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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Jewish Hospitality

On Sunday I'm off to a two-week trip to Asia, which means I'll be spending the holiday of Shavuot (Tue-Wed next week) in Singapore. I was planning on ordering meals at the local synagogue, as I did with my family last time we were there. But then it turned out I didn't need to.

I had mentioned the fact that I was going to be in Singapore for the holiday to a friend from Tokyo (whilst letting him know I'll be there for the following shabbat). And lo and behold: a day later I get an email from someone I do not know, inviting me to have the holiday meals with his family in Singapore. Apparently, my Tokyo friend wrote to him about me and the guy promptly emailed back with the invitation.

This is possibly quite a unique phenomenon. I know of no other community or group of people, certainly not as large and far-reaching as the Jews, where you can land anywhere in the world and if there's a Jewish community there, chances are you will not be left out in the cold. This is of course not true of every Jewish community and certainly not true of every person belonging to such a community, but during my four years in Japan I have seen this happen countless times. We ourselves hosted many people in our house for shabbat dinner or shabbat lunch, visitors - complete strangers - who just turned up at the synagogue on Friday evening.

Chabad have obviously made such hospitality a profession (I myself check if there's a Chabad house in places I travel to for the first time), but the "personal touch" of Jewish families who invite strangers to their home is still very much alive and kicking. Despite my intrinsic cynicism, I find it rather heart-warming. There, I've said it.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Sefirat HaOmer and the Promised Land

We are in the middle of sefirat ha-omer, the daily counting of the 49 days between pessach and shavuot. This mitzvah appears in this week's parasha and the midrash says that we should not consider the omer as a "light mitzvah" because Avraham received the promise about inheriting the land of Israel based on this mitzvah. This requires an explanation; what is so special about the sacrifice of the omer that by fulfilling it Avraham received the Promised Land?

Another midrash may offer us an explanation. R. Yanai says that a man buys a piece of meat in the market and then goes through great pains to make that piece of meat get to his plate as food. On the other hand, while that same man is asleep in bed, God makes the winds blow, the clouds form and the plants and fruit grow. And the only compensation God receives for all this is the omer sacrifice, which is brought to the cohen. So according to this midrash, we "pay God back" for everything he does for us by fulfilling the mitzvah of the omer.

The Maharal explains this midrash as follows: God governs the world using both open, visible miracles and secret, unexposed miracles. When we are worthy enough to experience a visible miracle - such as the parting of the Red Sea or the halting of the sun in Joshua's days - our faith in God is absolute. After all, it is difficult not to believe when you witness God's deeds first hand. However, it is much harder to have faith by observing nature, which is in effect God's way of governing the world using hidden miracles, miracles which we do not perceive as being miraculous. As the Ramban teaches us, the essence of faith is tested in the belief in this "hidden hand". The omer sacrifice epitomises the presence of God in nature, such as it is described in the above midrash (clouds, winds, plants, trees). But is man able to pay attention to all these miracles while "sleeping in bed" and thank God for them?

This is where the omer comes in. It is an offering based on the product of nature and by fulfilling this mitzvah man becomes aware of the hidden miracles God performs through nature and his indebtedness to God. He thanks God by offering this sacrifice to the cohen and this thanking is the "payment" we offer God for what he does for us.

So now we can close the loop and understand how the omer and the promise of the Land of Israel to Avraham are connected. When the people of Israel were in the desert they lived by open and visible miracles: the manna from heaven, the fact their clothes remained in perfect condition for 40 years, the clouds that protected them, etc. But after they entered the Land of Israel all of these visible miracles stopped and the laws of nature - the "hidden miracles" - took over. Keeping the faith was much harder now, so the keeping of the mitzvah of the omer - a sacrifice brought from nature - symbolised that the people of Israel continued to believe in God even in this new situation. He who is able to thank God for the miracles of nature is the one that deserves the promise of the Land of Israel.

The idea for this week's Torah thought is from R. Zechariah Tubi.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Emor - Trying to Figure Out the Reason

ושור או שה, אותו ואת בנו לא תשחטו ביום אחד

(ויקרא כ"ב, כ"ח)

This week's parasha has many mitzvot; by the count of Sefer HaChinuch 63 of them, more than 10% of all mitzvot. And they cover many walks of halachic life: purity and impurity, incense, sacrifices, holidays and many more. Most of the mitzvot in Emor belong to the category of chukim (or, as R. Saadia Gaon called them mitzvot shimiyot), that is mitzvot that are not required by reason and that we cannot understand rationally, but rather are given through revelation. We can comprehend why the Torah would command us not to kill another human being or why we should respect the elderly. However, we cannot comprehend most of the laws of kashrut or why we needed to sprinkle the ashes of a dead red heifer in order to purify people. Regardless of our ability to understand the reasons behind a specific mitzvah we are nevertheless obliged to follow it. However, being the curious human beings we are, sages throughout history have attempted to provide reasons for the mitzvot, particulary the chukim.

One of the mitzvot in our parasha is on the face of things a most reasonable one, that we can easily comprehend the reason for:

"And whether it be cow or ewe, ye shall not kill it and its young both in one day"

(Vayikra, 22, 28)

The Rambam categorises this mitzvah in the category of rules destined to prevent cruelty to animals. He states that the love of an animal mother to its offspring is no different than that of a human mother to her children. Therefore, in order to avoid causing unnecessary grief to the animal, one is not to kill an animal and its offspring on the same day. For most people this would instinctively seem an obvious reason for this mitzvah. And yet things are not as simple as that.

The Ramban (Nachmanides) disagrees with the Rambam (Maimonides) and gives a different reason for this interdiction. He believes that there is nothing wrong with killing an animal and its offspring on the same day, as animals do not feel pain the same ways humans do. Rather, we are forbidden to do so in order to prevent us becoming too cruel. The purpose of this mitzvah is to instill in us a sense of pity and mercy, to avoid us becoming merciless butchers. The Ramban fears for our soul and for our sense of mercy, not for the animal's suffering.

But, as R. Haim David Halevy z"l (ex-chief rabbi of Tel Aviv) points out, if we examine the halachah, we find out that this mitzvah applies only if the animals are killed in a proper (i.e. kosher) shechitah; if the animal is killed otherwise, then it is permissible to kill its mother (or offspring). This fact actually makes both the Rambam and the Ramban's explanations of this mitzvah very difficult to accept. Why would we pity the animal less (Rambam) if it's killed in a non-kosher way, and how would the allowed method of killing help us achieve a sense of mercy (Ramban)? R. Halevy offers another explanation, which is based on the commentay to the Torah by R. Hirsch.

The prohibition to kill an animal and its offspring on the same day brings to the fore our sense of parenthood, which is present in both humans and animals. We kill the animal in order to either sacrifice it at the altar (in the days of the temple) or to eat it at our table. Both of these ends are to be done in holiness: sacrifices are holy and so is the meal we eat at our table ("a person's table is like an altar"). It is therefore not possible for us to "taint" this holiness by ignoring the love of the animal as a parent and not sympathising with this feeling.

But R. Halevy's explanation suffers from the same lacuna as the previous explanations. Strictly speaking, we are allowed to kill an animal at, say, 4PM before nightfall, and its offspring shortly thereafter at say, 6PM after nightfall. Technically it's not the "same day" so we avoid the prohibition, but surely if the purpose is for us to respect the love of parenthood and preseve a sense of holiness, how can a mere two hours fulfill that purpose?

No wonder there were many commentators and rabbis that said that searching for the reason of the mitzvot is futile. We are unable to comprehend in full the reason for every mitzvah so at the end of the journey (if there is ever such an end) we must revert to the basic faith that these mitzvot were commanded by God and we need to obey them.