Useless Jails

Useless Jails

It isn’t true that convicts live like animals: animals have more room to move around. -Mario Vargas Llosa

prison

I had occasion to visit a Uruguayan jail and the cells of the least privileged inmates. To say that caged animals live better is a serious understatement of the physical, social, emotional and psychological hell the inmates go through. While being admitted to this prison is in fact a death sentence for many, those who do survive and get out, return to society as broken human beings, often even more dangerous to themselves, their families, their communities and society at large.

The Torah portion of Mishpatim dives into a plethora of civil laws, many of them dealing with violent crime. What is interesting and perhaps counterintuitive to our society is that amongst the variety of punishments – execution, lashes, making reparations, and a prominent case which includes a period of indentured slavery – a prison sentence is never mentioned.

Rabbi Hirsch on Exodus Chapter 21 in his characteristically eloquent style explains:

“Prison sentences, with all the attendant despair and moral debasement behind prison bars, with all the woe and misery that imprisonment inflicts upon the prisoner’s wife and children, are unknown in God’s Law. Where God’s Law holds sway, prisons as an abode for criminals do not exist. Jewish Law provides only for detention pending trial, and even this can happen only in accordance with a judicial procedure set down in detail. Such a detention can be of short duration only, and circumstantial evidence is inadmissible.”

“But even this solitary case (of indentured slavery), in which the Law decrees loss of freedom as the consequence of a crime, cannot be construed as a “punishment.” The purpose of this law cannot be punishment because it sentences the thief to six years’ servitude only with the purpose of making restitution for the actual value of the theft.”

Rabbi Hirsch elaborates further that the slavery comes into play only if the value of what the thief stole is in excess of his working capacity. Additionally:

“The victim of the theft has the right to waive restitution derived from the sale of the thief and to content himself with a signed promise from the thief to pay restitution as soon as his material circumstances improve.”

Prison is not the solution. It even likely exacerbates the problem.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Martín Correa González and all the other dedicated workers in the Uruguayan prison system.

Extra-terrestrial Law

Extra-terrestrial Law 

Written laws are like spider’s webs; they will catch, it is true, the weak and the poor, but would be torn in pieces by the rich and powerful. –Anacharsis 

mt-sinai

Man-made law has an inherent danger. It is fallible. They are created by men with a limited view and perception of reality, with no way to see all the repercussions and unintended consequences of their legislative efforts. Even judges who interpret the law and officers who enforce the law are likewise liable to make egregious mistakes. All of this is in addition to the tendency for laws to mirror and be an outgrowth of whatever values and moral standards tend to be popular in the host civilization of that era.

Not so the Torah. It is a fundamental belief of Judaism, that the laws of the Torah as written and as transmitted thereafter through the chain of tradition originated from God Himself.

Rabbi Hirsch in Exodus Chapter 19 elaborates:

“Jewish law is the only system of laws that did not emanate from the people whose constitution it was intended to be. Judaism is the only “religion” that did not emanate from the human beings who find in it the spiritual basis for their lives. It is precisely this “objective” quality of Jewish Law and of the Jewish “religion” that makes them both unique, setting them apart clearly and explicitly from all else on earth that goes by the name of law or religion.”

“All other “religions” and codes of law have originated only in the human minds of a given era; they merely express the conceptions of God, of human destiny, and of their relationship to God and to one another held by a given society at a specified period in history. Hence all these man-made religions and codes, like all other aspects of human civilization – science, art and folkways – are subject to change with the passing of time. For by their very nature and origin they are nothing but expressions of levels reached by civilization at various stages in human development.”

“Not so the Jewish “religion” and Jewish Law. They do not stem from beliefs held by human beings at one period or another. They do not represent time-bound human concepts of God, of things human and Divine. They are God-given; they contain ideas that, by the will of God, should mold the concepts of men for all time with regard to God and to things Divine, but above all with regard to man and human affairs. From the very outset the Law of God stood in opposition to the people in whose midst it was to make its first appearance on earth. It was to prove its power first of all upon this people, who opposed it because they were “a stiff-necked people.” But precisely the resistance which this Law encountered among the people in whose midst it obtained its first dwelling place on earth is the most convincing proof of the Divine origin of this Law, a law which did not arise from within the people but came to the people from the outside and required centuries of struggle to win this people for itself so that they would become bearers of the Laws of God through the ages.”

“All this (unique preparations at the foot of Mount Sinai) is done in order to make clear that this law originates from a source outside the earth and outside mankind.”

The Torah is God’s rulebook for life on Earth. May we remember to take His laws seriously.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

Congratulations to Shlomo Neeman on his election as the new Mayor of Gush Etzion.

Growing God

Growing God

Why indeed must God be a noun? Why not a verb — the most active and dynamic of all. -Mary Daly

fibonacci-rose

The Children of Israel have finally escaped the bondage of Egypt. However, shortly after their escape, their Egyptian taskmasters pursue them with the entire might of the Egyptian military. The nascent Jewish nation is trapped with their back to the sea and the Egyptian army, 600 chariots strong, advancing upon them.

Then, miraculously, the sea behind them parts. They walk across the seabed, with a wall of water to their right and to their left, and exit successfully on the other side. Undeterred, the Egyptians follow their freed Hebrew slaves only to discover the sea closing over their heads. The entire armed force of the Egyptian empire is destroyed in one fell swoop.

Incredulous and exultant, Moses and the Jewish people break out in song. Exodus Chapter 15 is famously known as the Song of the Sea. It is so important to the Jewish narrative that the sages instituted the Song as part of the daily morning prayer. Its unusual poetic style is sometimes hard to decipher.

Rabbi Hirsch on verse 2 explains the phrase: “This is my God, to Him would I be a habitation, He was already my father’s God; I would raise Him higher still.”

“He has already proven Himself as the God of my father; even my fathers recognized Him as such and passed this knowledge to me. But I shall endeavor to add still more to the recognition of His greatness and His sovereignty. These words outline the mission of every subsequent generation in Israel: to continue to disseminate the knowledge of God, and allegiance to Him, in ever-growing intensity.”

We cannot rest on the educational, theological and religious laurels of our fathers. We must forge ahead, in every generation, to not only maintain, to not only continue, but to grow, to expand, and to make greater, wider, and stronger the knowledge of and the faithfulness to God.

It’s work that must be done on a daily basis.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the New England Patriots on their inspiring Super Bowl victory.

Unexpected Admiration

Unexpected Admiration 

To love is to admire with the heart; to admire is to love with the mind. -Theophile Gautier

ballet

The Exodus narrative is reaching the climax of the Plagues. The Egyptians suffer months of strange, unusual and miraculous attacks by the Hebrew God and His agents, Moses and Aaron. Blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, pestilence, boils and hail afflict the Egyptians. While painful and highly disruptive, they can recover, life can continue.

That is until the coup de grâce, the plague of locust. The locust invasion is so massive, that it blots out the sky. They consume every grain, every vegetable, every fruit. The entire agricultural production, the entire industry, the entire economy of the mighty Egyptian empire is reduced to nothing. Their situation appears hopeless. Then they are hit with the plague of Darkness. The darkness is so thick, so pervasive, so petrifying, that the text testifies that the Egyptians did not move, did not physically budge their bodies the entire three days that they were subject to the plague.

After these divinely orchestrated attacks for the purpose of freeing the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, the reaction of the Egyptians is nothing less than unexpected: they admire Moses and the Israelites.

Rabbi Hirsch explains on Exodus 10:2 that the Egyptians realized after the plague of darkness that the Israelites had not suffered the blindness as they had. The Hebrews were able to move around unimpeded for three days, while the Egyptians remained unmoving the entire time. Every Egyptian house was open, every possession was revealed for the taking. Yet the Egyptians found nothing missing. The Israelites had not taken advantage of their master’s vulnerability. Nothing had been taken in what otherwise would have been a thieves dream – a completely accessible target with no chance of being identified or caught.

Rabbi Hirsch elaborates:

“For three days their oppressors, blinded and rooted to the spot by darkness, had been completely at their mercy. For three days all the possessions of the Egyptians had lain unprotected in their homes. But no Jew took advantage of this opportunity for revenge; no Jew touched an Egyptian or even the least of their possessions. It was at this moment, when sight was restored to the Egyptians and they found all their possessions untouched where they had left them, that God caused the Egyptians to comprehend the moral greatness of this people. This realization at last overcame the antipathy the Egyptians had felt for the Hebrews, and, even more than all the miracles he had performed, the moral greatness of his people made also Moses, as a man, great in the eyes of the Egyptians.”

As a response to this admiration, when the people of Israel, as per God’s request, ask to borrow the possessions of the Egyptians, without any qualm, the Egyptians give them gold, silver, utensils, garments. In the divine calculation, it is part of a long overdue compensation for the harsh slavery the Hebrew nation suffered. And even after the final plague, the Death of the Firstborns, when Pharaoh and the entire Egyptian populace is clamoring for the Israelites to leave, yet again the text mentions both the Egyptian admiration for Moses and the Israelites and their giving them gold, silver and garments as they depart.

Our enemies may yet learn to admire us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the complete and speedy recovery of Shlomo Eliezer ben Ita.

Unnatural Nation-Building

Unnatural Nation-Building 

Life begins on the other side of despair. -Jean-Paul Sartre

building-blocks

Abraham, God’s chosen, is promised that he will be the father of a great nation, a nation with a land and a mission. However, it isn’t until the advanced age of 100 years that Abraham and Sarah are blessed with a single child, Isaac. When Abraham dies, the only land which belongs to the family is the plot where he buried his wife Sarah.

The territorial fortunes of the family don’t improve, as grandson Jacob and his clan are forced to leave Canaan because of the famine. Jacob dies in Egypt. Though Jacob’s body is returned to the ancestral plot, the family goes back to Egypt and their descendants are systematically enslaved by the Egyptian empire.

Rabbi Hirsch on Exodus 6:3 asks why the Israelite nation and its ancestors needed to suffer so, why the long, unnatural, arduous road to nationhood. God could have blessed Abraham with children earlier. Jacob with his large family could have started off the nation in their promised land in a natural fashion. Why did the nation need to start off enslaved in a foreign land?

He answers:

“But then this nation would never have become ‘the people of God,’ the people who are to reveal God. Then this people, too, like all the other nations, would have been rooted solely in the world of things that can be seen and touched; like them, they would have had only physical foundations and would have understood their greatness and might only in terms of physical size and strength, aspiring to spiritual and moral attainments only as long as these would have been compatible with, and beneficial to, their material ambitions.”

“Men and nations had become chained to materialism…Through the emergence of the nation of Abraham… mankind would be freed from the bonds of materialism. That is why this nation had to begin where the other nations left off. It had to despair of itself, to lie prone, about to perish in its own blood, and it could rise to nationhood only through the Creator’s call.”

God needed to demonstrate to the Jewish people and to the entire world His hand in the creation and development of the nation of Israel. The miraculous, non-material nature of Israel, whose existence, survival and success defies all odds and all probability is the beginning of God’s plan of revealing Himself to humanity and bringing redemption from the chains of materialism. For better or worse, despair is part of that formula.

May we overcome despair and realize that many times it is the launching point to a new and better reality.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Winston Churchill who passed away 52 years ago, today.

There’s no place like home

There’s no place like home 

Even as the cell is the unit of the organic body, so the family is the unit of society. -Ruth Nanda Anshen

Little House on the Prairie

Pharaoh kills and enslaves the people of Israel. They lay oppressed, beaten, dismembered. They are so demoralized that their minds have no room even for hope. When Moses arrives and offers tidings of redemption, they are too overworked, too dispirited to even contemplate the possibility of an end to their travails.

But they would be liberated, they would reconstitute their lives, and the nation of Israel would be born out of the blood of slavery, death and tyranny.

Rabbi Hirsch on Exodus 1:1 explains that the reason for the successful liberation and creation of the Israelite nation is due to one vital component – the family:

“At that time God would begin the upbuilding of His people not with the rooftops, as it were, but with the rocklike foundations of the home, which are based on the mutual bonds that unite parents and their children.”

“Though each of them [the sons of Jacob] already had an independent household of his own, they all still cling firmly and closely to Jacob…All of them together are part of the same ancient tree, but each has become an independent branch, the center of a family of his own. They are still the children of Jacob, but now they also have children of their own. This family spirit which inspires each son to build his own household, but only as a branch of his father’s house, and which enables every father to live on in his children and in his children’s children, forming a close, eternal bond that binds the parents to their children and the children to their parents – this is the root of Israel’s eternal flowering. Herein lies the secret of the eternity of the Jewish people.”

That was the one element Pharaoh couldn’t break – the family unit. As long as the family remained united, as long as the family identified as a family with strong bonds between each member, there was nothing Pharaoh and the Egyptians could do to extinguish the flame of what would eventually become the Eternal people.

May we enjoy and strengthen our family bonds.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Dr. Morris & Penny Charytan, for a most special time together, and for our children’s path to the creation of a new family.

Unjustified means

Unjustified means

Usually, terrible things that are done with the excuse that progress requires them are not really progress at all, but just terrible things. -Russell Baker

backstabberJacob, the Patriarch of the nascent nation of Israel lies on his deathbed. He convenes his twelve sons, the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel. He addresses them as a unit and individually. His language is flowery, poetic, prophetic.

He chastises his first three sons, Reuven, Shimon and Levi. The remaining sons receive positive pronouncements and predictions.

Rabbi Hirsch on Genesis 49:7 analyzes Jacob’s reprimand of Shimon and Levi. Jacob is upset with these two sons for their deception and brutality when they massacred the residents of Shechem. It went against the norms of justice and morality. Rabbi Hirsch attacks the popular belief that all is fair in statecraft. He claims that the concept that the end justifies the means runs counter to the principles of Judaism. What is reprehensible if done by one individual to another for their own personal consideration is equally reprehensible if done in the name of the state. Morality applies in politics and diplomacy. It is not only the purview of private affairs.

Rabbi Hirsch takes this interpretation a step further:

“The last will and testament upon which the Jewish people was founded pronounces a curse upon all acts of deception and brutality, even if they are committed for the most legitimate interests of the nation, and it sets down for all time the doctrine that even in public life and in the promotion of the common good not only the ends but also the means used to attain these ends must be clean.”

“However, it is only the anger and outrage of Shimon and Levi that are cursed. The curse is directed neither against Shimon and Levi personally, nor against their aims as such.”

Government reactions of anger, outrage and deception, while understandable or even politically justified, are often ineffective or counterproductive as matters of public policy. Once we’ve identified the correct aims, we need to reach them through correct and straightforward means.

May we have a leadership that will take the correct path, see that justice is done to those that promote and insight terror, and is not swayed by the political winds of expediency.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

In memory of Erez Orbach of Alon Shvut. God will avenge his blood.