Tuesday, February 20, 2007


A few years ago I heard this story attributed to the Chasidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. A notorious thief, after quite an active career, finally died, and was sentenced to gehenna. While sitting in the court room awaiting arraignment before the heavenly judge, he notices a large sack. Being a thief, his fingers are itchy, and he can’t help himself. He has to know what is in the sack. He inches over and peeks inside.

He sees as he pulls the top loose, that the sack is stuffed, packed tight, with the souls of the sinners of Israel. Realizing that it was for this moment that he was created, the thief deftly purloins the bag, sweeps it aside, and sneaks it to the gates of heaven, flinging them inside, freeing the poor souls from the clutches of Satan.

Seeeing what he has done, Satan is reaching for the thief, about to crush his soul, when all of a sudden, a messenger arrives for him in the court room, carrying the thief into the joy of God’s presence.

Close your eyes for a second and picture a hasid. Now, tell me, what do you think a Chasid looks like?

Okay – but - who sees themselves? Who sees the person next to you? Do they look like a hasid to you?

What is a hasid really? … in the Torah portion we read over the course of this week, culminating on Saturday morning, we are supplied with a series of laws. The laws set out in the portion of mishpatim are all, ultimately, discussions of value: the value of money and the value of what can be bought for money, and the value of human life. We begin with one who begins as a servant of another human, and who chooses to stay with his master; then the laws of one who kills another person; one who injures another; an animal that injures a person or kills them; then theft, and so on.

In the middle of these laws is a small section of just a few, on theft. Verses 22:37-23:1 read, “If a man shall steal an ox, or a sheep, and kill it, or sell it; he shall restore five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep. 23:1. If a thief is found breaking in, and he is struck so that he dies, there shall no blood be shed for him.” [It may be worth noting that the mishpatim are all laws that make sense to us. In other words, we can, usually, figure the rationale for them on our own

The Torah clearly takes crimes of property seriously, but what are these verses doing here, embedded in what is very clearly a section on laws that explain how to value human life?

When the hasidim commented on these verses, they did not concentrate on the legality of theft. I imagine they thought to themselves (a typical approach for a Hasidic commentary), “everyone knows that’s its unlawful to steal, so instead, what else could be meant by these laws? What is the purpose behind the obvious in including these laws here, in this section?”

On the first of these verses is a commentary by the famed Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pshischa, known for his sweetness. He said, “There are three things a person should learn from a thief in how to serve God: a. a thief is not lazy, and even at night, in the cold and rain, he goes out to attend to his work; b. if he fails on the first attempt, he will try again, and will not rest until he has succeeded; c. he does not scorn small things, and will not refrain from stealing something just because it is small.”

1. Even the smallest of things has value. This is certainly a lesson worth learning. It is fitting that these laws are read on this shabbat. In fact, this upcoming shabbat, there are three events that all coincide. The first is the reading of this week’s portion, mishpatim; the second is the reading of the special maftir, for shabbat shekalim, and the third is the blessing of the upcoming month of Adar, whose celebration begins Saturday night, motzei shabbat.

Shabbat Shekalim is named for the maftir reading. The maftir describes a census requiring every Israelite to contribute a half shekel to support communal sacrifices in the ohel moed, the tent of Meeting, and later at the Temple. All pay equally: the Torah says explicitly, “the rich shall not pay more, and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel to make an atonement for your souls."

Why do we all owe a half-shekel, and why for atonement? If the shekel is as the Torah says, “A ransom for one’s soul” (30:12) then one soul is of equal value to any other, rich or poor. This is a reminder -and we are never poorer for the reminder, given as we humans are to evaluating people based on their income, but there is another lesson as well. The Talmud Yerushalmi also explains the Torah’s language of atonement: specifically, the half-shekel was an atonement for the sin of the golden calf.

But is our soul so small a thing? How can a half shekel redeem your soul?

We forget that in the scheme of the world, even the tiniest of creatures can have a big impact. Consider the mosquito.

Most commercials and ads stress that “bigger” is better. We sometimes forget that the little things are the important things Our Tradition is filled with little things doing big jobs: David vs. Goliath, the story of the “shamir” the little worm that chewed through the stone used to build the Temple because metal tools were forbidden. Here, it is not that our souls are worth only a half-shekel: it’s the fact that we bring the half-shekel, that we do something, even if it seems to be small. In Pirkei Avot (4:2) we are told not to do greater mitzvot at the cost of lesser ones because we don’t know how God weighs them.

2. A thief is not lazy. We think the world is full of walls, locked doors, that everything good is hard to acquire, but God tells us that this is not so. The thief doesn’t worry about that. If we are willing to put our minds and bodies to the task, we can scale any wall, break through any door.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches that not only should be willing to work hard to obtain our desires, but that those obstacles themselves are part of our goal. God puts up obstacles when we try to draw close, but hides within the obstacles. Those who know God is everywhere, know that God is also in the obstacles and will search in them for God. SO, like a thief, we shouldn’t be deterred by obstacles, but treat them as part of the excitement – the challenge. Thieves, according to the magid of mezritch, Love what they do. We need to be like thieves—not deterred by obstacles, but curious as to what may be in them. Perhaps we ought to be like the cat burglars portrayed in thriller movies – slipping into our little black catsuits, determined to break into the building using only our wits and talents, to find our treasure.

The maggid of Mezritch said:
"Every lock has its key which is fitted to it and opens it. But there are strong thieves who know how to open without keys. They break the lock. So every mystery in the world can be solved by the particular kind of meditation fitted to it. But God loves the thief who breaks the lock open. I mean the man who breaks his heart for God. "

The thief breaks through the door. Or, I might add, goes around it, climbs the wall. God didn’t build those walls, we did. They aren’t real. Anyone can get over them. We perceive the walls as being in the way, an obstacle. However, the thief sees the wall as something good, the challenge that must be overcome to get her desire. Even when God makes the obstacle, we are not alone: God is always with us. Perhaps God is trying to get us to be more thief-like so when we break through a wall, God can jump up and yell “Surprise!”

Judaism gives us all the lock-breaking tools. It seems as if God is so distant that we can never reach the palace. All around us are distractions, and difficulties. The racket of television and advertising, of the temptations of thinking ourselves either too great, or too small, are overwhelming. We are worried about earning money to make sure we have food and homes and medical coverage – all legitimate worries, but they close us off to so many things when our worries about them expand into all our available time- and time which should be available for other things. We spend so much time worrying that we don’t have what it takes, that we waste what little time we do have. Some of us spend our lives trying to find the right key to open that door. Some of us try the same key over and over again; others just keep looking for a new key, any key, not thinking that different keys go to different doors. But maybe the secret is – we don’t need a key, or there is more than one door. Or maybe, we just need to try a window.

Those are the walls. But we have the Torah, and the Talmud, the laws of Judaism and the wisdom of the sages to teach us to see that everything we do can have holiness in it. . The thief has many tools – and so, too, do we: Judaism offers us dozens of ways to climb the walls and break down the doors: tefila, prayer; Torah study – and many different kinds of texts to learn from; art – like the artisan of the Torah, Bezalel, who is described as wisehearted in his work to create the mishkan; music, like King David’s harp; poetry, David’s psalms. Our tools are blessing before and after eating, community, and meditation; Kashrut and Shabbat, outreach and introspection.

When we live as Jews, we are using the tools, open to hearing God’s voice, to being infused with light.

3. The thief will not rest until he has succeeded. We have faith that our scientists can eventually solve any problem, answer any question. Let’s hope all the scientists working on the global warming problem don’t decide that it’s too much trouble, the problem is too big! But it seems like such a struggle to keep looking and coming to shul all the time, what’s the pay off? If you want an Olympic gold in gymnastics, it’s not enough to practice once in a while: Olympic medalists devote their lives to practice, and when they aren’t practicing their sport, they crosstrain.

And it’s important to realize that one’s coach can’t do it for them. Many of the Chassidic dynasties follow a leader who was there to tell them what to do and how to do it; to be their Moshe – but it’s dangerous to assume that Moshe is so much better at this than the rest of us that we can never measure up. That’s when those golden calves start being poured.

Unlike many other Chassidic communities, the Chassidim of Pshischa, and those communities who sprang from it, were different. They said the following of their rabbi:

כי הרים ועזר לכל הבאים לחסות בצילו, אבל הוא רוצה שכל אחר ירים את עצמו לבדו

“He lifted up and helped all that came to take refuge in his shade, but he wanted that everyone should be lifted up by himself alone.”

Many of us need a coach to help us get where we’re going, but each of us has a special gift to offer. If the coach is the only one with ideas, no one else will ever know what that gift is that they could contribute. The best leader is one who makes room to hear other voices, who can help everyone around them become themselves, and find their soul to offer to God in its unique glory. As Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk said: When I get to Heaven, they will not ask me, "Why were you not like Moshe?" But they will ask, "Why were you not like Menachem Mendel?"

And so, the Holy Thief saves the souls of Israel, those who are waiting in the sack to be judged by helping them find out who they are, not who he is. But I want to point out one final thing about our thief: the thief is no one special. Or perhaps, the thief is only as special as everyone else created in the image of God. The image of the chasid that we have is [pantomime] the rabbi holding court, the wise giver of vorts around the shabbes table, full-bearded, stroking his grey beard with a wise expression on his gentle face. But like the 36 hidden righteous ones mentioned in the Talmud on whom the world depends, in reality, anyone could be your chasid.

Turn and look at the person next to you: in their heart, you will find a holy thief who can teach you at least one new way to break down the locked door.

And so we return to our verse in mishpatim: Ex. 22:1… “If a thief is found breaking in…” the words literally are in the Hebrew: “if breaking in, there is found a thief.” Once , some of the great Hasidic leaders sat with the Kotzker rebbe. The rabbi asked each of those to say something on the parshah... One commented, “If breaking in…” –if a person delves deeply, breaking into his heart, as it were, to examine his actions, “there is found a thief” – he will find a thief there.

Within all of our hearts is a thief.

A thief knows every opening, she knows the difference between one kind of lock and another, she knows where the gems are kept. She knows all the secrets of her object of desire, and nothing will dissuade her from it, once her plans are laid.

In our parshah, we read,

הִנֵּה אָֽנֹכִי שֹׁלֵחַ מַלְאָךְ לְפָנֶיךָ לִשְׁמָרְךָ בַּדָּרֶךְ

Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way (23:20)

A master thief, chevrei, is the one who uses every tool, and maybe even invents some new ones, to open all the locks, and let himself into the universe, where God waits, to receive our bag of souls, for liberating those souls is what we were put here to do. Perhaps the chasid is, after all only a master thief, the one who teaches you how to wield the tools, where to pick the locks, and what the treasures worth having are.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Science textbook disclaimers

From Colin Purrington at Swarthmore: Pro-science stickers tht mock the anti-evolution bias of some school districts attempting to present evolution as just one of a number of valid theories.

From his website:
Wording for the first disclaimer (top left) is taken verbatim from the sticker designed by the Cobb County School District ("A community with a passion for learning") in Georgia, which actually plagiarized Alabama's evolution disclaimer (view). Really, I'm not making any of this up. The other 14 are mildly educational variants that demonstrate the real meaning of a scientific "theory" as well as the true motivations of the School Board members and their creationist supporters. Ideally, the above stickers will deter other districts from using textbook disclaimers as a way to undermine the teaching of evolution. Please forward them to friends in school districts where disclaimers are likely to be discussed. Or make a big poster of your favorite and stick it on an easel in front of the school when nobody is looking. Or if you would like one of these on your car, bug Leighton over at Floating Point Digital Images, where you can get all sorts of pro-evolution stickerabilia. At the very least, print out the PDF version and send it to your kid's science teacher; if he or she is not amused, move immediately to another district, far, far away.

As of December 19th, 2006, the courts have upheld the initial ruling that the sticker was unconstitutional. The district is now on double-secret probation: it can't do anything that similarly undermines the teaching of evolution or that similarly supports the presence and activities of supernatural entities. Details can be had at the National Center for Science Education.

The website has lots of other nice things too. Visit here:

Hattip to BoingBoing

Friday, February 09, 2007

Why the Essenes Died Young

Cleanliness is next to... disease?
Recent findings show that the Essenes practiced some extreme forms of ritual hygiene which ironically, lead to them being a rather sickly bunch.
According to an article at Physorg.com,

In an article forthcoming in the next issue (winter 2006/2007) of Revue de Qumran, an international research team reports the results of an investigation of a suspected remote latrine site. Located by following clues in the ancient sources that specify the remote placement of latrines, the team positively identified the site as a latrine area through analysis of sub-surface soil samples.

University of North Carolina at Charlotte biblical scholar James Tabor suggested the investigation at a site outside the ruins of Qumran, noting instructions in two of the Dead Sea Scrolls (the “War Scroll” and the “Temple Scroll”) specifically requiring latrines to be located at a significant distance “north-west of the city,” and also to be “not visible from the city.” Tabor had also noted that the first century Jewish historian Josephus described very similar exotic toilet practices among the religiously strict sect known as the Essenes....

“I started thinking that in the scrolls they have these very explicit descriptions of where the latrines have to be,” Tabor explained. “It has to do with religious ritual purity -- the latrines have to be located in a place that the ancient texts designate as ‘outside the camp’. That’s a phrase used in the Torah, where Moses tells the ancient Israelites ‘build your latrines outside the camp.’ When you go to the toilet, take a paddle or a shovel with you and use the toilet and then cover it up,” he said, explaining that the ancient practice appears to have been revived at Qumran.

Late Night Altered-Consciousness Halakhah Conversations Come to Life

How many humorous anecdotes must there be about those drunken late night conversations that begin thusly,
"Well would it be kosher if you grew the meat in a vat?"
It turns out that we are not far from having to actually deal with this as a genuine halakhic matter.
Accoring to TimesOnline,

In different parts of the world, rival research teams are racing to produce meat using cell-culture technology. Several patents have been filed. Scientists at Nasa has been experimenting since 2001 and the Dutch Government is sponsoring a $4 million (£2 million) project to cultivate pork meat.

The idea may be stomach-turning, but the science for making pork in a Petri dish already exists.

Put simply, the process relies on a muscle precursor cell known as a myoblast, a sort of stem cell preprogrammed to grow into muscle. This cell is extracted from a living animal, and encouraged to multiply in a nutritional broth of glucose, amino acids, minerals and growth factors — Churchill’s “suitable medium”. The cells are poured on to a “scaffold” and placed in a bioreactor, where they are stretched, possibly using electrical impulses, until they form muscle fibres.

The resulting flesh is then peeled off in a “meat-sheet”and may be ground up for sausages, patties or nuggets.

Granted, this processis not yet what one might call reasonably priced...growing about a serving of the stuff costs around $10,000, butthe very fact that it is possible at all oughtto give us all pause.
It will at least certainly give us opportunities to debate endlessly whetheror not its ethical to eat, whether one could make it kosher if it's cells are those of an animal otherwise kosher, and if one might then reasonably (well, alright, putting aside marit ayin) eat pork cultured inthis way, and still have it be kosher. Oh and think of the Swiftian possibilities!

And if that doesn't offer you enough possibilities for new halakhic argument, consider this: tefillin made from animal-less leather!

Soylent Green?

Crossposted to Jewschool

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Celebrating the multi-cultural world of spring holidays

My almond tree is flowering and Tu B'Shvat is but two days away. This year, Tu Bi-Shvat falls on the first Shabbat of February, which is, of course, International Ice Cream for Breakfast Day.

This truly serendipitous concurrence of happy events provides not only new ideas for toppings, and opportunities for kiddush, but also opens up many avenues for sermons, like: We know that Abraham ate ice cream when he was old, because we read: "ve-hashem beireikh et Avraham ba-kol" and the gematria of "ba-kol" is equal to the gematria of "glida". There are also the striking similarities between Ice Cream and Manna (mentioned in this week's parasha) [ e.g. both melt in the sun, both are served in round scoops (ve-hu ke-zera gad), white (lavan) and eaten in sugar cones (ve-ta'amo ke-tzapihit bi-dvash). For the more mystically minded, it might be noted that, strangely, the gematria of "ice cream" is the same as "tzli eish".

For information on the origins of this great international, visit: http://www.itzahckret.com/icecreamforbreakfast.html
The holiday is also celebrated religiously by our Masorti Nahal units at Kibbutz Ketura: http://ketura.org.il/culture.html (And now I'm off to stock up, as my eldest just informed me that Garin Sneh will be celebrating at our home).

Any questions on the various halakhot, minhagim, humrot and kulot of ICFBD can be sent directly to me. I will either answer them, or dip them in chocolate.

Happy ICFBD all.

Written by Rabbi Avinoam Sharon, crossposted to Jewschool