Just as we began our celebration of Pesach/Passover about three weeks ago . . . the festival celebrating our redemption from Egyptian slavery . . . over 270 school girls in Nigeria were abducted from their boarding school. The terrorist leader who organized this mass kidnapping declared that the girls would be sold into slavery.
These girls need to be found and returned to their homes. Even if they were to be found this minute, it will be too late to spare them the agony of recovery from trauma, but at least they will be back in the embrace of the families who love them and who made the commitment to educate them (not a given in Nigeria).
When we gather in our synagogues around the world this Shabbat, we will be reading and discussing the parashah/Torah portion Behar. It is a Torah reading that poses profound challenges to us, especially this week, as we wait from day to day for news of the abducted Nigerian school girls. For this passage of Leviticus lays out the ground rules for the indentured servitude of Israelites and the slavery of non-Israelites. We have no choice but to acknowledge that the institution of slavery was a common and morally neutral economic reality in the ancient middle east.
However, the Israelite owner of a non-Israelite slave was permitted this relationship with very specific parameters which required care for the humanity and vulnerability of the slave. Thus, as Richard Elliott Friedman writes in his commentary on this week's parashah:
None of us watching the situation of the abducted Nigerian school girls believe that their humanity and dignity are being respected right now. We shudder to think of what is being done to them.
There is a principle of Jewish law that compels us to be as proactive as possible in bringing these girls back to safety, the mitzvah/commandment of פדיון שבויים / pidyon shvuyim / redeeming the captives. There is some controversy about the application of this imperative for it's roots are in the historic reality of the kidnapping of Jews for ransom over the years. Can we, therefore, consider it a mitzvah to redeem captive Nigerian school girls? Based on the writings of the great halachist [scholar of Jewish law] Rambam/Maimonides, I would say "yes":
We may wish that the US law enforcement experts could have arrived earlier, but at least they are there. What can we do, those of us who are not law enforcement experts on the ground?
Thanksgiving is a holiday almost everyone loves: A day to gather family and friends, enjoy a turkey feast, watch a little football, relax . . . . Thanksgiving is the great equalizer in America: Jews and Christians and Muslims and Buddhists and the most secular among us all gather to count our blessings and appreciate the plenty so accessible to all of us.
Well . . . not all of us.
On the eve of Thanksgiving, please read with care and take to heart the following article by Rabbi Steven Gutow of the Jewish Center for Public Affairs:
Huff Post Politics: Americans Are Falling Off the Food Cliff -- We Can Stop the Pain
Posted: 11/16/2013 1:20 pm
This week, just days before Thanksgiving, lines at food banks will be growing. This is not unexpected. In fact, unbelievable as this may sound, this was scheduled. On November 1, 47 million Americans on SNAP (formerly food stamps) began receiving fewer benefits thanks to the expiration of funding from the 2009 stimulus. For a family of four, that reduction comes out to about $36 less for food for the month. Which brings us to this week; when those suddenly reduced grocery budgets begin to run out.
Congress saw this coming. We knew that even as food prices were increasing, working families, the unemployed, children, the disabled, and seniors would start to receive less assistance and problems with increased hunger in America would ensue. But not only were we allowed to go over the food cliff, Congress is actually debating even more cuts to SNAP. The Senate Farm Bill includes a $4.1 billion cut - almost equal to the $5 billion cut this month - and the House is making the Senate look like a humanitarian body by proposing a cut of $39 billion, eight times more devastating to the poor than the already problematic Senate proposal.
What made the fall from the food cliff even more painful is that we have been pushing our most vulnerable towards the edge for months. In March, the sequester went into effect, slashing nutrition assistance to low-income women and children, limiting the capacity of food banks, and cutting Meals on Wheels deliveries to homebound seniors. Not to mention cuts to Head Start and LIHEAP, the energy assistance program that had alleviated the need for families to choose between paying their heating bills and buying food. But that pain of the sequester was quickly forgotten because last month's government shutdown caused even more harm by diminishing these services even more. No doubt, 2013 has been a difficult year. And things are not looking better in 2014 as the next round of sequestration cuts goes into effect in January.
Bit by bit we are tearing holes in the fabric of our national human needs programs, and I fear the repercussions not only for those who need our assistance and protection, but for our nation. With one in seven Americans facing hunger, we went over the food cliff this month. Before that, the costs of disagreements that led to the government shutdown and sequestration were felt most by those with the least.
This week, as the food banks around the country work to meet the planned food cliff, we must acknowledge the choices we are making. Private charity is a noble but insufficient substitute. According to the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, the estimated dollar value of all food distributed by U.S. charities this year is $5 billion, the same amount as the cut that took effect this month.
However, we are still able to change our course. Instead of demonizing and punishing those who need support in this season of plenty and thanksgiving, let us unmask the face of hunger in the United States and dedicate ourselves to overcoming it. The truth is, over half of those who benefit from SNAP are children and seniors. For unemployed adults, SNAP serves as support to help them through difficult times with more than half of enrollees leaving the program within a year, most of whom are only on the program for 10 months or less. Instead of taking away food from those in need, we should strengthen this program which feeds families, helps children do well in school, and supports the most vulnerable.
With each cut, our country pushes more Americans down the food cliff. How long until we stop noticing the fall? This Thanksgiving, as many of us sit at our tables for an annual feast, more of our fellow Americans will have less to eat. With this stark reality we must choose a different path. Now is the opportunity. As they actively negotiate a Farm Bill, Members of Congress, acting on our behalf, should open their hearts and offer an outstretched hand to those who have fallen over the food cliff. Simply, there should be no more cuts to SNAP.
Rabbi Steve Gutow is the President of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. For more information and updates, visit here and follow @theJCPA on Twitter.
I'm looking forward to a whole new Noah experience this year at Torat Yisrael. For years now, our youngest TY kids have come to services with their favorite stuffed animals on the Shabbat during which we read the story of Noah and the ark. We'd create a great procession of bears and puppies and even a unicorn or two as we'd follow the Torah around the sanctuary.
This year, we're trying something new . . . stuffed animals are still invited, but now our live animals are invited, too! Instead of meeting during services, we're going to gather in front of the synagogue with our (leashed) dogs and (caged) gerbils as well as our favorite stuffed animals and we'll sing our favorite Noah songs and perhaps tell a story or two, as well. And have a nosh, of course.
I noticed that when the Christian congregations in our area invite the members of their congregations to bring their animals along, they are offering a "blessing of the animals." Being an animal lover myself, I am all in favor of sharing our Jewish community with our own animals, too.
But the idea of "blessing the animals" wasn't really working for me . . . and then I understood what wasn't working.
In Judaism, our blessings are directed toward God . . . so when we are pausing to appreciate the cats and iguanas and parakeets we love, it's not so much that we are blessing them, or even asking God to bless them . . . rather we are blessing and praising God for having created these wonderful creatures and bringing them in to our lives.
There is a lot to be thankful for when it comes to our animals: unconditional love (well, perhaps not entirely unconditional when it comes to cats . . . ); a glimpse of beauty and grace and even humor in a day packed with "to-do" lists and bills and worries; companionship . . . people with pets are known to be happier, less lonely. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a study somewhere that said that pet owners are healthier, too!
I hope you'll join us with your furry or scaly or plush friend tomorrow. We'll share our admiration for Noah, the world's first champion of animal rescue, sing a little, meet each other's pets and thank God for bringing so much beauty and blessing into our lives.
This week, we read the opening chapters of the book of Numbers, Bamidbar. This is a clear case in which meaning is lost in translation: The book is entitled "Numbers" in English based on the census that is related in the opening chapter of the book, but in Hebrew the title "Bamidbar" means "wilderness" . . . as the book relates the saga of the Israelite journey through the wilderness from Sinai to Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel.
This is also a week in which the whole world is watching the spiritual wanderings of the residents of modern Israel.
The Christian Science Monitor, The Arab News as well as The Jerusalem Post, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and every other Jewish news source has covered the turn of events at the Western Wall this week.
One month ago, at the beginning of the new Hebrew month of Iyyar, police arrested (for the umpteenth time) women who were participating in a participatory women's service celebrating the new month . . . for disrupting the peace. Following these arrests, a series of Israeli justices have ruled that it is not the praying women who have disturbed the peace of this significant historic sight (the Western Wall is the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount, the height on which the long-destroyed First and Second Temples stood).
Today, the beginning of the Hebrew month of Sivan, saw a new development in the wake of the court decisions. This month the women returned to pray . . . but instead of arresting the women, as ultra-Orthodox Jews threw chairs, water and worse at them, the police restrained the outraged onlookers.
Since 1948, with Jewish sovereignty over Israel established, a significant dynamic of wandering came to an historic resolution. We are, in the words of Israel's national anthem: am chofshi b'artzeinu . . . a free people in our land.
But in other profound ways, we have not yet arrived.
The tendency to self-righteousness and even contempt between Jew and Jew is not limited to the conflicts within Israel around the Western Wall. Although generally less violent, there are those within the Jewish community who label other Jews as violaters of Torah, abductors of innocents, sabotagers of our tradition.
In my view, we will remain at the very beginning of our spiritual growth as a people as long as we foster theological one-upsmanship and self-righteousness. I await the spiritual milestone at which all of us who identify with our Torah and our people and our God and our tradition will be able to address each other with theological humility and say: your path may not be mine, your interpretation of Torah may not be that which is practiced in my community, but we are all the children of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekkah, Jacob, Leah and Rachel and we share the same God, the same values and deserve the same respect.
On Wednesday afternoon, I had the privilege of walking in procession to our Statehouse as part of the Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty in Rhode Island. A band of drummers from a number of different faith communities led us from Gloria Dei Church to the Statehouse . . . I walked with ministers and rabbis and imams, Quaker community leaders, a Swami and Buddhist priests. There is a tremendous amount, in terms of theology, that divides us. There is a tremendous amount, in terms of our regard for the human spirit created by God (however we conceptualize the divine) that draws us together.
We came together, as we have done every year for the last four years, at the opening of the legislative session of the Rhode Island General Assembly, to stand together to convey our prayer that our elected officials will raise the needs of Rhode Island's vulnerable residents to the top of their legislative priority list.
Maxine Richman, co-chair of the Interfaith Coalition, stood shoulder to shoulder with Governor Lincoln Chaffee and acknowledged with pride that our Governor became the first in the United States to sign into law a Homeless Bill of Rights.
Clergy, advocates, shelter residents, food pantry clients and compassionate neighbors all filled the Statehouse rotunda and the surrounding balconies to demonstrate that the momentum of our General Assembly must continue to build to address the needs of so many within our state who are vulnerable: children and adults who do not have a roof over their heads, are deciding weekly whether to buy medicine or heat their home, eating breakfast in rotation through the course of the week because there is not enough food in the house for everyone to leave for school and work with food in their stomachs . . .
Naming the Need
This Shabbat we read the opening chapter of the book of Sh'mot. The word "Sh'mot" means "Names" and the text goes on to name those descendants of Jacob who went down to Egypt and whose progeny would ultimately be enslaved there.
This week, in Rhode Island, we recall the names of the needs which bind our neighbors all over our state*:
*Statistics released by the Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty
We Jews tend to be a little territorial about the Torah. After all, on a daily basis we acknowledge that the gift of Torah was an expression of God's love for the people who entered into the covenant of Sinai.
But the Sinai covenant is not the first in the Torah: in this week's parashah/Torah portion, we read of the covenant God forged with Noah: the waters of the flood had receded, Noah and his family and the animals they had saved in the ark had emerged. God paints the sky with a rainbow and declares:
12 God said, This is the sign of the covenant which I am making between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all successive generations; 13 I set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of a covenant between Me and the earth. 14 It shall come about, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow will be seen in the cloud, 15 and I will remember My covenant, which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and never again shall the water become a flood to destroy all flesh.16 When the bow is in the cloud, then I will look upon it, to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth. 17 And God said to Noah, This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between Me and all flesh that is on the earth. Genesis 9
This is a covenant between God and "all flesh". . . not just Jews, not just human beings either. God's commitment is to "all flesh that is on the earth."
At this moment, the horizons of the Torah are as broad as the horizons of our world: we are encouraged to drill down to the core of our identity: yes, we Jews are the descendants of Jacob and the Jewish tradition we practice today is rooted in the relationship between Jacob and his progeny and God. We are the descendants of Abraham and through our first patriarch we share common ground with our siblings-in-faith, those who practice Christianity and Islam. And we are all, ultimately, the children of Noah . . . we are all the sentient "flesh of the earth" and are thus, in all our diversity of appearance and practice, created in the image of God.
Rabbi Brad Artson concludes, in an essay on this week's Torah reading in his wonderful book The Bedside Torah:
"A righteous Gentile [anyone who is not Jewish] is a full child of God, to be cherished by all who give God allegiance, regardless of their religious affiliation. What matters according to traditional Judaism, is goodness. That same requirement binds Jews as well. After all, we, too, are "Children of Noah."
4: Genesis/Breishit 11:5-8 -- "And Adonay went down to see the city and the tower that the children of humankind had built. And Adonay said, "Here, they're one people, and they all have one language, and this is what they've begun to do. And now there will be no challenge to anything they initiate together. Come, let's go down and babble their language so they won't understand each other's language. And Adonay scattered them from there over the face of the earth. . . " God blesses our diversity, our different approaches to life and expects us to exercise our intellectual and spiritual and creative gifts. God does not intend for us to be homogenous and of one opinion or one outlook. (Which is a good thing considering the "two Jews three opinions" principle!)
3: Genesis/Breishit 15: 9-10, 12-14, 17-18 -- And God said to Avram, "Take a three-year-old heifer and a three-year-old she-goat and a three-year-old ram and a dove and a pigeon for Me. And he took all of these for God and split
them in the middle and set each half opposite its other half . . . And the sun was about to set, and a slumber came over Avram . . . and God said to Avram, "You shall know that your seed will be alien in a land that is not theirs, and they will serve them, and they will degrade them four hundred years. But I'll judge the nation they will serve, and after that they'll go out with much property. . . . and the sun was setting, and there was darkness, and here was an oven of smoke, and a flame of fire that went between the pieces. In that day, God made a covenant with Avram, saying, "I've given this land to your seed . . . . " This takes a little "unpacking." Scholars of ancient near eastern history tell us that when neighboring local landowners made a treaty, they would take an animal, cut it in half, spread the two halves apart, and then each landowner would walk between the parts of the severed animal. This was ancient near eastern choreography expressing: "May my fate be like that of this severed animal if I do not keep up my part of our treaty." With that insight, the flame of fire passing between the pieces becomes a breathtaking divine declaration and commitment to Avram: May My fate, God is saying, be like that of these animals, if I do not keep My part of this covenant with you and your descendants, Avram." God is with us for the duration.
2: Exodus/Sh'mot 4:25 -- And Zipporah took a flint and cut her son's foreskin.... This is part of one of the most abstruse and puzzling passages in the Torah, but the one clear element of the story is that Zipporah, Moses' wife, took the transmission of the covenant into her own hands by ritually circumcising their infant son. Women's spiritual insight and religious initiatives are just as much a part of our tradition as are the spiritual insights and religious initiatives of the men of our communities.
1: Exodus/Sh'mot 24:7 -- And Moses took the scroll of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people, and they said, "We will do everything that Adonay has spoken, and we will obey/listen." This is the moment we made the transition from a collection of individuals and extended families to a people, to a community. In an unprecedented (and yet-to-be-reproduced) moment of consensus, our entire people committed to the covenant offered to us by God at Sinai. נעשה / na'aseh: we will do it. נשמע / nishma: we will hear/internalize the terms of the brit/covenant. And here we are, three thousand years later, celebrating the eternity of our covenant with God. Wow.
Ok. I admit, there are way more than 5 reasons I love Torah . . . maybe I'll share another 5 with you next year in my pre-Simhat Torah blog . . . but there is so much to celebrate in our Torah, and I can't wait to celebrate it with you. The wisdom, the perspective, the compassion, the eternal values, the roots of community, our very identity . . . it's all in our Torah.
This week's parashah reviews the animals whose meat is "kosher", that is, "proper" for consumption by those who seek to maintain the brit/covenant with God. It's a list that is familiar to many: mammals must have a split hoof and chew their cud (cows, sheep, goats, deer, bison, buffalo . . .); water-bound creatures must have both fins and scales (salmon, tuna, yellowtail, cod, scrod, tilapia, sea bass, trout . . . ); and birds must not be birds of prey (turkey, chicken, geese, ducks . . . ).
Clearly, those who commit to following the guidelines of kosher eating have plenty to eat!
When it comes to mammals and birds, however, meeting the criteria described in our Torah reading this week is not sufficient: in other words, a Big Mac, even without the cheese, is not kosher even though the burger is beef (meaning meat cut from a mammal with a split hoof that chews its cud). There is a further step that is required: kosher slaughter / shechita.
Kosher slaughter is designed to render the animal unconscious before it has time experience pain or panic from an inability to breath. In one forceful, smooth, pass of the knife, the trachea, esophagus, carotid artery, jugular veins and vagus nerve are all severed. In order to be certified as a "shochet", a ritual kosher slaughterer, people go through rigorous training and supervision before they are allowed to work on their own.
As the shochet stands before the animal to be slaughtered, he (usually he) recites the following blessing:
“Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with God's commandments and has commanded us concerning ritual slaughter.”
The shochet's blessing, our extra effort to locate and purchase kosher meat, the blessing we recite before we eat that meat ("Baruch atah Adonay, eloheinu melech ha'olam, shehakol nihyeh bidvaro." Blessed are You, Adonay our God, for everything exists by God's word.), are all meant to keep us mindful of the fact that a life God created has been sacrificed for our nourishment and pleasure.
These days, we find our meat packaged in neat little plastic packages: it is so easy to lose the connection between the ground beef in the package and the animal from which it was cut. (Hence, the cuts of beef chart, above.)
These days, we are inundated by packaging, advertising, expert advice of all kinds, all funded by huge food-producing corporations. How easy to fall into the trap of believing that cookies come from Nabisco, chips come from Wise and fish sticks comes from Gorton's . . . . our tradition, our framework of kosher eating keeps fresh in our minds the truth that our nourishment comes from God. Conagra, Kraft, all those huge food-producing corporations would be out of business without the nourishing plants and animals God placed on this earth to sustain us.
So, no, there is nothing anachronistic about the laws and observance of kosher eating . . . I'd say we need them now more than ever!
I just got returned from three weeks in Israel. Israel is where I spend quality time with my kids and their significant others, with friends who have been part of my life since my 20 years living in Israel, and it is where I re-charge my spiritual batteries.
It is often the case that my annual summer visit to Israel coincides with the observance of Tisha b'Av, the fast commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temple in Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians and the Romans in turn.
Traditional sources put some of the responsibility for the destruction of the Temple on the shoulders of the Israelites themselves, for our ancestors were guilty of the flawed behavior "sinat hinam" / senseless hatred. It seems that even two thousand years ago, people lashed out and condemned each other in the name of self-righteousness. Jew condemned Jew. Non-Jew condemned Jew. Jew condemned non-Jew. You get the idea...
Actually, it's not hard for you to "get the idea" because these scenarios are so familiar today among the polarized and polarizing religious communities that plague every Abrahamic faith tradition. Jews have religious fanatics. Christians have religious fanatics. Muslims have religious fanatics.
Intolerance in the name of God is such an oxymoron....
It seems that no matter which side of the Atlantic I find myself on, the toxicity of religious self-righteousness is there to be dealt with. I have often commented on the irony that the only country in the world in which a marriage I conduct is not recognized is "my own" country, Israel. Earlier this year, a nine year old girl from a religious family was spat upon my ultra-Orthodox fanatics because she was "dressed immodestly." ....Really?
In Israel I was brought close to tears by the horrific murder of innocent, peace-loving Sikhs in their own house of worship and then came home to learn of the vandalism suffered by our friends in the mosque in North Smithfield.
There are a lot of things of which we have too much in this world, like pettiness and selfishness and self-righteousness, and hunger, and homelessness. And there are a lot of things of which we have too little in this world, like theological humility.
How dare anyone limit the capacity of God to respond to sincere expressions of faith? How dare anyone claim that they know the will of God better than any other human being? Even Moses, the human who was most intimate with God, is described as "anav m'od", as very humble. Indeed, I would posit that the closer one is to God, the further one is along the path of one's spiritual journey, the more humble one would feel . . . for how could we feel anything but humble if we are truly in awe of God?
Our congregation's move to East Greenwich engages us in the life of the greater East Greenwich community more fully than in previous years, when we were still rooted in Cranston. The faith community here in East Greenwich is a mutually respectful and supportive coalition of houses of worship in town. We saw this ourselves when the clergy of several East Greenwich churches wrote letters on our behalf to the East Greenwich Zoning Board and came to testify at a number of Zoning Board meetings as well.
My clergy colleagues in these churches have told me that together their congregations sustain and maintain an Interfaith Food Cupboard housed at St. Luke's Episcopal Church on Peirce Street. This is a model of community cooperation with which we are familiar through our participation in and support of the Edgewood Food Pantry housed at the Church of the Transfiguration on Broad Street in Cranston.
East Greenwich enjoys a reputation as a beautiful town with affluent residents and a superb public school system. This is a hard-earned and well-deserved reputation. There is another side to East Greenwich from which many of us are sheltered: there are hungry adults and children in town who the professionals call "food insecure." That means they do not always know if there will be a next meal, let alone where it is coming from.
Chris and Steve Bartlett, who run the EG Interfaith Food Cupboard at St Luke's have reported that in July alone 256 individuals received food from the Cupboard, and this includes 21 new families who had never turned to the EG facility for this support in the past.
This coming Shabbat is referred to in our calendar as Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation. The consolation is God's response to us on the loss of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 AD at the hands of the Roman Empire. The loss posed a fundamental theological challenge to Judaism, as it was through the korbanot, the sacrifices at the Temple that Israel drew closer to God and atoned for their transgressions. In an early rabbinic gloss on the Mishnah (Avot d'Rabi Natan 4:5) Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai consoles a colleague who is mourning the loss of the Temple. Rabbi Yohanan says: Be not grieved, my son. There is another equally meritorious way of gaining atonement even though the Temple is destroyed. We can still gain atonement through deeds of lovingkindness. For it is written (Hosea 6:6): "Lovingkindess I desire, not sacrifice."
Our consolation, at this distance of two thousand years, should also be expressed through acts of lovingkindness. I hope you will all take a moment during the summer weeks that remain to drop off non-perishable food at our TY house for all three of our food-support projects: the Edgewood Food Closet, the Chester Kosher Food Pantry, and our East Greenwich Interfaith Food Cupboard. You can designate where you want the food to go, or you can leave it to Beverly Goncalves, our Social Action Chair, to divide up the food and pass it on to those who deliver it.
Here is some basic information about the EG project:
East Greenwich Interfaith Food Cupboard
The Interfaith Food Cupboard, located in St Luke’s Parish house on Peirce Street, is open from 10:30 AM -12:00 noon each Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The service is available to any East Greenwich resident, member of an East Greenwich congregation, referral from a clergy or someone in need of emergency food. We are currently asking for donations of the following food products: canned ham, chicken or fish, cereal, oatmeal, canned fruit, soups, pasta sauce, juice and juice boxes, jam/jelly and crackers. Other products that we always need include staples like cooking oil, mayonnaise, salad dressing, mustard, sugar, flour, coffee, tea, etc. If you would like to make a cash donation rather than food, your check can be sent to your clergy or directly to the EGIFC. We have a very dedicated volunteer staff and on their behalf, we thank you for your support of the East Greenwich Interfaith Food Cupboard. Chris and Steve Bartlett
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.