Take a Seat on the Throne of Mercy – Yom Kippur 5780

Think about an argument that you have had with someone in the past year.  Some time when you really got angry.  Picture the scene.  What did the other person do and say?  What did you do and say?  Think back to what led up to the fight, and what happened after it was over.  Are you still angry about it?

Now I have a question: What color were the other person’s eyes?  Can you even picture their face, or is it a blur?

It is not only when we are in a fight that we don’t look at one another.  We tend to be pretty self-centered in most of our interactions.  As society becomes more fractured and people become more atomized, this is only getting worse.

Self-centeredness lends itself to being more judgmental of others.  We are less willing to see things from another person’s perspective.

And yet, that is exactly what we ask God to do for us.  We want God to take note of us, to see things from our perspective, and have mercy.

It is ironic, because the dominant depiction of God during the High Holidays is as a King.  Last week, for Rosh Hashanah, we celebrated creation.  God is a Creator King.  Today, on Yom Kippur, we stand in judgment before our creator.  God is a Judge King.  

What does every King need? A throne, of course.  The Hebrew word for throne is kisei. The image of God’s kisei appears frequently in our High Holiday prayers.

One of those thrones appears in the prayer, Unetaneh TokefV’yikon b’chesed kis’ekha — “Your throne is established in love.”  V’teshev alav be’emet — “and You sit upon it in truth.  ‘Truth’ for you are judge and prosecutor, expert and witness…” The image is of God as a King and a Judge, reviewing the deeds of all of Creation, passing judgment on us on Rosh Hashanah and sealing it on Yom Kippur.  It is a terrifying image, suggesting that our actions in the past year seal our fate in the year to come.  There is no escaping the truth of our deeds.  The best we can do is avert the severity of the decree.  It is not particularly reassuring.

Fortunately, this is not the only kind of throne that we find in the Mahzor.  Another part of our Yom Kippur service is called Selichot.  We recite the words El Melekh yoshev al kisei rachamim.  “God, King, who sits on a throne of mercy.”  That is the image of God that we want.  “acting with unbounded grace, forgiving the sin of Your people, one by one, as each comes before You, generously forgiving sinners and pardoning transgressors, acting charitably with every living thing; do not repay them for their misdeeds.” The God of Selichot is the polar opposite of the God of Unetaneh Tokef: a God of mercy rather than a God of justice.

Our goal, through the season of repentance, is to elevate the Divine King from the Throne of Judgment to the Throne of Mercy.  It is why, for example, we add an extra l’eilah to the Kaddish.  L’eilah l’eilah: Higher and higher.  Rise up, O Lord, to Your Throne of Mercy.

This tension between justice and mercy, din and rachamim; law and righteousness, mishpat and tzedek, is found throughout Jewish tradition.  

It is in the commentaries and midrash and even in the Bible itself.  It is reflected in two most commonly appearing Divine names.  Yud Hei Vav Hei is the unpronounceable name that we read as Adonai or, “The Lord.”  The other name is Elohim, which we translate simply as “God.”

Jewish tradition understands these two names as reflections of the two aspects of the Divine persona.  These attributes oppose and balance one another.  Adonai is mercy and Elohim is Judgment.

Throughout the creation story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the Divine is repeatedly referred to by both names, together: Adonai Elohim—”The Lord, God.”  This is atypical.  Usually, the Torah uses one or the other name.  It must mean something important.  A midrash offers a parable (Genesis Rabbah 12:15).

There once was a human king who had some drinking cups.   The king said to himself, “if I put hot water in them, they will shatter, and if I put cold water in them, they will crack.  What to do?  What to do?”

So what did the king do? He mixed the hot water with the cold water and then filled up the glasses so that they would not break.  (This is not rocket science, folks.)

So too did the Blessed Holy One say: “If I create the world only with the attribute of compassion alone, I will tolerate everything and the sins will proliferate uncontrollably.  But if I create the world only with the attribute of justice alone, how would it be able to stand?”

“So,” the Lord God concludes, “I will create it with both judgment and compassion.”

So far, this is a pretty straightforward midrash.  There are several rabbinic texts that say something similar.  But the two concluding words are unique:  V’halevai ya’amod.  “Would that it stands.”

This ending is delightfully ambiguous.  God says, “I’ll give this a shot.  I hope it works.”

The resulting world, our world, is a confusing mess.  Fate is unpredictable, and may or may not reflect a fair consequence of our actions.

This tension is on display in full force in the Book of Jonah, which we will read this afternoon.  The book opens with God’s command to deliver a prophecy against the residents of the wicked city of Nineveh. Without any explanation whatsoever, Jonah runs the opposite direction, booking passage on a ship.  When the inevitable storm appears, Jonah is asleep in the cargo hold.  The other sailors are doing everything possible to survive.  They each pray to their own gods.  They throw overboard anything that is not nailed down.

Nothing works.  When the captain finds Jonah asleep, he is incredulous.  “How can you be sleeping at a time like this!  Get up and cry out to your god!  Ulai—Maybe the god will give us a thought and we will not perish!”

Jonah ignores the captain in silence.  It’s like he wants to go down with the ship.  So they cast lots to identify the person on whose account the storm has come.  Of course, the lots indicate Jonah.

“What did you do?” the sailors cry.

Again, Jonah is silent.  

“What can we do to calm the sea?” they ask.

Finally Jonah speaks, “Throw me overboard and the sea will calm down, for I am the cause.”

The sailors are heartbroken.  They do not want to perform such a terrible action.  But the storm is raging stronger by the minute, and they have no alternative.  Before they do it, they offer a prayer to Jonah’s God.  “Please, Lord, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life.  Do not hold us guilty of killing an innocent person…!” Then they toss the prophet, and the storm ceases.  In appreciation, the sailors offer sacrifices and make vows to God.  

What is up with Jonah?  Why does he run?  The text offers no explanation.  You would think that he might try to argue with God.  Perhaps he could pray when the captain approaches him.  What is going on in this guy’s head? The man has a death wish.  He is on a one-way journey of self-destruction.  If not for the piety of the sailors, he would have brought them down with him.

God will not let Jonah off so easy.  Instead of letting him drown, God sends a big fish to swallow Jonah alive and deposit him on dry land after three days.  God orders Jonah, once again, to deliver a prophecy of destruction to Nineveh.  Realizing that there is no escape, Jonah performs his task.  He walks through the streets declaring, Od arba’im yom v’Ninveh neh’pachet—”Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overturned!”

Compelled by these five inspiring words, the entire city—from the King to the people to the livestock—puts on sackcloth and fasts in repentance.  God backs down from the evil that had been planned for them.

Jonah’s reaction is exactly the opposite.  The forgiveness of the Ninevites “was exceedingly evil to Jonah, and he was angry.”

Now, finally, at the beginning of chapter four, Jonah reveals his motivations in what the text describes as a prayer to God.  It does not sound much like a prayer, though.  “This is exactly what I said would happen.  That’s why I ran away so quickly.  I knew that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, repenting of evil.  Now, Lord, please take my life, for I would rather die than live.”

Jonah still harbors his death wish.  Why is he so upset? In this book, God is governed exclusively by the attribute of mercy.  Jonah knows it well.  He is certain that when the Ninevites hear his prophecy of doom and destruction, they will repent.

God, who is always ready to forgive a sinner, will then have to forgive the Ninevites.  Jonah’s prophecy of devastation will never come about and he will be made to look the fool. He would rather die than be embarrassed.

If God is driven solely by mercy in this story, then Jonah is governed by strict judgment.  The world he wants to live in is a world in which the wicked are always punished. He is willing to suffer to make this happen.  Jonah would rather die than act to prevent the deaths of others he deems not worthy. He wants to invoke the God of justice, but this is not a story about the God of Justice.  In this book, it is a merciful God who saves the sailors, prevents Jonah from drowning, and forgives the Ninevites, along with their animals.

Jonah is closed off to the possibility of change.  He is closed off to considering the internal feelings, thoughts, and experiences of anyone but himself.  He will not allow himself to consider it.  Justice prevents it.

Contrast him with the ship’s captain.  The captain says Ulai—”Maybe.”  What a beautiful, hopeful word.  The captain does not know why the storm has risen.  His world, and that of the Ninevites, is one in which is mercy is possible.  He does not know if Jonah’s prayer will work.  But he is hopeful.  Ulai.  “Maybe the god will give us a thought and we will not perish,” he offers wistfully.

The captain’s ulai sounds like God’s Halevai ya’amod from the midrash of the cups.  “Would that the world stands.”  We live in a world in which justice and mercy are both present.  Harsh, unrelenting punishment, competing with forgiveness and second chances.

I have suggested before that whenever we talk about God, we are actually talking about ourselves.  The midot, God’s qualities. are what we imagine to be the best possible attributes that a human being can achieve, but better.

So when we ask God to ascend from the throne of judgment to the throne of mercy, and when we read how Jonah is unable to prevent God from acting with compassion, we are talking to ourselves. It is we who are overly judgmental, and who suppress compassion for others in our relationships and interactions.  We are the ones who need to rise to the throne of mercy.

But it is so hard.  Every day, we have to deal with people who drive us crazy.

That person who lives under the same roof, who leaves their socks out on the floor of the living room, or the family member who yells at them for it.  The child who screams at a parent to change the radio station in the car, or the parent who insists on listening to the news.  (This is all hypothetical, of course.)

At school: the disruptive student who takes up 50% of the teacher’s time.

At work: the coworker who stubbornly refuses to see that my solution to the problem at hand is clearly the best one.  The employee who arrives late and goes home early while I work hard at my desk.

In the news: the politician who is clearly driven by the pure quest for power and ego-fulfillment, and the blind, naive supporters.  Why can’t they see the facts, which are so clear and straightforward?

My knee-jerk response is always to judge others.  Like Jonah, I do not take time to consider the experiences and emotions that another person might be feeling.  Instead, I judge that person only according to the impact of their actions on me, personally.

One of my favorite lessons in Pirkei Avot is taught by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachya.

Hevei dan et kol ha-adam l’khaf z’khut. “Judge every person to the scale of merit.”

Pirkei Avot 1:6

Imagine scales of justice, with one side representing guilt, and the other side representing or innocence.  We are encouraged to do everything possible to load up the side of innocence. 

I am really good at this, an expert, really… for myself.  I find all sorts of ways to justify my behavior, to excuse my mistakes.  I am so good at defending myself against the critiques of my family members, friends, and coworkers.

When it comes to other people… not so good.  Giving other people the benefit of the doubt does not come easily.

Consider every confrontation with another person that you have ever had.  Estimate the percent of time that you were the side in the right.  What would the percentage be?  50/50?  I don’t think so.

Human beings are naturally biased.  We have a strong tendency to be merciful with ourselves and judgmental of others.  This is called “illusory superiority.”  It is when a person tends to overestimate his or her own qualities and abilities compared to others.

80% of all drivers think they are above average.  Look around the room.  80% of us think that we are better than half of you.  

I know what you are probably thinking, because I am thinking the same thing: “but in my case, I actually am better than average.”  Sure you are.

Mashing up the Pirkei Avot teaching with the Torah’s commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself,” the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th century founder of Hasidism, adds

Since you always find excuses for your own misdeeds, makes excuses also for your fellow.

Is that doable?  The next time someone cuts me off on the freeway without indicating their turning signal, can I make an excuse for them?  Let’s try.

  • Maybe there is a woman about to give birth in the backseat.
  • Maybe there is a toddler having a temper tantrum.
  • Maybe the driver did signal, and I just didn’t see it.
  • Maybe the driver has been on the road for three hours and really needs to find a bathroom.

Imagine the story that would explain the behavior to be perfectly reasonable, even preferable perhaps—given the circumstances.

This is easy when it comes to people we don’t know and whom we do not have to face directly.  It’s easy to make up a creative story that probably isn’t true about someone I have never met before.  What about people we do know?

I recently heard an interview of Alan Alda on the podcast, Hidden Brain.  He wrote a book called If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? in which he draws upon his work helping engineers and scientists to become better communicators.  Effective communication all comes down to “empathy and learning to recognize what the other person is thinking.”

In the interview, Alda quips, “I’ve noticed that the more empathy I have, the less annoying other people are.”

He suggests a simple practice that can help us develop greater empathy, improve communication, and improve our relationships.  While  interacting with someone, try to name the emotion that this person is feeling.  Psychotherapists are trained to do this in clinical settings, but there is no reason why the rest of us cannot employ this practice in our everyday interactions.

Alda suggests that we don’t even need to name the emotion.  Just taking note of the color of a person’s eyes can help us become more loving in our relationships.  

I am far less likely to get mad at somebody if I have a sense of what they are feeling and thinking, or if I have taken a moment to look deeply into their eyes.  This can be an effective way to elevate ourselves from the throne of judgment to the throne of mercy.  It is a way of conveying to myself, and to the other person:  “I see you, and I am listening to you.”

Alda writes that

Real conversation can’t happen if listening is just my waiting for you to finish talking…  Unless I’m responding with my whole self—unless, in fact, I’m willing to be changed by you—I’m probably not really listening.  But if I do listen—openly, naively, and innocently—there’s a chance, possibly the only chance, that a true dialogue and real communication will take place between us.”

Alan Alda.  If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? (New York: 2017). pp. 10-11.

What a profound statement!  In how many of my conversations can I truly say that I was willing to be changed by the other person?

That is what it means to sit on the throne of mercy.  In our prayers, this is the essence of what we ask for from God.  Take note of us.  Look at our lives.  See how much we struggle.  Look at the good things we have done.  Look at how hard we have tried to repair our mistakes, to improve?  See us.  And forgive us.

I do not know whether there is a God who is listening to all of these prayers, but I do know that I ought to be listening.  Am I able to get up from the Throne of Judgment, and take a seat on the Throne of Mercy?

Thou Shalt Write a Torah – Rosh Hashanah 5780

While there is no such thing as 100%, we’ve done a great job at making ourselves more secure.  But at what cost?

We can assign a dollar value to it.  We introduced a voluntary security assessment this year.

There is also the cost in time.  I can’t even imagine how many hours I have spent going to security workshops, meeting with police officers, having conversations with staff and lay leaders,  interviewing security companies—all time that could have been spent doing something more productive.

There is the cost in stress.  That is a little more difficult to measure.  But fear, no matter how irrational, causes anxiety, which takes a physical toll on us.

For a synagogue community, there is another toll.  In placing so much emphasis on securing the body, we neglect the spirit.  

The walls of this building are now harder than ever, but what about what is inside these walls?

Emil Fackenheim was born in 1916 in Germany.  Like many enlightened German Jews of his generation, he embraced both aspects of his identity, believing that the flourishing Jewish community in Germany was secure.  Studying at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, he received his ordination as a Reform rabbi from Dr. Leo Baeck in 1938.

After Kristallnacht, Fackenheim was sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, but was released after 3 months.  He escaped to Scotland, where his parents joined him.  Fackenheim was then sent to Canada, where he was interned as an enemy alien for 16 months.  His older brother did not escape Europe, and was murdered in the Holocaust.

Fackenheim served as a pulpit rabbi for several years, and then became a Professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.  He became a Zionist in 1967, when he came to understand the central importance of the Jewish state.  He made aliyah in 1984 and joined the faculty at Hebrew University.  Fackenheim passed away in 2003.

In the 1960’s, Fackenheim first began to address the significance of the Holocaust to Jewish theology and philosophy.  He is most well-known for adding a 614th commandment to the traditional 613 commandments in the Torah:  “Don’t give Hitler a posthumous victory.”  In an essay, Fackenheim explains what he means:

… we are, first, commanded to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish. We are commanded, secondly, to remember in our very guts and bones the martyrs of the Holocaust, lest their memory perish. We are forbidden, thirdly, to deny or despair of God, however much we may have to contend with him or with belief in him, lest Judaism perish. We are forbidden, finally, to despair of the world as the place which is to become the kingdom of God, lest we help make it a meaningless place in which God is dead or irrelevant and everything is permitted. To abandon any of these imperatives, in response to Hitler’s victory at Auschwitz, would be to hand him yet other, posthumous victories.

Emil Fackenheim, Essay entitled “The 614th Commandment.”

To summarize, he lists four aspects to the 614th commandment:

  1. Survive
  2. Remember the martyrs of the Holocaust
  3. Don’t give up on God
  4. Don’t give up on the world

The 614th commandment has been criticized as being too focused on the tragedy of the Holocaust as the primary motivating force for Jewish survival.  It is not enough to merely survive.  Judaism, and the Jewish people, must be worthy of survival. Jewish survival must be for something positive, rather than merely denying Hitler a posthumous victory.

I cannot imagine that Fackenheim would have disagreed with that.  We have done a great job of physically ensuring Jewish survival.  We have hardened our synagogues, schools, and community centers.  Is there any religion that surrounds its houses of worship with as much security as we do?

The prowess of the Israel Defense Forces is legendary.  Jewish organizations closely monitor the media and keep close watch on antisemitic groups around the world.  We are an extremely vigilant people. But does this vigilance translate to an embrace of the positive reasons for Jewish existence?  We can have the tightest security imaginable, but what are we protecting?

We need to match, or even surpass, our commitment to security with a commitment to Jewish life.  Let’s fill our insides with Yiddishkeit, both in our synagogue and in our homes. Emil Fackenheim numbered his mitzvah 614.  This year at Sinai, we are going to embrace the immediately preceding commandment: mitzvah number 613:  Thou shalt write a Torah.  Maimonides explains the mitzvah clearly.

It is a positive commandment for each and every Jewish person to write a Torah scroll for themself…

Mishneh Torah, Laws of Tefillin, Mezuzah and the Torah Scroll, 7:1

Write a Torah scroll?!  This is a difficult mitzvah to achieve.  What do we need another Torah scroll for?  Don’t we have an ark full of them?  Can’t we just pull a printed copy off the shelf?  What is the point of such a difficult requirement?

Maimonides addresses this question as well. He writes:

Even if a person’s ancestors left behind a Torah scroll, it is a mitzvah to write one oneself.  A person who writes the scroll by hand is considered to be like someone who received it on Mount Sinai.  

Ibid.

This still does not address the very real objection that the skill needed to write a Torah scroll is substantial.  The Torah is a big book, and it takes a tremendous amount of knowledge and time to write it.  People in Maimonides’ day were no more capable of fulfilling this mitzvah than we are today.  So he continues:

[Someone who] does not know how to write it personally, [should have] others write it for him.

Ibid.

The solution is to hire a sofer, a scribe, to serve as our representative.  And for a bonus: if a person writes a single letter of the Torah, it is as if that person has written an entire Torah.  That is because if a single letter is missing, the entire Torah is pasul, or invalid.  So it is possible for a sofer to guide a person’s hand in writing the letter correctly, and then that person gets credit for the entire scroll.  That’s a pretty good deal.

What is so special about the Torah?

On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate the creation of the world.  Rabbinic teachings suggest that the physical world around us was not the first thing to come into existence.  A midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 1:1) states that, before declaring “Let there be light,” God first created the Torah and used it as a blueprint.

Similar to Plato’s Theory of Forms, God’s Torah is the perfect, non-physical template upon which our physical world is modeled.  Jewish tradition teaches that all Truth, all knowledge, is hidden within the words of Torah.  hafokh bah v’hafokh bah, ki khulah vah, Pirkei Avot teaches.  “Turn it and turn it, for all is in it.”  As we continue to plumb its depths from one generation to the next, revelation continues.

Just as the metaphysical Torah lies at the center of Creation, the physical Torah scroll is placed at the center of the synagogue, in the Holy Ark, modeled after the Holy of Holies. A Torah scroll is the most sacred item in Judaism.  This makes the 613th commandment a particularly meaningful one.

I am excited to announce that this year will be the “Year of the Torah” at Congregation Sinai.  By next Rosh Hashanah, we will have a new Torah scroll in our ark.  Thanks to Jeanette and Eli Reinhard, who are dedicating this Torah, every single one of us will have the opportunity to fulfill the 613th mitzvah, personally scribing a letter.

I would like to spend a few minutes talking about Sinai’s existing Sifrei Torah.  These are the scrolls that, as Maimonides describes, have been “left to us by our ancestors.”

When we look into the ark, we see the mantle, not the scroll underneath.  Right now, we have a beautiful set of High Holiday mantles that were custom made in 2013. What about what is inside?  The words are the same in all of them, but each of these scrolls is unique.  How did they get here?

In every case, there was once a blank parchment over which a skilled sofer toiledWhen he finished, a person or community purchased that Torah.  How many arks was it stored in?  How many B’nei Mitzvah were celebrated with it?  What was its journey?  How did it arrive at Congregation Sinai?  

I have been doing some research. Before the Holocaust, there was a lot of money to be made in Eastern Europe writing Sifrei Torah for Jews in America.  A sofer could earn enough by writing one Torah to support himself and his family for an entire year.  To give you an idea of how big this business was, there were around 5,000 soferim in the region around Warsaw alone.

As the Jewish population in America became more established, Ashkenazi immigrants would write to their relatives in the old country to arrange to have a Torah sent over.  

In Russia, the sofrut business ended abruptly in the early 1920’s when the Communists took over.  In fact, there are large stashes of Torah scrolls in Russia today, numbering in the thousands, that were confiscated during the Soviet era. In Poland, Romania, Hungary, and other communities, the business dried up in the 1930’s.  

Congregation Sinai was founded in 1954.  All seven of our Torah scrolls are from this pre-war period.  My best guess is that, by 1960, Sinai had acquired all of them.  Most likely, they were purchased on the used market by members of the young synagogue, although it is possible that some of them may have been passed down in the family. The eighth Torah, owned by the Mirkin family, has been on permanent loan since 1991.

A Torah is written on parchment, which is made from the skin of a kosher animal.  It takes 62 to 84 individual sheets of parchment, stitched together with animal sinew, to make one Torah.  The scroll is attached to wooden posts called atzei chayim, trees of life.

The sofer writes with a feather pen, using special ink.  There are precise rules about the correct formation of every single letter.  Rows and columns must be straight, and not one of the 304,805 letters can touch another.

We treat the Torah, which contains the words of God, like royalty.  We tie it together with a belt, dress it in a decorated mantle, crown it, and stand up to give it honor whenever it is removed from the ark.  To prevent deterioration, we don’t touch the letters, using a yad, hand, to point out the correct place in the text.

For a Torah scroll to be used during services, every single letter must be correct and legible.  A single mistake renders an entire scroll pasul.

Over time, Torah scrolls deteriorate.  The letters can fade, smear, or even crack off the parchment.  Parchment can tear, and stitching comes out.  If the letters deteriorate too much, a Torah becomes pasul.  A pasul Torah can be restored by a sofer.  A restoration involves cleaning, re-inking letters, sewing together torn or separated pieces of parchment, and patching holes.

Currently, two of the Torah scrolls in our ark are kasher.  Two are kasher b’diavad, which means that they are kosher for ritual purposes, but there are significant problems that, if not addressed, could eventually invalidate them.  Four of the scrolls are pasul and cannot be used in their current condition.  I’d like to say something about each of them.

Let’s start with the two kasher scrolls.  The scroll that we use week in and week out was donated by the Berman family in 1959.  The mantle was replaced in 1986 in memory of Mary Rokofsky, the grandmother of Sinai’s rabbi at the time, Alan Berkowitz.

The Smulyn Torah comes from Russia.  The current cover was dedicated by Al and Ruth Sporer in 1991 in memory of Al’s mother, Kreindel Perel bat Shmuel Yitzchak.  At some point, a coating of lime was painted on the back of the parchment so that it would look white whenever it was lifted.  That makes it extremely heavy, and unfortunately can also cause faster deterioration.  

Next come the two kasher b’diavad scrolls. Mr. and Mrs. Hyman Weisel donated this Torah, which is from Germany.  Several different scripts are apparent in various parts.  It was not uncommon for soferim in different villages to specialize in certain books of the Torah.  As long as the size and spacing lined up, the different segments could be stitched together into a single scroll.  The cover was replaced in 1986.

This Torah is on long term loan by Barry and Rosemarie Mirkin.  It has a special history at Sinai.  Barry’s grandfather commissioned a scribe to write it in Kiev in 1912, even dedicating a special room in the house.  He was planning on immigrating to America, and wanted to bring a Torah scroll with him.  He left it incomplete, intending to have it finished in America. Things did not work out as intended.  After many harrowing adventures, including being arrested, he and his wife landed in Massachusetts in 1923.  The Torah was shipped in a wooden crate, surrounded by sanitary pads.  He never got around to completing it.

In 1991, Barry brought the scroll to San Jose.  A sofer came to finish what Barry’s grandfather had begun 79 years earlier.  Members of the community were given the opportunity to participate.  We have photo albums of people writing letters with the sofer, fulfilling the 613th mitzvah.  Some of those people are in this room.  There are also photos of parades and dancing to celebrate its completion.

Sinai’s remaining Torah scrolls are pasul. This Polish Torah was donated by David and Ethel Hellman.  It was probably Sinai’s first Torah.  Congregation Sinai was formed in the Hellman living room when David needed to say kaddish for his father when he died in January, 1953.  This Torah was purchased in April that year from a Judaica shop in New York for $300 and donated to Sinai in his memory.  This cover is from 1991.

This Torah is from Russia, and was dedicated by Sol & Charlotte Ellner in memory of Sol’s parents.  The Torah can always be identified by its multi-colored handles.  The cover was donated in 1986 by Sinai’s Confirmation Class.

The next two scrolls are Sinai’s oldest, dating from the 19th century.  This mantle goes with our heaviest Torah, from Germany.  It was donated by Marcus Liebster, a Holocaust survivor, in memory of his parents.  I suspect that the red cover dates to the 1950’s when it was donated.

This Torah, our smallest, is from Poland, and was donated by the Konar family.  The cover was donated by the Sporer’s in 1991 in memory of Elka Sosha bat Feivel, Ruth and Maureen’s grandmother.

These eight scrolls bring with them a lot of memories, only some of which can be redeemed.  If they could speak, what would they say?

All of our scrolls are heavy.  So heavy that the number of people who feel comfortable performing hagbahah, or lifting the Torah up high after the reading, is limited.  Because of improvements in parchment making technology, new Torah scrolls are considerably lighter than older ones.  Sinai’s new Torah will be less than 15 pounds.  The writing will be clear and beautiful.

It will be the first time in Sinai’s history that a new Torah scroll, written especially for our community, will be placed in this ark.  Thank you again to Eli and Jeanette for making this a possibility for us.

The bulk of the Torah will be written by a sofer in Israel, where most Torah’s are written these days.  The sofer we are working with is Zerach Greenfield.  He will visit several times over the coming months to teach us about our most precious book.  He will also do some writing.  We want as many people as possible to write a letter: women, men, and children.

This is a potentially once in a lifetime opportunity for us.  

A side part of the plan is to create new Torah covers for all of the Sifrei Torah in the ark, to be used throughout the year.  They will complement one another thematically, and fit in with the look of the rest of our beautiful sanctuary.  Best of all, Sinai members will have an opportunity to participate in actually making the covers.  I cannot think of a better way for us to honor these ancient texts.

This is going to be an exciting year at Sinai.  There will be so many opportunities to get involved.  Take them.  Jewish continuity is not guaranteed by locking down our security and strengthening our walls.  It’s secured by filling our hearts.

This year, we are going to put a new Torah in the heart of our synagogue.  

May it fill our hearts with love and pride. 

Shanah Tovah Umetukah.  May we have a sweet new year.

If the seventh day arrives and there is nobody there to observe it, is it holy? – Rosh Hashanah 5780

What is today’s date?

{The second of Tishrei.}

What happened on this day that we are commemorating?

{The world was created.}

It is actually a bit more nuanced than this.  For creation was not a one day event.  It took seven: six days for God to bring into existence everything that is, and a seventh day for God to cease working and rest.

As the chronology goes, this week-long creation began on the 25th day of Elul—last month.  This means that the first day of Rosh Hashanah, which we observed yesterday, corresponded to the 6th day, the day on which God created humanity. Today, then, the second day of Rosh Hashanah, is the seventh and final day of Creation, when God rested.

But is this true?

Let me get something out of the way.  The world is not 5,780 years old.  Do not look to the Torah for either a scientific or historical account of how the universe came into being.  That is not the Torah’s purpose.  Classic commentators tell us: The Torah is written in language that human beings can comprehend.  Do not think that we can understand anything about how God created the world.

In our Mahzor, we declare Hayom harat olam.  “Today the world is conceived.”  But, nowhere in the Bible is there a direct indication that today is the birthday of the world.

As late as the Talmud (BT Rosh Hashanah 10b-11a), rabbis were arguing about when the world was created.  Go figure.  Rabbi Eliezer says it was in Tishrei.  But Rabbi Yehoshua says that it was in Nisan, in the Spring.  Each of them bring biblical verses to try to prove their points, and the Talmud raises objections to both. Our observance today clearly follows the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer.  

But how can either of them know when the world was created, or when the new year should begin?  For that matter, why does the week have seven days?  Is there something inherently special about the number 7?

The ancient Romans had an 8 day week.  The Aztecs and Mayans used a 13 day week.  During the French Revolution, there was an attempt to change over to a ten day week, which was seen as more modern and scientific.  It failed after nine and a half years.

Is there something inherently special about Tishrei vs. Nisan, or about a week that lasts 7 days, as opposed to 8, 10, or 13? Are these numbers independently meaningful, or are they significant because we decided to make them so?  If the seventh day arrives and there is nobody there to observe it, is it holy?

This is the theological equivalent of asking, “If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around, does it make a sound?”

Our sages have answers to these questions.  They draw a distinction between the counting of the days of the week and the determination of when the months and the years are supposed to begin. The responsibility and authority for setting the calendar is granted to human beings.  In ancient times, the Sanhedrin accepted testimony from witnesses who had claimed to see the new moon.

When the Sanhedrin was satisfied, they would declare: M’kudash M’kudash.  Sanctified!  Sanctified  That day was declared to be Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month.  The correct observance of holidays depended on the decision that the Sanhedrin made. They knew exactly when the moon was supposed to appear.  They understood the astronomy quite well, probably better than most of us in the room.

But, if it happened to be a cloudy night, or if the there was a problem with the witnesses, too bad.  The declaration would have to be put off until the next day.  This meant that the month sometimes began on the “wrong day.”  

When the Sanhedrin stopped meeting, the rabbis implemented the fixed calendar which we still use today.  They decided that Rosh Hashanah should never occur on a Sunday, Wednesday, or Friday.  Why?  To prevent Yom Kippur from falling on a Friday or a Sunday,  or Hoshanah Rabah falling on Shabbat, which would be really inconvenient.

Whenever the new moon appears on one of those days, Rosh Hashanah has to be delayed.  On particular occasions, it has to be pushed off by up to two days.

This goes against what the Torah says very plainly in today’s maftir:  “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion.” (Numbers 29:1)  According to the Torah, our holiday should begin when the moon first appears.  Period.

This year, the new moon made its first appearance Sunday morning, at 5:50 am.  But, we cannot observe Rosh Hashanah on a Sunday, so we artificially pushed it off until the following day.

Does it seem strange that human beings would manipulate the calendar so brazenly?  What gave our ancestors the right, and why do we keep listening to them?

According to ancient teachings, in fact, permission and responsibility to set the calendar is granted to people. That is why, when we recite the kiddush for Rosh Hashanah, we say m’kadesh yisrael v’yom hazikaron.  Praised are You God, who sanctifies the people Israel and the Day of Remembrance.

Israel is mentioned first.  Why?  Because we are the ones who determine the day on which the holiday is going to be observed.  Don’t worry, everyone.  It’s all kosher.  We’ve got permission.

When it comes to Shabbat, however, there is absolutely no astronomical significance to a seven day week.  The blessing for kiddush is simply m’kadesh haShabbat.  Praise are you God, who sanctifies the Shabbat.  Human beings have no say in the matter.

How do we know that the day we think is Shabbat actually is Shabbat?  How confident are we that human beings have been counting to 7 consistently for the past 5,780 years? Is there anything special about the seventh day, or is it completely arbitrary?

An ancient midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 11:5; Pesikta Rabbati 23) poses that exact question in a conversation between Rabbi Akiva and the Roman Governor of Judea, Quintus Tineius Rufus.  The midrash names him Turnusrufus HaRasha.  Tyranus Rufus the Wicked.  He governed Judah during the 120’s and early 130’s, CE, during the beginning of the Bar Kochba revolt.

A number of legends describe the confrontations between these two figures.  Usually, Akiva comes out on top after the Roman tries to lay a rhetorical trap for him. It was Tineius Rufus who ordered the execution of Rabbi Akiva, when he refused to obey the decree banning the teaching of Torah.  But in a reversal from one particularly dramatic tale, (BT Avodah Zarah 20a) Rufus’ wife divorces him, converts to Judaism, and then marries Akiva.

In this story (Genesis Rabbah 11:5), the wicked Turnus Rufus asks Rabbi Akiva: “Why does this day differ from all other days?”  [Sound familiar?]

Akiva has a quick comeback, “Why does this man differ from all other men?”

Tinneus Rufus is already confused.  “What did I ask you and what did you answer me?’  He does not understand his own question, much less Akiva’s response.

So Akiva breaks it down for him.  “You asked me, ‘why is the Sabbath different from all other days?’ and I answered you, ‘Why is Rufus different from all other men?'”

“That’s easy,” laughs the Roman proudly.  “The emperor wanted to honor him.”

Akiva responds.  “It’s the same with Shabbat.  The Holy One wished to honor it.”

Rufus is not going to be swayed so easily.  “Prove it!” he tells Akiva.  In other words, he is asking if there is anything at all that is different about the seventh day; in the physical or even in the metaphysical world.  It’s a good question.  The rabbis often put good questions which might border on being heretical in the mouths of Romans.

“Let the River Sambatyon prove it!” Akiva declares.  The Sambatyon is a mythical river, the location of which is unknown.  He continues, “The Sambatyon flows along, carrying stones in its current for the whole week, but on the Sabbath, it stops flowing, allowing the stones to rest.”  

Rufus will have none of that.  “You are avoiding the question.”

“Fine,” Akiva says.  “Then let this necromancer prove it.  For every day, he summons the dead to rise up from Gehenna, but not on the Sabbath.  Go check it out with your father.”

So Rufus goes to test Akiva’s theory.  He has his own father summoned from the grave.  Every single day, his father comes up, but when the Sabbath arrives, he is a no-show.  Just to be sure, Rufus summons his father again on the following day, Sunday.  His father’s spirit is there, right on time.

So Rufus asks him, “Father!  Are you suddenly shomer shabbos?! Did you become Jewish after you died?  Did you convert?  Why did you come every day of the week but not on the Sabbath?” 

The father explains.  “Those who do not rest on the sabbath of their own free will while they are alive are forced to observe it here, against their will.”

“But what work is there from which you need to rest?” his son asks.

“Every day we are subjected to judgment and punishment,” Rufus’ father responds.  “But on Shabbat we get a break.”

So Rufus returns to Akiva.  “If it is as you say, that the Holy One observes the Sabbath, then then let Him not cause the winds to blow on that day, or cause the rains to fall, or make the plants grow?” 

This, of course, is the real question.  The earth keeps spinning, the plants keep growing, paying no heed to the Sabbath.  If everything happens according to God’s will, why is there no evidence of the sabbath whatsoever in the natural world?  We are asked to rest on the seventh day, just as God rested on the seventh day.  So how come nature doesn’t get a break?

Here, Akiva gets frustrated, “Let this man’s breath depart from him,” he mutters.  Then he answers with a particularly legalistic explanation.

First, let me explain.  On the Sabbath, there is a prohibition against carrying things outside of one’s private domain.  You may have heard of an eruv.  It is a technical way of combining lots of individual private domains into one giant, shared private space.  This enables observant Jews to carry things outside of their homes on the sabbath.  

So Akiva says to Rufus, “The entire world is God’s private domain, therefore it is permissible for God to cause all of these things to continue on the sabbath.”

And that is the end of the midrash.

With no disrespect to Rabbi Akiva, this is not a particularly convincing answer.  Certainly not one that Rufus would accept, or even understand.  God moving the winds and making the rain fall is the equivalent of a person carrying an object around the yard?!  Come on.  To come up with this answer, Akiva has to utilize a loophole developed by the rabbis, a legal invention that is nowhere in the Torah.

What matters to Tineius Rufus?  The power that he wields over Akiva and other men.  The honor given to him by the King.  He is a nihilist.  There is nothing more than the power and honor that a person can grab in their lifetime.

Akiva struggles to explain that there is something deeper, something that can only be appreciated by acknowledging the power of something that cannot be seen.

If the seventh day arrives and there is nobody there to observe it, is it holy?

We ask the same question about all sorts of things, not just Shabbat.  Is there any inherent meaning to the particular rituals and practices of Judaism?

All of this is really about the sacredness of time.  I would argue that there is, in fact, no inherent holiness from one moment to the next.  It takes people to make time sacred.

This requires from us a leap of faith.  To treat time as sacred is to stand in awe of Creation; to be aware simultaneously of how small and insignificant we are are and of how special and blessed we are.

We embrace a day as holy, knowing full well that the selection of this particular day is arbitrary, that the concept of holiness itself has no physical reality whatsoever.  By embracing the holiness of the day anyways, we relinquish the power to make time sacred to something greater than us.

This is the paradox inherent in ritual.  Ritual is just a series of symbolic actions.  But those rituals have the capacity to free us and make our lives infinitely meaningful.  But only if we take a leap.

What are the rituals of Rosh Hashanah?  What are the stories that we tell about this day that express its holiness and give it meaning?

Hayom.  On this day, we celebrate God’s creation of the world.  Earth is one year older.  It is a party.  A time for joy.

On this day, we sound the shofar.  It rings like a trumpet, announcing the King’s enthronement.  The blast recalls God’s mercy in accepting a ram for sacrifice instead of Isaac.  It wakens us to teshuvah.  The cry of the shofar evokes our own cries as we realize our mistakes.

On this day, God, the King, stands in Judgment.  Our deeds from the past year are weighed, and our destiny for the year ahead is determined.  But we have within us the ability to avert the severity of the decree through our actions: repentance, prayer, and tzedakah.

From this day until Yom Kippur, we can appeal the verdict.  We hope to push God up from the seat of judgment to the seat of mercy.  We know that we are imperfect, but we try our best, and we believe that we can be better, that personal transformation can and does happen.

So to all of us, on this second day of Rosh Hashanah, the day on which God rested after six days of work, the 5,780th birthday of the world, may this year be filled with blessings.  May our lives be enriched by the love of our family, friends, and community.  May this be a year of personal growth as we engage in learning and in working on our midot, our characters.  May God grant us peace: here at home, in Israel, and around the world.  May we and our loved ones be blessed with health, and with strength to face the challenges that will inevitably come.  

L’Shanah Tovah Tikateivu v’Techatemu.  May we all be written and sealed for a good year.

The Head & Not The Tail, The Top & Not The Bottom – Ki Tavo 5779

Rosh Hashanah is coming, and with it, an entire menu of culinary treats.  Apples and honey.  Those are obvious.  The challah is round—to symbolize a crown; and filled with raisins—for a sweet new year.

But there is more.  The Talmud recommends a number of foods to eat on Rosh Hashanah, such as beans, leeks, beets, and dates.  The Aramaic names for each of these foods form puns.

For example, rubia—”beans,”sounds like yirbu—”increase”, as in “May our merits increase.”

Karti—”leeks”—sounds like yikartu—”cut off”.  Silkei—”beets”—sounds like yistalku—”removed”.  Tamrei—”dates”—sounds like yitamu—”finished”.  All three of these can be eaten as if to say, “May our enemies be cut off, removed, or finished.”  Take your pick.  Or eat all three.

Other foods have been added to the list.  Rimon—”pomegranate”—”May our mitzvot be as numerous as the seeds in the pomegranate.”  It also happens to be symbolic of fertility, so interpret that as you will.

But the best food to eat on Rosh Hashanah—actually, this is debatable—is the head of a sheep or fish.  Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg would eat the head of a ram, to symbolize the ram that was sacrificed instead of Isaac, which we read about on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.

Does anybody here follow this custom?  In my house, we buy gummy fish, cut them in half, and eat just the head.

What do we say when we eat the fish head?  Nih’yeh l’rosh, v’lo l’zanav.  “May we be like the head, and not like the tail.”

It is a strange expression, and it comes from this morning’s Torah portion.

In Parashat Ki Tavo, Moses describes a covenant ceremony that the Israelites will perform as soon as they cross over into the Promised Land, which they be doing without him.  As an entire nation, they renew their commitment to God.  During the ceremony, they recite a litany of blessings and curses which will befall the nation as a consequence of whether the people follow God’s commandments.

The blessings are what we might expect: Abundant rain in the right season.  Successful harvests.  Prosperity.  Victory against enemies.  The other nations of the earth will stand in awe of Israel.

Then, after these tangible blessings have been pronounced, there is one additional blessing that seems less specific.  Un’tanekha Adonai l’rosh v’lo l’zanav; v’hayita rak l’ma’alah v’lo tih’yeh l’mata.  “The Lord will make you the head, not the tail; you will always be at the top and never at the bottom…”  (Deut. 28:13)

The curses, beginning a few verses later, are the inverse of the blessings, and then some.  Included among the curses is the declaration that the stranger “…shall be the head and you shall be the tail.”  (28:44)

This is clearly where the Rosh Hashanah practice of eating the sheep or fish head comes from.  But what does it mean?

On its face, it seems fairly straightforward.  It is a metaphor for the economic and political success that Israel will experience if it behaves righteously.  Even today, we use the term “head” to refer to a leader, or the person at the top.  The “tail” is the follower. There is internal evidence in the Torah that the term refers specifically to being a creditor nation, rather than a debtor nation.

Mystical interpretations, however, identify hidden, spiritual meanings in the words of the Torah.  The Chassidic Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, author of the Torah commentary Kedushat Levi, suggests a deeper meaning.

He begins his commentary by asking why the Torah bothers to include the “tail” or the “bottom.”  Shouldn’t it have been enough to have said Un’tanekha Adonai l’rosh; v’hayita rak l’ma’alah—”The Lord will make you the head and you shall always be at the top”?  Adding “and not the tail,” and “never at the bottom” is superfluous.  And the Torah never wastes ink. Here is the hidden meaning.  Please bear with me.  This is kind of esoteric.

Reality, for human beings, is made up of three domains:  1.  The domain of abstract thought; 2.  The domain of speech; and 3.  The domain of action.  

Although Levi Yitzchak does not describe it this way, think about human consciousness.  Our experience of reality is no more than electrical signals passing between neurons in different parts of our brains.  For those electrical signals to be translated into awareness, what we might describe as thoughts or feelings, we need to perform an act of translation. My mind compares these patterns of electrical signals with my previous experiences of electrical signals.  At its most basic level, that is what language is.

I see a creature moving.  It has four legs, fur, and pointy ears.  It makes a noise.  My mind tells me, “this is a dog.”

Why doesn’t my mind say “cat?”  Not because I have seen this particular animal before, but because I have previous experiences with other creatures which have been defined as dogs. Language is the act of defining abstract experiences by comparing them with previous experiences.  Language also enables me to communicate my memory of those experiences to someone else.

After I have translated my abstract thoughts into language, I can then act.  I can manipulate the physical world around me.

We operate in all three domains at all times.  

The mystic sees the first domain, that of abstract thought, as the highest.  The essence of God lies somewhere beyond, but it is the closest a human being can become to God’s domain.  In Kabbalah, God’s essence is described as the Ein Sof, which literally means, “there is no end.”  Or, it cannot be defined.  God is completely abstract.  No word will capture God’s essence. The ultimate goal of the mystic is to attach oneself to God.  This can only be accomplished through the first domain, that of abstract thought.

Now we come back to the head and the tail, the top and the bottom.  Each of the three domains has a head and a tail.  A person who ascends to the head of a lower domain touches upon the tail of the next higher domain.  This is how Levi Yitzchak understands the Torah’s language of head and tail, top and bottom. When the Jewish people is at its best, it approaches the head of the highest domain, abstract thought, and is closest to God.

Let’s bring this back down to earth.  Through our actions, our speech, and our thought, each of us has the capacity to be better.  Actions, speech and thought are related.  As we improve one, we begin to improve the next.  

I work on my physical actions with the world around me: How I treat people, how I earn and spend my money, how I express compassion.  When I achieve success with my actions, it then leads to my speech.

My spiritual health is also about the words that come out of my mouth.  Controlling speech can be even more difficult than controlling behavior.  How hard is it to not gossip: to use language that builds people up rather than puts people down; to only read words online that make me grow?

When I purify my speech, that is when I can begin to purify my thoughts.

Moses describes the ultimate spiritual blessing:  “The Lord will make you the head, not the tail; you will always be at the top and never at the bottom…”  When the Israelites fulfill their covenantal obligations, they will achieve the closest possible relationship with God. Rabbi Levi says that this is not only a lesson for the nation, but for each of us.

As we approach the new year, we are taking stock.  It might be helpful to understand ourselves as being comprised of these three domains of thought, speech, and action.  The religious goal, indeed the human goal, is to improve on all three.

At the Rosh Hashanah meal, whether we eat a sheep’s head, a ram’s head, a salmon head, or a Swedish Fish head, may it symbolize for us that the year to come will be one in which we are the head, not the tail, and always at the top, never the bottom.”

Ki Teitzei 5779 – Don’t Promise Presents, Be In The Present

There is a common Hebrew expression: Bli neder, which means “without a vow.”  Bli Neder, I’ll pick you up tonight at 7.  Bli neder, I’ll bring the money that I owe you this Thursday.  Bli neder, I’ll have my High Holiday sermons done on time.

One of the laws in Parashat Ki Teitzei deals with nedarim, or vows.  A vow works likes this.  I’ve got something big coming up, and I feel like I am going to want God’s help.  Examples could include: the birth of a healthy child, victory in war, a successful business deal.

So I make a vow, promising to bring a specific gift to God.  It could be a sacrifice, or a donation of money, livestock, or grain to the Temple.  I might even vow to refrain from a particular activity, such as drinking wine or getting a haircut.

The Torah deals with the laws of vows in Parashat Ki Teitzei here in Deuteronomy as well as in an entire chapter at the end of the book of Numbers.  A number of Psalms express vows as well.

This morning’s parashah dedicates three verses to the topic.  The first verse warns that anyone who makes a vow had better fulfill it as quickly as possible.  No procrastinating, or else that person will incur guilt. The third verse emphasizes that any vow that crosses a person’s lips must be fulfilled.  The Torah provides no mechanism for nullifying a vow.

In between these two statements, the Torah provides a hint: “you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing.”  Wink. Wink. Note the double negative—no guilt if you don’t vow.  If we read into it a little deeper, the Torah is saying that since there is no obligation whatsoever for a person to make a vow, why would anyone put such a burden upon themselves?

Vows were apparently quite common in ancient times. There are several famous vows in the Bible.  The Judge Samson and the Prophet Samuel are both dedicated to a lifetime of service to God in fulfillment of vows made by their respective mothers. Thanks mom.

The Patriarch Jacob makes a vow in the book of Genesis when he is about to the leave the land of Canaan with nothing but the shirt on his back.  He declares that if God is with him, protecting him and eventually returning him home, then Jacob will be faithful to God and dedicate ten percent of his future earnings.

The most notorious vow in the Bible occurs in the book of Judges.  The Chieftain Yiftach, about to lead the Israelites in battle against the Ammonites, makes the following declaration to God:

“If You deliver the Ammonites into my hands, then whatever comes out the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s and shall be offered by me as a burnt offering.”

Yiftach, it can be assumed, is thinking it will be a goat or chicken.

God is with Yiftach, and he defeats his enemies.  When the warrior returns home, who should run out of the house, dancing with a timbrel in her hands to celebrate her father’s great victory but Yiftach’s daughter, his only child.  Yiftach is crushed, but his daughter understands the seriousness of the vow, and insists that her father fulfill it.

The Rabbis are aware of vows as well—and they don’t like them.  Drawing on our portion, the Rabbis invent ways to nullify vows.  They dedicate an entire Tractate of Talmud to the subject.

At one point, the Talmudic Sage Rav Dimi takes it a step further, declaring that anyone who makes a vow is a sinner, even if that person fulfills it. He proves it from Ki Teitzei.  The Torah states “you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing.”  The Torah implies, therefore, that ‘you do incur guilt if you don’t refrain from vowing.’

Oy.  So many double negatives.

What’s the big problem with a vow?  The medieval commentator, Nachmanides, does not mince words.  God takes no pleasure in fools who make lots of vows.  The problem, he explains, is that unexpected things get in the way of us fulfilling so many of our commitments.  When it comes to something as serious as a vow, saying “I meant to do it, but circumstances made it impossible…” is not good enough.  There are no excuses.

Building on this this, the nineteenth century commentator, Samson Raphael Hirsch, says that we have enough trouble with our actions in the present.  A vow adds extra obligations for some future time, when we have no idea what unexpected events may get in our way.  “We should rest content with directing [our] actions every moment of [our] present existence, living it as it should be lived.  Whatever we will be called upon to do in the future constitutes our duty then, without undertaking it in the form of a vow.”

In just under four weeks, we will gather together for Yom Kippur.  At the very beginning, before the holiday actually begins, we will chant Kol Nidrei.  In fact, we name the entire service Kol NidreiKol Nidrei means “All vows.” It is not a prayer, but rather a legal statement.  We declare that all vows, oaths, pledges, and so on that we make from this Yom Kippur and next Yom Kippur are officially annulled.  Nidrana la nidrei.  “Our vows are not vows.”

When Kol Nidrei first appeared in the 9th century, the Rabbis didn’t like it.  But it was too popular with people.

The idea behind Kol Nidrei is that words matter.  Life is unpredictable.  I can never know for certain that I am going to be able to fulfill in the future the commitment that I make today.  But I want to be able to start the new year with a clean slate.  Kol Nidrei enables me to do that, to not be held back by all of my failures.  

Better, as Hirsch, advises, to live my life in the present as it should be lived.  With integrity and honesty.

Shoftim 5779 – One Hand Has Not Spilled This Blood

Parashat Shoftim begins with justice.  It sets up the ideal of wise uncorruptible judges whose decisions are respected.  A society that does this, promises the opening of our parashah, will thrive on its land.

At the end of Parashat Shoftim, we are presented with a case about this limits of justice. The case is called the eglah arufah, “The Broken-Necked Heifer.”  Here is the scenario: a murdered body is found in the open, outside of city limits, and the killer cannot be identified.  Instead of filing it away as an unsolved mystery, respected elders from the area go out and measure the distance from the body to the surrounding towns.  Whichever settlement is nearest to where the body was found must then perform a ritual. The elders of the town take a heifer that has never been worked or carried a yoke.  They bring it outside the town to a nahal eitan, a wadi that flows year-round, on land that is not cultivated.  There, they break the neck of the heifer. Then, in front of priests from the tribe of Levi who have gathered especially for the occcasion, the elders of the town wash their hands in the water of the stream, and make a declaration:

Yadeinu lo shaf’khu et hadam hazeh, v’einayim lo ra’u—”Our hands did not spill this blood, nor did our eyes see it done.  Absolve, O Lord, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel.”

In so doing, they remove the bloodguilt.  In Hebrew, the expression is v’nikaper lahem hadam  That should sound familiar.  nikaper is from the same root as kaparah, which is the same as Yom Kippur.  It means atonement, and it refers to the washing away of sin that is attached to our souls.

This would seem to suggest that the inhabitants of the nearby town bear a certain degree of guilt.  Otherwise, what need would they have for atonement?

The Jerusalem Talmud offers two explanations, one from the Rabbis of the land of Israel, and the other from the Rabbis of Babylon.  In Israel, the Rabbis understand the ritual to be a reference to the murderer.  The elders declare: “the murderer never came through our town.  We never saw him.  He was not in our jail and we did not let him go free.”

The Rabbis of Babylonia suggest that the ritual refers to the victim.  “The victim never came through our town.  Otherwise, we would have surely taken care of him.  We would never have failed to offer him food, or ensure his safe passage.”

Both explanations involve the elders claiming that their communities are the kinds of communities that take responsibility for what happens in their town.  They do not allow criminals to walk the streets, and they do not neglect their obligations to take care of those who live on the margins.

In other words, they are saying, “we are fine, upstanding people.  People in our town do not do things like this.  We don’t let anyone slip through the cracks.  We didn’t do anything.  We didn’t see anything.”

This still does not solve the problem.  If they did everything they were supposed to do, why do they need atonement?

Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Bunim offers a creative explanation, suggesting that they may not be as innocent as they seem to claim. He points out a grammatical problem with one word in the declaration by the elders.  “Our hands did not spill this blood.”  yadeinu lo shaf’khu et hadam hazeh.

The problem is with the word shaf’khu, which is a verb meaning “spill.”  The Torah uses what the commentator Ibn Ezra describes as a really ancient spelling.  Instead of ending with a ו, it ends with a ה.  

שפכה

The vowels, according to the Masoretic text, are שָׁפְכֻה,
rendering the pronunciation shaf’khu.

If we read it like it is written in later Hebrew, it would say shaf’khah, which is singular, as in “our hand has not spilled this blood.”  Just one hand.  Not two. Why does this matter?

It is impossible for the elders to say, “everything we did, we did with both of our hands.”  Rather, they say, “What we did, we did with just one hand, because there will always remains some degree of guilt that we did not do enough.”

It’s such a clever insight on so many levels.  As human beings, we are self interested creatures.  We don’t like to admit guilt.  

A parent walks into the room and sees red crayon marks all over the walls.  She turns to her three year old, who is holding a red crayon, and asks, “Why are there red crayon marks on the wall?”

What does the three year old say?

“I didn’t do it.”

Our gut reaction is always to say “I didn’t do it.”

In the case of the eglah arufah, the crime has been committed nearby.  Suspicion naturally falls on those who are closest.  What is the declaration that they make? It’s the same as the three year old with a crayon.  “We didn’t do it.” But that does not mean that we don’t bear some responsibility.  We might not have been the ones who committed the murder, but can we really say that we were paying close enough attention to what was happening around us?

Did we take responsibility for our community—both by making sure it was safe, and by taking care of the people who needed help?  Did we open our eyes and take notice of the very individuals who tend to not get noticed? When tragedies occur, are those who claim to be innocent bystanders really innocent?

I was listening yesterday to a radio show on which people were calling in with reactions to the split verdict in the Ghost Ship fire.  People were rightfully angry about how such an unsafe situation could be allowed.  There was plenty of discussion about who should be held responsible, beyond just the two people who were put on trial. But of course, this is all after the fact—after 36 people died in a fire that should never have broken out.  But that is the way it goes with tragedies.  It is easy to cast blame after the fact.  

But maybe we should admit, as a society, that we never do everything we could have to build the kind of caring community that the Torah sets up as an ideal.

The Rabbis themselves acknowledge this.  In the second century, the Mishnah (Sotah 9:9) declares:  “When the murderers increased, the rite of the eglah arufah was abolished.”  The ritual itself became meaningless. Communities could not honestly claim that they had done everything that they could, or should have.

Parashat Shoftim begins with the ideal of justice.  It ends with a recognition of human imperfection.

Perhaps we should be honest enough to say, instead of “I didn’t do anything.  I didn’t see anything”  that “Maybe I looked the other way.  Perhaps I could have done more.”

That would be a great step for a society that strives to move towards justice.

Falling Into Prayer – Ekev 5779

At the end of Parashat Ekev, as Moses is exhorting the Israelites to remain faithful to God and the covenant, he makes a speech that may sound familiar:

וְהָיָ֗ה אִם־שָׁמֹ֤עַ תִשְׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־מִצְוֹתַ֔י אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י מְצַוֶּ֥ה אֶתְכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם לְאַהֲבָ֞ה אֶת־י-ְהוָֹ֤ה אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם֙ וּלְעָבְד֔וֹ בְּכָל־לְבַבְכֶ֖ם וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁכֶם:

“Now it shall be, if you listen to my commandments which I command to you today, to love the Lord your God, and to serve Him with all of your hearts and with all of your souls…”  (Deut. 11:13)

We know this passage as the second paragraph of the shema.  It is the one that we usually recite silently.  Notice that it is not the language of prayer at all.  It is Moses telling the Israelites to listen to and serve God.  If they do, they will be rewarded with abundance.

So how did it come to be included, not just in our prayers, but in the Shema, which serves as the central biblical passage of Jewish worship, the anchor of our service?

The answer is found in the Talmud (BT Ta’anit 2a).  The word avodah, meaning service, usually refers to the Temple rituals: Priests and Levites offering daily animal sacrifices. But here, Moses modifies the usual expression when he speaks to the Israelites: וּלְעָבְד֔וֹ בְּכָל־לְבַבְכֶ֖ם — “to serve Him with all of your hearts.”  He is not talking about Temple rituals and animal sacrifices.  The Talmud cites this phrase and then asks: Eizo hi avodah she-hi ba-lev?  What kind of service is performed in the heart? Hevei omer: zo tefilah.  You must say that this is referring to tefilah — prayer.

Maimonides summarizes the matter succinctly, as usual.  He declares that “It is a positive commandment to pray every day, as it says: and you shall serve the Lord your God”  (Ex. 23:25).  He then cites this passage in the Talmud to explain that the service in question is the service of the heart; that is to say, tefilah.

The Torah is silent regarding the specific content of our prayers.  Nowhere does it say that we need to recite these particular words that appear in the prayer book.  Our siddur is the product of human beings striving to express themselves to God.

So what is tefilah?  What is prayer?

There are a few examples of prayers in the Torah.  As it so happens, one of them appears earlier in this morning’s Torah portion.

As Moses continues his recounting of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness over the previous forty years, he comes to the episode of the Golden Calf. As you may recall, the Israelites encountered God at Mount Sinai.  That is when they received the Ten Commandments.  We read them in last week’s parashah.  The first two commandments are:  I am the Lord your God.  You shall have no other gods before Me.  And, Don’t worship idols.

Forty days later, there is a bit of confusion about when—or whether—Moses is coming back.  So what do the Israelites do?  The obvious thing: build a statue of a golden calf and start worshipping it.

For those keeping track, they have just broken commandment numbers one and two.  Not a good start.  It sure didn’t take them long, did it?

Now, Moses has to intercede on the people’s behalf to prevent God from annihilating them.  He describes what happened in his own words:  וָאֶתְנַפַּל֩ לִפְנֵ֨י יְהֹוָ֜ה — “I threw myself down before the Lord like the first time; forty days and forty nights, bread I did not eat, and wine I did not drink, on account of all your sins that you committed…”  

The Torah likes to the play with language.  It is full of puns and patterns.  Hebrew is built on three letter root words.  Most verbs, nouns, and adjectives are constructed by manipulating those three letters in various ways.  In this case, the root for אֶתְנַפַּל is נפל, which in english means “fall.”  אֶתְנַפַּל makes it reflexive and forceful – I threw myself down.  

While נפל is a pretty common root word in the Bible, אֶתְנַפַּל is not.  Moses did not just fall to the ground.  He threw himself to the ground.  But there is more.  God was also furious with Aaron for his role in constructing the Golden Calf.  Moses again describes his courageous actions: וָאֶתְפַּלֵּ֛ל גַּם־בְּעַ֥ד אַהֲרֹ֖ן  — “Then I prayed on behalf of Aaron…”

Here, the word is אֶתְפַּלֵּל.  Sounds a lot like אֶתְנַפַּל.  But with one letter different.  Instead of נפל, the root is פלל, which in English means “intercede” or “pray.”

A few verses later, Moses recites the actual prayer that he had used to intercede for the Israelites and for Aaron.  Again, he pairs the words אֶתְנַפַּל and אֶתְפַּלֵּל.  “When I threw myself before the Lord… because the Lord was determined to destroy you, I interceded to the Lord and said…” and so on.

The Torah, very deliberately, juxtaposes these two nearly identical words to tell us that there is a connection between praying and throwing oneself on the ground.

It is clear, from this and other passages, that tefilah involves directing one’s words to God.   Looking at the various prayers that appear in the Bible, they tend to involve consistent themes.  The worshipper praises God, reflecting on God’s power and might.  Usually God is addressed as compassionate and forgiving.  Those are the qualities the worshipper is hoping to awaken.  After praise comes request.  The worshipper asks for something: a child, healing, mercy, victory.

In this passage, Moses asks God to have mercy on the Israelites and Aaron and forego the plan to destroy them.  But with the added element that he physically throws himself on the ground.

What does throwing oneself on the ground mean?  It is the most extreme form of bowing: full prostration, which nowadays we only perform during the High Holidays. It is a physical expression of humility: to lower oneself as close to the ground as possible.  It would certainly convey that message to the recipient of the prayer.

Think also about the effect that it would have on the worshipper.  How is the meaning of Moses’ words enhanced by him saying them with his face in the dirt, as opposed to if he had been standing tall?

To really pray, we have to first become aware that we are, in fact, powerless before our Creator.  The true act of service of the heart, real prayer, can only come from a position of losing oneself, of putting everything on the line, honestly and openly.  

Moses’ throwing himself on the ground is his way of praying with his whole self.  Literally, his entire body.  His physical posture contributes to his emotional state.  Ironic that, in order to most fully serve God with his heart, he has to also use his body.