Friday, April 28, 2017

A Davar Torah on Tazria MItzora for the Shabbat. Will our powers be used for blessing or curse?

Free will is both a blessing and sometimes a curse. We cherish our ability to exercise our freedoms to act out how we choose to live and behave in the world.  The world sees how people use free will to save lives and perform acts of heroism as well as those of cruelty. It is a gift that God gave us from the beginning of the garden of Eden and we saw how Adam and Eve made their choices to reject God’s warning to not eat from the tree of knowledge and the results we all know from the rest of human history. Expulsion from the Garden of Eden and humankind was on its own to shape its destiny. We as a species have always contended with the great gifts we have had to innovate and control our environment. Our use of power has demonstrated the complexity of human civilization Was it for the best after all?

One rabbinic sags Moses Schriber otherwise known in rabbinic parlance as the  Hatam sofer who lived in the middle of the 18th through the mid nineteenth century in Hungary discussed this issue. He became a rabbi in Bratislava which is the capital of Slovakia. He was Orthodox and he was an opponent of Reform but he had some big ideas about human nature.

He commented on this week’s Torah portion which is called Tazria Metzora otherwise known as the Torah portion about leprosy or skin afflictions. In chapter 12 verse 2 The Torah talks about a woman who has conceived and born a child. The Torah says she is ritually unclean for seven days just like during the time of her menstrual cycle. He is going to focus on the theme of ritual impurity after a woman gives birth  as a jumping off point to discuss the bigger issue of how we as a species utilize our great powers for blessing or transgression. The ritual impurity is connected to the moral impurity.

The Hatam Sofer begins his comment on this verse by quoting from the famous commentator Rashi from the 10th century. “Rabbi Simlai said, Just as man was created (on the fifth day of creation) after the cattle, beasts and fowl, so the laws governing human beings follow after the laws governing these animals.” The idea here is that animals came before humans and that their priority was greater than human beings.The Hatam Sofer asks, is it true that creation of human beings is the apex of creation referring to Pslam six which says, “You made human beings little lower than God, so shouldn’t human beings think of themselves as above all other creatures and equal to God?

The Hatam sofer goes on to say that the Torah listed the laws of treating animals before humans to teach us that the select righteous saintly people are even superior to angels in heaven and that human beings in general can attain the greatest heights. Yet those who have been afflicted with this so-called ailment or skin affliction which we call in the Torah as t’zraat are indeed less than cattle in the divine hierarchy. He adds that we should remember that no animal can make a human ritually impure, but, a human being can make another human being be ritually impure. So he concluded that just as a person can reach the greatest heights of human achievement by mean of his free will so can he use that power to descend into the lowest depths.

The difficult aspect of this portion is the idea that having a disease like the skin ailment referred to in the Torah portion was consistently viewed by the sages as a result of a moral transgression such as gossip or slandering another human being. We have come along way in our thinking about disease. Yet, even today we saw those same attitudes attributing a moral transgression AIDS infected people who contracted AIDS particularly back in the 1980s and nineties. We have evolved in our understanding about contagious diseases today even if there are still prejudices and fears about potential pandemic diseases that frighten us probably just as biblical skin ailments did in ancient Israelite society.
Granted that the  Hatam Sofer is a product of that old styled thinking about disease and morality.  Yet his idea of how human beings use their god-given powers in a godly way versus using them in a destructive manner to measure our value as a species is valid today. Too many examples of human society today demonstrate that we still abuse our powers as much as we use them for great achievements to better our world. That is what the Hatam Sofer was referring to in his commentary. So his observations resonate today as they did over two hundred years ago in another time and place.

Whether we are discussing nuclear weapons in North Korea, Iran, or chemical warfare in Syria today, we see that human achievement in science is still a mixed blessing. When it comes to literature and the power of the written word spreading hatred, anti-Semitic tractates against the Jews, for example, we see that human power swings both ways as compared to the great works of Shakespeare, Whitman, the bible and the great works of music over the centuries.

Free will is a fragile gift that God bequeathed us at the dawn of creation and that humility in humankind is not to be taken lightly. It must balance our technological prowess with an overarching commitment to preserve human life not destroy entire peoples let alone individuals. Aren’t we suppose to use our powers to raise the quality of life and not threaten it? Yet that is exactly what happens today as it has for the entirety of human history.

Defining human skin ailments as ritually impure and associating them with moral transgressions is not how we should think about disease today. I suppose that in ancient times this is how they understood such diseases but today we can do better. Today we are still mandated to remember that our value and worth as human beings is not how high we build a sky scraper or how big a bomb we build but how we heal the suffering of the oppressed and the sick. It is about how we strive to be little less than God in how we treat ourselves, animal life and the planet.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Final Reposting on Yom HaShoah speech.

Elie Wiesel: ‘We all were students in his classroom.’
Yom HaShoah April 23, 2017
Elie Wiesel never taught me in a classroom but his knowledge and experience, expressed through the pages of his writings, made him one of the most powerful teachers I ever had in my life. It is for the life he led and the way he taught us all to engage the tradition and wellspring of Judaism that we decided to honor him for this year’s Yom HaShoah observance. His passing last gives us the opportunity to commemorate this Nobel Peace Prize winning scholar, activist, conscience and witness for humanity. In a way he used the planet and wherever he spoke to teach us whether by reading his books, or watching a documentary that he made or inside the incredible Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. which he inspired. All these venues were his various classrooms and so we may have all become students.

Elie Wiesel was unique  not only because he suffered but also because he did not give up on Judaism. He did not shield us from the hard questions he asked of humanity and of God. At the same time he dived into the sources of Judaism when he could have, like others did after the War, given up on Jewish life. In the case of Wiesel, it was the opposite. He continued his learning from childhood and used it to redefine his understanding of the horrors he faced and lived through while at the same time not allowing those years to destroy his memory. 
He taught us to rediscover the meaning of memory in Judaism. He showed us how remembrance and the meaning of the past was absolutely critical towards how we as a people and as the world would live our lives in the future. 

He also taught us that being a witness to all that we see and preserve of the past was essential to Jewish belief. Our teens today are observing this value while they March into the Gates of Auschwitz concentration Camp. Their trip to Poland and then to Israel is part of the international Program called the March of the Living. They are all witnesses now to what the Nazis did and to how the Jews faced the genocidal campaign of the Nazis to destroy us. What I find so inspiring is that Wiesel used the tradition to help him frame the unfathomable and he found so much in the tradition whether it was from the Bible, the Talmud, the Hasidic Teachings of his own background or the Kabbalah. These were his sources and he mined them for insight, salvation and pathways to return back to humanity with a message that would one day spread throughout the world.

Wiesel did something else that I found to be helpful when struggling with the meaning of not just the Holocaust but with humanity’s inhumanity to itself. He taught us that mystery of evil and that there may not be one answer as to why people feel the compulsion to destroy entire peoples. His point was to ask the question and that was more important than the answers. Maybe it was that we all have different responses as to why evil of this nature exists and continues but questions can be shared by us all and from that perspective we would have a better chance to prevail in a better world by sharing the hardest questions.
Moreover he taught us:

“The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.”
He knew oh so well how indifference infected an entire world. Indifference led to the silence of the world when Hitler and the Nazis saw that no one would challenge their effort to take over Europe and destroy the Jewish people. He saw then and later on in the years that followed how people are indifferent, even at times Jews, when it comes to human suffering. Wiesel came to teach us that we must care not just about our own lives but those of the world. Just think about how we react when we watch television and listen to the stories of death and destruction in Syria, Somalia and terrorist attacks against folks around the world. If it does not move us to feel anything, if we are emotionless, if we simply change the channel because we choose not see it then we know the feeling of indifference because ultimately it does not matter to us. That is exactly what Elie Wiesel was trying to teach. Life, Art, Faith and Love must matter to us.

Finally Elie Wiesel taught us about the importance of speaking truth to power. In that speech when he received the President’s medal of honor he spoke to President Reagan in a very respectful way of his forthcoming trip to Bitburg Cemetery in Germany where many SS officers were buried. The President was trying to show respect for Germans and improve relations with the German chancellor Helmut Kohl. In that famous speech he said.

“I belong to a traumatized generation. Symbols are important. And furthermore,
following our ancient tradition, and we are speaking about Jewish heritage
our tradition commands us "to speak truth to power."
So may I speak to you, Mr. President, with respect and admiration, of the events that happened?
We have met four of five times. And each time I came away enriched, for I know of your commitment to humanity.
And therefore I am convinced, as you have told us earlier when we spoke, that 
you were not aware of the presence of SS graves in the Bitburg cemetery. Of course you didn't know. But now we all are aware.

May I, Mr. President, if it's possible at all, to implore you to do something else, to find a way, to find another way, another site? That place, Mr. President, is not your place. You place is with the victims of the SS.
Oh, we know there are political and strategic reasons, but this issue, as all issues related to that awesome event, transcends politics and diplomacy. 
The issue here is not politics, but good and evil. And we must never confuse them.
For I have seen the SS at work. And I have seen their victims. They were my friends. They were my parents.
Mr. President, there was a degree of suffering and loneliness in the concentration camps that defies imagination. Cut off from the world with no refuge anywhere; sons watched helplessly their fathers being beaten to death. Mothers watched their children die of hunger.And then there was Mengele and his selections. 
Terror, fear, isolation, torture, gas chambers and flames rising to the heavens.
But, Mr. President, I know and I understand, we all do, that you seek reconciliation. And so do I, so do we. And I too wish to attain true reconciliation with the German people.

I do not believe in collective guilt, more in collective responsibility. Only the killers were guilty. Their sons and daughters are not.
And I believe, Mr. President, that we can and we must work together with them and with all people. 
And we must work to bring peace and understanding
to a tormented world that, as you know, is still awaiting redemption.
I thank you, Mr. President.”

I pray that the voice, teachings and lessons that Elie Wiesel taught us in the classroom of his life will resonate for our youth and for generations to come. May his memory be for a blessing to all humanity and may we continue to be witnesses from the past to the future.