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Developing Compassion

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A mother wren feeds her three babies in their nest near Buckhorn Lake. CC by 2.0. Courtesy LouisvilleUSACE.

In our Torah portion for this Shabbat we come across a number of seemingly random commandments. One of them is known as Shiluach HaKen – sending away the mother bird. If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs, and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may be well and have a long life. (Deuteronomy 22.6-7)

A parallel to this commandment is found by many commentators in Leviticus: When an ox or a sheep or a goat is born, it shall stay seven days with its mother, and from the eighth day on, it shall be acceptable as an offering by fire to the Eternal. However, no animal from the herd or from the flock shall be slaughtered on the same day with its young. (Leviticus 22.27-28)

On the face of it, the rationale seems simple. We should send away the mother so the mother does not experience the pain of seeing her young taken away. The Women’s Torah Commentary (URJ Press) observes: “Such laws appear to stem from a perception that animals have an emotional attachment to their young, and from a humane concern to limit their distress.”

The medieval commentator Nachmanides (known as the “Ramban”) suggests that the purpose of these particular mitzvot, and others of course, is to cultivate within us the qualities of kindness and compassion. But note that it’s not so much out of concern for the animal that these mitzvot exist, but to educate us to be better human beings.

The Talmud (Berakhot 33b) suggests that it is not appropriate to look for a rationale for all the mitzvot, especially some that may seem particularly puzzling to us. The point of the mitzvot, according to the Talmud, is to teach us obedience to God. Period.

As Reform Jews, we are more inclined to understand and agree with the Ramban’s notion of cultivating kindness and humanity in ourselves. If we are concerned with the feelings of birds, after all, how much the more so ought we be concerned with our treatment of other human beings! Moreover, our approach in general is to try to understand the rationale behind various mitzvot, as we constantly evaluate their applicability (or not) to our lives. But the bottom line is that, whether we accept the Torah mitzvot as God’s law, regardless of whether or not we understand the rationale behind it, or we constantly evaluate it to increase our understanding of it and its relevance to us, we nevertheless embrace it as Jews throughout our lives as a source of our moral grounding as Jews.

Hating Without Cause – What Can We Learn From This?

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Stones of Destruction near Robinson’s Arch at the Kotel

This coming Shabbat is the 9th of Av – Tishah B’av. Because Tishah B’av is a day of mourning, our tradition prescribes that when it falls on Shabbat, we delay its observance until Sunday, because no mourning is permitted on Shabbat. Thus the observance will be on Sunday this year. Tishah B’av commemorates the destructions of the Temples in Jerusalem: the first in 586 BCE by the Babylonians, and the second in 70 CE by the Romans. The first destruction was bad enough, followed by years of exile in Babylon. The second was almost more than the Jews could bear, and for generations the Rabbis tried to make sense of it. The following is from the Talmud, Tractate Yoma. (Yoma is Aramaic for the Hebrew HaYom, The Day, referring to Yom Kippur.)

Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 9b
מקדש ראשון מפני מה חרב? מפני שלשה דברים שהיו בו: עבודה זרה, וגלוי עריות, ושפיכות דמים. . . . אבל מקדש שני, שהיו עוסקין בתורה ובמצות וגמילות חסדים מפני מה חרב? מפני שהיתה בו שנאת חנם. ללמדך ששקולה שנאת חנם כנגד שלש עבירות: עבודה זרה, גלוי עריות, ושפיכות דמים

Why was the First Temple destroyed? Because of three evils in it: idolatry, sexual immorality and bloodshed . . . But why was the Second Temple destroyed, seeing that during the time it stood people occupied themselves with Torah, with observance of precepts, and with the practice of charity? Because during the time it stood, hatred without rightful cause prevailed. This is to teach you that hatred without rightful cause is deemed as grave as all the three sins of idolatry, sexual immorality and bloodshed together.

The three mortal sins of idolatry, sexual immorality, and bloodshed, are those for which capital punishment could be imposed. While this virtually never happened, it was, in theory at least, the law of the Torah. According to Yoma, the Jews of 6th-century BCE Jerusalem had been committing all three of these sins, weakening the very foundations of their community and of the Temple itself. That is why the First Temple was destroyed, according to this passage.

But with the Second Temple it was different. The Jews were not committing the mortal sins named in the Torah. Instead, they fell into a far worse pattern of behavior, according to the Rabbis. They allowed themselves to be taken over by baseless hatred of one another. Thus the Rabbis taught that so destructive is the sin of hatred without cause, that it is equal to all three of the mortal sins put together. The explanation for the destruction and dislocation that was foisted upon the Jewish community with the Second Destruction was sinat hinam. We brought down our own house, as it were, through baseless hatred.

Fellow Americans: The Talmud was addressing internal Jewish relations, and the warning is as relevant for the Jewish community today as it was two millennia ago, whether in the United States, in Israel, or wherever Jewish communities exist. But for the moment, I am concerned about us as Americans. Perhaps it would behoove us to look around at our country, listen to the rhetoric, and consider the destructiveness of sinat hinam. Of course we hold different perspectives on the specifics of policies that would achieve economic, social and political well-being for the United States, and for the world. All us are entitled to hold our perspectives and advocate for them. What we cannot afford to do is engage in destructive and hateful actions and rhetoric. It is difficult in a heated campaign season such as this one; since in fact, never before has there ever been a campaign season such as this one, marked by bigotry, violence, incitement, xenophobia, mistrust of those with opposing points of view, and so on! Nonetheless, every one of us, no matter where we find ourselves along this strange spectrum, needs to be on our guard, lest we ourselves fall into the trap of sinat hinam.

“Sinat hinam, hatred without rightful cause, is deemed as grave as all the three sins of idolatry, sexual immorality and bloodshed together.”

 

Blind Justice

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“Who stole the people’s money?” — “‘Twas him.” (18 August 1871) Thomas Nast’s cartoons of the corruption in Tammany Hall contributed to the fall of Boss Tweed.

We are no strangers to political scandals in our country, particularly those involving the bribery of public officials. Anyone who makes decisions based upon some promise of personal gain, either privately or professionally, compromises the public trust. Our sidra reminds us that bribery is one of the most serious offenses a public official could commit, particularly those who are involved in the judicial system. Every person who comes before the court, either in a criminal or civil proceeding, is supposed to receive equal treatment by the magistrate, regardless of his/her financial or social status. The image of blind justice grows out of the insistence upon equal treatment under the law for all individuals. This notion should be applied not only to judges and public officials, but to anyone entrusted with the responsibility of an organization or community of any kind. The word is שחד- shochad – bribery. The Talmud offers an etymology of the word as a combination of two words: שהוא חד – shehu chad – that it is one. This means that if we take a bribe, we are psychologically linked with the person who gave it to us. The same way we would defend ourselves, so too would we always try to defend the person with whom we became one by taking his bribe.

Underlying this injunction grows out of the fundamental theology of our Torah: we all are created in the divine image, and thus equally entitled to fair and equal treatment; under the law, and in the organizations and communities to which we belong. The rich should not be given any opportunity to use their wealth to wield influence in the public sphere, particularly in legal proceedings.

(Deuteronomy 16.19-20)

You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.