Avodah Zara: 54-55: Talmudic Grappling with other Religions

In Avodah Zara 54, the Mishna relates a question posed by Romans to the elders of Israel.  The Romans asks : If your Gd is so strong and hates idol worship why does not Hashem destroy them.  The elders answer that idolators worship the sun,  the moon  and the stars, and all people need these celestial things to live. Pretty good answer.  A little bit of a dodge answer but pretty good.

The Talmud on page 55 gives a better answer. The Talmud cites a pasuk from Devarim chapter 4:19  warning against worshipping other gds:  And lest you lift your eyes and see the sun, the moon, the stars and be drawn to them and worship them and serve them, which Hashem has APPORTIONED (CHALAK) to them.”   The chalak means that they are given to the nations to worship and use.

The Magid shiur this morning intimated that other cultures are entitled to use the sun, the moon to help pray to the “prime mover. ”  This behavior by a Jew is idol worship and would be idolatry if we behaved in such a fashion. However, it is acceptable to other cultures and nations.

The answer is that as Jews we must be respectful and cognizant that other cultures worship Hashem in different methods and in different modes.   That Torah Judaism is our way of recognizing Hashem, however other cultures have their own road to similar beliefs.

The Shikker dovid would like to use this pasuk and this thought to expound on a personal belief or thought.  All people in the world, Hindu, Moslem, Buddist can serve or recognize Hashem with the same  efficacy and validity as Jews While we might wear tfillin, keep shabbos, eat chulent and wear funny undershirts with strings, their modes and methods can be equally effective, provided they recognize the prime mover of the world and recognize that kindness, caring, loving, charity and responsibility to other humans is the manner in which we promote Hashem’s direction to all.

Whether y0u wear tfilin on your head, a dot on your forehead, or a turban on your hair.  All roads can lead to Hashem.  Each nation has it own “Chalak” or apportionment to serve Hashem.

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Purim: My Favorite Holiday and My Favorite Pasuk

The Shikkerdovid loves Purim. It is such a holy day. His first child was born on Purim.  The Shikkerdovid remembers sitting with the new Zaidy (Shikker Sr) in the recovery room and drinking some boysenberry Vodka from a silver flask right after the delivery.

Quite miraculously,  SD just learned that his favorite pasuk in the Torah also figures prominently in Purim Midrash.  The pasuk  is from the  Rebukes: Devarim 28:67. The pasuk states: “In the morning, you will say: were it the evening, and in the evening you will say, were it the morning.”  The SD has said this is a brutal curse because it shows a person who will never be happy. Whatever he has or wherever he is, he wants something else.

Now the miracle:  The SD opened the Esther Raba and literally the second line of this Midrashic text quotes this pasuk in the Torah. However, it adds: “In the morning in Babylon you will say, were it the evening in Medea!. In the morning of Media you will says, were it the evening of Greece!

Now: What is this doing in Esther Raba. what does this pasuk have to do with Purim? The SD would like to propose an answer.  In Purim, things are “hafoch”- switched.  Mordechai is elevated, Haman is taken down.  Esther is elevated, Vashti is taken down.  We wear costumes to change our outer exterior.  Finally, we drink to not know the difference is blessed is Mordechai cursed is Haman. It is a day of like no other. Things swing and switch. We alter our minds with alcohol.   It appears that the reality is changed.

The sobering pasuk tells us that Hashem rules the world. He switches things, he changes things.  We can be elevated or destroyed.  The Purim story is triumph. But the triumph might not last forever.  Things change, but we cannot long for what we don’t have. We can put on a  superman costume on Purim, but we cannot become Superman. We can drink on Purim, but the next day we must be nominally sober.

The reality is  We must be happy  if we are in Bablylon and not wish for Medea. We must be happy in Medea and not wish for Greece. We can put on a costume for a day, but we must accept our reality and learn to love it and be happy.

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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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