Monday, March 21, 2011

Students of Torah [can] bring peace to the world! תלמידי חכמים מרבים שלום בעולם

-Babylonian Talmud B'rakhot 64a

Just over a week ago, a terrible tragedy occurred when most of the members of the Fogel family, residents of the Itamar settlement in the West Bank, were murdered in their beds late on erev Shabbat. There are many different ways to respond to such events, through theology, theodicy, politics, contemplation, action or an combination of the above. I feel personally compelled to reject the first few options. Although I believe in a present God who can act in the world, I would be very troubled by any attempt to connect these murders to God or human sin. Similarly, I am turned off by those who would use this tragedy as an opportunity to criticize Israel's settlement policy from the right or left, or God forbid, spew hatred against Muslims or Arabs. Rather, a belief in free will, even if possibly coupled with some form of Divine oversight, leads me towards the direction of resolving to work actively towards a brighter future.

I strongly maintain that Jewish tradition, through our sacred texts and the writings of generations of scholars and leaders urges us to respond to tragedy, strife and conflict through the broad concept of tikkun olam, fixing or repairing the world. In the Aleinu prayer, which appears thrice daily in the liturgy, we express the hope לתקן עולם במלכות שדי, to repair the world in the Kingdom of Heaven, which I believe means that we resolve to partner with God to make the world closer to an ideal state of harmony. There are many acts that could be done in this vein to respond positively to the murder of the Fogels, whether giving assistance to their family and community in Itamar, working with other bereaved children and families who have experienced similar losses, or working towards better understanding between different ethnicities or or religions.

My personal contribution was to participate in a siyyum mishnayot, a custom through which individuals join together to collectively learn all 63 tractates of the mishnah in memory of the deceased. In this case, due to the wide awareness of the death of the Fogels, the particular facebook group to which I was invited succeeded in completing the Mishnah three times over. The study of Mishnah is traditionally believed to bring comfort to the souls of the deceased, especially since the letters of משנה when rearranged spell נשמה, meaning soul. But returning to the opening quote which asserts that studying Torah can lead to greater peace, I believe that engaging in the study of Mishnah as a response to death can allow us to internalize the values and lessons within and behind the text. Ultimately, our learning should be applied to to our lives, and lead us to resolve to work even harder to championing justice, kindness, care and civility in the world.

I chose to study massekhet (tractate) Kinim, literally nests, which is the final tractate in Seder Kodashim (Order of Holy Things), the fifth of the six orders of Mishnah. Kinim discusses the laws of the bird offerings given on a variety of occasions when sacrifices were practiced in the mishkan (Tabernacle) and Beit Hamikdash (First and Second Temples). Birds, either pigeons or turtle-doves, were given on a variety of required and voluntary occasions, generally by those who could not afford livestock offerings but had greater means than those who fulfilled their obligations with grain offerings. These offerings were required to be brought in the cases of a woman after childbirth, men or women who had experienced emissions and a Nazirite who had become ritually impure, among others. Birt offerings were always offered in pairs, hence, the term nest. For obligatory nests, one bird was offered as an olah and burned entirely on the altar, while the other was offered as a hata'at, whose blood was dashed on the top of the altar, and the meat of which was eaten by the priests.

The majority of the laws in the three short, yet complex and math-heavy chapters of Kinim deal with the requirements that bird offerings always be given in a pair of the same species, properly designated as olah or hata'at, and assigned to the proper individual. The mishnayot discuss scenarios such as different birds being mixed up or even flying between different nests. For a self-identifying 'humanities person,' the examples in which birds get mixed up between as many as seven different nests, and the rabbis lay out how many must be disqualified in case they were already designated as the improper category of offering. I believe that a fundamental life lesson lies below the intricate details of Kinim, that of proper intentions and evaluating our actions. The emphasis in these laws on placing adequate thought into choosing, setting aside and offering a specific sacrifice can be aplied to our lives in the twenty-first century. Like our ancestors did when they offered bird sacrifices, we should carefully consider and be deliberate in our decisions and actions. We should think before we act, and when appropriate attempt to fulfill sacred charges, better ourselves and assist others through our deeds.

It is common for tractates and especially orders of the Mishnah to conclude with short, inspirational homilies, and this is the case as the discussion of the Temple service and sacrifices which occupied Seder Kodashim come to a close. The second half of Kinim 3:5 contains two distinct messages:

אמר רבי יהושוע, זה הוא שאמרו, כשהוא חי, קולו אחד; וכשהוא מת, קולו שבעה. כיצד קולו שבעה: שתי קרניו, שתי חצוצרות; שני שוקיו, שני חלילין; עורו לתוף, ומעיו לנבלים, ובני מעיו לכינורות. ויש אומרין, אף צמרו לתכלת.
Rabbi Joshua said: When [an animal] is alive it has one voice, but after its death it has seven voices. How is this so? It's two horns become two shofarot, its two shin-bones become two flutes, its skin is stretched out to cover a drum, and different sinews become strings for harps and lyres. Some say , even its wool can be used for the blue-color[ed robe of the High Priest].
I can understand if this teaching might be off-putting to some, especially vegetarians. The message which could be applied from Rabbi Joshua's words, that the animal was more useful in death than in life, is not necessarily one we would like to hear about other living creatures, even for omnivores. But as in many rabbinic teachings, there are also deeper lessons that can be derived from this idea beyond how to maximize the use of slaughtered animals for holy purposes. We should not waste opportunities of any type, whether material or spiritual. Something that looks like waste or leftovers can become the centerpiece of something new and special. We should think creatively, like Rabbi Joshua, and muster all available resources in thinking creatively and outside the box and working together towards positive goals, whether person or communal.

רבי שמעון בן עקשיה אומר, זקני עם הארץ--כל זמן שהן מזקינין--דעתן מיטרפת עליהן, שנאמר "מסיר שפה, לנאמנים; וטעם זקנים, ייקח" (איוב יב,כ); אבל זקני תורה אינן כן--אלא כל זמן שהן מזקינין--דעתן מתיישבת עליהן, שנאמר "בישישים חכמה; ואורך ימים, תבונה" (איוב יב,יב).

Rabbi Shimon Ben Akashya said: As the elders of the nations of the earth age, their minds become confused and rusty, as it is written, "He will take away the speech of their faithful, and will remove the discernment of their elders." (Job 12:20). But this is not the case for the elders who study Torah; Rather their minds become clearer as they age, as it it is written, "In the aged is found wisdom, and in length of days, discernment."
As is often the case, the most literal and contextual reading of this teaching presents a relatively unflattering and demeaning portrayal of non-Jews, one that is understandable in light of the often unkind relations between Jews and their non-Jewish rulers in the rabbinic era. But this text can also be read in a very positive way when focused on the mission assigned to the broad category of Torah scholars. The more we learn, the wiser we get. And since the path of Torah is so varied and multivalent, there is no single threshold to which one must hold themselves as they walk through it. But we should be cautious to apply the lessons of Torah with care and respect, and an eye towards personal and communal growth, so our minds become clearer as we increase our learning and apply the Torah of our teachers blessed with the wisdom which comes with length of days.

Then, we can be תלמידי חכמים, students of the sages who increase peace in the world, if we apply the lessons of Torah and our tradition with intention and lovingkindness. And through our learning and the positive action which arises from it, may the memories of Udi, Ruth, Elad, Yoav and Hadas Fogel be for a blessing.

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