Friday, August 24, 2012

Special Guest Post

This week, we are honored to have a guest contributor, Michael Hein.  His thoughts carry a crucial and central message at this juncture of history, and the strength of their argument speaks for itself:
This week's parsha - Shoftim - gets me into more trouble, er, I mean is one of the most emotionally and philosophically moving of all parshiot. Commentary on it is endless. At its end are the particulars of the Egla Arufa.

Midrashically, it is said that the particulars of the ceremony (taking place exactly on the border of two towns, the breaking of the neck of the calf so that blood spills onto the ground, etc.) represents (one among many interpretations) the idea that in our communities, the level of decency and law-abiding-ness was lax enough to allow a murderer to exist and commit his crime; that the spiritual air of the place(s) was not “clear” enough to fill the lungs of such a person to dissuade him from his heinous act; that the society charged with rearing him, and giving him his middos (or if a traveler – hosting him) failed to inculcate by example an appreciation of and respect for Torah and Mitzvos, for the sanctity of life, or, at it's barest minimum, for following the rule of Law. And for that deficiency, teshuva is in order.

But why the forced declaration of the leadership of the involved towns? Why must expiation be made for the residents, almost all of whom, could not possibly have anything to do with the physical act of the actual murder?

The answer, of course, lies in another phrase - Kol Yisroel Arevim Zeh ba Zeh (Every member of Israel is responsible for each other). It is a weighty philosophic concept - truly an Ol Malchus Shemayim - or, it is just lip service.

Parshas Shoftim assures us that if we truly believe in the ambient morality of the klal (community), of the spiritual purity of the air we breathe, of the accountability each has to the other in society; then the upward delegation of the responsibility for monitoring the lawfulness of society to interested (or advantaged) community members (more specifically the abdication of one's responsibility to such members); the free reign given to men in positions of great power and realm without accountability and oversight; surely condemns all of us to the eventual necessity of having to stand at the border of "two towns", in a ditch, with a bloody knife literally in the hands of those very unexamined leaders, as pennance, bewailing the occurrence of terrible crimes, (billions in theft, money laundering, assault, battery, bribery, extortion, domestic abuse, arson, pederasty, etc.), the crowd seemingly "not understanding where such guilt could possibly come from"; aware of our defilement, pleading for catharsis, yet not being willing to open our eyes to the very source of our contamination staring at us in the mirror.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

form over substance

The story is a simple one, and it is widely told and taught as an example of the profundity of Jewish law and ethics (Devarim Rabah, Parshat Eikev, Chapter 3).  The great tanna (mishnaic author), Shimon ben Shetach, purchased a donkey (in one version, his students purchased the donkey for him) from an Arab salesman in order to ease the burden of his physical labor. When the purchase arrived, he was surprised to discover that the donkey had a rather sophisticated sense of style; it was wearing a necklace containing a valuable precious stone suspended from its neck.  Shimon's students, overcome with joy, suggested that God himself had now blessed Shimon with wealth.  Life would get much easier for their teacher than they had ever imagined.

Only one problem - Shimon ben Shetach famously ordered the students to return the donkey, with one short and sweet retort.  "I purchased a donkey, not a precious gem."  As the story concludes, the students return the donkey to the Arab salesman, who declares, "Blessed is the Lord, God of Shimon ben Shetach."

Just a few weeks back, a third-party vendor mistakenly offered tickets to Israel on El Al Airlines for just $300.00.  This, for tickets that normally cost well in excess of $1,000.00.  Hysteria raged as friends contacted friends, Facebook and Twitter abuzz, so that people would have the opportunity to purchase tickets before the obvious mistake was corrected.

Many noble human beings led the way and declined the temptation to succumb to pure self-interest, either by declining to purchase the tickets or by voluntarily returning the tickets when they learned of the error.  Most others have not followed this path.

Now, the airline industry is famously ruthless, and I'm sure we all have our share of horror stories about how this or that particular airline ruthlessly ripped us off, resulting in ill-will and a host of negative feelings.  Trust me, I have my stories as well.  Still, the current case brings to the forefront a certain tension that deserves and demands to be studied:

The very reason we as Jews value the land of Israel so much is our religious/historical connection to the land of our forefathers and because of the divine imperative to live in our land to be a people uniquely righteous and just.  The whole point of having a land is that we're supposed to be a nation that goes above and beyond (no pun intended) to distance ourselves from dishonesty.  Certainly, Shimon ben Shetach understood the importance of yahsrus, acting in a moral and decent manner, especially when it comes to monetary arrangements.  He understood this even when dealing with an Arab merchant, someone who did not belong to his people.  A lot of ink has been spilled about the legal obligations of the purchasers in our case (see here for Rabbi Gil Student's analysis).  In a similar case, when the seller made an error, Shimon ben Shetach's inquiry was much simpler and easy to understand.

If we hope to reflect positively on our benevolent and loving creator, we'd best start not only to distance ourselves from the financial scandals that ruin our God's name, but to act morally and justly in the ambiguous and difficult cases as well.  Going to the Land of Israel by cheating El Al out of their due is a perversion of justice, and compromises the integrity of the very land we pine after.