Saturday, May 28, 2016

Parshat Behar, 5th Portion, Leviticus 25:29-38, May 26, 2016

“If your brother becomes destitute and his hand falters beside you, you shall support him [whether] a convert or a resident, so that he can live with you.” – [Leviticus 25-35)]
The commentary reads:
“Do not allow him to fall down and collapse altogether, in which case it would be difficult to pick him up again [from his dire poverty]. Rather, “support him” while his hand is still faltering [for then it is easier to help him out of his trouble]. To what can this be compared? To a load on a donkey-while it is still on the donkey, one person can grasp it and hold it in place. Once it falls to the ground, however, [even] five people cannot pick it up.” - [Torath Kohanim 25:71]
It was interesting to discover that brother (Hebrew: ach) can mean another, relative, fellow, companion, brethren. So where the word fellow meant Jew, the word brother could include anyone. See:

Here is a maxim that it is better to help someone before they have hit the bottom. I suspect it is sometimes true, and sometimes false. In any case, it is clear that the meaning is that you should help your fellow man (or woman).

If anyone had any doubt that Jews are told to help all people, they should see from this that they are commanded to do so. Generosity, in this context, is something that you “shall” do because it is a commandment. Here are the 613 commandments that Rambam (Maimonides): (Though, for some reason, Rambam missed this one.)

All the Mitzvah's (commandments) are equally important because as humans we don't know how God weighs one against another. This suggests that it is important to do them all, no matter how trivial one might seem.

One rabbi here in Austin said that it isn't that we don't follow some commandments, it is that we don't follow them yet.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Parshat Behar, 4th Portion, Leviticus 25:25-28, May 25, 2016

“If your brother becomes destitute and sells some of his inherited property, his redeemer who is related to him shall come forth and redeem his brother’s sale. and redeem his brother’s sale: and the purchaser cannot impede [the redemption]. 
And if a man does not have a redeemer, but he gains enough means to afford its redemption, he shall calculate the years for which the land has been sold, and return the remainder to the man to whom he sold it, and [then] he may return to his inheritance.” (Leviticus 25:25-27)
I read a couple of positive messages here:
  • That we should take care of our own (whatever that might mean). If a brother is in trouble, you should help him.
  • You should not gain from another’s bad luck.

But the other side of the coin:
  • Economically, this may not work for the destitute man. His inherited property will not be worth as much if it has the potential to be repossessed. So, to “add insult to injury,” his good fortune to inherit property has been diminished. 
  • Psychologically, this may encourage the classic “enabling” syndrome, where the brother bails out the spendthrift. Though the intention is admirable, will one be more apt to be responsible if they know they will not be bailed out?

Of course, there are circumstances where one is not responsible for becoming destitute. But the problem with this law is that the brother doesn’t have a choice to decide if it is time to help his brother or time to let him be destitute for awhile. Nor is the redeemer brother able to perform a generous deed, for he redeems because of a commandment rather than an open heart.

P.S. I tried this out on my kind-of brother-in-law (daughter’s father-in-law). I told him I was destitute and had to sell some inherited property. I asked him to buy it back for me. “No way,” he said. I replied, “But the good book says you need to do it.” And my plea went downhill from there, despite that he’s (normally) a very generous man. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Parshat Behar, 3rd Portion, Leviticus 25:19-24, May 24, 2016

“And the land will then yield its fruit and you will eat to satiety, and live upon it securely.” (Leviticus 25:19)
Every seven years Jews are told not to plant crops. Some say, “Oh, they knew about crop rotation.” 

In Torah study last week we discussed this section from another vantage point. Someone mentioned that not planting reverts the fields to the Garden of Eden, where fruit is plentiful. 

The seventh year parallels both the seven days of creation and the six days leading to the sabbath. In both cases, our work is not just rote work, but work to bring us back to God and the Earth. We appreciate the fruits of our labor. We are not just work horses, but we are given time to stand back and appreciate our labors. So our work is work, but it is work to create the Garden of Eden, a glimpse of the past and the future (when the Messiah comes). It is meaningful far beyond the yield of the crop. The rabbi suggested that our ability to work for God separates us from animals. I could object to this separation of man and animals, but I won’t. I thought the story, read this way, was pretty beautiful.

I had a number of sabbaticals every seventh year while I was teaching. It kept me and my colleagues “alive.” Doing the same thing day in and day out can get old. It would be nice if more people had an opportunity to try something different every once in a while.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Parshat Behar, 2nd Portion, Leviticus 25:14-18, May 23, 2016

“And when you make a sale to your fellow Jew or make a purchase from the hand of your fellow Jew, you shall not wrong one another.” (Leviticus 25:14)
This is a big topic for discussion by both the rabbis and atheists like Dawkins. Though the word “Jew” doesn’t occur here in the Hebrew, the particular word, “fellow,” meant a Jew.

One reading of this is that it is okay to wrong someone who isn’t a fellow Jew. Logically this is a stretch. If I say that the food at Safeway is safe to eat, I’m not saying anything about food at other groceries.

Later in Leviticus we read, “The stranger who sojourns with you shall be as a native from among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God.” (Leviticus 34:19) This seems to put to rest the idea that the Jews don’t care about others. Though I wish that the argument wasn’t “that we were strangers in the land of Egypt.” First off, as strangers they were slaves. They were not treated well. And for another, are we only good to others because they were good to us? Or that we know how it is to be a stranger, because we were abused? Is the justification for our moral code simply that one will benefit if everyone follows it? That sounds more like pragmatism.

Another argument is the incremental one, that we (individually or collectively) practice fair play and generosity on larger and larger groups as we grow up. First it is one’s family, then the neighbors, and then everyone.

How is it that a president can talk about killing an enemy with pride, and condemn another for killing as if they were the scum of the Earth? Aren’t each a sentient being? I’m starting to stray here. Time to do a drawing.