Category Archives: Parashah

Creation, Animals, and Diet: A View from Torah and Soloveitchik

Between Heaven and Earth from Eden to the Flood and Beyond:

a Torah study by Rabbi Rick Brody

Genesis, theology, and the role of humanity in relation to other animalsin conversation with the wisdom of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik and classical commentaries

[Some material adapted from Rabbi Yonatan Neril and Evonne Marzouk of Canfei Nesharim]

[Translations of Biblical Hebrew adapted by Rabbi Rick Brody]

Soloveitchik citations from: The Emergence of Ethical Man, Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 2005, pp. 31-38

I. The basis for the relationship between human and non-human creatures

בראשית א:כד–ל

כד וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקים תּוֹצֵא הָאָרֶץ נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה לְמִינָהּ בְּהֵמָה וָרֶמֶשׂ וְחַיְתוֹ־אֶרֶץ לְמִינָהּ וַיְהִי־כֵן: כה וַיַּעַשׂ אֱלֹקים אֶת־חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ לְמִינָהּ וְאֶת־הַבְּהֵמָה לְמִינָהּ וְאֵת כָּל־רֶמֶשׂ הָאֲדָמָה לְמִינֵהוּ וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים כִּי־טוֹב: כו וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקים נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ וְיִרְדּוּ בִדְגַת הַיָּם וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם וּבַבְּהֵמָה וּבְכָל־הָאָרֶץ וּבְכָל־הָרֶמֶשׂ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל־הָאָרֶץ: כז וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹקים ׀ אֶת־הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹקים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָם: כח וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם אֱלֹקים וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם אֱלֹקים פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת־הָאָרֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁהָ וּרְדוּ בִּדְגַת הַיָּם וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם וּבְכָל־חַיָּה הָרֹמֶשֶׂת עַל־הָאָרֶץ: כט וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקים הִנֵּה נָתַתִּי לָכֶם אֶת־כָּל־עֵשֶׂב ׀ זֹרֵעַ זֶרַע אֲשֶׁר עַל־פְּנֵי כָל־הָאָרֶץ וְאֶת־כָּל־הָעֵץ אֲשֶׁר־בּוֹ פְרִי־עֵץ זֹרֵעַ זָרַע לָכֶם יִהְיֶה לְאָכְלָה: ל וּלְכָל־חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ וּלְכָל־עוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם וּלְכֹל ׀ רוֹמֵשׂ עַל־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר־בּוֹ נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה אֶת־כָּל־יֶרֶק עֵשֶׂב לְאָכְלָה וַיְהִי־כֵן:

Genesis 1:24-30

And God said, Let the earth bring forth animated life, [each] according to its species, beast and creeper, and earth-life, [each] according to its species; and it was so. 25 And God made the earth-life, [each] according to its species, and the beast(s) according to its species, and every ground-creeper according to its species; and God saw that it was good. 26 And God said, Let us make a grounds-keeper (humanity) with our imprint, like our character; and let them have dominion with the fish of the sea, and with the fowl of the sky, and with the beast(s), and with all the earth, and with the entire [range of] creeper that creeps upon the earth. 27 So God created the grounds-keeper with God’s imprint, with the Divine imprint God created it; male and female God created them. 28 And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion with the fish of the sea, and with the fowl of the sky, and with all life that creeps upon the earth.” 29 And God said, “Look, I have given you every seed-bearing herb, which is upon the face of all the earth, and the entire [range of] tree that has a seed-bearing tree-fruit on it: to you it shall be for food. 30 And to all earth-life, and to all fowl of the sky, and to every creeper upon the earth that has animated life in it, [I have given] every green herb for food;” and it was so.

Soloveitchik

Let us be clear that this rule [regarding diet] was not given to man as an ethical norm but as a natural tendency; it is absurd to speak of a law imposed upon ʻevery beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps upon the earth.ʼ …. [T]his injunction was a physiological pattern that dominated manʼs sensory drive. Primordial man neither desired nor was tempted by any food other than of the vegetative realm. The verse concludes ʻand it was soʼ: the ethical norm became a behavior pattern, an expression of the ontic order. Man and animal were not driven toward killing or devouring other living creatures.”

Questions

  1. Soloveitchik points to a similarity between human beings and other animals, a shared place in the cosmic order and a shared reception of a natural tendency. Is the word “species”) / min used in reference to the creation of humanity? Is humanity / adam a “species” in the same way the other creatures are categorized? What might our answer teach us?

    1. God says “Let the earth bring forth…” in regard to animal life, but then the text says “God made.” Then, God says, “Let us make…” in regard to the grounds-keeper, but then the text says, “God created.” What is going on here?

    2. Was God talking to the animals when God said “Let us make adam…”? Do (or did) the animals possess the Divine imprint and character (since God says “our”)? Did the appointing of a grounds-keeper take some of that quality away from the other creatures? If so, is that Divine quality ever available to them again? Can any creature be adam? (See question 3.)

    3. What is the difference between the dietary rules for adam and for the other creatures? Why might this distinction exist and what might it teach us about our relationship to food today?

  1. We know that this (mythic) natural order did not persist, either for human beings or for many other animal species. How might the Torah want us to understand that divergence in real life (i.e. not simply through the flood narrative)? Should we understand that divergence to have occurred similarly for humanity and the other species?

  1. What, then, distinguishes humanity? Is this distinction guaranteed or might it be conditional? Is it fully realized from the start or is it a potential state within an evolving humanity? Is it a distinction that is necessarily limited to the biological species homo sapiens?

בראשית רבה ח:יב

:יב וּרְדוּ בִּדְגַת הַיָּם: אמר רבי חנינא: אם זכה, רדו ואם לאו ירדו. אמר רבי יעקב דכפר חנין

את שהוא בצלמנו כדמותנו ורדו, את שאינו בצלמנו כדמותנו ירדו

רבי יעקב דמן כפר חנן אמר: יבא צלמנו ודמותנו, וירדה לשאינו דומה לצלמנו כדמותנו

Bereishit Rabbah 8:12

AND HAVE DOMINION (REDU) OVER THE FISH OF THE SEA (Gen. 1:28).

Rabbi Chanina said: If [humanity] has merit, [God says,] ‘ur-du’ (and have dominion); while if they do not have merit, [God says,] ‘yerdu’ (let them descend) [or ‘yeradu’(they shall be dominated) / they will be taken down / let other [creatures] rule over them)].

רשי בראשית א:כו

זכה רודה בחיות ובבהמות. לא זכה נעשה ירוד לפניהם והחיה מושלת בו

Rashi: If he merits, he rules over the living things and over the beasts. If he does not merit, he becomes subservient to them, and the living things rule over him.

Rabbi Ya’akov of Kefar Hanin said: Of one who is with our imprint and like our character [I say] ‘ur-du’ (and have dominion); but of one who is not with our imprint and like our character, [I say] ‘yerdu’ [or ‘yeradu’].

Rabbi Ya’akov of Kefar Hanan said: Let [the one who possesses] ‘our [Divine] imprint and character’ come and have dominion over the one who is not characteristic of ‘our [Divine] imprint and character.’

Questions

  1. What does dominion here suggest?

  2. What does merit refer to?

  3. What might it mean for other creatures to have dominion over humanity? Is this the same dominion that humanity would have over them?

II. The shift in the relationship

בראשית ט:א–ד

א וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱלֹקים אֶת־נֹחַ וְאֶת־בָּנָיו וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת־הָאָרֶץ: ב וּמוֹרַאֲכֶם וְחִתְּכֶם יִהְיֶה עַל כָּל־חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ וְעַל כָּל־עוֹף הַשָּׁמָיִם בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר תִּרְמֹשׂ הָאֲדָמָה וּבְכָל־דְּגֵי הַיָּם בְּיֶדְכֶם נִתָּנוּ: ג כָּל־רֶמֶשׂ אֲשֶׁר הוּא־חַי לָכֶם יִהְיֶה לְאָכְלָה כְּיֶרֶק עֵשֶׂב נָתַתִּי לָכֶם אֶת־כֹּל: ד אַךְ־בָּשָׂר בְּנַפְשׁוֹ דָמוֹ לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ:

Genesis 9:1-4

And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth. 2 And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon all earth-life, and upon all fowl of the sky, with all that shall creep on the ground, and with all the fishes of the sea; in your hand are they delivered. 3 Every creeper thing that lives shall be food for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things. 4 But flesh with its animation—its blood—you shall not eat.’

Soloveitchik

“Man-animal became a life-killer, an animal-eater. He became blood-thirsty and flesh-hungry.
“Is the Torah very happy about this change? Somehow we intuitively feel the silent, tragic note that pervades the whole chapter. The Torah was compelled to concede defeat to human nature that was corrupted by man himself and willy-nilly approved the radical change in him. ….
“Animal-hunters and flesh-eaters are people that lust. Of course it is legalized, approved. Yet it is classified as taavah [Num. 11:4, 34], lust, repulsive and brutish.
“The real motif that prompts such unquestionable antagonism toward slaying of animals is the aboriginal Jewish thought [that]….man and animal are almost identical in their organic dynamics that is equated with life, and there is no justifiable reason why one life should fall prey to another. Why should a cunning intelligence that granted man dominion over his fellow animals also give him license to kill?”

Questions

  1. According to Soloveitchik, what fundamental distinction exists between human beings and their “fellow animals”?

  2. How far does he believe that distinction should extend?

  3. What other fundamental value does that distinction come up against?

Ramban, Commentary on Torah, Bereishit 1:29 Flesh was not permitted for human consumption until the children of Noach, as our Sages have explained. And this goes according to the plain meaning of the Torah’s text. The reason for it is that mobile creatures have a certain spiritual attribute which in this respect makes them similar to those who possess intellect (i.e. people); they are capable of looking after their welfare and their food and they flee from pain and death. And the verse says, “Who knows that the human’s spirit is that which ascends on high and the beast’s spirit is that which descends below to the earth?” (Kohelet/Ecclesiastes 3:21) …

רמב׳ן, בראשית א:כט

הבשר לא הורשו בו עד בני נח כדעת רבותינו. והוא פשוטו של מקרא: והיה זה, מפני שבעלי נפש התנועה יש להם קצת מעלה בנפשם, נדמו בה לבעלי הנפש המשכלת, ויש להם בחירה בטובתם ומזוניהם, ויברחו מן הצער והמיתה. והכתוב אומר ׳מי יודע רוח בני האדם העולה היא למעלה ורוח הבהמה היורדת היא

… (למטה לארץ׳ )קהלת ג כא

Nevertheless, humanity was not given reign over the [animals’] life-force, for it was still forbidden to eat a limb off of a live animal. At this point it also became forbidden to consume blood, for it is blood that maintains life, as the verse states, “the blood of every living creature is associated with its life-force; tell the Israelites not to eat any blood, since the life-force of all flesh is in its blood.” (Vayikra/Leviticus 17:14). All that was permitted was the body of the non-speaking (i.e. non-human) animal after it has died, but not the life-force itself. This is the reason for shechitah (ritual slaughter); even though it is otherwise prohibited by the Torah to cause pain to animals (Talmud Bavli, Bava Metziah 32b), we nevertheless make a blessing “who has sanctified us with Divine commandments and commanded us regarding the shechitah.

ועם כל זה לא נתן להם הרשות בנפש ואסר להם אבר מן החי. והוסיף לנו במצות לאסור כל דם, מפני שהוא מעמד לנפש, כדכתיב )ויקרא יז יד( ‘כי נפש כל בשר דמו בנפשו הוא ואמר לבני ישראל דם כל בשר לא תאכלו כי נפש כל בשר דמו הוא,’ כי התיר הגוף בחי שאינו מדבר אחר המיתה, לא הנפש עצמה. וזה טעם השחיטה, ומה שאמרו )ב“מ לב ב( ‘צער בעלי חיים דאורייתאוזו ברכתנו שמברך אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו על השחיטה

Question: Why would God forbid the consuming of a creature’s life-force? What would such an act do or represent?

  1. After Noah: Continued limitations in the relationship to non-human animals

ויקרא יז:ג–ד

ג אִישׁ אִישׁ מִבֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁחַט שׁוֹר אוֹ־כֶשֶׂב אוֹ־עֵז בַּמַּחֲנֶה אוֹ אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁחָט מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה: ד וְאֶל־פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֹא הֱבִיאוֹ לְהַקְרִיב קָרְבָּן לַהלִפְנֵי מִשְׁכַּן הדָּם יֵחָשֵׁב לָאִישׁ הַהוּא דָּם

שָׁפָךְ וְנִכְרַת הָאִישׁ הַהוּא מִקֶּרֶב עַמּוֹ:

Leviticus 17:3-4

3 Any man from the house of Israel who slaughters an ox, or lamb, or goat, in the camp, or who slaughters it out of the camp, 4 and does not bring it to the door of the Tent of Meeting, to offer an offering to the Eternal before the tabernacle of the Eternal: blood shall be imputed to that man; he has shed blood; and that man shall be cut off from among his people;

Soloveitchik

The implication is clear. Whoever kills an animal for non-sacramental purposes is guilty of bloodshed, of murder; the term shefikhut damim applies equally to the slaughter of man and animal. Under a certain aspect, the life of the animal has been placed on equal plane with that of man.”

The Torah has not yet explicitly allowed for the non-ritual consumption of animal flesh (let alone a completely gratuitous taking of animal life).

דברים יב:כ–כא

כ כִּי־יַרְחִיב האֱלֹקיךָ אֶת־גְּבֻלְךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר־לָךְ וְאָמַרְתָּ אֹכְלָה בָשָׂר כִּי־תְאַוֶּה נַפְשְׁךָ לֶאֱכֹל בָּשָׂר בְּכָל־אַוַּת נַפְשְׁךָ תֹּאכַל בָּשָׂר: כא כִּי־יִרְחַק מִמְּךָ הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר האֱלֹקיךָ לָשׂוּם שְׁמוֹ שָׁם וְזָבַחְתָּ מִבְּקָרְךָ וּמִצֹּאנְךָ אֲשֶׁר נָתַן הלְךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִךָ וְאָכַלְתָּ בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ בְּכֹל אַוַּת נַפְשֶׁךָ:

Deuteronomy 12:20-21

20 When the Eternal your God shall enlarge your border, as God has promised you, and you shall say, I will eat flesh, because your life-force lusts to eat flesh; you may eat flesh, with all the lust of your life-force. 21 If the place which the Eternal your God has chosen to put the Divine name there is too far from you, then you shall slay from your herd and from your flock, which the Eternal has given you, as I have commanded you, and you shall eat in your gates, with all the lust of your life-force.

Soloveitchik

Nevertheless, the Torah again calls a desire for meat ta’avah, lust; while the Torah tolerates it, it is far from fully approving it.”

Questions:

  1. What have we learned about life-force / nefesh?

  2. Could we interpret the permission to consume flesh as contingent upon the continued existence of the Divine name in the place God has chosen (the Temple)?

  3. What might be the relationship between the expanding of borders and the lust of the life-force?

  4. How could we read “expand your borders” metaphorically and creatively—and potentially in a way that differs from or can prevent the lustful results that Deuteronomy anticipates?

 

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Homes, Veterans, Mental Health, and Jacob

Homes, Veterans, Mental Health, and Jacob

by Rabbi Rick Brody

Over the past two weeks, the Austin community has engaged meaningfully with several key issues of social concern–issues that affect the overall wellbeing of our city and of the lives of so many who live here. They are also issues that relate deeply to the powerful narratives from Genesis that we encounter at this time of year in our Torah-reading cycle.

Last Tuesday, Election Day, Austin voters approved an important housing bond that will make our city more affordable. As I have written about in a separate post, this successful vote was a victory for Jewish values of hospitality, inclusion, and justice, and a powerful step in fighting poverty; it’s also a great way of improving the economic health of our city. Yet, there are several other social concerns that interact directly with the issue of housing. A very important category of people who need affordable housing are those with various disabilities, including disabilities that can be classified as mental illness. And an important category of people with disabilities—including mental illness—are our military veterans. Finally, we all know too well about the preponderance of homeless veterans. So these three issues are deeply intertwined.

In the past week, our nation observed Veterans Day to honor those who have served our country in the armed forces, especially those who have seen the horrors of war. And here in Austin, this past Wednesday, an inspiring interfaith gathering took place to address how religious communities can respond appropriately and compassionately to those suffering with mental illness and their loved ones affected by their struggles. Jewish communities worldwide are in the midst of the cycle of stories that focus on our patriarch, Jacob. Key events in last week’s and this week’s parashot (portions), Vayeitzei and Vayishlach, draw attention to these same concerns.

Jacob’s journey involves a danger-filled departure to foreign soil that—while not a military situation—bears similarities to what our (mostly) young men and women face when they go off to serve in the armed forces. Jacob must learn to grow up quickly, experiencing various hardships—including two episodes of temporary homelessness on either side of protracted misfortune at the hands of an unscrupulous landlord. After fleeing from his manipulative father-in-law, Jacob faces his greatest challenge yet—the possible confrontation with the army of 400 men that his brother, Esau, has amassed. Jacob has been running from this challenge for 20 years while he has been in Charan, avoiding the issue of his brother’s anger for Jacob’s theft of their father’s blessing. Upon learning of Esau’s approach, Jacob becomes terrified: “Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed” (Gen. 32:8). Like a soldier thrown into combat, he fears for his life—yet Rashi suggests that the use of two words to describe Jacob’s mental state signifies that he is afraid not only of being killed but also of taking the lives of others. This moment leads to the emotional climax of our story and indeed, of the entire Jewish story.

While there is no reason for us to see Jacob as suffering from an ongoing mental illness, it is clear that at this moment in his life, he is depressed. He feels utterly alone, completely unsure of how to handle this overwhelming situation. In fact, his response to his fear is to send everyone else away and be fully alone. And at that moment, a mysterious man begins wrestling with him; this encounter is understood by many commentators to be a manifestation of his own struggles with his self—his sense of purpose, guilt, and destiny. What he learns is that life is struggle. This struggle is also depicted explicitly as one with divine implications: the man, referred to elsewhere in Biblical and Rabbinic literature as an angel—is clearly a messenger from God, blessing Jacob on God’s behalf and indicating in Jacob’s name-change to Israel that the patriarch has endured in struggles with God and men.

What struck me at the gathering on Wednesday night, sponsored by the New Milestones Foundation, was how the feeling of being alone is so characteristic of mental illness—both as part of the disease itself but also in the experience of alienation from one’s community, including one’s faith community, as a result of the illness. Similarly, that feeling of inner struggle, something we all encounter at times, is so much more pronounced and painful for those with clinical disorders. One sleepless night of wrestling is for some a daily experience without the release—or blessing—that Jacob experiences come daybreak. It remains night for these members of our community. It is our duty to try to help bring the daybreak for those caught in the hold of a mysterious invader that undermines their wellness. It is up to us to be the ones to offer the blessing for the one in four among us who suffer in such ways. The strongest message of any faith community is that, no matter what we feel, we are not alone.

May violent wrestling turn to loving, blessed embrace for those afflicted with mental illness in our midst, be they veterans, homeless, or anyone else. May we all prevail, like Jacob did, and find our way back to home and to wholeness.

A VOTE FOR HOMES: AUSTIN IS NOT S’DOM

A Vote for Homes: Austin is not S’dom

by Rabbi Rick Brody

The Sodomites rejected the poor and vulnerable within their midst.
In Austin, we voted to keep and help strengthen our “weaker links” for the sake of justice and righteousness.

Last Tuesday, Election Day, Austin voters passed–by a wide margin (over 60% of the vote)– the city’s “2013 Affordable Housing Bond” proposal,  designating $65 million in general obligation bonds for affordable housing. I am proud to have played a small role in supporting the “Keep Austin Affordable” campaign and want to believe that the Jewish community played its part in responding as concerned citizens to the needs of the poorest in our midst who are in constant danger of being priced out of town. Last month, in the run-up to the election, my congregation, Kol Halev, hosted my friend, local activist and Jewish community-member, Isabelle Headrick, executive director of Accessible Housing Austin!, who spoke to us about the proposition and the importance of vigorously addressing Austin’s housing crisis.

I introduced Isabelle to the congregation by way of that week’s Torah portion, Vayera, in which we witness three relevant events. First, we see Abraham’s immense hospitality to three visitors, the proverbial opening by Abraham and Sarah of their tent, a reminder about the moral goodness inherent in providing shelter–without our knowing their full story–to those who, even temporarily, are homeless. We then jump to the scene in S’dom (usually rendered in English as “Sodom”), where selfishness and intolerance reign and the arrogant hoarding of resources and subjugation of the vulnerable translates, symbolically, into the literal attempted rape of these same travelers. Contrary to the common Christian emphasis on the story, the Jewish view was never about anything sexual but about the violent rejection of the stranger.

This excellent article, “The New Sodomites,” by Aryeh Cohen and David Waskow, from way back in a 1997 issue of Tikkun, spells out the critical moral lessons of the story as they appear throughout the history of Jewish exegesis. While the authors cover several different social issues and are directly responding to President Clinton’s “disastrous” efforts at welfare reform, their overall analysis of the way American society has lost its direction in terms of addressing the widening gap between “haves” and “have-nots” remains terribly relevant, and much of their discontent with the legislation they discuss appears to have been horrifically prescient:

[W]e will continue to suffer from the substantial gap between givers and receivers, who will each remain suspicious of a welfare system that deprives them of human connection. And that gap will be precisely the political opening needed by those who benefit economically from an eviscerated welfare system and the subsequent expanding disparity in income between the rich and poor. They will use the need for reshaped welfare paradigms as an excuse for what has become the central political practice of today – the demand that we keep what is ours and force others to get what is theirs.

Yet, right before this gloomy prophecy, the authors offer some thoughts about how what was clearly already a broken welfare system could be reconstructed in ways that would address the core problems:

[W]e may need to develop new models for welfare that reflect the truly civic nature of tzedakah as it was understood by the rabbis – for whom a sense of connection among a city’s dwellers was more palpable than it is for us. Perhaps in our era – when writing checks is so easy and giving to the homeless on the street often so difficult – we need a model of mutual responsibility that demands direct encounters between giver and recipient.

As Cohen and Waskow make clear throughout their article, the model we need to destroy is the one embodied by the citizens of S’dom. It is clear that those who seek to simply increase the divide between rich and poor through neglect and a proverbial “closing of doors” are actually doing much worse: they are figuratively breaking down the fragile and unsustainable walls of shelter in which the homeless seek refuge–and the result is a metaphoric raping of the destitute. It is these selfish members of our society who are the “new Sodomites.”

In our story, the unsustainable refuge of the homeless visitors to S’dom is inside the house of Abraham’s nephew, Lot. They and their host only make it out alive because of their own supernatural intervention (they are described both as men and angels and are not ordinary human beings). In our case, we know that we cannot rely on miracles and need to take action to overturn the Sodomy that is so rampant in our society. We need to take our own action, like that which Cohen and Waskow recommend above, to create new forms of connection and repair in our cities–so that rich and poor alike can live safely within our municipal borders. The fictitious Rabbi Jake Schram (Ben Stiller’s character in Keeping the Faith), offered his own dismissal of the misunderstood sexual emphasis on the S’dom story in favor of one celebrating human kindness and communal care:

JAKE: But seriously, what is the story of Sodom and 
Gomorrah really about? - Anybody. Steve Posner.

STEVE: Sexual perversion.

JAKE: Sexual perversion. Steve Posner's watching a little 
too much Spice Channel, okay. ...
And Lot takes them in and he protects them. What happens 
next? Anybody. Greta Nussbaum, before she pulls her rotator 
cuff.

GRETA: God spares Lot and his family.

JAKE: Bingo! Two-week cruise for Greta! You're goin' to the 
Bahamas! You know, when you think about it...God is a lot
like Blanche Du Bois. He's always relied on the kindness of
strangers. And that's really what the story is about--it's 
about us taking care of each other. God relies on us to 
take care of each other.

When Isabelle finished speaking to our congregation, I took us back to the critical interlude that occurs between the hospitality offerings of Abraham and Lot. After the angelic visitors move on from Abraham and make their way towards S’dom, God invites Abraham into a conversation about the plans to destroy the two cities as punishment for their wickedness. What we then learn–even though, ultimately, the cities are not found deserving of being spared because of a lack of a minimal amount of righteous people besides Lot and his family–is that the Torah celebrates the human challenge to Divine policy. We human beings, represented by Abraham, enter into the “legal” system (God, of course, is law-maker, judge, and executive ruler) to challenge its processes and premises. God recognizes that Abraham and his descendants, in keeping the Way of the Divine (derech hashem), are to manifest “righteousness and justice” (tzedakah u’mishpat). Abraham responds to this expectation by calling God out for falling short of those very ideals: “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? … Should the Judge of all the earth not manifest justice? (Gen. 18: 23, 25)” God allows Abraham to influence the approach to the impending situation. The message is clear: We are supposed to challenge injustice wherever we see it, even if it is coming from the Divine. All the more so, when we interact with our fellow human beings, should we be advocating for righteousness and justice in our social policies. And the Torah’s strategic placement of this message makes even clearer that we ought to be especially vigilant about justice when it comes to welcoming the stranger and housing the vulnerable.

My message to my congregation, then, was that this non-partisan bond measure that lay before us–a robust commitment by our city to help build homes, sustainable shelters of safety that secure the wellbeing of the poorer members of our city and allow them to remain our fellow Austinites–was a perfect opportunity for an appropriate political stand by a faith community. I made no endorsement of a candidate or party and acted completely within my prerogative as a rabbi to implore my congregants to vote for the bond. It was a matter of religious commitment to not be like the Sodomites but rather to be like Abraham, a caring and hospitable doer of righteousness and an unflinching advocate for justice.

I am delighted that people of faith from throughout Austin responded similarly to this sacred opportunity to be guardians of the wellbeing of our city, to enable us all to walk the Divine path and uphold universal values of openness, compassion, and opportunity. If you voted for this bond, thank you.

Self-Actualization: Parashat Bo

Self Actualization: Parashat Bo

by Rabbi Rick Brody

The key to bringing about redemption is in the taking hold of it, making it our own.

When do we truly have control in our lives? A recurring word in this week’s parashah draws our attention to this question. In Exodus 12:2, the word lachem (“to you”) appears twice: “This month shall be to you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you.” Lachem essentially denotes the possessive form. The whole notion of “possessive” suggests independence, autonomy, sense of self, ownership, control. These are all qualities the Israelites lack; they are enslaved. They lack the freedom that possession implies. Their first possession, their first gift–with the designation of “the beginning of months,” rosh chodesh–is not a physical gift but rather something that exists in time. Why is this God’s first step towards granting freedom to the Israelites?

S’forno, a medieval commentator, paraphrases God’s instruction: “From here forward, the months shall be yours, to do with them as you wish. But, in the days of enslavement, your days weren’t your own, but were for the service of others and their desire. Therefore, ‘it is the first for you of the months of the year’–for in it, your ‘discretionary existence’ began.” S’forno is emphasizing the elements of choice, independence, and freedom. He understands that God is saying, “Your time is now your own.” Freedom begins with being able to order and define your own reality. Control of your calendar can have a profound effect on that sense of freedom. This is not just a technical change of using a new system of dates. God is offering the gift of a completely new orientation to time as something personal, intimate, free. “It’s your to do with as you wish.” You can now begin participating in the redemptive process, breaking free from the yoke of oppression. Your oppressor will no longer define you. Through your control of your sense of time, you will begin to construct your own freedom.

What comes immediately after this commandment? God shifts from speaking only to Moses and Aaron and now gives the two brothers instructions of what to actually tell the Israelites. What is the first thing the people will all hear regarding this month? “On the tenth of this month, they shall take for themselves (lahem)–each person–a lamb for his household, . . . a lamb for his house” (Ex. 12:3). When Moses and Aaron deliver these words to the Israelites, presumably they will change lahem (“for them”) into the second person plural, lachem (“for you”), reintroducing this same word that carries the message of freedom.

The Israelites will begin to learn the importance of their taking possession of something for themselves. This process begins with the ownership of time, but the first piece of information the Israelites hear as a whole is much more practical, more tangible. You will take a thing into your possession, a lamb. Why not “time?” Although God had shared this concept with Moses and Aaron, this idea is still too abstract for a slave mentality. The Israelites are like children. They’ll need some “time” to absorb those more complex ideas–they need to start with more concrete actions. Note that the lahem in verse 3 is superfluous. God doesn’t need to say, “they shall take for themselves, each person, a lamb.” The text could just as easily have read, “They shall each take a lamb.”

Why the addition? This is the first commandment being prescribed to the Israelite nation as a whole. This begins their relationship with God as a commander. This begins the end of their subjugation to human taskmasters and enslavers. They now have the opportunity to begin to act in service of God and holiness, rather than–as S’forno said–the whim of other human beings. And if we read Sforno’s interpretation closely, we can understand that God is giving the Israelites the opportunity to make this action personal. Presumably, God is allowing for them to decide even if they will do it or not.

This is the beginning of freedom, and the Israelites’ relationship with God, even though based on commandment, will also be based on the recognition of free will, of human autonomy–something that they have not experienced under Egyptian rule. Lahem (“for themselves”) highlights this idea. We can compare it to the use of the possessive in some more famous Biblical passages, most notably when God says to Abraham, “Lech l’cha–go to a place that I will show you.” The l’cha is superfluous. God can just say Lech (“Go”). But God says, “Get yourself to a place that I will show you,” or as some creative interpretations put it, “Go into yourself.” There is an experience of self-affirmation, followed by deeper self-discovery, when God frames commandments in this possessive way. The Israelites, like Abraham was, are about to begin a journey of self-actualization.

It is fitting that this Shabbat and our reading about the Israelites’ empowerment to take ownership of their freedom falls right before we observe Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The ideal of self-actualization was central to Dr. King’s vision of completely throwing off the shackles of oppression. May we all continue to find the ways to make freedom truly our own, to grasp it in its tangible forms, and to commit ourselves to being active players in the redemptive process–for ourselves and for others.