Monday, September 5, 2011

Parsah Shoftim; Judges; Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9, Isaiah 51:12-52:12

Shalom and good shabbas. Wazzup? Your grass-roots renegade rockstar rabbi here to give you a little bit of T-R-H, as the Biblical Hebrews would say (They didn’t use vowels). I was hoping my initial post would be more bad ass, you know, that it would befit the name Rockstar Rabbi, but this weeks reading had a lot of problems in it for me.
UPDATE: It gets slightly more bad ass towards the end.

It was Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9, or “Shoftim” meaning Judges, and there was certainly a lot of judgment. And that bothers me. A lot. I am far from being a moral paragon, so I feel that all these stipulations to judge and how to judge, well they just don’t apply to me. I will not be stoning people; I am not wise enough.

If you want to read it, in its entirety, give the Chabad some hits by clicking this:

If you want an overview, with some an interpretation, continue giving the Chabad some hits by clicking this:

(Chabad Rabbis are always very kind to me and usually give very interesting slants on readings and interpretations, so I give their website some hits).

If you didn’t read anything, that’s okay, I will give a short summary but just a warning: it’s going to be my interpretation and I want you to get a full range of opinions on it. (Also, the Haftorah is pretty BA this week:

My Humble Reading:
The parshah, or portion of reading for the week from the Torah, is a lot of rules: rules for each other, rules for kings and rules for slaves, extreme rules, subtle rules – like many things in Judaism: it is a guide to treating what’s here with kindness and respect (or at least these rules did then, now they have many interpretations which change from place to place). I don’t know enough to say something clever and wouldn’t want to only focus on one as the link above does, so I am going to do something different.

If you open your hymnals to Isaiah 51:12-52:12, the Haftorah reading for the week, you’ll find a passage being awkwardly sung by voice-cracking pubescent people across the world (haftorah’s are read at Bar/Mat Mitzvahs on Saturdays) about God as one who consoles. The Jews were in dire straights due to the Babylonians, well, due to the Babylonians completely destroying their way of life. Feeling lost and alone, as many a people often do, they turned to the Egyptians, their old enemies who God has a very big kosher beef with, for help with Babylon. The People of Israel are scared and alone. They don’t know want post cards or messengers of consolation: They want the Big Man himself. And he bellows, “I, indeed I, will comfort you.”

And the Lord explains to the people, Come on! I am the Lord. I got this. I made the heavens and the earth, and adds a spunky ‘What have you done lately other then complain and betray me?,’ before reassuring the people that their enemies will now be the ones that drink from the “cup of wrath.” He finishes with a really beautiful and awesome phrase, that persists to this day. “But you will not leave in haste or go in flight; for the LORD will go before you, the God of Israel will be your rear guard” (Isaiah 52:12). The Lord has your back, bro. In fact, he’s got your back and your front. He’s good like that. So chill out, so chill out Children of A-Bro-ham.

I apologize for all the Bro’s in that, but I couldn’t resist. Rarely do Bro’s go Biblical.

So you have a parshah about treating each other justly, and a haftorah about what happens when people suffer unjustly. What does it all mean? All legalistic details and theological concerns aside, there is a very important message when these two passages are read together: When the unjust go unpunished, be assured that God’s got your back, so your job as a Jew, or even as a good person in a society is to deal with people as justly as you can and God will handle the rest. So it’s a reassurance, but, at the same time, it is also a prescription against the acts spoken of in Deuteronomy. Why commit these acts if everyone is working towards a just society and God’s got your back? What’s the point of injustice, if everyone, up high and on the ground, is working against doing evil? It would seem that, short of a cosmic loophole, you have little to gain from transgressing the laws of God and a society. So be good, and rest assured, that Justice will always come.

Reform Humble Reading:
On Friday night, I went to a Reform Shabbat service and it was lovely. One of the two girls who were leading was really rocking out on her guitar during the prayers. The other gave a Davar Torah (rough translation: Word of Torah) and here is what she said:

**I was informed this is not what she said, but how I understood it. In my defense and hers, she had just prepared it, so it was less focused then she would have liked. I took from it what I did. I am also probably missing some points.**

Instead of appointing judges and enforcers externally, the lesson we should take is that we should appoint judges and enforcers in our minds. In other words, we should know our own limits and our own moral failings. We should see how we transgress our own standards and make them better, especially in the face of others who come from different perspectives.

For someone who claims she just put this together, that last bit is actually pretty in sync with the passage as well as her whole interpretation.

**This is where I am told I really begin to differ from what she said.**

In the parshah, there is one very merciful section I left out until now. It says that you shall set up cities of refuge where one who accidentally kills someone can flee, free of constant fear of retribution and ready to begin anew. She is, in a way, saying to set up your mind as a city of refuge for the Other, the one who transgresses the law accidently, by being themselves. Appoint your mental judges and enforcers and know your failings and then meet those who transgress it accidentally with an open mind, so that you can learn and grow from them, rather then mentally or physically stoning them.

Another Humble Lesson:
Now this was good, but not my favorite one of the Shabbas. Though it got me thinking about appointing personal judges and enforcers, about appointing wise people in your life to help you to grow morally and act justly. I am going through a big transition in my life. I am a stranger in a strange land: Boston. I need help. I need guidance. Especially given that I am going through a pretty big transition career-wise, maybe. Thus, it helps to appoint judges whose experience you can really benefit from and know you can depend on, if it gets too hectic. I would like to thank my mother and father for all the support and guidance, and my not-real-uncle-but-still-wonderful Uncle Bill, for honest non-fluffy advice on vocation.

Chabad Humble Reading:
So after the Reform Shabbat, I went to the Chabad House because I am a poor student, both in terms of spirituality and food, and they are giving, both in terms of spirituality and food. They had delicious food, interesting people (It amazes me how brilliant and multi-talented people can be here), and some pre-High Holiday wisdom, taken from this week’s Parshah.

Along with all the stoning in this week’s passage, there was also a section about ruling and the election of kings. It made the argument, contrary to what most people think of a King now, that a king is nothing without the choice and support of his subjects. Back then, he was not supposed to be a tyrant. Here, listen to this:

Boy do I love me some Matisyahu. Anyway, The Chabad Rabbi said that God is king, and this, the time before Rosh Hashanah is God’s election period. God is out there kissing babies before Rosh Hashanah, in the hopes that we will be personally chosen and, we, as a people will elect him again.

MANDATORY CHABAD MOSIACH LESSON: He then went on to explain that all the stoning and rules are meant for now, and not what God wants. That, if we ALL, as in everyone, elected God and kept the mitzvoth, the Messiah would come and we would only need to appoint judges and not enforcers. He brought it all together at the end. Good show! I tip my yarmulke to you Sir, because this post is way too long and kind of rambly. Perhaps in the future, I should just do my own reading.

Great Chabad Reading about Spiritual Growth from This Week’s Parshah:

Elegance in Scriptural Interpretation Award: Chasidic Guy Who Is In Town For His Friend’s Wedding!
He just got up. Said his name. And then explained that this reading is about proper judgment and the key to Jewish unity is not judgment, but is to gracious acceptance of your fellow Jew, regardless of how they practice. Then he sat down and went back to his Whiskey.

Last Reading, I Promise- The Bad Ass Prophetic One: Cities of Refuge
Here is a piece from the section about creating cities of refuge.

Deuteronomy 19:10 - “So that innocent blood will not be shed in the midst of your land which the Lord, your God, gives you for an inheritance 

I was walking through Harvard Square last night, and I passed a homeless woman, and I bought her food and drink, as I always try to do. But then I passed another. And another.

I lived in New York City and it is the same thing. Transient people come to major cities hoping for work or at least finding support thinking they would find someone in the huge population. Think back to Genesis: Abraham believes there must be at least ten good people in all of Sodom and Gomorrah. He was wrong, and I fear we might not pass the test either. As a city, as a country, as a world.

We have cities of refuge set up, where our fellow man comes to escape a life so horrendous that they are willing to live on the streets and starve. But we walk right by. In the Torah, these people tend to be angels meant to test us. Think on how many times in Genesis, a weary traveler is actually a divine messenger. Jesus even takes time to talk about it with the story of the Good Samaritan. (I know I am Jewish, but hey, so was he.) But we are past the point of being, what is called today, a good Samaritan. We need to be good people. We need to be great people.

We have set up cities of refuge by the grace of God. The sudden destruction of hurricanes, earthquakes, and unnatural disasters, like the one that is about to have its tenth year of remembrance, remind us that this is all a gift. Our health, wealth, and happiness glitters and glows and keeps the lights on in these cities, whether it be New York, Boston, or Cupertino, and those lights attract the people who need those things most. So help them attain it, lest we shed innocent blood in the midst of the land which the Lord gives you. 

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