In The Image of G-d — Pikrei Avot series

Ayin Tove
In The Image of G-d
3/18/2010

We learn in the Talmud:

Beloved is man (literally “Adam”) for he was created in the Image.
Even more beloved is man that it was made known to him that he was created in the Image.

Pirkei Avot 3:18 (quoting Rabbi Akiva).

Descartes attempted to prove the existence of G-d based on the fact that we have an idea of G-d.  Specifically, he reasoned that our idea of G-d is like the signature with which a sculptor signs his work.  Meditations 3:38.  Whereas Descartes started with man, and tried to prove the existence of G-d, Rabbi Akiva in the above passage starts with G-d and explains the effect on man.  Rabbi Akiva follows the first Biblical creation story:

And G-d said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.  They shall have dominion over the fish of the sea and the bird of the heaven and all the earth and all the creepy things that creep on the earth.  And G-d created man in His Image, in His Image G-d created him, male and female created them.”

Genesis 1:26-27.

Rabbi Akiva’s insight is that man is beloved because of this genesis.  Whereas Descartes was interested in the facts of existence (I think therefore I am; I think of G-d therefore G-d is), Rabbi Akiva is interested in what it means to be created by G-d, and specifically created in the divine image.

This is the same Rabbi Akiva who said that the most important verse in the Bible is “Love your neighbor as yourself.  I am the Lord.”  Lev. 19-18.  For Rabbi Akiva, we have an obligation to love ourselves and our fellow humans, because we are all created in the Image of G-d.

This is the basis for much modern thought.  Rabbi David Hartman and others have described “creational ethics.”  The basic idea is that people deserve to be treated well because they exist and they’re people too, just like you and me.

We could have a good discussion about what is the Image of G-d and what it means to be created in the Image of G-d, i.e., what man has in common with G-d.  Maimonedes (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon or the Rambam) explains in his Guide to the Perplexed that, for Jews, the Image of G-d is not physical or corporeal, and may be hard to define because G-d is beyond definition.

In any case, we are beloved by being created in the divine Image, and we are beloved because we can do something with this knowledge.

Ayin Tove is the pen name for a lawyer working for the federal government in Washington, D.C.

Bamidbar — Out of Chaos, Order

Stephen Richer
Out of Chaos, Order
Bamidbar
Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
5/17/2010

As befits the title, Numbers is begun by counting. Counting what?  Counting Jews. Not directly though.  As Rashi said, “According to their head count: They gave a half shekel and the coins were counted since it is forbidden to count them literally by head.”  But it amounts to a similar effect; by the end of the portion we are given an exact number of non-Levite Jewish males over the age of 20 (603,550).

The Portion then assigns the tribes their positions within the camp, and their positions while traveling:

“The legions under the divisions of the camp of Ephraim were to the west … Next to him, the tribe of Manasseh.” (Num 2:18 – 2:20)

At first glance then, the Portion seems to exist for historians and census-takers rather than moralists and life coaches.  But Maimonides offers three explanations for the presence of this seemingly-mundane Portion in Judaism’s central text.  First, by counting the Jews, credit and thanks are given implicitly to God.  Prior to escaping Egypt, the Jewish people were relatively few.  In only a matter of years, the Jews doubled and then doubled again—witness and acknowledge the miracle of God!

Second, Maimonides reminds us that though the Torah is the birthplace of our grand moral postulates, the text also served a practical purpose.  In preparation for entering the Holy Land, the Jews had to assemble an army, the prerequisite for which was counting the number of fighting-age males.[1]

Third, and lastly, Maimonides draws an important leadership lesson from the counting exercise: An effective leader must know his people.  The Portion mandates that Moses and Aaron do the counting; this ensures that the leaders individually interact with each person that they could potentially send off to battle.

But in addition to the principles outlined by Maimonides, the Portion also reads as an endorsement of order over chaos.  After a wild and crazy Exodus, God figures out who is still alive; he puts them in tribes, and he puts the tribes into positions.[2] The once scattered Jewish escapees now more closely resemble an ordered army.

According to most Jewish theologians, the behaviors of God should be read as large-scale representations of how to conduct an individual life.  Looking around my apartment, it’s not terribly difficult to see how this endorsement of order could have practical consequences.  True, keeping a neat room and an ordered life is something we’ve all heard from our parents, but it’s worth hearing again, and besides, where did our parents got it from?

Interestingly, the ordering of the Jewish people was a necessary precursor for entering the Holy Land, for achieving a heightened spiritual, moral, intellectual, and physical plane.  Perhaps the ordering of our thoughts, notes, or apartment can’t promise as grand a reward, but order is seen as a step for moving forward: you have to order your notes before you can start typing; you have to clean your dishes before you can start cooking (or so I’m told…my cooking experience is limited to microwaving…).

In this sense, organization is also empowering.  The Jewish people scattered and disbanded are easily targeted by Amolek, but organized, they are a force that can take over the Holy Land.  Similarly, scattered notes serve little use for a term paper.  Only when they are accessible and manageable do they become powerful.

I don’t know my habits will change instantaneously, but it does force me to further recognize the benefits of organizational skill.  Maybe an upcoming New Year’s resolution?


[1] It seems bizarre that the fighting age has gone down from the Biblical age of 20 to 18 in most countries despite the fact that we now are slower to develop.

[2] Interestingly, this is the exact methodology preached by Testmasters for LSAT games that involve grouping and sequencing.  First you get your group, then you sequence them.  The best way to think of it is if you have 5 baseball tickets, you’d first choose five friends, then you would sequence them in different seats.  You wouldn’t start by sequencing all of your friends, then choosing five.

Chapters of the Fathers — new series.

Ayin Tov
Introduction to New Series
5/11/2010

**Editor’s Note** – This is the introductory post for a new series at Gather The Jews.  A new post for this series will come out every Tuesday.

It is traditional to study the Chapters of the Fathers (“Pirkei Avot” or “Avot”) at this time of year.  Indeed, we learn from there the importance of studying Torah for its own sake:

RABBI MEIR said,

Whoever engages in Torah for its own sake merits many things; and it doesn’t end there, but it is as if the the whole world is created for this: he is called friend, beloved: loves God, loves mankind: pleases God, pleases mankind. … And they enjoy from him counsel, and sound wisdom, understanding, and strength, for it is said, Counsel is mine, and sound wisdom: I am understanding; I have strength (Prov, viii. 14). And it gives him kingdom, and dominion, and faculty of judgment. And they reveal to him the secrets of Torah; and he is made, as it were, a spring that ceases not, and as a river that flows on increasing. …

In this blog, we examine one teaching every weekday (hopefully).

Ayin Tov is the pen name for a lawyer working for the federal government in Washington, D.C.

Behar-Bechukotai — The Burned Hand

Stephen Richer
The Burned Hand
Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34
Behar-Bechukotai
5/7/2010

This week’s Torah Portion contains the Tocheche or The Rebuke, “a lengthy description of the terrible punishments awaiting the nation, if they do not follow the Torah.” (Torah.org)

Unfortunately for the Jewish people, the punishments described go well beyond weeding the garden bed or being grounded.  Observe:

“If you despise My statutes and reject My ordinances, not performing any of My commandments, thereby breaking My covenant…

then I too, will do the same to you; I will order upon you shock, consumption, fever, and diseases that cause hopeless longing and depression.  You will sow your seed in vain, and your enemies will eat it…

Your enemies will rule over you; you will flee, but no one will be pursuing you…

I will break the pride of your strength…

I will incite the wild beasts of the field against you…

You will eat, yet not be satisfied.”  (Leviticus 26:15 – 26:26)

Pretty grim stuff.  But then, suddenly, at the end of the section, the mood is lightened, and we are told:

“But despite all this, while they are in the land of their enemies, I will not despise them nor will I reject them to annihilate them, thereby breaking My covenant that is with them, for I am the Lord their God…

I will remember for them the covenant [made with] the ancestors, whom I took out from the land of Egypt before the eyes of the nations, to be a God to them.  I am the Lord.” (Lev. 26:44 – 26:45)

Why does the Portion scare us with verse after verse of potentially calamitous punishments, only to assure us that we will never been entirely abandoned, destroyed, or despaired simply because we are the descendants of Abraham and Moses?

The sages—via Rabbi Zvi Teitelbaum—offer two answers.  The first says that the concluding assurance is meant to dull the effect of the news and calm our nerves.  This seems reasonable; I’ve been scared by mere mortals (namely my high school baseball coach, my seventh grade baseball coach, and one or two teachers); I would probably manage even worse if subjected to a holy chastisement.
The other reasoning suggests that by evoking the names of our great ancestors, we will be motivated to attain a higher level of spirituality and morality.  Surely the Jewish people want to live up to the names of Moses and Abraham.

I’ve also felt the effects of this phenomenon.  I try hard—but to little effect—to emulate the successful people in my family.

But this “emulation factor” pales in comparison to the motivational thrust of the more readily apparent mechanism in the Portion: fear.

It’s said that “the burned hand [or the possibility of a burnt hand] is the best teacher.”  Witness the character of Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter series.  Ron desperately seeks to match the accomplishments of his brothers, but when left to his own devices, he prefers games of Gobstones and Chess over studying or Quidditch training.  It’s not until threatened with something like a detention from Professor Snape that he churns out his essay on Werewolves (Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban).  Similarly, countless movies have featured a protagonist in fear of his life performing otherwise impossible feats.

But the “fear factor” has descended to far more mundane matters.  Certain voluntary websites now automatically deduct money from your credit card if you fail to meet your goal of wait loss or writing your first book chapter?

Why are the sages reluctant to embrace this forthcoming motivational mechanism of the Torah Portion?  Most likely because the notion that God has to coerce us into good behavior is unsavory on two levels, 1) because threats and other “sticks” are frowned upon in today’s culture, and 2) it seems absurd that God should have to descend to something so commonplace to motivate us.

But there are threats and there are threats, and given the conciliatory last lines of the Tocheche, God’s threat is of the “tough love” variety.  He recognizes that we humans respond effectively to fear, and so he utilizes it.  But by reiterating his love for us, the threat can be seen as “for our own good,” and therefore doesn’t warp our relationship.  It’s the same way that a Dad might tell his son that if he doesn’t study, doesn’t show up to class, and fails out, then he will have to bring a hundred plagues down on the son’s head (no car, no video games, no allowance, no t.v., no cell phone, etc.)  But to maintain a healthy relationship, the Dad reminds his son that he loves him; he just wants to see the continued success of the family.

Having just sat through a rather unproductive Friday afternoon, I appreciate the effectiveness of the occasional deadline, threat, or other instigator of fear as motivation.  But threats should be made the right way, the way that God made his—they should be coupled with the reminder that the end goal is not simply to produce fear, but to make progress.

The Beauty of Brachos

William Gotkin
The Beauty of Brachos
5/7/2010

Many Jews say blessings or brachos everyday, often without putting much thought into it. To most, brachos seem like a natural way of expressing gratitude to G-d for all that He gives us. But are brachos about more than giving thanks? Like all aspects of Jewish observance, the reasoning behind brachos is rich in underlying ethical and spiritual teachings.

According to our Sages, a Jew should recite 100 brachos or blessings a day. Understandably, this seems like a daunting task. For some it is perhaps less daunting upon learning that the majority are said during the three daily prayer services, and the remainder are said before and after meals and before the performance of other daily mitzvas. If the Sages required that we say no less than 100 of them a day, then one can reasonably conclude the Sages considered brachos important. Why? Here, I will attempt to briefly explain to the best of my ability why we say brachos, the deeper meaning behind brachos, and how saying brachos can enhance our lives.

First the obvious question. What is a bracho? According to Artscroll’s The Laws of B’rachos, there are three categories of brachos. One category involves those that we say over enjoyable activities such as eating and drinking. Another involves those that we say over observing mitzvos such as tefillin, blowing shofar, counting the Omer, and tzitzis. Finally, the third category includes those that we say during the three daily prayer services – Shacharis, Mincha, and Maariv (the brachos of the Shimoneh Esrei fall under this category).

Part of why we say a bracho is to give thanks. We are expressing gratitude to G-d and recognizing that all that we have and all that we are able to do comes as a direct result of His will and not our own or anything else’s. However, behind brachos is something deeper than saying ‘thank you’. The word ‘baruch’ is often translated as ‘blessed’ or ‘praised’. Does it make sense for a mortal human being to bless or praise the all-powerful, omniscient, Creator of the universe? We make brachos, not because G-d needs us to, but because it gives us an opportunity to connect with Him. The word baruch means more than thanks or praise. Rather, according to The Laws of Brachos, it denotes an utter and complete dependence on G-d. We not only thank Him, but we recognize that nothing in this physical existence can occur without Him specifically willing it. The Sages instituted brachos for so many facets of life in order to teach us that everything from the tiniest drop of water to our ability to wake up in the morning comes from G-d. This is meant to teach us that G-d is not simply the Creator, but the orchestrator of all that happens. Brachos reinforce this powerful teaching on a daily basis.

When G-d gave humans dominion over the world, we were given the ability to denigrate or elevate our existence. When we make a bracho over something such as food we unlock its hidden spiritual potential. By making brachos for even the simplest, most mundane, and animal-like aspects of our lives such as eating, drinking, and going to the bathroom, we elevate these activities and make them holy. More importantly, through bringing out the G-dliness hidden in our environment we elevate ourselves and actualize our spiritual potential.  By recognizing our complete dependence, we are not simply receiving G-d’s gifts, but appreciating and delighting in recognizing that they are from G-d. Brachos allow us to transcend our nature which is to simply take from this world. Giving thanks and recognizing our complete dependence on G-d, in turn, makes us become better givers. In this way, brachos enhance life with greater meaning and depth. From a Jewish standpoint, gratitude and awareness of G-d are linked to happiness. One who truly knows everything comes from G-d is happy with his lot in life. When said with kavanah (concentration), brachos help us internalize this idea and empower us to connect to G-d through all of our daily activities.

Emor – Tradition!

Stephen Richer
Tradition
Emor
Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23
4/29/2010

Having missed out on Jewish school and Jewish camp, I struggle with Hebrew songs—as anyone at last week’s Chabad Shabbat services can attest.  But when Rabbi Shemtov requested a solo performance of “If I Were A Rich Man,” I sang at the top of my voice, pleased to show that I can comfortably recite at least of one of our people’s great songs.

And now this week I’m titling my Dvar Torah “Tradition.”  I don’t try to see life through the lens of Fiddler on The Roof (FTR), but it is filled with so much wisdom and so many great songs that it is hard to avoid—and it is currently playing here in Washington.  Plus, seeing as how FTR is absent from my first seven Divrei Torah, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to ask for your indulgence this one time.

And so we begin…

In the prelude to the Tradition song (found here), Tevye lists several of the traditions held by his town (Anatevka).  They have traditions pertaining to food, sleep, work, and clothing.  “How did this tradition get started?” Tevye asks himself, and then offers the following, “I don’t know.”

Like most things in Judaism, our traditions originate in the Torah.  This week’s Portion establishes some of our most prominent traditions:

Passover:  “In the first month, on the fourteenth of the month, in the afternoon, [you shall sacrifice] the Passover offering to the Lord.” (Lev. 23:5)

Passover cont.: “You shall not eat bread or [flour made from] parched grain or fresh grain…” (Lev. 23: 14)

Rosh Hashanah:  “In the seventh month, on the first of the month, it shall be a Sabbath for you, a remembrance of [Israel through] the shofar blast a holy occasion.” (Lev. 23:24)

Yom Kippur: “But on tenth of this seventh month, it is a day of atonement, it shall be a holy occasion for you; you shall afflict yourselves, and you shall offer up a fire offering to the Lord.” (Lev. 23:27)

And so on and so forth…

Despite not knowing the origin of his traditions, Tevye knows their purposes:

The first:  “Because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is.”
Traditions connect the individual Jew to the entire Jewish people, spanning both time and distance.  Just as we celebrated Passover in Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago, so too did Jews in Argentina and Israel; so too did Jews in New York City in 1910.

Our history gives credence to this “unbounded” theory of Judaism.  After the fall of the first Temple in 586 BCE, Jews were dispersed throughout Mesopotamia, the Middle East, North Africa, and even into Europe.  But physical proximity was not necessary to maintain Jewish peoplehood.  The Torah, and its enumerated traditions, gave shape and commonalities to the Jewish people, so much so that by 1200 CE, Jews in Spain exchanged letters on religious thought with Jews in the Middle East.

Tevye’s second answer to the question of “why traditions?” is that “because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years.”

If all knowledge of previous civilization suddenly vanished, we might not know when to work, what to eat, when to take seven day vacations, etc.  We would, in fact, lose our balance.

Fortunately, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.  More than 3000 years of human existence has given us a pretty good idea of what works.  And if it worked for our mothers and fathers, then it will probably work for us too.  Tradition!

If we accept this principle—that wisdom is established over time and moves from generation to generation—then we would be unwise to wantonly abandon the traditions of our ancestors.  We might not be able to articulate the logic behind all of our established traditions, but the mere fact that they have existed for so long should cause us to question any revolutionary break lest the questioned tradition be the very foundation for maintaining our existence.

So sing on to Tradition, and enjoy your Shabbos—a tradition that both reaffirms our commitment to Judaism and serves to balance our mental and physical health.

Acharei-Kedoshim – The Pyramid of Success

Stephen Richer
The Pyramid of Success
Acharei-Kedoshim
Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27
4/22/2010

This week’s Torah portion is full of interesting topics.  It discusses Yom Kippur; dietary laws; incest, bestiality, and homosexuality; a number of the Ten Commandments; tattoos; and equal justice under the law.

A discourse of sexual immorality appeals to my puerile brain, but I’m going to instead start with the following quotation and see where it takes me.

“Any man of the House of Israel, who slaughters an ox, a lamb or a goat inside the camp, or who slaughters outside the camp,

but does not bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting to offer up as a sacrifice to the Lord before the Mishkan of the Lord, this [act] shall be counted for that man as blood he has shed blood, and that man shall be cut off from among his people.”  (Lev. 17:3 – 17:4)

The quotation reminds us to be grateful to those who have been kind to us.  In the grandest sense—as detailed in the Parsha—God created us, gave/gives us food, took us out of Egypt only a couple chapters ago, etc.  We acknowledge this by expressing our thanks, be it through sacrifice in the Tent of Meeting, through prayer, or however.

But this lesson applies equally to the non-spiritual world.  Nobody makes it to the top, or even close to the top, without significant help from others—teachers, coaches, mentors, etc.  The Parsha suggests that this is especially relevant to the family dynamic.  The beginning of the next verse—“in order that the children of Israel should bring their offerings …”—names the Israelites as children and God the parent, thereby suggesting that a similar relationship should unfold among genetic children and parents.  Later text reinforces this parallel:  “Every man shall fear his mother and his father, and you shall observe My Sabbaths.  I am the Lord, your God,” (Lev. 19:3) and “For any man who curses his father or his mother shall be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother; his blood is upon himself” (Lev. 20:9).

Most readily apparent is the lesson that because parents birth, feed, and clothe the child, parents are owed a sacrificial ox, lamb, or goat, or the modern day equivalent.

Children should certainly give thanks to their parents (**note to self**), but sacrificial lambs and Mother’s Day flowers aside, parents should derive satisfaction simply from the successes and prosperity of their children. On the most basic level, it is the combined genes of the parents that have built the child and his talents.  But it is also true that the success of the child reflects on the continuing actions of the parents.  Victory of the child on the athletic field, in the classroom, in business, wherever, is often the product of extra efforts of the parent.  For this reason, the parent should never be jealous of the child’s success, but instead, the parent should be the child’s biggest booster, realizing that any awards won for by the child translate (except in rare cases) to the parent.

In many respects, this is the story of the American immigrant.  First generation immigrants often struggled to reach the stereotypical definitions of success, but their efforts often paved the road for later generations.  To reiterate—but in slightly different language—success is not built in one generation; it is the product of generations of family members working toward similar goals.  Parents would do well to take the same pride and happiness in their child’s accomplishment as they would their own success. And the child would do well to acknowledge that his efforts simply represent the highest point on a growing pyramid.

On that note, happy upcoming Mother’s Day!

Take The Jews Out To The Ball Game

Stephen Richer
Take The Jews Out To The Ball Game
4/19/2010

In an atypical fashion, the Jewish crowd showed up early to the Nationals baseball game this past Sunday.  And it’s a good thing they did; otherwise they would have missed the ten runs that Milwaukee posted in the top of the first inning.

But despite the fact that the announcer called the President’s Race “the main event of the day,” the Nats did manage to climb back, making the last innings interesting as they lost 7 to 11.

More than 20 people showed up with the DC Minyan contingent led by Judy, allowing for a very spirited Hava Nagila from their section behind the center-right wall.  Some bloke named Stephen Richer was the only person to have a go at getting on the “Dance Cam” in the 4th inning, but nobody in the group made it on the big screen; nobody caught a ball, and nobody caught a t-shirt.  Better luck next time?

Side notes:

Wanting to fully digest the experience, your GTJ investigative reporter bought a pretzel, a chicken panini, and a peanut butter flavored gelato, none of which were adversely affected by the lop-sided score or the wind. Additionally, one member of the DC Minyan crowd managed to time the Kosher hot dog stand just right so that he received a “closing sale” of four hot dogs for the price of one.

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) also rallied together a number of J-Squaders to attend the event.

Tazria-Metzora – Cleanliness is Next to Godliness

Stephen Richer
Cleanliness is Next to Godliness
Tazria-Metzora
Leviticus 12:1 — 15:33
4/14/2010

The saying that “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” is an ancient Jewish proverb.  But like most of my acquired wisdom, I first heard the saying from my Mom and Dad who were upset that I regularly skipped showers for ten extra minutes of computer games (Starcraft in particular).  Had my parents not taught me the principle, however, it would have been made apparent to me by this week’s double Torah portion which is almost entirely about cleanliness.

“Speak to the children of Israel, saying: If a woman conceives and gives birth to a male, she shall be unclean for seven days; as [in] the days of her menstrual flow, she shall be unclean.

And on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.” (Lev. 12:2 – 12:3)

Again:

“If a man has a se’eith, a sappachath, or a bahereth on the skin of his flesh, and it forms a lesion of tzara’th on the skin of his flesh, he shall be brought to Aaron the kohen, or to one of his sons, the kohanim.

The kohen shall look at the lesion on the skin of his flesh, and [if] hair in the lesion has turned white and the appearance of the lesion is deeper than the skin of his flesh, it is a lesion of tzara’ath.  When the kohen sees this, he shall pronounce him unclean.” (Lev 13:2 – 13:3)

And a final instance before we move on:

“Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them, if any man has a discharge from his flesh, his discharge is unclean.

Any bedding upon which the man with the discharge will lie, shall become unclean, and any object which he will sit, shall become unclean.” (Lev 15:2 – 15:4)

This double portion undoubtedly had practical applications—general sanitation couldn’t have been too great in the pre-historic (defined by me, and others, as anything preceding the fall of the first temple in 586 BCE).  Child morbidity rates often approached 50 percent, and showers were few and far between.

But Torah wisdom spans time; what application can be drawn from this portion when leprosy—as alluded to in the second quote—is no longer a major concern?

Yes, there is, as I first suggested, a general prescription for cleanliness and organization.  The sages say that the state of our houses, or our personages, is reflective of the state of our minds—if one is unorganized, so too is the other.  This is substantiated by the Jewish notion that the person is composed of three equal and interconnected parts: the spiritual, the mental, and the physical.

Yet if this notion of cleanliness stopped there, we could simply hire a house cleaner and a fashion agent and thereby establish harmony in at least one of the three Jewish parts.

If something is too good to be true, it usually is—Judaism is supposed to be a difficult religion to follow.  So what are the broader applications for this call for cleanliness?  Other commentaries tell us that the physical impurities mentioned in this Parsha are not only physical, be they ailments or natural occurrences, but they are also symbolic for transgressions or unclean acts.  If we accept this premise, then I can see four ways in which the portion speaks beyond hygiene:

One: Wrong-doings cannot be hidden.  We might think that our unseemly conduct can be hidden by a public façade of Mr. Perfect, but it can’t.  The portion spends much time on the visible effects of the leprosy-like disease; the whole community is aware of the affliction—no make-up or hair cut is sufficient disguise.  Similarly, even the man who cheats on his spouse or steals from a bank and is not immediately apprehended cannot walk away unscathed.  First, he can never hide from his own conscious.  Nobody phrased this better than Edgar Allan Poe in The Tell-Tale Heart, in which the main character is undone by the murdered man’s heartbeat that only he hears.  But the portion teaches that our relationships with others are similarly adulterated.  Community members might not sense the exact wrong, but they can see at least part of the uncleanliness.

Two: Deal with problems/uncleanly acts immediately.  For every uncleanliness the portion describes, it immediately follows with an antidote or a prescription to see the kohanim.  As noted in point one, problems don’t get better if they fester. (The Torah here predicts one of our chief remedies for cutting health care costs… don’t wait until problems get so bad that you require the emergency room).

Three: Sins and uncleanlinesses are contagious.  The portion is adamant about not only cleansing the perpetrator of the unclean action, but anything that might have come into contact with the actor.  “The kohen shall order that they clear out the house, before the kohen comes to look at the lesion, so that everything in the house should not become unclean.”  Disease spreads, but so too do ways of life.  Fascinating studies show that if you spend more time with thin people, you’re likely to lose weight.  Similarly, the depressed and pessimistic often have a negative effect on those around them.  The pernicious habits of the “morally unclean” can likewise spread.  Basically, make sure your kid goes to the right kind of school.

Fourth (and finally):  Take some time to reflect.  Nothing in the portion that is unclean or tainted is made clean in an instant.  Rather, they require waiting periods.  “And for thirty three days, she shall remain in the blood of purity; she shall not touch anything holy, nor may she enter the Sanctuary.” (Lev. 12:4)  “And anyone who touches the flesh of the man with a discharge, shall immerse his garments and immerse himself in water, and he shall remain unclean until evening.” (Lev. 15:7).  If we commit an unclean act, we cannot simply say “sorry,” and that jump right back into life.  We have to set aside time where we behave differently so that we reflect on the action.

This week’s double portion does preach personal hygiene, and it isn’t adverse to the idea of spring cleaning.  But perhaps more importantly, it teaches us the characteristics of our unclean actions and their negative effects.

Shemini – Rules and Regulations

Stephen Richer
Rules and Regulations
Shemini
Leviticus 9:1 — 11:47
4/6/2010

In this week’s Torah portion, the laws of Kosher are introduced.

“And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, to say to them: Speak to the child of Israel, saying: These are the creatures that you may eat among all the animals on earth:

Any animal that has a cloven hoof that is completely split into double hooves, and which brings up its cud that one you may eat.

But these you shall not among those that bring up the cud and those that have a cloven hoof: the camel, because it brings up its cud, but does not have a [completely] cloven hoof; it is unclean for you” (Lev 11:1 – 11:3)

And so on and so forth.

The laws of Kosher characterize Judaism as a religion of rules and laws.  Unfortunately, rules and laws have negative connotations in today’s society—they connote constraint, restriction, and limitation.  Especially among modern-day American Jews, rules and laws are frowned upon.  We’re the people of academic greatness, the people of unlimited creativity, the people of Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. We don’t want a religion of rules and laws to shackle us.

But whether it’s the laws of Kosher, Shabbat, prayer, or otherwise, it cannot be escaped that Judaism is a religion of rules.

The question then becomes: What benefits do we derive from a litigious religion, and do these benefits outweigh the restrictions imposed?

Five potential benefits (This list does not presume to be comprehensive.  Numbers 1, 4, and 5 pertain to the individual; 2 and 3 to God):

1)
Rules instill a strict physical and mental discipline in the Jewish person that allows us to succeed in other areas of life.  Simply put, the man that can discipline himself out of the temptation of a cheeseburger, can surely condition himself into working late hours, taking practice LSATs, or honoring his father and mother.

I like to analogize this to my experiences with bed-making.  My mom forced me to make my bed every morning from age 6 to age 16.  Not being an early-morning person, I of course hated this forced action. Nobody ever went into my room, and it was just going to be messed up the very next night—one of the greatest exercises in existentialism ever created.

But it did instill some personal discipline that I was able channel to other areas of my life that produced perhaps more tangible benefits.  Be it homework, sports, or Nintendo game, I was able to force myself to get up early and stay up late to practice. (Although with the exception of the third activity, this discipline didn’t come until age 17.)

2)  Just as my Mom appreciated it when I made my bed, God has his reasons for appreciating our keeping Kosher or the Sabbath.  We don’t necessarily have to understand what these reasons are.  I didn’t really get why my mom would feel more comfortable and at peace with the world when I cleaned my room, but for some reason she did.  And considering everything that my mom has done for me, it was the least I could do to follow a few of her rules to make her feel better, even if she couldn’t explain why.  Same with God?

3)
The sages (via Rabbis Mordechai and Teitelbaum) tell us that our physical assets, be they books, money, or our bodies, are on loan—they belong to God, and we’re simply borrowing them for a while (hopefully at least 100 years).

Since our bodies ultimately belong to God, and since he is getting back in the end, he wants them back in mint condition.  He’s basically the Hertz of the rental car world.  This is why there’s also rules against tattoos—no scratches on the car.

4)
We can’t necessarily foresee the future value of our actions.  Going back to the bed-making example, it was nice that when I got to college I knew how to be at least a moderately clean roommate.  But potential importance of this never struck me when I was young.  Similarly, we don’t what is going on the afterlife—perhaps some of these seemingly pointless rules are meant to prepare us for that.

5)
Religion requires faith.  By drilling our faith on a daily basis, doing these little exercises, we are better prepared for the larger leaps of faith.  Furthermore, by coming across the rules of prayer, Kosher, and Shabbat on a regular basis, we are constantly interacting with Judaism and the positive benefits (some of them more worldly, such as a moral code) it entails.

These five points seem to muster sufficient force to outweigh the hassle of Judaism’s many rules.  Of course, though I observe elements of Judaism, I don’t keep Kosher, so they’re obviously not convincing enough…