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Posted By The Stash

We always read from the Book of BaMidbar when Shavuot occurs. Our Sages arranged the readings in this manner. But what was their purpose?

Rabbi Sacks, in this week’s Covenant and Conversation, offers an innovative argument. He sees the Torah as being composed of five literary cycles which have a carefully delineated order. “The basic shape of the narrative is roughly the same in all five cases. First God creates order. Then humanity creates chaos. Terrible consequences follow. Then God begins again, deeply grieved but never losing His faith in the one life-form on which He set His image and to which He gave the singular gift that made humanity godlike, namely freedom itself.”

Sacks cites the first, and most simple narrative cycle of the Torah as proof. He observes that “Act 1 is told in Genesis 1-11. God creates an ordered universe and fashions humanity from the dust of the earth into which He breathes His own breath. But humans sin: first Adam and Eve, then Cain, then the generation of the Flood. The earth is filled with violence. God brings a flood and begins again, making a covenant with Noah. Humanity sins again by making the Tower of Babel. So God begins again, seeking a role model who will show the world what it is to live in faithful response to the word of God. He finds it in Abraham and Sarah.”

And what then is the role of Shavuot in this narrative? Sacks’ answer is thought provoking: “The Jewish story is a strange one. Time and again the Jewish people has split apart, in the days of the First Temple when the kingdom divided into two, in the late Second Temple period when it was riven into rival groups and sects, and in the modern age, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when it fragmented into religious and secular in Eastern Europe, orthodox and others in the West. Those divisions have still not healed. And so the Jewish people keeps repeating the story told five times in the Torah. God creates order. Humans create chaos. Bad things happen, then God and Israel begin again. Will the story never end? One way or another it is no coincidence that Bemidbar usually precedes Shavuot, anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Sinai. God never tires of reminding us that the central human challenge in every age is whether freedom can coexist with order. It can, when humans freely choose to follow God’s laws, given in one way to humanity after the Flood and in another to Israel after the exodus.”

I would like to think that historical cycles can be broken. It would be wonderful if the pattern Rabbi Sacks has discovered is only a testimony to human frailty. I hope democracy can find a balance between group rights and individual rights, which are all too rapidly gaining a narcissistic ascendancy in law and society. There are no simple solutions to our desire for freedom and the need for order, but the Torah suggests that a balance is essential if we are to stop repeating the cycle Sacks so interestingly presents.

Posted By The Stash

Land: a very precious thing for many people. Too precious perhaps. Think of how many wars have been fought over land and borders. Not just borders of countries, or cities, but disputes over fences and lot lines. The history of both Canada and the United States is largely a history of Europeans who came here in search of land, and who battled and ultimately dispossessed the First Nations whose belief that the land belonged to the Great Spirit and needed no title sadly proved part of their undoing.

The Torah provides a powerful antidote to human arrogance, greed, and the impulse to acquire land at all costs with its many agricultural laws. Our parasha describes the shnat yovel, the Jubilee Year, the 50th year that culminated the cycle of 49 years, with 7 sabbatical years interspersed among them. Like the sabbatical year, the Jubilee required that the land lie fallow, and that no crops be planted or harvested. But the Jubilee had a special feature: each piece of land would return to its original owner if it had been sold and all Hebrew slaves would be set free.

This certainly prompts thoughts of economic disaster. After all, the Jubilee year followed a sabbatical year (the 49th of the cycle) and therefore there would be no planting or harvesting for two years. The text acknowledges this by noting that the produce of the 48th year would be sufficient for the next three. Fine words certainly, and Divine too, but the average farmer would find them difficult to believe literally. Nor did they have to, for the Sages permitted land to be divided into smaller portions and each portion to be planted in a separate year so that farmers’ entire landholdings were never completely unplanted or harvested. Yet, certainly crop yields did fall in sabbatical years and even more so in the Jubilee.

It is, thus, the freeing of the slaves that marks the most obvious difference between the sabbatical and Jubilee years. Ibn Ezra powerfully observes that captive birds sing less lustily than free ones, because animals yearn to be free. So, he continues, do people. People naturally wish to be free and a nation that knew slavery cannot practice it eternally. The essence of the commandments of Judaism is freedom through law, thus Jewish law must outlaw permanent slavery. In an era when slavery was the normative practice, the idea of freeing slaves was certainly unique. But the Torah’s affirmation that people innately want independence and hate slavery echoes through the millennia. As we enjoy our respite from the week on Shabbat, we recall that the essence of freedom is the power to choose what you will do with your free time.

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It is vital that Intelligent Jews read “between the lines of ritual” and seek out the moral and ethical teachings of the commandments, especially those that seem to be “dated”. One of the outstanding examples of this is in today’s parasha, where we are told that it is forbidden to slaughter an animal and its calf on the same day. There is a similar mitzva found later in the Torah which commands us not to chase a mother bird from her nest in order to take the eggs.

The Kli Yakar, a very profound 17th century commentator, observed that these were educative mitzvot: “If children observe parents being tender to a mother bird and its offspring, they will think to themselves ‘how much more important is it for children to care tenderly for their parents?” He also added parents bring about the birth of a child, but G-d caused the creation. Similarly, acting contemplatively when seeking bird’s eggs or slaughtering meat would serve as a reminder that we are the harvesters, but G-d provided the abundance through the renewing power of creation. The Kli Yakar would surely be delighted by conservation efforts and concerns for the maintenance of biodiversity in the face of increased pressures to reduce the size of rainforests and native habitats.

There is a deep message here about our “oneness” with nature and the importance of being “conservers” rather than “rulers” of the world. There is also a powerful reminder of how carefully our children observe everything we do and embed it for possible later use. This was true 400 years ago and it still resonates. There are some, such as Rabbi Kook, who understood these mitzvoth as even more reasons for practicing vegetarianism. For them, the human role as hunter reflects a deep desire to displace nature, to drive apart mothers and children. For others, who either enjoy meat, or eat it because they acknowledge their human frailty, these mitzvot serve as cautionary reminders, along with the prescriptions of kashrut, that we must at least minimize the pain and suffering this causes the animals.

Why should we care about these things? Maimonides, the great rationalist, argued that being cognizant of the feelings of animals would humble us and make us more conscious of our role as Divine stewards. So true. Intelligent Jews realize that these mitzvoth lead to a mindset that values not only diverse people, but the biodiversity of the world. We can only reach our potential by not treading on others, being consciously cognizant of their feelings, and being humbly grateful to wake up each morning. Without these mitzvoth to heighten our sensitivity, we will become morally (and soon physically) coarse and self-centred. G-d knows the world has enough of this already.

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The names of this week’s double Torah portion translate as “After they die, all are holy”. This has led to a famous Rabbinic inside joke: this quote describes a eulogy because it is essential to say nice things about people after they have passed away. Now, you may find this funny or upsetting, but there is a deep truth to it that is well worth considering.

In his famous book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey asked his readers to imagine what the officiant would say at their funeral. He argued that this visualization exercise would compel people to prioritize what they most valued in life and decide to work towards that goal. Our Rabbis invoked a similar approach when they observed “this world is merely a hallway leading to the banquet hall of the next.” Both Covey and the Sages agree, though their tone is markedly different, on the importance of prioritizing personal goals in this world.

Indeed, the entire system of Judaism’s commandments is a method for self improvement of the spirit and the body. When the commandments are observed intelligently, when they are understood psychologically, they become tools towards self-improvement. Indeed, the 19th century Mussar (Self-Improvement) movement argued that a person who completely understood, practiced, and internalized the commandments was capable of prophecy. They had raised themselves to a level where they could communicate directly with the Divine.

And how will knowledgeable observance of the commandments benefit the rest of us who have no prophetic aspirations? Today’s Torah portion provides a powerful answer: “and you shall make yourselves holy, for I, the L-rd your G-d, am holy.” The list of commandments associated with this statement underscores Judaism’s belief that holiness can best be achieved by active engagement in this world. The Torah makes it very clear that proper behaviour in everyday life is the path to holiness. But why? Because Judaism teaches that holiness, bringing the Divine to Earth, is accomplished by teaching others through personal examples. Speaking respectfully to parents, finding a place for religious observance, valuing tradition, living the law rather than lecturing about it, are among the commandments listed in today’s reading. And those who follow them will become exemplars of appropriate life choices to their children, who will hopefully elect to maintain Jewish continuity out of love and respect for how they were raised.

And that brings us full circle. “The law is not in heaven”, proclaims the Torah, “but in your mouth and in your heart, so you will follow it.” Holiness is best found in thoughtful and intelligent Jewish practice that will inspire a new generation to follow. And if parents successfully motivate their children to maintain Jewish continuity through this type of approach, then there is no need to worry about being compelled to say nice things at the funeral. Let us seek to inspire others through our example, so the ripple of holiness we create flows out to many, even those beyond our familiar shores.




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