Chavarah- Jewish Community Learning

A blog of Jewish study and traditions. Notes from classes: Torah Study with Rabbi Marder, Toledot and Shabbaton as well as other details found of interest.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Wipe out the 7 Nations of Idol Worshipers

Sounds very harsh when the Israelites were told to destroy the 7 nations in Cannan. Why would the Bible teach to do something so drastic?

It was critical that the Israelites not be swayed by the abhorrent behavior of the people in those nations. Those behaviors were punishable by death: child sacrifice, sex abominations, sorcery ... all major sins against God.

It was a defensive policy to save the Israelites from being influenced out of existence.

This is very disturbing to us today - it doesn't offer any process to evaluate the innocence of individuals, there is no process for change, it doesn't even look for any good in these people....

Rashi interpreted it in such a way that Tshuvah was possible and the people of these nations could convert their ways.

Rambam interpreted it by pointing out that you had to offer terms of peace first. He also gave the people a way to escape -

Link: On Preventative War

OK so did it really happen?
-There is no archeological evidence that any nations were destroyed at that time.
-AND there is the theory that what was predicted (idolatry influence) actually may have happened during the time of the Kings.
-And also there are the "lost Tribes" in 722 BCE - said because they practiced idolatry.
-The time of Josiah in Kings II tells of the time when the Temple was 'redesigned' to include idols - but a scroll was found and taken to the King who realized that this was a message from God - it was validated by the prophetess, Hulda. And they "changed their ways"
- it is said that the scroll IS the book of Deuteronomy. (2nd Kings Ch 22-23)

There was a revival of the tradition - a religious reformation.

More Detailed Documentation

Monday, October 24, 2005

What to do with Lulav & Etrog after Sukkot?

Researching this and if anyone has an answer about this and the why and history... please let me know.
One answer from Eliezer Cohen at Jewish Magazine:

Since the lulav and estrog were used for a mitzvah,
it is not becoming to
throw them in the garbage as if they were trash.
Instead we put them aside until Passover. On erev
Passover we take them out and use them to make the
fire to burn our Chametz. Thereby using them to assist
in another mitzvah.

Really want more about this....

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Rashi - perspective on war

As we read Rashi's commentary on battle and rules of engagement from Deut 20 we need to recall the perspective that this great scholar may have brought with the interpretation.

Rashi lived at the time of the first Crusades. He had studied in Germany and then returned to France. As the Crusaders went to drive the Muslims out of Christian sites they also attacked the Jews in those places where Rashi had studied. So he knew first hand of the terror and the dehumanization that happens in this type battle.

Nevertheless, some commentaries note that the horrors of the Crusade was not included in his writings.

However, it is more than likely influencing his view of the portions about war and battle.

As he reflects on the rules of engagement in Torah - this is his perspective: ' go forth against your enemies - do not have mercy because they will not have mercy on you...'

and on the imbalance of going against stronger forces he notes: they may be 'in your eyes larger but in God's eyes they are not as great'

War and battle are difficult subjects and are hard for one imagine if we have no experience first hand.

As in much of Torah study it is possible to think of this in terms of more personal wars against difficulties as well. Trying to overcome a great difficulty must seem like a battle against something larger than yourself. Think of this in terms of a battle against a disease or a battle to overcome a disability. And in these cases it is also relevant to think of the enemy as a force to be battled with without mercy.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Personal Blessings

Genesis 49, where Jacob blesses his 12 sons, and Deuteronomy 33, where Moses blesses the Twelve Tribes is the inspiration for the great artist, Marc Chagall. The 12 glass windows at Hadassah Hospital in Israel depict the beautiful message to each of the tribes. Each of these blessings focuses on the good characteristics of the tribe and in some cases foretells their future.

A link to the windows illustrated

A tradition inspired by this, is to design a blessing for your family in the format and style of these blessings. And illustrate it with a wonderful piece of art. You can start with the blessing OR with the art - this can be done and presented as a gift on a special occasion.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Soft of Heart

The Torah speaks of yaray v'rach levav, afraid and weak, or soft of heart. One who is afraid and soft of heart, let him go and return to his home and not soften the heart of his brother like his.The commentaries wonder if 'afraid and soft of heart' are the same.

A commentary by R. Robert Dobrusin of Beth Israel in Ann Arbor, Michigan reflects the discussion from our Torah Study this week:

"Rashi brings us the statement of Rabbi Akiva who says that both statements: afraid and weak of heart refer to the person who couldn't stand the hardship of war, couldn't stand to see a drawn sword. But Ibn Ezra who often delineated very specific grammatical or linguistic distinctions says: the yaray, the person who is afraid is the person who is afraid to strike another while the soft of heart is the one who could not tolerate the blow of another person.

Finally, let me share one more interpretation, perhaps the most interesting of all. The Tosefta, a law code from the time of the Mishna, says that fearful and soft hearted are two distinct characteristics. What does rach levav, soft of heart imply? The answer says the tosefta is that we should remember that even the strongest of the strong and the mightiest of the mighty and, I would add, the bravest of the brave could in fact be compassionate and should return lest he convince others and make them realize the cruel nature of war. The connotation then is that compassion is by no means a sign of fear, rather it can be seen as consistent with a strong, mighty and brave individual."

It is interesting to note that the term "soft of heart" was also used in reference to the Pharaoh - Pharaoh was naturally too soft of heart to resist letting the Hebrews go, and so God hardened his soft heart so that he would resist.

The question - good or not good to be "soft of heart"?
So is "soft of heart" a good or a not so good characteristic? We usually think of it as good - to feel compassion for others - but sometimes it refers to a weakness or as the opposite of 'strength of character'. But in the case of it being a reason for not going to battle it is neither good nor not, it is only referring to a reason why a person may not be qualified to fight specifically noting that the problem is that this feeling influences others.

"Soft of Heart" refers to our compassion rather than our fear. It seems that the Torah shows that even a seemingly necessary quality as compassion must be controlled or tempered in instances such as war.

I found a story that makes Deut 20 into a visual play on website:

Secular Jews in the city of Brisk, in an attempt to make a mockery of the religious community, staged a play depicting what a religious army under Torah authority would have looked like. The curtain rose over a group of soldiers dressed in black as the kohen spoke to the group: "Whoever has built a new home and did not dedicate it - should return to his home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate it" A group of soldiers marched and left their position. The kohen continued, "Whoever has planted a vineyard and did not perform hilul or who was betrothed to a woman and did not marry her - should return to his home" Again, a handful of got up and left. The kohen then proceeded to announce the final release: "Whoever is afraid and soft of heart - referring to those afraid on sins which they have committed - should return to their homes"

Immediately, panic broke out among the soldiers. Who has not committed one sin or another? Who has never spoken any "lashon hara" or wasted any time from Torah study? They all picked themselves up and left.

On the stage stood only three people - the kohen, and two elderly men. The first was the Vilna Gaon, and the second was the author of "Shaagat Aryeh." They engaged in an involved "halachic" discussion as to which one of them has the privilege of beginning the battle against the enemy. The frivolous audience broke out in hysterical laughter.

Understandably, the secularists relished this or any opportunity to poke fun at the Torah. The religious community, however, turned to Rabbi Hayim of Brisk to ask for his response.

Reb Hayim answered, "What can I say - they are correct! This is exactly how it appeared when the Jewish people went out to fight. Bu the actors forgot just one thing - those two won the battle!"

Strange as it may seem, there is precedent for such a lopsided defeat.

They point to other known Biblical wars as examples of the weaker overcoming the mighty army: The Macabee revolt against the Hellenists, Shimon and Levi themselves captured the city of Shechem (Samuel 1:14), and even the Exodus story applies.

So in times of war 'soft of heart' is not necessarily a good thing for the warriors because it may spread to all who are fighting and make them less effective. But it IS an appropriate quality for those in support positions during war. There are spiritual leaders, those who help care for the wounded, even those who help in the strategy of the battle who might be better when they are somewhat 'soft of heart'.

Using the term 'soft of heart' for personal battles, such as overcoming a difficult task, or fighting against an illness in therapy, or even a 'battle' for a political cause, is another way to look at this characteristic and whether it is good or not. Sometimes we need to turn away our 'soft hearts' and 'harden our hearts' a bit or to approach these type battles as well.

Side note: when googling for "soft of heart" there were many hits for a line for the Quran:

009.114 The prayer of Abraham for the forgiveness of his father was only because of a promise he had promised him, but when it had become clear unto him that he (his father) was an enemy to Allah he (Abraham) disowned him. Lo! Abraham was soft of heart, long-suffering.

It seems this is reference to Abraham's forgiving his own father probably for worshiping idols - but I am not sure...

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Tashlikh Traditions

These are photos from the Tashlikh service 5766 at Baylands Nature Preserve. It is a warm day with the community together as we sing 'Return Again' and other songs and prayers to set the mood. Each person is given a hand full of crumbs and goes out on their own on the bridge to contemplate the meaning of Tashlikh and to cast the crumbs into the flowing waters below. Then we come back together and conclude as a community with more song.

Some choose to let all the crumbs fly at once into the stream and others just a little at a time, it is a symbol of renewal that starts the days of awe Yamim Noraim. Parents reflect alone and with their children. Young and old alike continue the tradition. This is the beginning of the time we reflect on what has happened and how things get better in the next year. As we do this each year we should feel that we all become better people and better community.

According to R. Scheinerman: Tashlikh derives from verses from the book of the prophet Micah, which are read as the crumbs are scattered on the water:
"Who is a God like you, who pardons iniquity, and passes over the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? Adonai does not retain anger for ever, because God delights in mercy. Adonai will again have compassion upon us; Adonai will suppress our iniquities; and you will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea. Micah 7:18-20 You will show truth to Jacob, and loving mercy to Abraham, as you have sworn to our ancestors from the days of old."

Originally, the only requirement was that the water must be flowing -- not stagnant -- to carry away sins. Later rabbis required presence of fish: Like fish caught in nets, we are constrained by the web of sins we weave we are held down weakens our sense of self sin becomes a habit that leads us further down. Similarly, guilt can sometimes prevent us from rising above the past to become better people. Having repented throughout Elul, on Erev Rosh Hashanah, and on Rosh Hashanah morning, Tashlikh provides an opportunity to unburden ourselves of guilt that no longer serves a purpose so we can move on with our lives.

Tashlikh Humor

A humorous thought on Tashlikh:
As we cast all our sins into the waters with crumbs of bread - well there must be some evil fish and ducks out there.

For the sin... a listing of crumbs for various sins:

Taking a few crumbs to Tashlich from whatever old bread is in the house lacks subtlety, nuance and religious sensitivity. Instead, this coming Rosh Hashanah consider these options:

• For ordinary sins, use White Bread

• For exotic sins, French Bread

• For particularly dark sins, Pumpernickel

• For complex sins, Multi-grain

• For twisted sins, Pretzels

• For tasteless sins, Rice Cakes

• For sins of indecision, Waffles

• For sins committed in haste, Matzah

• For sins of chutzpah, Fresh Bread

• For substance abuse, Poppy Seed

• For committing arson, Toast

• For committing auto theft, Caraway

• For being ill tempered, Sourdough

• For silliness, Nut Bread

• For not giving full value, Shortbread

• For excessive use of irony, Rye Bread

• For telling bad jokes, Corn Bread

• For hardening our hearts, Jelly doughnuts

• For being money hungry, Enriched Bread or Raw Dough

• For war-mongering, Kaiser Rolls

• For immodest dressing, Tarts

• For causing injury or damage to others, Tortes

• For promiscuity, Hot Buns

• For racism, Crackers

• For sophisticated racism, Ritz Crackers

• For davvening off tune, Flat Bread

• For being holier than thou, Bagels

• For unfairly upbraiding another, Challah

• For indecent photography, Cheese Cake

• For trashing the environment, Dumplings

• For sins of laziness, Any Very Long Loaf

• For sins of pride, Puff Pastry

• For lying, Baked Goods with Nutrasweet and Olestra

• For wearing tasteless hats, Tam Tams

• For the sins of the righteous, Angel Food Cake

• For selling your soul, Devils Food Cake

• For lust in your heart, Wonder Bread

Remember, you don't have to show your crumbs to anyone.

The Just War Theory Starts in Torah

Deut 20:1-9 - preparing the Israelites for the battle they are about to face when entering the land.

In this portion reasons for this war include:
Taking back the land that was theirs.
People who were living in the land were committing abominations with things such as idol worship and sacrifice of children.
They were appointed the task to build a just and holy community.

There is a lot of material on what is a "Just War" from religious and political point of view. One article found from the Jewish perspective:UAHC Leaders on War

R. David Saperstein comments: "In Jewish just-war theory, according to Saperstein, sources say there are two kinds of obligatory war. One is in cases where enemies are out to destroy the Jewish people such as the Amalekites, and the second is known as a war of permission, used to expand Israel's borders when there is a long-term threat.

Additionally, Jews are commanded to pursue peace at all costs for three days before attacking, and if their opponent doesn't respond, they have justification.

In contrast with other faiths, Saperstein said, "Judaism has a unique concern for non-human targets." Citing that a Jewish army should not attack the enemy's fruit-bearing trees, he added, "The theory behind it is that you can use force, but it must be restricted in such a way that human life can resume afterwards." "

Another interesting article on "just war"

I attended a lecture on this subject at Brandeis last year...“The Ethics of War and Weapons of Mass Destruction in Judaism” by Professor Reuven Kimelman, Near Eastern and Judaic Studies - I recall that one of the big points making a "just" war had to do with the agreement by those who went into the war agreed that the purpose was valid... there is more on this in the next Torah Study for sure!

In this Torah portion the details of who was not to go into battle are detailed some. Even then there were reasons for deferment: anyone who built a home but not dedicated it yet, anyone who planted a vineyard and not harvested it, anyone who was betrothed but not yet married. - This implies that things must be taken care of at home prior to going into battle.

These same principles of establishing community are noted in Jeremiah 29 referring to the diaspora into Babylon. The essentials of a worthwhile life: family, home and planting.

more next week...