Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Bechukotai, Netzavim 76 Enlightened Self- Interest or Altruism

The relationship between God and the children of Israel was  defined by a ' covenant '- ברית   at Mount Horeb- Sinai. After the sin of the Golden Calf, the covenant was renewed and ratified by means of the  blessings- ברכות  and  the admonition – תוכחה  in our parasha – Bechukotai . Lev 26.. 
 A second covenant was made before entering the land of Israel and ratified on Mount Grizim and Ebal.On the last day of his life, in Parashat Netzavim, Moses gathered all the people – old, young, men, women, and children etc. and initiated them for the last time into the covenant of God. The new covenant introduced the concept of collective and mutual responsibility and accountability. People according to their degree of influence on others and the community as a whole would be mutually responsible and accountable for the sins of individuals and benefit from the mitzvoth – good deeds of people. Israel are sureties for one another   ישראל ערבים זה בזה -                                                                                                                        
They would only be accountable for sins which were public or revealed and not accountable for hidden or secret sins about which they had no knowledge.
הַנִּסְתָּרֹת--לַיהוָה, אֱלֹהֵינוּ; וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ, עַד-עוֹלָם--לַעֲשׂוֹת, אֶת-כָּל-דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת.  The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law. – Dev 29:28 . The mutual or collective responsibility and accountability – ערבות   is because the Jewish people are considered like one body or everyone in the same boat indicating that they share a common fate and destiny and impact one on each other. Another source for the principle of collective responsibility is the commandment to protest or rebuke a person so that he does not sin or continue sinning and one also  disassociates himself from the sin of the other person. Here we are dealing with open or revealed sins. While people may not be accountable for hidden sins, for sure they have a responsibility to try an influence people to observe God's commandments where ever they are and support them. The word – ערבות  = collective responsibility is from the letters  ערב  which hint that a person should be sweet and attractive to others , involved with them and be caring and have a feeling of responsibility for them.

The principle of  mutual responsibility – ערבות  is introduced to us by the Sages from the section relating to the curses  in our parasha Bechukotai with the words  - ' They will stumble over each other ' – implying that they will stumble because of each other , because of each other's sin.
וכשלו איש באחיו, אינו אומר איש באחיו, אלא איש בעון אחיו, מלמד שכל ישראל ערבים זה בזה
The question is asked -  why did the Sages choose a verse from the curses which describes   Israel  in exile, scattered amongst the people of the world. When Moses speaks about the blessings for keeping the covenant he does so collectively – there will be rain in its due season, you in the plural, will have good harvests etc. The Sages could have introduced the concept of collective responsibility – ערבות from the section dealing with blessings so why did they introduce the concept in the context of the curses.

The first answer is that mutual responsibility can characterize a people even if they are scattered in exile and not united in their homeland. This was shown to characterize the Jewish people during the Mendel Beillis trial in Russia where Beillis was accused of a ritual murder, the blood libel. The prosecution tried to incriminate Beillis from the saying of the Sages that ' Israel are called Adam- man, but the nations of the world are not called Adam-man', implying that it was not a problem to murder a non-Jew for religious purposes as they are  not considered people. The Rabbis offered a different explanation of the saying-
ישראל קרואים 'אדם' ואין אומות העולם קרואים 'אדם  -
Israel is called man in the singular because they display a singular collective responsibility. When one Jew is unjustly accused of murder, they rally around him and support him from all corners of the world. When a non-Jew is accused, only a few people from all over the world identify with his plight.

I suggest a further answer. The Torah seems to be giving good reasons - blessings or curses - why we should take responsibility for others and ensure that they observe the commandments and be loyal to the covenant. But we don't like to encourage people and especially students to be pro-social and generous because of self- interest and selfish reasons. But maybe ' enlightened self -interest ' might be different. When we encourage people to be pro-social, contribute to the community and support people's spiritual growth, everyone benefits both materially and socially. So people have a personal interest in the welfare of others, because they benefit too. Rabbi SR Hirsch explains the verse  - and people will stumble ' because ' of each other  -   וכשלו איש באחיו  , that in times of fear and stress, people tend to be concerned only  about saving themselves and as a result cooperation suffers and is missing. So even without intention people contribute to the loss of  lives. בשעת אימה –כאשר דעתו של אדם נתונה רק להצלת עצמו – תחסר כל שותפות של עשייה ,שלא במתכוון יאבד האחד על ידי חבירו    The problem is that self – interest is materialistic and materialism separates and disconnects people. Even if we focus on ' enlightened self- interest, the focus is  still on the self. We have to promote ' altruism ', that collective and mutual responsibility = ערבות    is a value in itself. The blessing is not a reward for people keeping the covenant and being collectively responsible for each other. The blessings come to support our loyalty to covenant and help us support each other. The curses and hardships come not as a punishment but to challenge the neglect of the covenant and a belief that the only responsibility a person has is for himself and his immediate family.

As parents and educators we have to promote collective responsibility and altruism as a value on its own and not to encourage pro-social behavior using extrinsic motivators, self –interest and not even enlightened self- interest. We want kids to ask – what type of family, classroom, school, community and society do we want.  Collective responsibility informs us about the importance of the environment and the system for empowering people.  There is a tendency in education to focus on the individual and on promoting personal character such as self- discipline and grit and ignoring the vital role that a supporting and nurturing environment, plays in the lives of children. We see the importance of a sense of belonging, positive friendships and relationships. In a sense, friends have a more powerful influence on children than parents. The Mishna says – buy a friend – invest in friendships – קנה חבר. Kids mirror themselves and reflect using their friends rather than parents or teachers. Parents and teachers are not the standards with which kids measure themselves. When kids have friends from different generations, then older people too, can become a reference point for kids and they begin to relate to the community as a whole and not just their peers or school in a way which reflects collective and mutual responsibility.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Behar 76 - Modern Slavery - Moral and Ethical Behavior

The parasha talks about the Hebrew slave who sells himself to work for a 'master ' because of economic problems and poverty. The Hebrew slave was not a slave in the generally accepted sense of the word. He was rather an ' indentured servant ', who was not free to resign from his employment.  Because the Hebrew slave feels degraded and has lost most of his self- esteem, the Torah forbids the master to work him like a slave, and subjugate him through hard labor.            לא תעבוד בו עבודת עבד, לא תרדה בו בפרך ויראת מאלוקיך.   You are not allowed to assign him degrading tasks that would be given only to a slave and that highlight his position as a slave like putting on his master's shoes or carrying his master's personal effects to the bathhouse. He is not allowed to  give him futile and unproductive ' busywork ' where the goal is to keep him busy rather than productive , so he feels his servitude and it breaks his body and spirit just like the Egyptian slave masters acted towards the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. It could be simple tasks as boiling water where there is no need for it or giving tasks with no time limit such as keep digging around this tree until I come back. Even if your Hebrew slave thinks there is purpose in what he is doing, but your intention is ' busywork', you should fear God, because God will hold you accountable as He knows what is in your heart.

Although these laws do not apply today,  there are many lessons to be learned that give us guidance and insight as how to interact over whom we may be allowed to exercise authority.  The Hebrew slave himself teaches us that it is better to work rather than to take charity. The question is - how  should we  treat people – such as family members or poor people who live with us in our homes, employees, students and army cadets etc. . . . There is no question that forcing a person against his will to engage in hard and degrading work is not allowed except in the case of criminals. Rashi says that a king or prince must not rule over his people with rigor and coercion. However, where a person is willing to do the work, like in the case of an army cadet who wants to prove his obedience and compliance without having his body and spirit broken, hard and degrading labor would be permitted. He could always quit if he wanted to. The question is where a person is asked by an influential, public figure or a person who has authority,  to do things for him, not in the scope of their working relationship.  The person will usually comply with the request because he cannot say no and usually will feel uncomfortable, embarrassed or not at ease about the request. 

Here , Rabeinu Yona in his work – Sha'arei Teshuvah , part 3:60   on the verse – and 'your brothers, the children of Israel you shall not subjugate him through hard labor ' – says  'that one should not subjugate a fellow man , and if they fear him or are ashamed to violate his word , he should not command him to do anything , great or small , not even to warm up a flask or go on an errand in the city to buy a loaf of bread unless it is according to their will and benefit. But a man who does not behave himself properly may be commanded as desired.'  A person should not take advantage of his status, position or authority, impose on people and try to get people to do things not in the contractual context.

רבינו יונה – שערי תשובה ח:ג- ס 'ובאחיכם בני ישראל איש באחיו לא תרדה בו בפרך ' (ויקרא כה, מו). לא ישתעבד אדם בחבריו, ואם אימתו עליהם או שהם בושים להחל דברו, לא יצוה אותם לעשות קטנה או גדולה, אלא לרצונם ותועלתם, ואפילו להחם צפחת מים או לצאת בשליחותו אל רחוב העיר לקנות עד ככר לחם, אבל אדם שאינו נוהג כשורה מתר לצוותו לכל אשר יחפץ:

There is discussion whether Rabeinu Yona is saying that a person transgresses the negative commandment of not subjugating a fellow man 
- ' ובאחיכם בני ישראל איש באחיו לא תרדה בו בפרך'        
or is he only talking about moral and ethical behavior which in a sense is worse than merely transgressing a negative command. Here we are talking about character, compassion, morality, de'rech eretz = the right way to treat people which preceded the giving of the Torah.

The Rambam in his halachic work says something similar. He talks about the right to subjugate a heathen slave with forced hard labor where the purpose is to enforce discipline, absolute obedience and compliance, but if that is not necessary , one should be compassionate and  generous in one's behavior and act in a wise and intelligent way,  be merciful and just, not weigh heavily on him  the burden of your demands , he should listen to the  concerns of his  slave and  treat him well like Job ,so he will look up to you ' like the eyes of servants unto their masters' hand and the eyes of the maid unto her mistress' hand '– Psalms 123:2.One should follow the example of Abraham , keep the righteous and merciful laws of the Torah and try to emulate God who is merciful to all his creations.

רמב"ם הלכות עבדים ט:ח  -  מותר לעבוד בעבד כנעני בפרך ואע"פ שהדין כך מדת חסידות ודרכי חכמה שיהיה אדם רחמן ורודף צדק ולא יכביד עולו על עבדו ולא יצר לו ויאכילהו וישקהו מכל מאכל ומכל משתה חכמים הראשונים היו נותנין לעבד מכל תבשיל ותבשיל שהיו אוכלין ומקדימין מזון הבהמות והעבדים לסעודת עצמן הרי הוא אומר כעיני עבדים אל יד אדוניהם כעיני שפחה אל יד גבירתה וכרן לא יבזהו ביד ולא בדברים לעבדות מסרן הכתוב לא לבושה ולא ירבה עליו צעקה וכעס אלא ידבר עמו בנחת וישמע טענותיו וכן מפורש בדרכי איוב הטובים שהשתבח בהן אם אמאס משפט עבדי ואמתי בריבם עמדי הלא בבטן עושני עשהו ויכוננו ברחם אחד ואין האכזריות והעזות מצויה אלא בעכו"ם עובדי ע"ז אבל זרעו של אברהם אבינו והם ישראל שהשפיע להם הקב"ה טובת התורה וצוה אותם בחקים ומשפטים צדיקים רחמנים הם על הכל וכן במדותיו של הקב"ה שצונו להדמות בהם הוא אומר ורחמיו על כל מעשיו וכל המרחם מרחמין עליו שנאמר ונתן לך רחמים ורחמך והרבך:

As parents, spouses, teachers and employers we should be aware of the teachings of the Rambam and Rabeinu Yona and focus on cooperation, collaboration, inspiring others and supporting their autonomy rather than focusing on compliance and obedience, and treating people in a way maybe more appropriate for a heathen slave. We should solve problems in a collaborative way addressing both our and the others' concerns including the concerns of children. We should always ask ourselves if the tasks we give children are in themselves worth doing and important and are not perceived and experienced as ' busywork ' or unnecessary burden imposed on the child. The Steipler responded to his daughter - the reason I did not wake you up is that my job is not to impose on people , even though it is your job to help and honor a parent.When we bring kids into the decision making process and reflecting on what is needed to run a caring and efficient home or developing a love for learning, we will find allies to work with, rather than try to control and motivate them with carrots or sticks. We really have to ask ourselves if what we ask is really for their benefit and meeting their needs or are we more concerned with our need for control. Teachers should avoid asking kids for e.g. to do personal errands such as going to the kiosk for them. Homework is one area which is very problematic as the research, especially for junior school shows no benefits for homework, overwhelms struggling kids and as 'busywork'  removes the joy of learning for high achievers. Even reading for pleasure loses its appeal when children are told how much, or for how long, they must do it. Treating kids with respect and taking them seriously is not only for them, but will impact on our efforts to emulate the ways of God.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Emor 76- Kiddush Hashem , Walls and Values

The parasha introduces us to the principles of Kiddush ha-Shem and Chilul ha-Shem in the verses –Lev. 22:32-33 Do not desecrate /profane my holy Name , rather that  I should be  sanctified among  the  children of Israel  , I am Hashem , who sanctifies you. Who took you out of the land of Egypt to be a God unto  you, I am Hashem.
 לב וְלֹא תְחַלְּלוּ, אֶת-שֵׁם קָדְשִׁי, וְנִקְדַּשְׁתִּי, בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:  אֲנִי יְהוָה, מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם לג הַמּוֹצִיא אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לִהְיוֹת לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים:  אֲנִי, יְהוָה

The demands of Kiddush ha-Shem - go beyond those of morality. It is not only a question of a behavior, being moral or not, but how the behavior reflects on and impacts on the reputation of a person , his family, school, community, nation and even God himself. By associating Himself with the children of Israel, firstly through Abraham who voluntarily began teaching and being an example of God's ways and then with the nation as whole by taking them out of the land of Egypt and making a covenant with them at Mount Sinai, the children of Israel became God's ambassadors and witnesses to the world. So God's standing in eyes of the world now depends on how God's ' chosen'  people behave.

Many people in the community are disturbed by community leaders failing in this role, but also with  religious people who don't act with integrity, decency, humility and compassion. It is sometimes out of a self-righteousness that they show contempt for people or are totally immersed in their own world of prayer and study to notice a person in need. The question is why are people failing in the role as ambassadors and  being witnesses for God?

The verses in The Torah that speak about sanctifying or profaning the Name of God are  proceeded by  laws concerning offerings – waiting 7 days before bring an animal as an offering, not slaughtering the mother and child on the same day, and bringing the offering must be only to become closer to God and benefit from the atonement and good that the offering brings to the world.
כז שׁוֹר אוֹ-כֶשֶׂב אוֹ-עֵז כִּי יִוָּלֵד, וְהָיָה שִׁבְעַת יָמִים תַּחַת אִמּוֹ; וּמִיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי, וָהָלְאָה, יֵרָצֶה, לְקָרְבַּן אִשֶּׁה לַיהוָה כח וְשׁוֹר, אוֹ-ֶׂה--אֹתוֹ וְאֶת-בְּנוֹ, לֹא תִשְׁחֲטוּ בְּיוֹם אֶחָד כט וְכִי-תִזְבְּחוּ זֶבַח-תּוֹדָה, לַיהוָה--לִרְצֹנְכֶם, תִּזְבָּחוּ

The Mesech Chochmah asks – what is the connection of these verses with the commandments to sanctify and not to desecrate God's name. He explains that in contrast to idolatry which is full of cruelty, harshness and retribution to the human soul – for eg human sacrifices and cutting,  the Torah is full of compassion, clemency , kindness and sustains the world –וחסד ,מהוה ומחיה העולמים ... חמלה וחנינה . The Torah teaches how to be supportive and compassionate to people and also treat animals with compassion. If we eat meat or offer sacrifices  -which is the ultimate destiny of an animal by becoming part of a refined human being -  we should do so with as much compassion as possible ( although we cannot escape the pain of death ) and follow the laws mentioned above. If God cares about the soul of the animal surely He cares about us. We must bring sacrifices whole-heartedly, knowing that God has no benefit and only wants from us to do kindness and give expression to God's ways. But if we are forced to desecrate God's commandments and denigrate  God's honor, we cannot live with this contradiction and need to give up our lives and sanctify God's Name . We must be  willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, and choose the eternal life close to God.

The role of God's ambassador is having a ' compassionate mindset ' , so what gets in the way of people? In a world where values of materialism, hedonism, sexual promiscuity and competition etc threaten a spiritual life of modesty , spirituality and community,  it is quite understandable that communities build walls and fences to protect people from outside influences. However, there are many challenges and dangers to be faced. The problem  (a) is that wall or fence creates limits and boundaries and not values. It is values underlying how one should interact with other people and society at large – with sensitivity and compassion and yet being faithful and authentic to one's Torah values that should create limits, boundaries and walls. (b) When we create a wall or a fence to exclude others we may end up treating  people as if  they  don't count , not one of us , and then we  objectify them. When we objectify people , being careful to avoid a chilul Hashem – a desecration of God's name and instead focus on being a kidddush Hashem, sanctifying God's name has no relevancy and then  not on our agenda. This impacts negatively on peoples' personalities and character and leads to arrogance , self-righteousness and acting out of self-interest. Teachers, parents , rabbis etc fail to the lesson of the first book of Moses – Genesis which has little law in it and mostly stories of how the  – forefathers interacted with people and society at large. The Netziv in his introduction to the Book of Genesis says that the Avot-forefathers were called ' ye'sharim= straight people ,honorable and decent  people in their dealings with people who were even idolators, yet had a loving relationship with them and cared about their welfare     
אבות היו ישרים בהליכות עולמים ....שהתנהגו עם אומות העולם, אפילו עובדי אלילים מכוערים; מכל מקום היו עִמם באהבה, וחשו לטובתם, באשר היא קיום הבריאה ...וחפץ בקיומם
. It was for this reason that the children of Heth said to Abraham – You are a prince of God in our midst – נשיא אלוקים אתה בתוכנו
(c )' Not counting people '  also impacts on informal learning and acquiring of wisdom which depends on being able to learn from all people and situations. איזה חכם הלומד מכל אדם  This attitude cheapens the value of wisdom, chochmah and secular or general knowledge.

As parents and educators ' walls' protecting children from negative influences are  important, but what guides behavior and interaction with people must be values and especially the example of the Avot- forefathers and we being role models that sanctify the name of God with a compassionate mindset and yet not compromising on the other Torah values.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Kedoshim 76 – Holiness = A Unified and Caring Community

The Mesech Chochmah- Shemot 14:29   makes an interesting observation regarding the protective quality of community unity – a unity that is based on caring interpersonal relationships. God has more patience, forgoes his honor and is more forgiving of the sins between man and God such as idolatry, sexual immorality, the desecration of the Sabbath. These sins are  capital offences for individuals. But  when the whole community engages in idolatry, as long as we have a unified and caring community, God is willing to be patient and supportive . If the community is plagued by mass corruption, theft and violence etc., the community, is destroyed. If things are not so bad, but the unity of the collective is violated by the friction, the community no longer protects its members and each person is judged as a separate individual who would be punished by death for idolatry etc.

The generation of King A'chav were idol worshippers, yet they were consistently victorious in wars, without suffering death due to their collective unity. However, the generation of King David was considered pious in the domain of man- God commandments, but lost soldiers in wars because there was internal strife, slanderers and informants- dilturim. The first temple was destroyed mainly because of man- God transgressions – idolatry and sexual immorality, yet it was rebuilt after 70 years. The second temple was destroyed because of sin'at chinam – baseless hatred, interpersonal transgressions on a communal level and still is not yet rebuilt. The sin of the golden calf – idolatry, was forgiven by God but the sin of the spies which was characterized by slander and lack of gratitude and undermined the unity of the nation was not forgiven and that generation  died out in the desert. The generation of the flood transgressed all the commandments including idolatry and sexual immorality but their sentence for destruction and annihilation was only sealed due to large scale theft. In the Egypt, the Israelites were a united and caring community, but  there was mass idolatry among them.  At the Red sea, their unity was temporarily undermined by different factions arguing a different response to the pursuing Egyptian army. Once they lost their unity Satan argued that they must be judged as individuals – and as individuals they merit the death penalty for idolatry. Individuals are punished by Kareth= early death or extinction of the souls for certain major transgressions – but not if they belong a caring and united community.

God's presence – the shechinah remains in the tabernacle with His children despite their spiritual contamination through sins like idolatry or sexual immorality but when the community is not united ,violent and abusive, God's presence leaves his people and they face destruction.

The question is - why is God willing to tolerate man –God transgressions such as idolatry, sexual immorality and Sabbath desecration, forgoe his honor  and provide protection in war to a caring and unified community and society. ? The answer lies in our parasha – parashat Kedoshim.  Kedoshim is unique in that Moses gave over its laws to the whole community of Israel – men, women and children and that many of the commandments end with ' I am Hashem, Your God or you shall fear and revere your God- I am Hashem.  This was to impress on people that the many man-man   commandments in the parasha-portion  are central to the Torah and it is forbidden to lessen their importance in comparison with  Man-God commandments. People also tend to justify inappropriate behaviors and responses in their interpersonal relationships and sometimes the justification is in the name of self-righteousness, so God reminds us that he is aware of our crooked thinking. 

The centrality of the man-man commandments and the importance of a united and caring community  also finds expression in the commandment - Be holy - קדושים תהיו.  The mitzvah of Being Holy, means 'perushim'- being separate. The Midrash compares God's holiness to man's holiness and says that man can never attain God's holiness. The Ramban goes further than Rashi who explains that 'perushim' – as separating oneself from sexual immorality to include being indulgent or engaging in an excessive way in activities that are permitted , so that a  person  acts like a vile and despicable person with the permission of the Torah – נבל ברשות התורה. Rabbi Shimon Skop says that this definition of 'perushim ' - being separate from excessive and indulgent behavior is not relevant to a discussion on God and the Midrash. He defines God's Holiness of constantly doing good  not only to individuals but to the community and the world as a whole without any personal  benefit – Hashem by definition is perfect and does not need anything.  Man can be altruistic, but he also needs to care for himself. Being holy and identifying with God's holiness is a concern not only with individuals but with the welfare of the community and the collective.  Whatever we do, we should try and benefit others and the community. So even eating and sleeping can be said to be also for the community because it enables us to be pro-social, kind and concerned for the welfare of the community. The fact that the mitzvah of being holy - קדושים תהיו was given over by Moses to the whole community - men, women and children together emphasizes the importance of a united and caring community.  

When people show concern not only for individuals but for the welfare and unity of the community, they give expression to God's holiness and fullfil the mitzvah of קדושים תהיו. God responds by being supportive even in war and showing a lot of patience to communities that transgress the man – God commandments such as idolatry and sexual immorality. A community that observes Man- God commandments but is corrupt in the man-man realm , has no right of existence, because in reality  identifying and trying to emulate how God conducts himself in the world is central to one's relationship with God and man- God commandments.

As parents and educators we need to teach that acts of chesed and loving kindness are not only to be directed towards individuals but the focus must be on the family, classroom, school, community and society as a whole. We all, including kids should be asking what type of community, school etc do us want and what pro-social behavior is needed to meet our goals. An appreciation of God's role and his relationship with us can inspire us to emulate his ways and become better and more holy people.