Friday, May 13, 2011

Parashat BaHar - Three Years after Elan's Bar Mitzvah

It is hard to believe that this Shabbat is the third anniversary of Elan's Bar Mitzvah which we celebrated in Israel. In 2008, Elan was still shorter than me. Now, he is almost 6'3". Back then, he was riding a bicycle around Yerushalayim. Today, he will soon get his driver's license. in Chicago. Back then, he was looking forward to returning to camp for his Shoafim summer. Today, he is packing for his Gesher summer, his last summer as a camper, at Ramah Darom. Then, we were living in Jerusalem. Today, he is the Israel Affairs Vice-President for CHUSY.

In honor of the anniversary of Elan's Bar Mitzvah, I am reposting the d'var Torah I gave at his Bar Mitzvah. Elan, our pride in you and your accomplishments is only exceeded by our pride in your menschlichkeit and our love for you!

Mazal Tov.

Shabbat Shalom,

We were not originally supposed to be here this Shabbat. For many years, we planned to have Elan’s bar mitzvah at Camp Ramah Darom, where I had the privilege of serving as the founding director for eleven years. Were we there, I would have spent the past few weeks trying to make some kind of connection between the specifics of the laws of shemittah, the year of release for the land, and Camp Ramah. Not a simple task. But we are not at camp. We are in Yerushalayim where we have been living this year. The fact that your bar mitzvah fell on Shabbat Behar which deals with Shabbaton, with the land of Israel, must have been a foreshadowing of our being in Israel. It was bashert.

The classic question about our parashah is asked in Torat Cohanim and repeated by several of the meforshim:

מה ענין שמיטה אצל הר סיני. והלא כל המצות נאמרו מסיני?

In other words, what is it about shemittah, letting the land rest, that is so important that the Torah begins the parashah with:

וידבר ה' אל משה בהר סיני לאמר:

“And The Lord spoke to Moses at Mt. Sinai, saying,”

Why does it take us back all the way to Sinai?

Many of the commentators focus on the question from a temporal standpoint. That is, they are bothered that this appears at the end of Sefer Vayikra, Leviticus, after Matan Torah, the Giving of Torah, and after hakamat hamishkan, the construction of the portable Tabernacle. Others consider the severity of the punishment connected to failing to observe Shemittah. From Rashi, restating Torat Cohanim, we learn that the connection between shemittah and Sinai is here to teach us that while the general rules of shemittah were mentioned in Exodus, we should not think that what is taught here was taught at a later moment in history in a different place; rather, these mitzvoth were taught at Sinai in detail and are simply restated in their specifics here. Similarly, Ibn Ezra reminds us that there is no earlier or later in the Torah and that this parashah is taught prior to the beginning of Vayikra but appears here nonetheless.

אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה. וזו הפרשה קודם ויקרא,

Implicit in the responses of the commentators is the understanding that there is something special, something unusual about this parashah.

In looking at the structure of our parashah, I see the following pattern:

Our parashah begins with God:

'וידבר ה

“And God Spoke…”

And it ends with God:

אני ה

“I Am God.”

Our parashah begins with sacred land, space, where we encounter God:

ויקרא פרק כה

כי תבאו אל הארץ אשר אני נתן לכם

“When you come into the Land that I give to you…”

And it ends with sacred spaces where we encounter God:

ויקרא פרק כו

ומקדשי תיראו

“Revere My Sanctuaries...”

Our Parashah begins with Shabbat for the land, Shemittah:

ויקרא פרק כה

ושבתה הארץ שבת להי

“…the land will observe a Sabbath of the Lord.”

And it ends with Shabbat for those who work it:

ויקרא פרק כו

את שבתתי תשמרו

“You shall keep My Sabbaths…”

The central sections of our parashah deal with how we relate to our fellow Jews, both in the ethics of our business conduct and at times that they are in trouble, in difficulty. Furthermore, it gives us difficult questions with which to deal, not just theoretical questions but real, everyday life questions like how we relate to the “Other.”

The parashah puts front and center

Elohei Yisrael – The God of Israel
Eretz Yisrael – The Land of Israel
Shabbat Yisrael – Sacred time to Meet God;
and Am Yisrael - The People of Israel

By referring us back to Sinai, the moment of Revelation, our parashah brings us full circle to Torat Yisrael.

By taking us back to the powerful moment of Standing at Sinai, Parashat Bahar comes to teach us that even in a portion that deals with the micro-details of land transactions and agricultural practice we are able to find the central values of Jewish Peoplehood. In a parashah like Kedoshim, it is easy to see the values. The opening chapter deals with how we relate to God and how we relate to people. Behar comes to teach us that how we relate to the land is also important. That the way we relate to our inheritance demonstrates our sacred relationship with God and the sacred role we are commanded to play in the world.

Elan, I hope that as you grow, the values that we have tried to instill in you and that are so clearly present in your parashah:

Elohei Yisrael – a special relationship with The God of Israel;
Eretz Yisrael – a special, treasure connection to The Land of Israel;
Mitzvot Yisrael – living a meaningful life organized by the covenant between us and God;
Shabbat Yisrael – taking time weekly to break from mastering time to Meet God ;
Am Yisrael – a sense of collective responsibility to Jews in the world;
and to Torat Yisrael – to learning and living our Torah, in all of its broadest definitions

Serve as your guideposts, are the organizing principles of your life and of your menshlichkeit, as they are for ours.

Yesterday, we went to Neot Kedumim to begin celebrating your bar mitzvah. After tefillot and brunch, we went to the area dedicated to Shemittah. We planted acorns from Israeli oak trees in small cups. The staff will tend them as they become saplings and after the Shemittah year is over, they will plant them throughout the preserve.

As we were planting, afterwards as I was looking out over the beautiful vistas and fields of Neot Kedumim, and as I was smiling with great pride at what a mentsh you are, I couldn’t help but think a bit about today’s haftarah. Jeremiah is told that his cousin, Hanamel, will come and tell him to buy his field in Anatot. Jeremiah is commanded to keep an achuza, a possession in the land, even though he is soon to depart into exile. The command to acquire an achuza is an investment in a future return. We hope, Mom and me, that this year has been one of acquiring a possession, a love of the Land, the People, and the State of Israel, and one of gaining a sense of being part of a collective, to Clal Yisrael, for which you have a responsibility. We hope that you, as we also wish for ourselves, will return here soon, to reacquire that achuza, the possession, not temporarily but permanently.

We are so very proud of you and love you very much.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Fine Line Between Sanctifying and Desecrating.

Of the many laws mentioned in this week’s parashah – from purity standards for the Kohanim to the mitzvah of sitting in the Sukkah – one verse in particular grab my attention:

וְלֹא תְחַלְּלוּ, אֶת-שֵׁם קָדְשִׁי, וְנִקְדַּשְׁתִּי, בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: אֲנִי יְהוָה, מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם.

And you shall not profane My Holy Name; rather, I will be sanctified among the children of Israel: I am the LORD who sanctifies you.
Leviticus 22:32

What is the meaning of sanctifying God’s Name - Kiddush HaShem? What about Hillul HaShem - desecrating God’s Name? Who decides when an action or statement is one or the other? And when are things done in the name of one that are actually the opposite?

The contrasting behaviors presented in this verse, the prohibition of profaning God’s Name versus the positive commandment of sanctifying God’s name, is on my mind a lot these days. Religion is used far too often by extremists to justify behavior that is a Hillul HaShem - a desecration of God’s Name - in order to eliminate behavior by others that they, the extremists, define as a desecration. That is, in order to eradicate the desecration, these extremists engage in behaviors that they claim are sanctifying God’s Name when, in fact, all they are doing is bringing desecration in a different way. Using religious principles or laws to justify or explain away bad behavior is simply unacceptable and yet it seems to happen all the time.

Examples abound. In its most extreme form, we see it this week in the extremism that found a face and a voice in Osama bin Laden. Or we could look to the ongoing pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church. It would be too easy to stop there, though, at the big and obvious acts of violating God’s Name just as it would be too easy to ignore supposed acts of Kiddush HaShem that simply desecrate of God’s Name committed among our own people. The new Hekhsher Tzedek or Magen Tzedek is a perfect example of just such an issue.

The Hechsher Tzedek, Magen Tzedek, is a certification conceived by rabbis in our own region to highlight companies whose products represent “fair treatment of workers, humane treatment of animals and care for the earth.” Sounds like a good thing, right? Certified Kosher and produced in a way that pays people fairly, that treats the animals well, and that is a good steward of the earth. This is baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie. Yet, Magen Tzedek is under fire from Jewish extremists. Despite the fact that Biblical and Rabbinic laws address these areas of business practice and should be applied in our time, there are those who claim that the Magen Tzedek is trying to fundamentally change Kashrut: to replace halakhic kashrut - proper slaughter, etc - with a new ethical standard that is not based in Jewish law. Nothing could be farther from the truth, of course. Magen Tzedek is an added level of stringency to products already certified as “kosher” in the traditional sense. It will not be applied to food that is not certified kosher. Magen Tzedek is a true effort to sanctify God’s Name in this world that is being categorized by others as a desecration.

So, which is the greater desecration of God’s Name?

Products where the animals are slaughtered properly according to all standards of Kashrut. Yet, the animals are mistreated throughout the process. Their lives are lived in miserable, overcrowded places. The employees are not paid living wages, are denied basic benefits, and are not treated well. And animal refuse is discarded in ways that pollute the environment.


Products where the animals are slaughtered properly according to all standards of Kashrut AND the animals are treated with care, the employees are paid a fair wage and the environment is cared for, and there is an additional certification acknowledging that the company meets all of these requirements as well.

Is there really a question here? We live in a world where certain meat products in the US need to have not just one but perhaps two or three different kashrut certifications, one more stringent than the next, to meet the standards of different people. Magen Tzedek is an added level of stringency and should be applauded by every corner of the Jewish world because it will result in greater sanctity. Instead, there are corners of the Jewish world that are intent on smearing the good names of those involved, like our own Rabbi Morris Allen of Beth Jacob in St. Paul Minnesota and Rabbi Michael Siegal of Anshe Emet in Chicago, instead of praising the efforts to raise the level of halakhic behavior to new levels.

In leading halakhic lives, lives of meaning and spiritual connection with God, we are charged with bringing greater sanctity to God’s Name and prohibited from desecrating or bringing desecration to God’s Name. Let us always be counted on the side of those seeking to bring more קדושה to the world and to God’s Name.

Shabbat Shalom.