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Posted By The Stash

In this parasha we find the well known law of the “rebellious son”. Read literally, it would seem to mandate the death penalty for any boy who likes to eat and drink to gluttonous extremes while not listening to his parents. If this law were followed, most male Jewish teenagers would not survive to adulthood!

Which is precisely the Talmudic Sages’ attitude towards this law. In a famous section of Massechet Sanhedrin, the Sages analyze this law in detail, providing a reduction ab absurdam analysis that can easily confuse the first time learner. We learn that in order to be liable for the death penalty, the son had to drink a huge quantity of wine (almost a gallon) while consuming a huge portion of meat. He had to steal from his father’s property and then consume the food in his mother’s property and vice versa on a number of occasions. In addition, both parents had to want him punished. And this is only a partial list of the restrictions on what is apparently, at first glance, a brutal law. In the final analysis in Sanhedrin 71b, the Talmud admits that, given all these restrictions, “there never was nor will there be a case of the rebellious son.” To which the Talmud asks, “so why did we learn all this?” The conclusion: “learn it so that you will obtain the reward of learning”—the close analysis of the Sages that reveals the impossibility of this law is its own reward.

What a profound statement in our all too “bottom-line” society. Pausing to analyze and think a text through, analyzing its meaning, questioning its purpose, grappling with its conclusions—these are holy acts. The Sages’ belief that the Torah was literally the Word of the Living G-d did not prevent them from closely analyzing it and seeking meaning in every jot and tittle of its grammatical obscurities. We are the inventors of “Torah l’shma”—learning for its own sake, valuing the process of acquiring knowledge and following what we have learned to new and fascinating places.

Our society has great reverence for the scientific method, and rightly so. Science has added years to our lives and improved the quality of life for many. It seeks quantifiable results with clear outcomes and rightly uses its successes to justify funding. By contrast, the Arts seem so much “fuzzier”, their results far less quantifiable, and thus funding is drying up. Certainly, Torah l’shma, learning for its own sake, seems even more nebulous: what are the rewards of “stam limud”, just learning a text, even going so far as to devote a lifetime to studying Talmud? Many Israelis would quickly say “no”, but the example of ultra-Orthodox Jews spending their lifetimes in Torah study has reached an unprecedentedly high percentage and this skews both Israelis’ and our reactions. In the past, only the elite could afford to study Torah l’shma, and there were no complaints about this. Even Ben Gurion recognized the value of this type of scholarship provided the numbers engaged were reasonable.

Given this, we should acknowledge that not only is there a place for those who have the erudition to study Torah l’shma, but that Judaism always needs such people to wrestle, as the Sages did, with key questions that lie at the interface of faith and the world. To live as 21st century Jews requires a level of both religious knowledge and secular understanding that can only be mediated by scholars with deep roots in each world who have time to study. As for us, there is also a place to learn, though we certainly are not scholars. Shabbat is a day where time pauses, a reaffirmation of the importance of simply pausing to consider our place in Creation, and seek spiritual and intellectual refreshment. It is appropriate to set aside some time on Shabbat to learn for its own sake and expand our knowledge of Judaism so we can better hear its voice. We can all learn just for the sake of learning and become refreshed.

Posted By The Stash

Part Two...


Closer to the city, bal tashchit has made inroads, albeit slowly, into Bar/Bat Mitzvot and weddings conspicuous consumption. This has been an uphill struggle in Jewish law for 4 centuries. The Council of Four Lands, which provided legal leadership in what is now Poland and Lithuania in the 17th and 18th centuries, made many efforts to enact “sumptuary laws” but the common people ignored them and competed with each other in producing lavish wedding feasts. This spread to Bar/Bat Mitzvot in twentieth century America, in which conspicuous consumption became the order of the day. Much of this still goes on now. There are some organizations that address this by picking up food after affairs and giving it to the needy. Often municipal bylaws make this challenging, but Harvest Food Bank has been making some progress.

In sum, Intelligent Jews should be mindful that the laws of “bal tashchit” are as important, and certainly more politically correct, than they have ever been. We are, as Severn Suzuki pointed out a long time ago at Rio, a “throwaway society.” Watching the mad scrambles at the Apple store after every new Apple iPhone release certainly confirms that. The earth is precious, and, as the Torah points out, despoiling it is a sin against The Creator and against our fellow humans who wish to use its resources. It is only when we consider the widest consequences of our actions that we begin to appreciate the power of our choices and how important it is to take stock of ourselves and improve as the threshold of the new year moves ever closer.

Posted By The Stash

Once again, the environment is in the spotlight. Is this scorching summer only a harbinger of the full effects of global warming? Should the oil sands be “mined” for their oil, or is the effect on the environment so detrimental that we should remain with more conventional sources of oil? Should farmers still be required to allow oil pipelines the right of passage through their fields whether they like it or not? May a farmer clear the trees from his land to use it for farmland?

The Torah raises this issue in our parasha when the text prohibits the cutting down of fruit trees during a siege in order to build battering rams to shatter the city gates. But the language the Torah employs is very interesting: “When you shall besiege a city for a long time in order to eventually capture it, you may not destroy its trees by cutting them down with an axe, for you may eat of them, but not cut them down. For is the tree of the field man, that it should be besieged by you?”

Our Sages have found the language confusing, but the majority of Sages follow the interpretation of Maimonides. He expanded these verses’ scope far beyond the case of a besieged city. “Whoever cuts down a fruit-bearing tree, in a destructive manner, is liable to lashes. But it may be cut down if it damages other trees, or causes harm to neighbouring fields, or fetches a high price. The Torah only forbade willful destruction. This is not only the case with trees. Whoever smashes utensils, tears a garment, demolishes a building, stops up a well, or willfully destroys food, is guilty of violating the commandment of “bal tashchit”—willful destruction.” (Mishneh Torah. Laws of Kings, 6,8,10)

Jewish conservationists have taken this interpretation as a rallying cry against wonton destruction of the environment for what is often thinly described as “progress”. There has been a new interest in Jewish environmental education, a return to Jewish farming—a Jewish farm school has opened in upstate New York—and a renewed interest in the writings of Abraham Isaac Kook and Toronto born Rabbi Larry Troster who both advocated experiental Jewish approaches to our environment.

A couple of weeks ago I was privileged to view the concept of Bal Tashchit first hand. I went to the 300 head dairy farm of the Loeweth Family just outside Hamilton. Their farm is considered a model among Canadian farms. They plant their own alfalfa and corn to minimize the purchase of outside feed, recycle cow waste into fertilizer for their fields, built a barn that is designed to use the natural effects of heating and cooling to minimize electric use while maintaining a constant temperature. They told me that this is the new wave of dairy farming, and they have been voted best dairy farm in Canada (out of 4,000) seven of the past eight years, so they obviously are exemplars.



Posted By The Stash

Today's parasha opens with a fascinating verse whose semantic challenge is evident only in the Hebrew. Here is the appropriate translation: "Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse. A blessing, if ("asher") you obey the commandments…and a curse if ("im") you will not obey." The Hebrew words for "if" are not equivalent—the first one, asher, connotes certainty that obedience will take place, while the second, im¸ connotes doubt. Normally the Torah, believing strongly in the concept of free will, would have written im in both cases, since even G-d has no control over human obedience.

The Malbim, an Italian Rabbi, doctor, and commentator, drew on his own life experience to explain this language by asserting that "the parallel is the doctor who assures the patient that he will be well as long as he follows a certain prescribed regimen." In other words, common sense will lead the patient to freely choose the best choice, which is to follow the law. It would be life threatening not to do so.

But this does not explain completely why the Torah uses a negative connotation to describe the possibility of choosing not to obey. Rashi argues that G-d assumes that obedience will be the choice and "pays the reward forward", that is, automatically credits each person's account on the assumption that they will obey the commandments. It is only if they fail to, that their account is debited, so to speak.

But the modern ear may find these approaches disquieting because the tone of absolutism in the choices reminds many of the strident demands religion makes on its followers. These verses sound polarizing—those who do will be rewarded and those who don't will be punished, subtleties of Hebrew diction be damned. And here lies our challenge. Extremists of all faiths delight in pointing to and including verses like this in their ideologies and espousing them publicly at every turn. In their world, all is starkly Manichean—Evil vs Good, and choices are stark and seemingly obvious to the faithful of all stripes.

Once again, tradition offers an answer, based on a careful reading of the original text. Judaism does not believe that G-d has anything to do with Evil. The Psalm many congregations will read on Rosh Chodesh begins, "how numerous are your works, O L-rd, you made them all in wisdom." This of course coincides with the final observation of the Torah at the end of Creation: "and G-d saw all that had been done, and it was very good." The world is innately good, peoples' negative choices produce evil. Knowing all this, and capable of understanding how poor choices have sullied history, the Intelligent Jew should understand the opening verse of Re'eh prescriptively rather than proscriptively. We need not seek refuge in extremism. The world is complex because it is full of people bearing the wonderful individualism inscribed upon them by the Creator. Our responses to the dilemmas of modern life must be positive, rational, carefully considered, but never blamed on G-d.

Posted By The Stash

Today's parasha contains the second paragraph of the Shema, entitled "Ve'haya Im Shamo'a" which is said twice daily. You may recall that we read the first paragraph of Shema in last week's parasha. This may lead you to the obvious conclusion: the chapters are recited in the order in which they appear in the Torah. But this is not true because the third paragraph, which refers to the mitzvah of tzizit, comes from the fourth book of the Torah, which we have already read.

So how to explain why this paragraph is the second? There are many reasons but one is particularly interesting. The first paragraph of Shema is written in singular, while the second paragraph is written in the plural. The first paragraph begins with a command to "love the L-rd your G-d" which can only be legislated on an individual basis, if indeed it can be legislated at all. Maimonides argued that since love is commanded by the Torah, and the mitzvoth are doable, the command does not refer to emotional love but acting in a manner that causes others to love G-d. Rambam cited Abraham as the prime example of this type of love, since his behavior was so exemplary that others were inspired to seek out the One G-d, and worship and forsake idols.

If we apply this rationale, we then end up with many individuals who act in an exemplary fashion. But is that enough to produce a nation, or a religion? Not quite. They need to have a collective belief that what each of them does brings an intangible value that can shape a greater world and a greater whole. So the second paragraph of Shema is in the plural. It commands those who are committed to spreading the belief in G-d in the world to put on tefillin and follow the mitzvoth with all their collective hearts. Why are tefillin mentioned in both chapters of Shema? Because they go on the head and the arm, thus representing the fusion of thought and action.

It is one thing for the individual to influence others to follow the mitzvoth. It is a much harder task to create a whole group of people who believe in this, for this requires the subordination of the individual's ego to the collective whole. And tefillin symbolize this leap from the one to the many. A way of life can only be truly motivating when hypocrisy is removed—when the hand does what the brain commands—the very symbolism of tefillin. Only thus can we move from the one, from an individual like Abraham who discovered G-d, to building the many—a people who share these beliefs.

Abraham converted others because of his exemplary behavior, but the midrash teaches that the converts he made did not remain Hebrews because he did not ask anything more of them than belief. Belief—a thing of the mind—must be backed by actions—done by the body. Hence, the two paragraphs of Shema the repetition of the commandment of tefillin and the shift from singular to plural. May we be privileged to bring respect to Judaism through our individual actions, honesty, knowledge, belief, and lack of hypocrisy.



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