Archive for January, 2014

m An Angel (malach) in More Ways Than One

            This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, is mostly an elaboration of the law code Moses receives on Israel’s behalf.  Then, after the litany of laws comes to an end, Torah gives us this passage, “Behold, I am sending an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place which I have made ready.  Take heed of him and listen to his voice.  Do not rebel against him for he will not bear your transgressions as my name is within him.”  The angel (malach) is to guide the people’s way to the Promised Land.

In my first year of Rabbinic School in Jerusalem, one of my classmates gave a d’var Torah on that passage.  She proposed that the angel was, in fact, Moses, who while not a divine being, was the bearer of holiness on behalf of the people.  It was Moses who was the link between the Divine and the children of Israel, being a combination of guardian, leader, guide and teacher.  Indeed, this last role, that of teacher, is forever concretized by our referring to Moses as Moshe Rabbeinu – Moses our teacher.  She supported her argument by the fact that no where in either the torah portion or the rest of the book of Exodus does an angel appear.  She points to Nachmanides commentary that a divine being was not necessary while Moses was alive.  Moses was the bearer of God’s power on God’s behalf, indicated by the pharase, “my name is within him.”

My classmate made another great point in her sermon.  Each of us studying to be rabbis had the same potential as Moses to be a malach.  As we guide people in times of need, teach the mitzvoth, or lead in the acts of prayer – each of us has the potential to be the link between the human and the divine.  Each of us has the potential to lead those around us to a Promised Land – a place of deeper Jewish understanding, of spiritual and people connection.  It was a beautiful d’var Torah and I particularly liked the way she saw the angel as a teacher of Torah, facilitating Jewish learning on all levels.  I think, however, there is an application of the verse, of the concept of people as malachim that goes beyond being teachers within the Jewish world.

This fall I began mentoring a little boy in an elementary school.  He is 6 years old – a first grader.  He is from a family that is clearly not well off and has trouble providing the learning support he will need to achieve any degree of success in this world.  He is struggling with math, not so unusual really.  My job as his mentor is to help him learn some basic math concepts so that he will not become another angry adolescent in 6 or 7 years – frustrated with a system he could not learn and ready to rebel against the institution that seemed to cause his frustration.  That would be such a shame, as he is a really sweet little kid, who is thrilled when he does well and gives the right answer.  But the point of this is not either me as mentor or the boy as student.

I had not set foot in an elementary school classroom since my own daughters were grade schoolers – over 20 years ago.  Even then, I was there for school conferences, a rather controlled environment.  I had no sense of what it was like to be a teacher, trying to bring a room full of students to greater understanding of the subjects and skills that will shape their ability to succeed.  I do now.

Over the last several weeks, I have gotten to know the little boy’s teacher (I will call her Ms. F) and to see the conditions in which she must teach.  Keep in mind, this school is not considered a deprived or troubled school, but an example of the average school in our district – which by the way is considered one of the better ones in Florida.  The room is an open classroom.  Ms. F must teach 20 first graders in one corner of the open classroom, with 3 other classes going on in the other corners.  If a child is not an exceptionally focused child, it seems impossible for them to concentrate on their work properly.  I know that the 6 year old version of myself could not.

This week the teacher expressed her frustration in her inability to keep all 20 of her charges progressing at the rate needed for them to pass to second grade.  She was distraught that the little boy I tutor was falling further behind.  I assured her it was not her fault.  Indeed, I am in awe that she is able to keep the vast majority of the students learning and progressing.  I thought of the verse I quoted from this week’s Torah portion and realized that she is a malach trying to lead this room full of children to the Promised Land of education – the doorway to having any quality of life.

But what happened next blew me away.  The children had just come in from the playground and were having their snacks – which are supposed to come from home.  My student had no snack and said he was hungry.  Ms. F took a box of wheat thins from a shelf, a box she brought from her own pantry, and gave the boy a snack.  As I related this, in amazement to others during the course of this week, I learned that most teachers do this.  In fact, most teachers pay for school supplies the district will not get for their classrooms as well as provide snacks for children who have none.  These teachers are malachim in many more ways than one.  Not only do they work to educate children against the odds of bad facilities, too many students in the classroom, uncooperative parents who blame the teacher for every mishap – but try to provide where all other supposed participants in the process fail to provide.

Now for the part that makes me angry.  No profession is more disrespected than teachers.   I am sure Ms. F makes no more than 37 K per year.  How can we, as a society allow children’s education to wallow in such mediocrity?  Why are we not honoring and paying teachers who give so much of themselves to the students?  Just as the Torah tells us God’s name is placed within the angel leading the Israelites, I believe God’s name rests within each teacher as well.  If we do right by them, we will take a great step towards not failing our children.

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This is the week of divine revelation.  Parashat Yitro describes the unveiling of God’s central charge to the children of Israel.  Jews understand that the 10 commandments revealed in this week’s parashah are just a preamble to a much larger law code.  But that preamble is important, even critical.  It sets parameters for the relationship between the people and God.  The magnificence of the scene, the display of lightening and thunder, commands the people’s attention.  As this part of divine revelation concludes, we get a rather mysterious sentence, “v’chol ha’am ro’im et hakolot.” Which we could translate as, “And all of the people saw the voices.”

The natural reaction is to ask how the people could “see” voices?  How does one see sound?  Midrash Exodus Rabbah provides this insight into the verse:  “Rabbi Jochanan said that God’s voice, as it was uttered, split up into 70 voices, in 70 languages, so that all nations should understand.”  This midrash has been read and taught numerous times to demonstrate how the Torah is meant for everyone.  It is not the exclusive property of the Jewish people.  Other midrashim affirm this.  For example, one teaches that the reason Torah was given in the wilderness and not in the land of Israel was that all would understand it as the property of everyone.

Too often we fail to read the next sentence of the midrash, “When each nation heard the Voice in their own language their souls departed, except for Israel who heard but were not hurt.”  Rabbi Tanhuma then adds to this explaining, “The word of God went out in two aspects, slaying the heathen who would not accept it but giving life to Israel who accepted the Torah.”  Are we to conclude from this midrash that only Israel was worthy of revelation?  Clearly, this teaching conveys, that for at least that initial moment of revelation, only Israel accepted Torah as their life’s guide –  the basis for life and community.  But is that the end of the story?  Is this hint at a universal message really just a way to highlight Israel’s exceptionalism?

I believe this slice of Torah gives us a chance to examine the unique Jewish perspective on the relationship of the individual to the community.  It is all of Israel that witnesses and receives revelation.  They are a corporate unit, not a collection of individuals.  Just before revelation begins Torah tells us, “vayichan sham Yisra’el neged hahar,” “Israel camped there in front of the mountain.”  (Exodus 19:2) The verb “camped” is in the third person singular – the implication being that Israel is one, unified entity.  Although there were hundreds of thousands in the camp, for this formative moment, they were united as one.  Thus is the prelude to the declaration of law.

The first four commandments establish a relationship between the people and God.  The last five lay out the bare rudiments of interactions between individuals.  The fifth commandment stands out as a transition, and too often we do not read the complete commandment; “Honor your father and mother, that you may long endure on the land which Adonai your God is giving you.”  By only looking at the first clause, we see this commandment simply as an individual’s obligation to respect their parents.  But there is so much more.  Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah, outlines what this commandment means.  It is not just showing respect for those who bore and raised you, but the obligation to provide for them as they become aged and infirmed.  You might not be able to do this yourself for a variety of reasons, so, according to Maimonides, you can place them in the care of others better equipped to meet their needs.  Your obligation, in that case, is to be assiduous in assuring that the caregivers are giving the appropriate care.  However, if we see this only as an individual obligation, we are misreading the text and intent of the law, the 10 commandments; indeed the entirety of Torah.

Remember, this revelation is for all of Israel as one unit, one community.  The singular forms are not just directed to individuals within the camp, but to the entire nation of Israel.  All must honor and care for the elderly in the community.  And that brings us to the last part of the verse, “that you may long endure on the land that Adonai your God is giving you.”  Our ability to properly provide for our elderly is a test of our society, our community.  If we do so properly, our community will endure.  If we do not, it is then a sign of a sickness infesting our corporate body.  The current discussions concerning social security and Medicare now take on a different meaning, imply a different consequence.

I recently attended a program by The Village Square that discussed our country’s budget deficits as well as the run away costs of these two programs.  The discussion was disturbing.   There was a lot of offering critique but not of offering solutions; encapsulating the political system’s inability to address real problems.  The fixes to social security are fairly obvious.  It must be a combination of adjusting the benefits to current actuarial facts, raising the income limit that can be taxed, and means testing.  Some combination of these will ensure that those of our elderly and disabled who need the program will get it.  The economist on the panel blamed Medicare for much of the budget deficit, calling for “market based” solutions to health care issues.  Yet, Medicare is the hero of the health care system when allowed to function properly.  For example, Medicare puts many services and health care supplies out for competitive bidding, which ensures the lowest prices – a market based solution.  However, it is not allowed to do so for drugs, as congress is lobbied by the giant pharmaceutical firms to prevent Medicare from subjecting drugs to competitive bidding.  Medicare spends only 2% of the money it takes in on administrative costs, with 98% of its dollars going for patient care.  Few private insurance companies even come close to that percentage.  Clearly, if Medicare were allowed to operate at its greatest efficiency, its available dollars would be stretched much further – again helping to provide care to those who need it while saving costs.

This one example, taken from the commandment to care for our parents, illustrates the illness infecting our country.  We see too many of our rights as individual without any communal obligation.  We see the singular language of revelation as directed only to the individual and not to the communal whole.  Which brings us back to the question of what Israel saw when they “saw the voices.”  Naftali Tzvi Horowitz in his Zera Kodesh says that the people saw the very first letter of divine revelation, the alef from the opening words anochi Adonai Elohecha, “I am Adonai your God.”  Why is this significant?  If you look carefully at an alef, you will see the bare outline of a human face, two eyebrows and a nose in the middle.  By only hinting at the shape of a face, the alef could be anyone’s and every person’s face.  At that moment Israel saw the face of others, and that each face of each other was reflected in God.  It was the beginning of understanding revelation not as for the self, but for the whole.  When we recognize the humanity in others, and their Godly connection, we begin to consider each other, not just ourselves, in our actions and calculations.

And what about the 70 voices?   What is it that made the other nations afraid and give up their souls despite hearing revelation?   Perhaps they were not ready to lessen the natural human obsession with the self and personal gain.  Perhaps they were not ready to accept a system which commands a real caring for others.   Israel, being forged in the furnace of slavery, of oppression, understood the consequences of the lesson.  They were ready to give their souls life by bonding as a community to the moral code God was sharing.  Perhaps this midrash is just a way of teaching that if we are not willing to stop focusing on the self, if we live only by the mantra of personal gain, we do indeed lose our souls.

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