Friday, February 24, 2006

Good Rules Make Good Neighbors

OK, here’s what happens – last week was all about the 10 Commandments (or, as we learned, the “10 Statements” or better, “10 Declarations”) - Nice, pat, symmetrical list that you can count on the fingers of your hands.

This week, however (Exodus Ch 22-23), we are flooded with all kinds of rules about how to treat other people. Here are a few highlights that can make interesting table talk.

1. There are four kinds of damages that people accidentally cause: The Ox, The Pit, The Fire and The Person. Can you figure out what is unique about each one, and what are examples in our world of each? (hint: think about active v. passive damage, etc.). When you get to the point where you realize that there are multiple ways that an ox damages – by trampling (the normal way an ox walks), by kicking (because it’s angry) and by eating (because it’s hungry) - then you are becoming Talmudic in your thinking.

2. You know that person in your community who is considered a bad person, whom everyone dislikes because he’s not nice? If you see his wallet, it’s a special mitzva to return it to him – even if he’s careless and keeps losing it. You’re not allowed to pretend you don’t see it. Moreover, if you see him struggling to carry a heavy box and at the same time you see your best friend struggling to carry a box, it’s a mitzva to help the person you don’t like first. “Would you let your hatred outweigh his suffering?”

3. Do you know someone who is a widow or an orphan? There is a special mitzvah to be kind to them that is mentioned in this chapter and repeated later several times. To cause any kind of suffering to an orphan or widow generates really bad personal karma, and the great sages of the past and present all teach how important it is to be extra careful to be kind to widows and orphans.

The story is told about the great Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz, who died in 1953. He traveled a lot and always brought his wife a present when he came home. One of those presents was a precious glass vase that she loved. Well, once the cleaning woman (who was a widow) accidentally broke the vase and Mrs. Karelitz was very upset. Moreover, the cleaning woman said it was Mrs. Karelitz’s fault for leaving the vase in a place where it could fall. In those days, Jews who had serious arguments would take their case to the rabbinical court known as “beis din” (in some communities, they still do this today). So Mrs. Karelitz told the cleaning woman, “Put on your coat, I’m taking you to beis dinl”

She noticed her husband putting on his coat, too, and said to him, “That’s OK dear, I can handle this by myself!”

He replied, “You think I’m coming to help you? I’m coming to help her!”

Ask the people at your table if they know any orphans or widows and how we could try a little harder to be nice to these people who have been left alone in the world.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, February 17, 2006

The 10 Somethings

Since this is the week we read the 10 Commandments (Exodus Ch 19-20), here is a mini trivia quiz you can use at the dinner table – test your Jewish IQ....

What is the real (Jewish) name for the 10 Commandments?
A. “Asarah Ha-Diburos/Diburot” - the 10 Statements

To whom are the 10 Statements given?
A: The Israelites

Where were the 10 Statements given?
A: Mt. Sinai

Where is the real Mt Sinai?
A: nobody knows, but very certainly not the mountain on the Sinai Peninsula that is called “Mt Sinai”. It doesn’t fit the description AT ALL. The real Mt. Sinai is supposed to be a relatively small mountain, beside a plain large enough to hold 1-2 million people. Some of the proposed candidates are Mt. Musa (Moses?) in Saudi Arabia and Mt. Yeroham in the Negev (see

What did Mt. Sinai look like?
A: When the Bnai Yisrael / Children of Israel arrived, the Mountain was covered with blooming flowers.

Why didn’t Moses just write them down – why did they have to be spoken to the entire nation?
A: The people insisted – they told Moses, “this is too important an historic moment, we want to “hear it from the horse’s mouth”, so to speak.

What did God reply when Moses reported that the people wanted to hear the Torah themselves?
A: “Absolutely.”

Did the People hear all 10 statements?
A: First, they heard all 10 simultaneously, and of course they couldn’t understand. Then they heard them one by one. However, after the first two, it was so overwhelming that they asked Moses to take over, and they would be happy to hear the rest second-hand from him.

What did God’s voice sound like?
A: The Midrash tells that the experience affected all 5 senses. First, the mountain became covered with a think black smoke, like a furnace and there was the piercing sound of a shofar. Then the voice started. Not only did they hear the words, they also saw the words, smelled the words, tasted the words, felt the words caressing them. It was an experience without parallel.

Why are the 10 Statements grouped into two groups of five?
A: The first group of 5 teaches how we should relate to God and the second group of 5 how to relate to each other.

Finally, can you name the 10 (bonus if you get them in order)?

1. Know that I am God
2. Don’t ascribe power to anything else (no other gods)
3. Be careful how you speak: Don’t use the name “God” unless you’re talking about God
4. Keep and celebrate the Shabbat – the day of stopping your creative activity in order to refresh and acknowledge that the world will keep on running even if you don’t run around 24/7
5. Honor your parents (which means listening to them when you’re a child and taking care of them when you’re an adult).
6. Be faithful in all your adult relationships – don’t commit adultery.
7. Don’t murder (this includes embarrassing someone in public – which is akin to murder).
8. Don’t steal – including lying or misleading (unless it’s in response to a woman’s question, “do I look fat?”), which is “stealing knowledge”
9. Don’t bear false witness.
10. Don’t desire other people’s stuff.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, February 10, 2006

How to Split a Sea

Some of you have asked for a short email for Shabbat table-talk. If you do or don’t want to receive this via email, please let me know.

This week we see the Jews leaving Egypt, some 2-3 million people, including a large group of Egyptians who knew a good thing when they saw it.

They’re not gone a week when Pharaoh changes his mind once again, and chases after them with hundreds of fierce chariots. The frightened ex-slaves are trapped at the edge of the Reed Sea (don’t ask me why it became known as the Red Sea). How do you think they felt?

They complained to Moses, “You took us out of Egypt to kill us? You should have left us there – better to be slaves and alive than free and dead!”
Moses asks God what’s going on.

God says, stop yammering and get moving. The problem is, the only place to move was into the sea itself. That’s was the point. The Jews had sunk so low in Egypt that they’d used up all their good karma just getting out, and they needed a small act of faith to get the sea to split. The first to understand this was Moses’s brother-in-law, Nachshon, who jumped in and started walking. When the water reached his neck, the sea split.

If you have kids around (or kids at heart?), try telling them this story, and then ask, “Who can show us what Nachshon did?” and one of the younger ones will pretend to jump into the Sea until the water splits. You can have another child play Moses, with his outstretched arm.

We’re not meant to wait around for miracles to happen but to take action. It also teaches us that one person can truly make a difference.

Shabbat Shalom