Thursday, March 16, 2017

Broken Tablets

A mere 40 days after hearing God’s voice pronounce the Ten Commandments, the Israelites suffered a serious setback. Unable to comprehend the idea of an invisible God speaking in a Divine voice, they returned to the more familiar, simplistic, man-made idols of their immediate Egyptian past — the golden calf. Upon shaping the golden calf, Aaron declared, “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4).

Moses, who spent those same 40 days atop Mount Sinai with God, then descended the mountain “with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, written on both sides” (Exodus 32:15).

Who had shaped and written these tablets?

“The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God” (Exodus 32:16).

Carrying in his hand the weight of “God’s word,” Moses looked down at his own brothers and sisters. “And it happened when he drew near the camp that he saw the calf and the dancing, and Moses’ wrath flared, and he flung the tablets from his hand and smashed them at the bottom of the mountain” (Exodus 32:19). In one dark moment, the romanticized fantasy of one people becoming the bearers of God’s word was shattered to pieces.

Next came the real challenge: Where do we go from here?

The Talmud teaches: “Rabbi Judah bar Ilai said - Two arks journeyed with Israel in the wilderness — one where the Torah was kept, and one where the tablets broken by Moses were kept. The one containing the Torah was kept in the Tent of Meeting; the other, containing the broken tablets, would come and go everywhere with them” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Shekalim, 1:1).

Another Talmudic teaching goes one step further: “Both the new tablets of the law and the broken pieces of the first tablets were kept in the same Ark of the Covenant” (Talmud Bavli, Berakhot, 8b).

How did Moses and the Israelites move beyond their breakdown? Realizing their mistake and what they had potentially lost, the Israelites searched for remnants of the first tablets, collected the broken remains of their first encounter with God, and they gave them to Moses. Fortunate enough to be given a second chance, Moses brought down another set of God-given tablets and placed them alongside the broken pieces.

Both Talmudic teachings (“separate arks” or “the same ark”) offer us a powerful reminder that wholeness and brokenness share equal spaces in life. The Tablets of the Law, in both whole and broken form, serve as a metaphor for the human condition — striving for perfection, all the while embracing imperfection. Both the whole and the broken are considered sacred in the Jewish tradition. They are both “Devar Hashem – the word of God.”

Failures, broken dreams and shattered fantasies are an inevitable and natural part of life. Indeed, Shevirat Luhot -- the symbolic “shattering of tablets” -- is often a necessary gateway through which we must pass in order to reach the greater heights that we seek in life. In other words: no pain, no gain.

Through the episode of the golden calf, the broken tablets, and the second tablets, Moses and the Israelites teach us a very powerful lesson in life, one that has been part of the Jewish experience for thousands of years: when we experience a breakdown, it is still possible to “pick up the pieces” and start all over again.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Rav Uziel's Vision for Rabbinic Leadership

On November 26, 1936, Rav Ben Zion Meir Hai Uziel delivered a lecture to a large gathering of rabbis in Jerusalem. Titled The Seat of the Rabbinate, Rav Uziel’s words were delivered as an introduction to that day’s elections for the Council of the Chief Rabbinate of the Land of Israel. Speaking to rabbis who would potentially join him as part of the Land of Israel’s national rabbinic leadership, Rav Uziel articulated a vision for what he felt were the priorities of the rabbinate in the Yishuv in Erets Yisrael (which eventually became the modern-day State of Israel):

                  When it comes to public and national matters, the issue of Mishpat (The Torah’s Civil Laws) is a weighty and burdensome responsibility on a rabbi, for it is these matters that establish the path of life towards success or disaster, peace or dispute. God thus commanded us: “Execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates” (Zecharia 8:16).

When Rav Uziel used the term “mishpat” to describe the Torah’s civil laws, what was he referring to?

“And these are the rules (Mishpatim) that you shall set before them.” With this opening verse from Parashat Mishpatim, God begins to legislate the detailed version of the Torah’s system of civil legislation. The word Mishpatim refers to civil laws and ordinances, and by making these laws the first set of legislation following the Aseret Hadibrot (Ten Commandments) at Mount Sinai, God sends a very powerful message about how the Jewish people should go about building a truly “religious community.”

Most people looking to create a “religious community” would begin by building a house of worship. In the Torah, God sees things differently. As the Jewish people are in the initial stages of building their own religious community, civil laws governing relationships between people (Bein Adam L’Havero) are legislated before the laws on building a house of worship. Batei Din (courts) come before the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and Dayanim (judges) precede Kohanim (Priests). Parashat Mishpatim deals in matters that don’t seem “religious or spiritual” to most people -- personal injury, damages due to negligence, paying employees on time, borrowing items or lending money, to name just a few – but these actually form the core of how the Torah envisions the definition and governance of a Jewish religious society. God knows that it’s much easier to behave “religiously” within the comfortable confines of a synagogue. The true challenge is maintaining that religiosity in the workplace and at home, which is the domain of Parashat Mishpatim.

In keeping with this core value, when he wrote his Mispetei Uziel halakhic responsa, Rav Uziel devoted a special introduction to the volume on Hoshen Mishpat (the section of the Shulhan Arukh that deals with Mishpatim):
                  Amongst all of the various disciplines and halakhot, the Torah of Mishpatim -- which legislates financial laws -- distinguishes itself, as it guides and directs the way of life for all areas and aspects of society. This body of laws reflects the unique character of Judaism, whose glorious splendor is manifest through Tsdedakah (Charity) and Mishpat (Justice), which are the legacy of Judaism’s founding father (Abraham), about whom God said: “I have singled him out so that he will command his children and his household after him, that they will keep God’s way, doing Tsedakah (Charity) and Mishpat (Justice)” (Genesis 18:19).

Rav Uziel’s vision of a Mishpatim-centered society was inspired by a long and rich tradition of sources that emphasized the centrality of this vision in Judaism.

The Book of Psalms teaches: “Tsedek and Mishpat are the base of God’s throne” (Psalms 89:15). On this verse, the 13th century Sephardic Talmudist Rabbeinu Yonah comments: “Whoever upholds justice (Mishpat) upholds God’s throne, and whoever perverts justice defiles God’s throne.”

The largest and most complex section of the Talmud is Seder Nezikin (The Order of Damages), which contains the expanded halakhic/legal details of the civil laws/mitsvot found in Parashat Mishpatim. In one of the most popularly studied tractates in Seder Nezikin – Tractate Baba Kamma – we are taught: “Rav Yehudah says: He who wishes to be a pious person (hasid) should seek to fulfill the halakhot in Seder Nezikin” (Baba Kamma 30:a).

Three times a day in our liturgy, we pray in the Amidah for the restoration of our Jewish legal system, and we refer to God as Melekh Ohev Tsedakah u-Mishpat – The King who loves righteousness and justice.

Rav Uziel’s innovation was less in the concept of articulating the centrality of Mishpatim, and more in elevating this to the highest priority for rabbis in the Land of Israel. His vision was for rabbis to fully engage themselves in the domain of Mishpatim, and by doing so, they would help shape the moral and ethical character of the emerging Jewish State, and potentially bring unity to the Jewish people:

As you approach the seat of the rabbinate that you will sit upon after your election, take to heart that the full domain of mishpat -- including all of its problems and issues -- has been placed in your hands, and it will be upon you -- through trustworthiness, love honor and admiration -- to bring the entire nation closer to the values of Jewish Civil Law. Mishpat, Tsedek and Din Emet L’Amito-- judgment, righteousness and the truthful execution of the law to its fullest extent of truth -- serve as the foundations for the unity of our nation.

Sadly, Rav Uziel's vision is a far cry from today's Chief Rabbinate. His vision for a moral, ethical and Mishpatim-based rabbinic leadership is the need of the hour in the State of Israel today.  

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Ten Commandments: A Retrospective on My Son's Bar Mitzvah

(4 years ago, I wrote this piece in honor of my son Ilan's Bar Mitzvah. 4 years later, and for many years to come, its message still holds true, not only for Ilan, but for all of us).

Sometime during the 13th Century, in a private study in Barcelona, an anonymous author sat and composed Sefer Ha-Chinuch (The Book of Education). This systematic study of the Torah’s 613 commandments was beautifully written as a gift from a father to his son. In his introduction, the author lovingly states that he wrote this book “to inspire the heart of my boy, my son, with an accounting of the mitzvot…”

This week, I write these words “to inspire the heart of my boy,” my son Ilan, who celebrates his Bar Mitzvah this coming Shabbat. I compose these thoughts on Parashat Yitro as a gift to my son, with the hope that the sacred words Ilan will read from the Torah this Shabbat – especially the section known as the “Aseret Hadibrot” – The Ten Commandments – will inspire him to live a life that reflects the timeless values of these special commandments.

So, Ilan, what is it about these “Ten Commandments” that is so special? The actual translation of Aseret Hadibrot is not “Ten Commandments” (that would be “Aseret Hamitzvot”), rather “Ten Utterances.” This section is unique amongst the commandments because these ten were spoken directly by God to the Jewish People.

While preparing to read your parasha, Ilan, you noticed that the ta’amim (cantillation notes) for the Aseret Hadibrot is more elaborate, and that the verses are much longer. You learned that the public reading of the Aseret Hadibrot is done in Ta’am Elyon (Upper Cantillation), which does not divide the verses grammatically, rather by commandment, reflecting exactly how God uttered them at Mount Sinai. You learned that when chanting the Aseret Hadibrot, a special aura of reverence sets in, as you are chanting the very words that God spoke at Mount Sinai.

Why did God choose to speak these ten? To address this question, we pause to reflect on the power of spoken words. From the very beginning of time, the Torah teaches us about the power of words.

Genesis Chapter 1 tells of God creating the world. Not a single scientific detail is provided about the process of creation; instead, we are taught that “God said…and there was...” Throughout Chapter 1, “God says,” and with the power of the spoken word, God creates the entire world. We are reminded of this every morning during our prayers, when we recite Baruch She’amar V’haya Ha-Olam – Blessed be He who spoke and the world came into being.

The Talmud teaches: “Through ten utterances, God created the world” (Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 32a).  Ten Utterances – sounds familiar. This parallel between the Ten Utterances of Creation and the Ten Utterances at Mount Sinai drew the attention of The Ba’al Haturim commentary (11th/12the Century, Germany/Spain). In examining both sections, he discovered something special about the opening line of both sections: they each contain the exact same number of words and letters.

Genesis 1:1: Breshit bara Elokim et ha-shamayim v’et ha’aretz (In the beginning, God created heaven and earth). In Hebrew, 7 words and 28 letters.

Exodus 20:1: Va-Yedaber Elokim et kol ha-d’varim ha-eleh le’mor (God spoke all these words saying). In Hebrew, 7 words and 28 letters.

This remarkable parallel of words and letters brings me to the message that I believe is embedded within these parallels. It is the message that I hope you take with you throughout your life, my dear Ilan (and all others who may be reading).

The job of an architect is to design and build a home. Once he has completed the home, and the inhabitants obtain the key and move in, the architect has nothing to say on how the inhabitants are to live within that home. There may be instructions for certain appliances, but there is no instruction manual on how to live a happy and successful life within the home.

In Genesis 1, God is an architect who builds a home. In ten utterances, introduced by a verse containing 7 words and 28 letters, God designs and builds a home for all of humanity.

But God goes beyond the role of an architect.

In Exodus 20, with the Aseret Hadibrot – Ten Utterances – also introduced by a verse containing 7 words and 28 letters – God provides an instruction manual on how to live in the home that He built for us.

We are taught about ethical monotheism, shunning idolatry, respecting God’s name, taking a day in seven to relax and rejuvenate, respecting parents, respecting human life, establishing faithful relationships, respecting the property of others, living honestly and shunning jealousy.

In ten utterances, God built a physical world… and in ten utterances, God established a moral code for all of us.

My dear Ilan: God’s physical world is beautiful, but filled with twists and turns, ups and downs, stability and surprises. These beautiful Aseret Hadibrot that you proudly read on your Bar Mitzvah shall serve as your moral compass, helping you navigate through life’s challenges. May they guide you, along with the entire Nation of Israel whose minyan you now join.