Jun 29, 2008

Husbands, Brothers and Sons

Husbands, Brothers and Sons
Rabbi Menachem Creditor

On May 18, 2003, Smadar Haran Kaiser wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post entitled "The World Should Know What He Did to My Family."  The 'he' was Samir Kuntar, a terrorist who attacked an Israeli family in 1979, murdering a 28 year-old man, his two daughters ages four and two, and an Israeli policeman.  Smadar, the only survivor of the murder of her husband and daughters, wrote 24 years later:

"One hears the terrorists and their excusers say that they are driven to kill out of desperation. But there is always a choice. Even when you have suffered, you can choose whether to kill and ruin another's life, or whether to go on and rebuild."

It is Smadar's words that ring loudest today.  Today, June 29, 2008, Israel agreed to a deal in which Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, the two Israel Defense Forces reservists kidnapped by Hezbollah two years ago in an act that sparked the Second Lebanon War, are to be released in a prisoner exchange deal with Hezbollah approved by the cabinet on Sunday. In exchange for the captive soldiers, Israel will release jailed terrorist Samir Kuntar, and others.

But the exchange is even more bitter than 'simply' releasing an evil person, a murderer.  Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser are likely dead.  We are freeing a murderer in exchange for the bodies of our sons.

We have been including them in our prayers every Shabbat, in our hearts even more often.  When we celebrate our young, we note the small age gap between our teens and our lost sons, our stolen brothers. 

Our prayers have not been in vain.  Today, Karnit Goldwasser, Ehud's wife, took Prime Minister Olmert's hand, and with red-rimmed eyes said: "I've been fighting for two years, and I feel that in the end, even if I won, what has it all been for? So I can shout 'Hooray, I'm a widow'?"  Olmert listened, and the tears coursed down his cheeks.  Our heartfelt prayers have been collecting in a very special place, waiting to allow two widows and a country, our family, to weep, knowing they are not alone.  And they are not.  We are not alone.

Today is a complicated day.  We will soon shift from the mishebeirach we've been reciting for Goldwasser and Regev to reciting Kaddish for them.  We will be able to bury our dead.  There might be news as to the fate of Ron Arad as part of this exchange.  And Gilad Shallit is still being held captive by Hamas.   Our hearts, newly broken again, will beat even faster when we say his name.  Our misheberachs will deepen with urgency. 

(Here is a link to the original language of the Prayer for the safe return of Gilad Shalit, Ehud Goldwasser, and Eldad Regev - Hebrew // English. Here are links to A Prayer for the State of Israel and A Prayer for Tzahal: Israel's Defense Forces)

The news articles today (see below for a sampling of both Israeli and World pieces) are largely supportive of the difficult position Israel is in, and correctly portray terrorists as terrorists and soldiers as soldiers.  But that might not be the depiction for long in the world media, nor is it likely to be understood this way by Hezbollah and Hamas, who are preparing a hero's welcome for Samir Kuntar, a man who chose to kill.  If we are not attuned to our own story, checking haaretz.com and ynetnews.com regularly, we are likely to be confused in light of the ever-changing eye on Israel in the media.

Is this a good decision?  Who can tell.  Is negotiation better than war?  Absolutely.  Will the future find us making more mishebeirach's?  Please God, no. 

Two summers ago I was leading a shul Israel pilgrimage.  We were on the Kotel Tunnels Tour, a simply breathtaking exploration into the foundations of the holiest place we've known as a people.  Our tour guide turned to us as we walked right past the closest place on the tour to the Holy of Holies, where a lone woman was weeping, silently reciting Psalms.  Our guide informed us that a soldier, a brother of a friend had just been kidnapped.  She was speaking of Gilad Shalit.  We were in a sacred place, exploring what it was to be Jewish, remembering walls we'd never seen, comforting a sister we had never met.  Every breath became that much more intense.  Every moment of life became that much more precious.

May every people choose life over death. 

May every people experience peace and joy. 

May we - our brothers and sisters around the world, particularly in Israel - experience less sadness and more joy in the days and months to come.



Rabbi Menachem Creditor
-- www.netivotshalom.org
-- www.shefanetwork.org
-- menachemcreditor.org

Jun 15, 2008

BeHa’alotecha 5768: “The Wisdom of Chovav”

BeHa'alotecha 5768: "The Wisdom of Chovav"
© Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Guiding well is complicated.  Sometimes the best guides share their wisdom, and sometimes they provide space for trial and error on the path towards understanding.  Which pedagogy do we seekers desire?  And what kind of impact does a teacher's choice have on our abilities to successfully traverse personal journeys?

As Moses and the Israelites are preparing to emerge from the base of Mount Sinai, we read of Moses approaching his father-in-law Chovav:

"[Moses approached Chovav] saying 'We are journeying unto the place of which Adonai said: 'I will give it you.' Come with us, and we will be good to you, for Adonai has spoken well concerning Israel.'  Chovav responded 'I will not go.  I will return to my own land, to my birthplace.'  Moses said: 'Please don't leave us! You know how we are to encamp in the wilderness.  Be our eyes! (Num. 10:29-31)'

Many questions arise from this text.  Is Chovav the same person as Yitro in Exodus?  According to many interpreters, Yitro had joined the Israelite people – why then does Moses intimate that "we" will be good to "you" – aren't "we" and "you" one and the same?  Why does Moses need his father-in-law so much?  And perhaps most importantly, why doesn't Chovav, who has witnessed first-hand the miraculous relationship between God and the Israelites, jump at the chance to be an integral part of the body of Israel – their eyes?

The Chovav/Yitro name difference is likely connected to various strands of sacred story within the Torah.  This is mirrored in the very next chapter where Moses is said to have married a Cushite, though we know his wife Tzippora is a Middianite according to the text in Exodus.  Confusion surrounding her identity and her father's identity are reminders to each of us that we are at least complicated enough to be known in two ways, by various names, during different life-moments.

Regarding Chovav's being treated as "other", there is an ancient question whether he joined the Children of Israel before the Sinai Revelation or afterwards (TB Zevachim 116a). Moses' language is puzzling, but perhaps points to Chovav's outsider perspective.  He has, perhaps, joined this new family, this emerging people – but he was once a Midianite priest.  Hovav's vision is that of a newcomer, a wisdom teacher from the outside world.  Moses seems to need those kinds of eyes, ones which have not been forever changed by a fiery bush, eyes which didn't witness the terrifying power of God's power in Egypt, eyes which haven't seen at the brutality of family being tortured.  No, Chovav isn't only Moses' father-in-law who has some world experience.  Moses begs Chovav to stay because his eyes have some distance from the story.  Moses sees in Chovav strength and clarity difficult to retain, especially while being Moses.

Chovav/Yitro's clear thinking is first demonstrated in his (unsolicited) advice upon first observing his son-in-law at work:

"Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening.  But when Moses' father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, "What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?"  Moses replied to his father-in-law, "It is because the people come to me to inquire of God.  When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God."  Moses' father-in-law said to him, "The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.   Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You represent the people before God: you bring the disputes before God, and enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow.  You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and  let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves. Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you. If you do this — and God so commands you — you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied."   Moses heeded his father-in-law and did just as he had said. (Ex. 18:13-24)"

Yitro/Chovav is, perhaps, speaking from the experience of his work as a religious guide, priest of Midian, watching a younger colleague struggle under the burden of leadership, wishing to solve problems while forgetting to share the burden wherever possible.  As Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky put it in their classic "Leadership on the Line" Yitro's wisdom provides Moses an opportunity to "get on the balcony." The dance floor is a poor place from which to observe the dance floor.  The balcony's distance provides a healthier perspective - a new set of eyes.  No wonder Moses seeks his father-in-law's counsel once again as the Sinai environment, suddenly familiar, is about to be replaced by the entrance to an unknown Promised Land.  This is an ongoing exodus, consistently leaving behind that which is familiar, demanding adaptive skills from a leadership with established procedures with 40 years of experience.

But what is most striking in our particular narrative is the fact that Chovav doesn't instantaneously agree to remain upon Moses' heartfelt request.  In fact, the Biblical text makes no indication as to Chovav's ultimate choice.  Whereas the Book of Judges seems to indicate (Jud. 4:11) that Chovav's descendents inherited portions of Ancient Israel, hinting at an affirmative answer to Moses' request, our local text leaves the question unresolved. 

Why, after learning of God's gifts to Israel, experiencing the wonder of Divine Fire and Cloud, after sharing in the reunion of his daughter and grandchildren with Moses, after gaining widespread respect as Moses' organizational and spiritual mentor, does Chovav not agree to serve as the Israelites' eyes?

An answer might be suggested just a bit ahead in the narrative, where God is chastising Aaron and Miriam for questioning Moses' unique relationship with God:

"Adonai came down in a pillar of cloud, stopped at the entrance of the Tent, and called out, 'Aaron and Miriam!' The two of them came forward and God said, 'Hear these My words: When a prophet of the Lord arises among you, I make Myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream.  Not so with My servant Moses; he is trusted throughout My household.  With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of Adonai. How then did you not shrink from speaking against My servant Moses!' (Num. 12:4-8)"

Moses might think he needs someone else's eyes to see, but God attests to Moses' singularly clear vision.  Rabbinic commentary emphasizes this concept by suggesting that "while all the other prophets saw through a clouded lens, but Moshe saw through a clear lens." (TB Yevamot 49b)  When Chovav first observes his son-in-law, he offers unsolicited advice.  Here, he is asked for his wisdom and declines.   Forty years of leadership has intervened in the relationship between Moses and Chovav.  Moses knows he still has much to learn, and Chovav never suggests that he couldn't serve as Moses' eyes.  And this is the greatness of Chovav – not offering advice. 

Moses had implemented his father-in-law's recommended system of delegation and would, in the very next chapter, say to God in light of yet another heavy encounter with life:

"Why have You dealt ill with Your servant, and why have I not enjoyed Your favor, that You have laid the burden of all this people upon me?  Did I conceive this entire people, did I bear them, that You should say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries an infant,' to the land that You have promised on oath to their fathers?  Where am I to get meat to give to this entire people, when they whine before me and say, 'Give us meat to eat!'  I cannot carry this entire people by myself, for it is too much for me.  If You would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg You, and let me see no more of my wretchedness!" (Num. 11:11-15)"   

Intense.  And that is the point, is it not?  The distance implied in Moses' reliance upon his father-in-law's observations would, in some sense, be a denial of the unique conduit-role he was called to be.  It is no easy task to serve as a conduit.  No wonder Chovav is so dear to Moses.  But while having partners with which to unburden is crucial, those partners are there as "presences", similar to the role tradition teaches us to assume in a Shiva home.  Partners do not serve as eyes or mouths, filling the space in an effort to answer a palpable need – partners serve as ears and shoulders, granting the space for healing, processing, and self-expression.  To be intimately involved in the struggles of life is hard.  And correct.  And worth sharing with awareness and sensitivity.

Rabbi Chanin taught two thousand years ago that a "judge only has that which [she] sees with [her] own eyes. (TB Sanhedrin 6b)" When we are the ones struggling, we need to find our own path.  We must have confidence that we can own our mistakes.  And when we are in the position to offer advice, we must remember that we can't always make it better by doing something – we simply show up and care.  To try to traverse someone else's journey for them is to forget what it was to be on our own.  Holding back wisdom can also be a rare and precious gift.

The Haftarah for BeHa'alotecha offers a fitting testimony to this idea when speaking of the prophet Zecharia's vision of a Menorah.  In it, we read:

"And the angel that spoke with me returned, and waked me, as a man that is wakened out of his sleep. And the angel said unto me: 'What did you see?' And I said: 'I saw a candlestick all of gold, with a bowl upon the top of it, and its seven lamps; there are seven pipes to the lamps which are upon the top; and two olive-trees by it, one upon the right side of the bowl, and the other upon the left side.' And I answered and spoke to the angel that spoke with me, saying: 'What does this mean, my lord?' Then the angel that spoke with me answered and said unto me: 'Do you not know what these mean?' And I said: 'No, my lord.' (Zech. 4:1-5)

The prophet awakens with clear vision as to what he saw, but does not understand what it means.  What is the illumination of the Menorah for, he asks the Angel.  And the angel hesitates before answering.  This holy hesitation is the beginning of wisdom, as we read just five verses later of the branches of the Menorah, that "these seven are the eyes of Adonai that run to and fro through the whole earth. (Zech. 4:10)"

The radiance of the world is God's eyes, encouraging every one of us to seek our path by its light.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
-- www.netivotshalom.org
-- www.shefanetwork.org
-- menachemcreditor.org

Jun 6, 2008

Social Action Alert! Kosher Meat and Social Justice

Social Action Alert!  Kosher Meat and Social Justice

Shalom Chevreh,

The recent Agriprocessors Kosher Meat scandal and the responses from within the Conservative Movement and the Modern Orthodox world are important to spread and act upon.  I'm including an email from the (Orthodox) Uri L'Tzedek effort below, and here are the links to the (Conservative) Hechsher Tzedek efforts:

I encourage us all to read through the informative e-mail from Uri L'tzedek below, check out the links to Hechsher Tzedek, read some articles about the situation at Agriprocessors and the response, and consider taking action by signing the on-line petition, telling others, helping to identify other sources of truly kosher meat.  Kosher certification must embody noble interpersonal practice.  Anything less is simply not enough.  Anything less is not Kosher.

Living a life full of Middot/Values reminds us that while Shavuot is traditionally a milchig/dairy holiday, it also provides us space to reflect on days which aren't.  May what we place in our mouths be as mindful as that which emerges from our mouths. 

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
-- www.netivotshalom.org
-- www.shefanetwork.org
-- menachemcreditor.org  

From: Uri LTzedek [mailto:uri.ltzedek@gmail.com
Sent: Friday, May 30, 2008 7:31 AM
Subject: Creating a kosher meat industry we can be proud of - next steps! Please FWD

In the past few days, we've received signatures from about 600 Jewish leaders, rabbis, educators and heads of Jewish schools, Hillel Directors, and concerned consumers from Washington DC to Brazil, Los Angeles to Jerusalem. The letter we signed contains a list of requirements to be met by June 15 in order that we may continue to purchase Agriprocessor's products. In that letter, we asked Agriprocessors to:

1. Pay all of its workers at least the federal minimum wage.

2. Recommit the company to abide by all federal, state and local laws including those pertaining to worker safety, sexual harassment, physical abuse, rights of its employees to collective bargaining, and health and sanitation standards.

3. Treat its workers according to the standards that Torah and 
halakha places on protecting workers--standards which include the spirit of lifnim meshurat hadin, going beyond the bare minimum requirements of the law.

Our efforts are have been noticed by the Jewish Forward, the Jerusalem Post, The Jewish Week, Iowa Independent, JTA and others. See the links below:

Today's editorial in the Jewish Week

Jerusalem post
The Jewish Week

The Forward
The Jewish Press
Iowa Independent

In order to continue the tremendous success and momentum of this movement, we are looking for kosher meat consumers across the country that are committed to holding Agriprocessors accountable for its lapses by raising awareness in their local communities about our three demands.

The first way to do that is by 
encouraging others who purchase kosher meat to sign on to the petition. We have set up an online petition on our website. Please direct them to uriltzedek.webnode.com to fill it out.

Second, we are 
looking for point people across the country who will take this action into their local communities. If you would be interested in being one of these local leaders, please email uri.ltzedek@gmail.com with your name, city, phone number, and brief explanation of why this issue is important to you. We are working to create lists of kosher meat establishments that we are sure do not sell or provide Agriprocessor's meat; we need your help in this area. There have been many requests for a list of such options in cities throughout America.


We would like to inform friends and businesses of some alternative kosher meat sources: Alle Packaging, Meal Mart, Kiryath Joel chicken, Marvid chicken, Chai Chicken, International Glatt, Wise Organic, Solomon's Natural, 999, Empire, Chai, Marvad, David Elliot, and Vineland. Do you know of others? 

Using our power as consumers, we are called to make the moral voice of our Jewish tradition heard by our fellow Jews, those perpetuating injustice, and all Americans concerned with an emerging ethical marketplace.

Thank you for all you've done so far. We look forward to working with you in the future!

Tizku l'mitzvot,
The Uri L'Tzedek team

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