Friday, September 23, 2011

Making Religious Choices

As Deuteronomy begins to wind down, the Israelites' journey comes to a close. The Jews' entry to the Promised Land is very much like God lending Israel a car. Although God is willing to give Israel the keys, God stills feels a lot of validated nervousness. The Israelites are very new to driving, and God wants to make sure they can handle their new responsibility. Like trusting a teenage driver, God is nervous that Israel will not follow through with the covenant made in the desert over the last forty years. God hopes for the best, but warns Israel of the consequences of breaking the covenant. Driving poorly results in a accident. Likewise, disobeying God also may involve pain. Under some circumstance, the punishment could be severe, including entire excommunication from the twelve tribes of Israel. Controversially, God denounces following only one's freewill. God claims that one who says, "I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart," is doomed to great misfortune.

God chose to make humans separated from the rest of humanity. Unlike any other living creature on Earth, people can make decision while being cognizant of emotion and condition. Humans determine their actions based on freewill. Anything from a gorilla to a starfish, merely eat, sleep, and drink to survive. Abstract thinking separates humanity from the animal kingdom. In contrast, God condemns the use of freewill in this week's Torah portion. God orders the Israelites to
obey the commandments listed in the Torah. Where do humans cross the line between decision making and defying God's law? God dislikes humans with a willful heart, but it is this very attribute that makes humans unique from all of creation. Similar to many conundrums in life, the key to freewill is balance. One is free to choose whether or not to eat a bacon cheeseburger. Based on one's degree of observation, loyalty to God may vary. Most people scorn murder, but go out on Shabbat. Where does freewill cross over to disloyalty?

Does religion hold one back from the splendors of life? According to the portion, God desires all Jews follow the laws of the Torah to some degree. From as early a stage as infancy, God's commandments contradict daily routines. Take a child's birthday party for example. Mary is celebrating her fifth birthday party on a Saturday afternoon. Rachel wants to go because Mary and her are very close friends. However, she recognizes that Shabbat is a day of rest and reflection not fit for such a strenuous festivity. Even if Rachel decides to go, she realizes that the lunch being served is a pepperoni pizza with an ice cream buffet afterward. Although Rachel is merely five years old, she already faces constraints which her religious forced upon her. Why even observe the commandments if they become an obstacle? After all, plenty of people ignore the word of God. Contrary to this week's parashat, they face no mayhem worse than anyone else in the world. First of all, observing any religion or offers insight into the soul. The arbitrary religion one is born into may not be the one meant for them. Secondly, religious law is a tool for establishing values. Abstaining from shellfish seems absurd in one person's eyes, but offers the lesson of discipline in another's eyes. Religion does not hold back from life's joys. It enhances them. Sometimes the choices are tough, but overall the guidance and spirituality religion can offer is worth the risk of missing out on one birthday party.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Shakespeare Series: "Julius Caesar"

"Julius Caesar" unravels the plot carried out to assassinate the title character and its aftermath. Villainous Cassius convinces Julius' dear friend Brutus to help him with the murder. They gather a team of senators in the name of protecting Rome. These men of the Republic claim to be selfless. As Caesar gains popularity among the Roman public, these noble men cower that he will proclaim himself emperor. The men decide the only way to stop Caesar is to lead him to the senate and slay him. Truth be told, their plan backfires. Caesar's murder leads Rome into a state of chaos. With what appears to be treason, citizens of Roman are appalled by Caesar's death. In the midst of protecting Roman democracy, the conspirators destroy it. Romans look to Mark Antony as their only hope of preventing Rome from falling apart. Antony eventually forms a triumvirate with Lepidus and Octavius. In accordance to Caesar's will, Octavius become Rome's first emperor.

At Caesar's funeral, Brutus defiantly proclaims, "But as he was ambitious, I slew him" (III.ii.25). Julius Caesar was an honorable man, but he was far too ambitious. The moment he stopped fighting for the rights of the Roman people, he was sworn dead. Like Napoleon and Hitler, he overstepped his bounds. A leader should be decisive, but these three men failed to learn the difference between executive and totalitarian. Even Cassius and Brutus let power go to their heads. In Rome's discombobulated state, these men try to rise to the top. They receive their own consequences, but one must read to find those out. Although Rome was the last empire of the ancient world, Caesar's fallings are still prevalent. Like Rome, US congressmen and congresswomen are letting personal ego inhibit their ability to reform society. Caesar was talented in communicating through political rhetoric, a valued asset of the modern politician. Sometimes society forgets the mistakes of the Romans. Although the successes of the Roman Empire are monstrous, the rights of its citizens were minimal. Their failing to preserve democracy resulted in an multi-century empire.

I recommend "Julius Caesar" to any sophisticated reader. This play exemplifies Shakespeare's mastery of turning a simple plot into something very deep. I advise any reader of this play to attempt to dwell in the motions of Caesar and Brutus. As their friendship falls apart, we should relate it our friendships that seemed to drift apart. For a rookie to Shakespeare, I would wait to read "Julius Caesar". The language is challenging and confusing at times. I read this play while I was a camp. Even with all the exciting activities surrounding me, this tale of the failing Roman republic could captivate me. Picking up this masterpiece will send a reader on a wild ride to society much like our own a long time ago.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Can We Sweep Evil From Our Midst?

In Parashat Ki Teizi, God reemphasizes laws stated in Leviticus. God reviews the process of dealing with a marriage or divorce with a slave, a defiant child, and kidnapping. In addition, God prohibits sex before marriage, prostitution, torture, and remarriage of the same spouse. The commandment to wear a tallis is also included in this week's text. Ki Teizi is full of dos and do nots for the Israelites as they enter the land.

Similar logic applies to every law. According to the Torah, these demands are not to be tedious, but rather sweep evil from our midst. Is it possible to purify society so there is no evil? Most likely, this is not probable. Humans' sense of right and wrong differs from person to person. Nobody can agree on what is truly justice. If society abided to the rules of the Torah, such as remaining abstinent, how better off would we be? A world without regulation would definitely be chaotic, but it seems like rules can get in the way of happiness. Could we lighten up on our legislature? For instance, look at a school. A wise person once said, "In school, you lose all your rights." It is perfectly logical that one is not allowed to shoot guns or smoke cigarettes in class. These kinds of restrictions protect the students. Would the world really end if a hat were kept on during the day? What about playing cards during study hall, which really is prohibited in some schools? The fine lines these institutions and the nations of the world operate by are considerably insane. Playing cards will not sweep evil into one's midst.

Furthermore, once these codes are broken one receives punishment. What kind of justice system is being run in this world? Criminals who do bad things are then put in a single room for an amounted time, sometimes even for the rest of their life. I am not denying that jail is an effective way to keep our neighborhoods safe. I argue the fact that criminals sit in cells where they may become more furious at the world than they were before their imprisonment is unethical. Rather than let our villains rot away behind bars, I suggest we figure out how to psychoanalyze the cause of their harsh actions. I was originally going to say that we should correct criminals' unacceptable behavior, but then I began to think. Is it sometimes necessary to break the law? Rosa Parks was breaking the law during her time, but she stood up for what she believed. In my opinion, laws are only unbreakable when the protest of said law will harm others. Perhaps, everybody should relax and enjoy life for a little while, rather than worrying about demands from an executive power.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

My Thoughts on Camp Shomria 2011

Coming back home from summer campo is a daunting task to undergo. Especially when one's camp feels like home, as does mine. Of all possible things to do to reconnect with society, I spent a gloomy day back going to the dentist and buying shoes. To make matters worse, it was rainy on this bleak Monday morning. That afternoon the joy continued with a visit to the orthodontist to get my braces tightened. After about three weeks in the "real world", I can honestly say all I want to do is get in the car, turn around, and return to Liberty, NY. To say the least, it was an amazing summer at Camp Shomria.

One of the greatest things about Mosh (as we call it) is the massive potential to witness instantaneous friendships form. On the first day, campers are split into age groups known as kvutzot. Besides a common age and grade, these groups can be totally dissimilar. Some come from Israel and others come from down the road. From my experience, I know all fourteen year olds learn, work, and interact with each other in different ways. Somehow, a kvutzah can come together to do number of tasks. For instance, they do the dishes for the whole camp or write and run an activity. By learning to work with my kvutzah, it eventually taught me how to understand people. Everybody in my kvutzah did not speak English fluently or agree on political issues. At Mosh, I learned to accept people's flaws. When someone new entered the kvutzah, they were welcomed. Of course, kvutzot get mad at each other and they fight. However, families are the same way. Arguments between members of the same kvutzah somehow get resolved. Lifelong friendships quickly take shape as one begins to live with their kvutzah. I know these bonds are indestructible and will only strengthen with age.

One of Camp Shomria's newest initiatives is to achieve self sustainability. With a hundred mouths to feed at each meal, this is quite the dream. Although this year was only the start, we turned a parking lot into a garden that produced dozens of vegetables daily. It grew a wide range of produce, including tomatoes, beets, spices, potatoes, and corn. This garden was entirely organic. Across from the garden were nearly eighty chickens which laid all of the camp's eggs. It was a daily activity to weed the garden or feed the chickens. At the end of a meal, campers would throw away their food scraps into one of two compost bins. One bin would be used as chicken food at the farm. The other decomposed to become rich soil for the garden. In addition, campers learned about a large array of ecological subjects. My kvutzah's topic for the summer was water. One week we boiled lake water to become tea, and another week we discussed how drilling for natural gas in the Catskills can taint New York City's water supply. I find it fascinating how unequally water is distributed in the world. My kvutzah discussed how to solve this problem. One of my least favorite moments of the week returning home was the reawakening of how ecologically unfriendly Americans can be. Like I said, I was sitting in the dentist office the other. A commercial came on about natural gas and how it was "the cleaner solution". I immediately became disgruntled that the ad left out how drilling can tamper with water supplies and the resource is non-renewable. It was an eye-opening experience.

Unlike regular summer camps, Shomria is part embraces the power of its campers. In fact, it is entirely run by youth. The oldest councilor at camp was only twenty-two years old. The camp is exactly what we want it to be. Shomria embraces this and really lets us call the shots. Every year the older kids hold a forum to make decisions about the camp's future. Mosh gave me the belief that one person can change the world at any age. Being home, I realize that youth are not encouraged as much as I would like. Adults run the banks, the institutions, and the countries, but children are the future. We constantly put our hopes on the back burner saving them for when we are older. I may not be eligible for the US Congress yet, but I know I can lobby for what I believe is justice. If the councilors tried to teach me anything at Camp Shomria is was to stand up for the causes I deeply believe are important. Hopefully, I can take this lesson as my part to perform tikkun olam- fixation of the world.

Friday, September 02, 2011

A Few Thoughts on Genocide

In Parashat Shoftim, God briefly outlines the criminal justice system of Israel. God starts by describing how to prevent corruption. This includes the refusal of bribes. Members of the law are required to seek justice under any circumstance. Aaron and his descendants, the Levites, are assigned to rule over Israel's religious and federal practices. Later in the parashat, God declare that those who believe in magic or ghosts are a disgrace. Fortune tellers and seance goers alike are to be excommunicated from the community. All these laws were fairly non-shelaunt until the very end of Parashat Shoftim. To conclude this portion, God discusses militarily issues. God claims in order to receive the land of heritage, the Israelites must not let a soul live from a number of different tribes residing in Canaan.

Basically, God condones genocide. How could this be? The events of the Holocaust occurred less than a century ago. After the horrors Jews in Europe were forced to endure, it is inconceivable to believe God could order us to wipe out entire nations. Through a historian's eyes, the mass, Biblical murder is not as provocative as it seems. Killings like these were not considered genocide in the ancient world. If the ancient Israelites did not eliminate these nations, these enemies would have attacked us. Hindsight set aside, the ethics of how Israel went about dealing with these domains is purely despicable. In any age, the elimination of a race to prevent these peoples from leading us to abhorrent sins is ethically unacceptable. I find some of Jewish law unnecessarily strict,. like the forbidding of shaving ones sideburns, but I understand that daunting restrictions like these promote the teaching of discipline. There is no way to find a way to ethically defend this violent decree by God.

What can we do? This treacherous act was done over 3,000 years ago. It is impossible to change the past. I believe there a three steps we need to take in order to obtain full atonement over our ancestor's actions. First of all, we need to be willing to claim responsibility for the bloodshed that occurred. Hopefully, the other peoples of the world are willing to forgive us. Secondly, we need to teach about the horrors of genocide. Of all nations, Jews can empathize on the topic of genocide most often. As a generation of Holocaust survivors begins to pass on, we are responsible to tell their stories. Emotions make the Holocaust a touchy subject, but we can not let them get in the way. In my opinion, teaching youth about the Holocaust is the only way to prevent another mass extermination of the caliber. One may ask how we can educate others about genocide without experiencing the Holocaust, like our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Promote high schools to assign their students to read books like "Night", which are banned in some districts. Parents should sit down with their child and inquire what their knowledge is on this subject. The third step of our redemption is to prevent future genocides. It boggles my mind that genocide is still occurring after the Holocaust. Teaching our children is not enough to protect another from suffering. I do not even believe sending aid is enough to accomplish such a task. Although I am guilty of not doing so myself, I insist that we need to lobby against genocide. In the 1940's, the United States of America was too finically fragile to stop the Holocaust in its tracks. It was not until 1945 when numbers like six million began to reach the American public. It makes me wonder what the numbers look like in Darfur right now.