABBI ROTH: That’s asur! That is no way to pasken.
RABBI SPRINGER: Rabbi Roth, you’re making a lot of assumptions about Rabbi Nevins’ intentions. Why don’t you check in about what he meant?
RABBI ROTH: Rabbi Nevins, what in the world could you have meant?!
<pause>
RABBI SPRINGER: Rabbi Roth, how does the silence feel?
RABBI ROTH: Asur. <pause>
RABBI SPRINGER: Rabbi Barmash, I’m experiencing your silence like my sister’s silence in childhood. Who is Rabbi Roth to you in this interaction? A fatherly figure? An uncle? Your annoying little brother? A police officer? A clever bank robber who mugged a dear friend who was a member of MENSA? A lousy bartender who once stepped on your foot? A cashier who wrote down your credit card number, and then tore up the piece of paper, and then glued it back together, and then called you a bad word? A clerk at misrad happanim? A teacher you once had as a young rabbinical student? <pause> Can you identify transference in this encounter? Who is Rabbi Roth to you?
RABBI BARMASH: <pause> Um… <slowly> None of the above.
RABBI SPRINGER: Then who?
RABBI BARMASH: <pause> Pass.
RABBI NEVINS: I feel reluctant to take up space with this point. But, as deeply as I feel what I said before, it actually weakens my heart to see a Jew make the choice of eating at a non-kosher restaurant when they could easily hop on a subway to go to the kosher restaurant only 35 blocks away–or just hop on a train to go to the kosher restaurant 35 States away. But I’m present to the fact that not everyone is in a place to take that step <pause> even though most American Jews do live on the Upper West Side. <pause> I think we should vote now.
RABBI SPRINGER: Rabbi Nevins, I appreciate your initiative, but, I am the chair of the Committee on Jewish Law & Standards. <pause> I think we should vote now. <pause> All those in favor of the Nevins teshuvah, say “Aye.” <watch beeps immediately> We’re at the time boundary. I really appreciate and am present to everyone’s presence through the process of this processing process.


New Melody for an Old Passover Ditty with female characters!

Here is the sheet music, here are the words with commentary, and here is a recording!

I have not yet seen it sung at a Passover seder, but thanks go out to R’ Hillel Hayyim Lavery-Yisraeli for having pointed out this piyyut to me.

One fun way to do this is to assign each person at the Seder one of the following characters, and they each sing their own lines, but everybody can sing the last line of each stanza:

ASKER

ANSWERER

PRIMEVAL OX/LEVIATHAN

WINE

MOSES

SOLOMON

DAVID

MIRIAM

DEVORAH

ELIJAH

AHARON

Happy Passover!


JTS Purim Se’udah 5774 Roundup Part 1

The festive meal and party which I hosted this year for the Jewish Theological Seminary seems to have gone over quite well. This year we presented The Pew-rim Report: Se’udah ’74.

Here are just a few highlights from this year:

- Dr. Raysh Weiss’ brainchild mockumentary, A Very Special JTS Chanukkah Special

Ishah El Achotah‘s video honoring women rabbis: “Rabbinical Girl”

- The Pew-rim Report 5774: the latest statistics on American Jewish life.

- Slides from the trendy Gershom Scholem Presents: Major Fashion Trends In Jewish Mysticism

- A responsive reading: A Mi SheBerakh For A Child Considering Rabbinical School

- Study sourcesheet for a bio and teachings of “the Yente Rebbe”

- Text of a Medieval poem about a spurned cantor, Adon Ulam (“Master of the Hall”)

- An excerpt of the JTS Purim 5774 band (Raysh Weiss, Louis Polisson, Daniel Novick, Jaxson Dermer) + me + Rabbi Danny Nevins playing “Sweet Home Alabama” (or something a lot like it) at the after-se’udah jam session

- Another excerpt of the aforementioned musicians playing Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu

More to come soon!


Here’s an attempt at another excerpt of Birkat HaMazon’s sheet music

Also worth noting that this blog is soon to change significantly… once I find the time (which should be relatively soon)…

Sheet music here: http://wp.me/a49HA-8e


Sheet music for Nodeh Lekha from Birkat Ha-Mazon, take 1

Click here.


Introduction to Pe’ah 1:1 and 1:2

For the text, click HERE.

For the lesson, click below…


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