Avodah Zara 31-32: The Psychology of Ritual

The SD loves this tractate Avoda Zara,  because it explores the  relationship between our emotion and motivation to ritual observance.   The Mishna states that we may not do business with an idol worshipper on his way to idol worship. However we may do business with him after he leaves his temple or whatever.

The Talmud says that we cannot do business with the idol worshipper on his way because, if he is successful he will sacrifice and give thanks to his idol once he is there, however, once he leaves, we are not concerned that he will turn around and go back for more praise or idol worship.  The Talmud then extends the thought to a Jew who takes on idol worship.  The opposite is true for a Jewish idol worshipper. We can do business with him when he is on the way, but not after when he has left the idol worship.  The Talmud explains that maybe the apostate Jews will reconsider worshipping an idol when he is on the way, but he is more “frum” than the idol worshipper and once the Jew makes the deal he will go back and do more idol worship. His appreciation for the idol will motivate more observance.

The SD thinks this raises a fundamental issue of ritual . Is  ritual an isolated event that is not seen in the context of one’s life.  Is it pigeon holed or is it more fluid?  The idol worshipper does not return on his good fortune but the Jew does?

The frum Jewish idol worshipper sees the business deal and then wants to thank the idol. It is a weird appreciation.   He sees the good fortune and wants to give thanks so he returns.  The idol worshippper dosent return because he doesnt see the need for appreciation  and therefore does not return.

Maybe in some crazy way, we can learn from this “frum” apostate Jew. The SD  believes all good fortune flows from Hashem. Any success, good fortune or good turn of events is a gift.  It requires constant recognition of Hashem’s power and his rule of the world. More importantly, it requires constant appreciation. It requires constant give back.  We must always return any good fortune  through ritual and action.


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Avoda Zara 22: Old Fashion-Kind hearted Rabbis

The SD remembers as a kid having some old sweet Rabbis as teachers and role models.   They were gentle, kind and soft spoken. They held themselves to high standards while understanding other human beings.  In Avoda Zara we see a glimmer of this.

On page 22 we hear of a story where a Jew and an non Jew enter into a partnership of  working a garden.  The Non Jew agrees to work the garden on Shabbos and the Jew agrees to work on Sunday. The Jew asks Rava if this is acceptable.   The Talmud says that Rava gives a one word answerr: “permitted.” The Talmud doe not quote Rava giving an explanation. It just says that he said “permitted.”   Ravina jumps all over him and then Talmud goes to great length  to explain the case.  The Gemara postulates they made a pre arranged agreement as to profits. It is going through hoops  to cover Rava.

The SD would like to weigh in. Rava is the old time Rabbi.  He leads his life to strict and high standards, but when he sees a hard working simple Jews who wants to keep shabbos and earn a living he does not exact the same standard.  He knows how hard life is.  He does not explain his answer, he  just says “pemitted.” Rava shoulders are broad enough to know when the law needs to be adopted.

As Rabbi Schwartz always says: we should put other people’s physical needs above our own spiritual needs and our own spiritual needs above our physical needs.

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Avoda Zara 20-21: The Good Earth

One of the SD’s favorite books as a kid was the Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck.  The book is about a poor farmer in China who amasses tremendous amounts of land.  At the end of the book when he is an old man, his rich sons do not want to work the field and want to sell. He freaks out.   Never sell and the book ends.

Daf 20-21 has a mishna that says we cannot sell  land in Israel to idol worshipers. The Mishna also says we cannot sell land in Syria to idol worshipers. The Talmud tells us that by selling land, we are removing from the the obligation of giving Maaser.

The SD now understands the old farmer in the book. He did not need the land anymore. His kids had all the money.   The talmud’s reason for not selling is great.  We might not need the land, but others need us to keep the land. Others depend on us.  Others depend on the land.  Giving Maaser is metaphor for giving and sharing.  The ownership of land triggers the need to give and to share.

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Yitro: When Rashi Falls Silent

It is interesting to see what Rashi chooses to comment on. Conventional wisdom as explained to SD is that when there is a problem, uncertainty or lack of clarity of a word or pasuk, Rashi will comment. If there is no ambiguity or issue with the text, he does not seek to comment.

In this parsha, Rashi is extensive.  Look at the 10 commandments, chapter 20, verse 8, “Rember the Sabbath Day.” Here Rashi is bothered by tense and goes on a long discourse about the form of the verb. It is mind numbing. I doubt 10 people in the world get through that Rashi.

However what is more interesting is what Rashi chooses not to comment on and we can assume, he sees no issues or ambiguity. The lack of comment assumes we can read the verse on face value. Therefore, the SD is intrigued that the verse “Thou shalt not desire your neighbor’s house, wife, servant, ox nor anything that is his.”   The SD has about 100 questions one  could ask regarding this statement. To the SD, this is perplexing, why list individual items  and then say “anything this is his.” Why the redundancy?  Why these particular items?

The real question is why does my neighbor have more than me?  And this does not require a Rashi explanation?

The simple answer is maybe  we have to find the answer in ourselves. We have to find a way of dealing with the clear and obvious inequities in life.  We have to find a way of dealing with the constant struggle: Why life is not fair.   The Torah is telling us our neighbor will have things that we do not have.  Now deal with it.  I guess we don’t Rashi to tell us that life is not fair.

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Beshallach: Lessons in Life is Not Fair

Their are two instances in this week’s parsha where good people suffer or are accused along with the wicked.  Sometimes one is caught in the crowd, amidst circumstances beyond one’s control and then takes the hit.

In Chapter 15 verse 5, the Torah tells us the Pharoh’s charioteers and soldiers went to their watery depths like a stone. Famously rashi points out that these are the “kosher” ones amongst the army and they died quickly.  What?  They are “kosher” and yet they were in the wrong army. They are on the losing team in an unjust war. Yet Rashi still  calls them “Kesharim” or kosher.  Strange. If they are kosher why are the killed?  Answer: Life is not fair. A drafted soldier in a unjust cause. Kosher or not.. Life is not fair.

Secondly  Gd instructs Moshe to tell the people not to collect Manna on Shabbat. Sure enough (Chapter 16, verses27-30) some people go out collecting. What is Hashem’s response? Hashem is angry at Moshe.   Hashem says to Moshe: “How long will you refuse to watch my commandments. What again? Moshe did not, the people did.Here Rashi quotes a parable of a thorn getting hidden in a lettuce.  The good get mixed up in the wicked.

What’s the lesson. You can try to be good, honest, careful… however forces beyond your control push you into the wrong army, get mixed up in the wrong crowd or simply get blamed for somone else’s mistake.

What is the antidote: Pray to Hashem every day that He  not kick you in the head, that he not lead you in the path of the landmine, be humble,  be modest and recognize Life is not fair.

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Bo: Locusts, Shabbos: I dont Swarm on Shabbos

In Chapter 10, pasuk 14 the Torah tells us that Locusts ascended on Egypt and “Vaynach” or rested on the border of Egypt.  The Bal Haturim picks up on the word “Vayanach” and notices that it is similar to the word in the Bible referring to rest on Shabbos or the “rest on the 7th day.” From here the Bal Haturim concludes that the locusts did not swarm or hurt on Shabbos.

Is this like the Big Lebowski where John Goodman says, ” I dont !@#$% bowl on shabbos.”   Why don’t locusts swarm on Shabbos?

In Masechest Taanis we are told that if one were to see even a single locust, one would cry out in prayer for help.  I guess Locusts are bad.

So what is the connection to Locusts and Shabbos?

The Shikkerdovid has an idea. Clearly, Locusts are very powerful. They are deadly. Even in the Talmud Taanis, it is recognized how powerful they are that we call out of help on seeing just one.  They are potent.   Maybe potent creatures need Shabbos.

The answer is that power, strength, ability and desire needs to be checked.  Shabbos is the great step back. We as human beings are powerful.  We have the ability to do everything, but  we must be reminded that we are really small just like the locusts. We must subordinate our power to Hashem and Shabbos.  We must subordinate our will to  create, destroy, wreak havoc or flourish by  keeping Shabbos and recognizing, sometimes we are no better than the locust.

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Bo: Schaudenfreud

In parshat Bo, we are told that even the first born captives of the Egyptians dies in the plague of the first born.  Rashi questions, why did Gd have to include “captives” or wretched non Egyptians in the plague.  Rashi famously answers that they were happy with the struggling and suffering of the Jews.  He even goes on to mention, that the captives are even lower than the maidservants, yet they rejoiced.  Now that’s Schaudenfreud- taking happines in other peoples misery.

Time for a confession.  The Shikkerdovid sometimes suffers from this.  It is a tremendous failing.  But is it human?  The answer is yes. It is human to instinctively take some pleasure in other people’s downfall, especially when you are not a fan.  The work is to recognize the failing and redouble your effort to love and find compassion for that person and to find the good and value in them.

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