Friday, August 21, 2020

Societal Institutions

It has been a tumultuous summer of epic proportions. There has been significant unrest after the senseless death of George Floyd. Many have advocated reforms in police departments while others some have even called to defund and abolish the police entirely. Emotions are running high and the fact that this is taking place in the middle of a pandemic doesn’t help. This week's Parsha of Shoftim addresses the various institutions vital in making our society function in a just and fair manner. The Torah teaches us about the judicial system, the political system, and the leadership of faith leaders. The Torah opens up with the words שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים תִּתֶּן־לְךָ בְּכָל־שְׁעָרֶיךָ or you shall place judges and officers in all of your gates. The responsibility of setting up a judicial system with officers and judges is a bedrock of civilization. This mitzvah is not just incumbent on the Jewish people but on society as a whole. This is one of the seven Noahide laws. The famous words etched on the entrance to the U.S. Supreme Court of Equal Justice Under The Law have biblical roots in our Parsha. The Torah cautions the Judges to adjudicate in a fair manner and apply justice equally to all citizens. The role of political leadership in the Torah is addressed with the mitzvah to appoint a monarch as head of government. The Torah grants the king authority in many areas of life from collecting taxes, to conscripting soldiers and much in between. The monarch’s description is remarkable in the sense of how much restraint it places on the King for him to pursue materialism. It also emphasizes the responsibility for the monarch to have a Sefer Torah at his side. The purpose of this Mitzvah is for the King always to be reminded of the awesome task in front of him and not to be swayed by his power. Finally, we learn about the roles of religious leaders and how they play an important role in society. The Kohanim, Prophets, and Sages are all an integral part of ensuring that the population is educated and connected to G-d and the stewards of making sure that Jewish continuity is preserved from generation to generation. Here again, we learn not only of their role but also of their accountability. The Torah teaches us in Parshas Mishpatim that a Kohein may be removed from the altar in the middle of performing a service to be prosecuted for a crime that he committed. An important takeaway from studying these societal institutions is learning about the essential role they have in society. Indeed, the Mishna in Pirkei Avos, teaches us about the importance of praying for the welfare for the government and its heads of state. It’s important to note that the importance of praying on their behalf is not only if your preferred candidate is elected. At the same time, the authority of these institutions and the people that oversee them can never be left unchecked. An appropriate balance of healthy and robust political, judicial, and religious institutions with accountability is the foundation of a good and just society.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Praying as a Community

לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר אֲנַחְנוּ עֹשִׂים פֹּה הַיּוֹם אִישׁ כָּל־הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינָיו You shall not act at all as we act now, every man as he pleases. In the twilight of his life, Moshe delivered these searing words into the hearts and minds of his beloved flock. Rashi gives some context to this ambiguous text. Once the Jewish people are settled in their homeland with the building of the Beis Hamikdash/Temple in Jerusalem, an individual would be forbidden from having a private altar in his home or property. Only during the previous phase of the settlement of the Land with the Mishkan in Shilo, Nov and Givon were people permitted to have private altars. With the permanent communal structure of the Beis Hamikdash that was established, it would no longer be permitted to have private altars. I would imagine that in ancient times with the lack of modern transportation, it would be very inconvenient for someone to travel all the way from areas in Israel that were sometimes several hundred miles away. Wouldn’t it be more convenient for some people to have private altars in their backyards? Isn’t the presence of G-d everywhere and not just in the communal house of worship? Over the years, I have heard a variety of reasons why people are sometimes unhappy with community minyan at shul. It ranges from the davening is too fast, too slow, too much singing, not enough singing, etc. There may even be a feeling of my spiritual needs are not being met with attending and participating in a communal minyan. There may be some validity to these sentiments. So I wonder, why does the Torah frown upon private altars? Wouldn’t that person perhaps find it more fulfilling to have that spiritual connection in his backyard? Moshe taught us a compelling lesson to this very day. He teaches us about the important value of community coming together in the service of G-d in a communal house of tefillah/prayer. Yes, of course, it may be easier for some to have a private altar or private minyan in their backyards. The value of coming together in unity at a communal house of prayer is not only to further the cause of Bein Adam L’chaveiro/ interpersonal relationships but also to enhance our relationship with G-d. A community that expresses its tefila/prayer as a wholesome unit is far greater than a collection of fragmented individuals or even minyanim. Spiritual needs are not just about finding the perfect minyan that is meeting at the perfect hour and the perfect place, davening at the perfect pace, with the perfect group of like-minded friends. Spiritual needs are about sometimes leaving your personal preferences at the door and sacrificing that on behalf of the community. We have done that as people for thousands of years because we know that the Kehila as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I think of a guy who lived in the area of Be’er Sheva in the times of the Beis Hamikdash/Temple. The distance to Jerusalem is about 100 kilometers. Traveling to Jerusalem either by foot or by on top of a donkey is not easy and is taking him a mighty long time to reach his destination. I can imagine that he wasn’t too happy to make the shlep. I would imagine he remembered Moshe's words that reminded him that the service to G-d was not about bringing that sacrifice or korban in the place that was most convenient, but rather about connecting with his people as a Kehila in Jerusalem. The premium that we place on Kehila/ community that Moshe taught in his dying days is timeless for the ages.

False Expectations

There was a story about two friends in the park, and one of them looked pretty glum. One friend inquired of the other, "why do you look...