One Prince Per Day, One Prince Per Day – Naso 5779

Frans de Waal, the famous primatologist, conducted an experiment which, if you have not seen footage of, you should.

Two Capuchin monkeys are placed in cages, side by side.  They are trained to perform a task in order to receive food.  A monkey gets a small pebble, gives it to the researcher through a hole in the cage, and in return, gets a piece of cucumber.  The two monkeys quickly learn the deal, and quite happily trade pebbles for cucumbers.

Then, a change is introduced.  One of the monkeys, instead of being given a piece of cucumber, receives a grape.  Grapes are way better than cucumbers, I am sure you will agree.

So monkey A gives the researcher a pebble, and gets a cucumber.  Monkey B gives the researcher a pebble, and gets a grape.  Monkey A is intrigued.  “They are giving out grapes now,” she thinks to herself “I want a grape.” So she quickly grabs another pebble and gives it to the researcher—who gives her a cucumber.  She starts to put it in her mouth. Monkey B, meanwhile, gives another pebble—and gets a grape.

At this point, Monkey A takes the cucumber out of her mouth and throws it at the researcher.

Monkey B gives another pebble—and gets another grape.  Monkey A tries again, frantically—and gets a cucumber, which she immediately throws at the researcher.  She then grabs the bars of the cage and starts shaking them in rage, screaming.

At the beginning of the experiment, Monkey A was perfectly happy with cucumbers.  But as soon as she realizes that her neighbor is getting something better, what was once fine becomes unacceptable.  Her happiness is not based on any internal measure.  It depends solely on how much she has relative to Monkey B.

Are human beings any different?  Do we measure happiness on our own, internal barometer, or does our happiness depend on comparing how much we have to how much we think other people have?  We’ll leave that as an open question.

The Torah repeatedly expresses its concern for extreme economic imbalances in society.  We see this in many of the Torah’s laws pertaining to agriculture and tzedakah. A related theme is the inherently competitive nature of human beings.  We see this as far back as the story of Cain and Abel, in which jealousy between siblings leads to the first murder.

We can only experience true happiness when we eliminate the temptations to be jealous of those with more or to dominate those with less.  This is a subtle message in this morning’s Torah portion.

The end of parashat Naso describes the offerings that are brought by chieftains from each of the twelve tribes.  The Mishkan, or Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary that the Israelites have just completed building, is ready.  Moses has anointed and sanctified it.  There is one final step to be taken before it can be used.  Chieftains from each of the 12 tribes must bring offerings for the Tabernacle’s dedication.  Chanukat HaMizbeach, as it is called.

First, the Chieftains collaborate on a gift of 6 carts with 12 oxen to pull them.  The give them to two of the three Levite clans whose job is to disassemble and carry the Tabernacle through the wilderness. As for their offerings, which are all identical, the chieftains collectively bring: 12 silver bowls weighing 130 shekels each, 12 silver basins weighing 70 shekels each, and 12 gold ladles weighing 10 shekels each, filled with incense. Altogether, that comes to about 63 pounds of silver, worth just over $15,000 at current prices.  The gold would be worth over $68,000. As for livestock, the Chieftains bring the following animals for sacrifices: 36 bulls, 36 rams, 60 he-goats, and 72 yearling lambs.  I’m not sure what those would be worth at a cattle auction—but it is safe to assume that it would be more than the gold and silver.  

In other words, this is a substantial gift.

All of this occurs in the longest chapter in the Torah: 89 verses.  And it is super repetitive.  Our text does not just give us the executive summary.  It details the individual gifts of each chieftain, 12 times in a row. This is not sloppy editing.  The detail and the repetition is quite deliberate.

When the Chieftains bring forward their offerings, it seems that Moses is confused about how he is to accept them.  So God tells him.

וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה נָשִׂיא אֶחָד לַיּוֹם נָשִׂיא אֶחָד לַיּוֹם יַקְרִיבוּ אֶת־קָרְבָּנָם לַחֲנֻכַּת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ׃

The Lord said to Moses: One prince per day, one prince per day—they shall offer their offerings for the dedication of the altar.

Numbers 7:11

נָשִׂיא אֶחָד לַיּוֹם – “One prince per day.”  God repeats this expression to Moses.  We must assume that it is an important detail.  Important enough to turn chapter 7 into the longest in the Torah, and Naso into the longest Parashah of the year.

The 12th century French commentary, Bechor Shor, explains that the Torah could have easily listed one day’s gift, and then summarized the rest by saying something along the lines of “and each of the other princes brought the same gift for the following eleven days.”  The purpose of repeating the detail is to accord honor to each of the princes, equally.  None of the gifts is any more special than the others.

Other commentaries are concerned that, despite getting equal ink time, the Princes will still compete with one another over position and power.  Specifically, what to do about the guy who goes first? That lucky guy is Nachshon, from the tribe of Judah.  This is no coincidence.  Judah will become the dominant tribe in Israel.  King David will one day be born into the tribe of Judah. (Numbers Rabbah 13:8)

Nachshon, destined for greatness, might decide to lord it over the others, saying, “I’m more special than you, since I get to go first.”  After his special day, he might decide to crash the days for the other Princes. So God emphasizes through repetition, Nasi echad layom, nasi echad layom.  One prince per day.  One prince per day.  “No Nachshon.  Stay in your lane.”  (Chizkuni)

That is why, of the 12 times that the offerings are repeated, there is a subtle distinction made for Nachshon.  For all of the other gifts, the text says korbano, “his gift.”  For Nachshon, it adds a single letter, v’korbano.  “And his gift.”

Usually, when we use the word “and,” it is because we want to add something to a list that we have already started.  “Grapes and cucumbers.” So it is strange that the Torah uses “and” for the first offering, and leaves it out for all of the others.  That is like saying “and grapes cucumbers.”

According to the midrash, this premature “and” sends the subtle message that while Nachshon may get to go first—someone has to, after all—his gift could just as well have followed any of the other eleven.

Removing the temptation for competition allows the entire nation, the Princes, and even Nachshon, to celebrate wholeheartedly on each of the twelve days, without feelings of jealousy or inadequacy.  They can experience true happiness.

Remember the Capuchin monkey experiment?  The surprise is that Monkey B, seeing the distress of her cell mate, sometimes stops accepting the grapes as well.  Perceived unfairness diminishes her happiness, even though she is the one who is better off. Can we say the same about ourselves?

The Kipah Belongs to Germany – Bechukoti 5779

I have worn a kippah for most of my teenage and adult life.  I started at the end of my sophomore year in public high school and, except for a few interludes, I have worn it ever since. Whenever I speak to non-Jewish groups about Judaism, someone inevitably asks about it.  I respond with a standard spiel.  It goes like this:

I stand five feet, five and a half inches tall.  Most of the time, however, I go about my daily business acting as if I am the center of the universe.  This is true for most of us.  We tend to be pretty self-centered. By wearing a kipah, I remind myself that my existence ends at exactly five feet, five and a half inches from the ground.  In fact, there is an entire universe above and around me, and a Creator of that universe Who places demands upon me.  A kipah should remind me to act accordingly, with humility.

In addition, wearing a kipah in public identifies me very clearly as a Jew.  That means that my actions in the world do not just reflect on me.  They reflect on the Jewish people, Judaism, the Torah, and God.  If I am paying proper attention, that awareness should affect my behavior. If I do something positive in public, it reflects positively on Judaism.  On the other hand, if I do something improper, it reflects negatively on the Jewish people.  Wearing a kipah raises the stakes on my actions and helps me to be a better person.

The word kipah means a “domed cover.”  A human head is roughly dome-shaped.  Anything that covers it, therefore, qualifies as a kipah.  The word yarmulke, by the way, is Yiddish.  The best explanation that I have heard about its meaning is that it is a contraction of the Armaic words Yirei Malka, which means “Those who fear the King.”

That is my spiel.

I have always felt safe wearing a kippah in San Jose.  Never once has anyone said anything inappropriate about it to me, which is reassuring.  

The kipah has been in the news this past week because of a recent comment by the Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Anti-Semitism, Dr. Felix Klein.  It is a new position, having been created by the Bundestag last year over concerns of growing anti-semitism in Germany. In an interview published last Friday, Dr. Klein, who is not Jewish, said, “I cannot advise Jews to wear the kippah everywhere all the time in Germany.”  He added that he had “changed his mind (on the subject) compared to previously.”  He went on to describe the need to educate police officers, teachers, and officials about the nature of antisemitism and its dangers.

What happened next is what seems to happen a lot these days.  Everybody went nuts and took his comment out of context. The Jerusalem Posts’s headline was German Antisemitism Officer: Don’t Wear Kippot in Public.

That’s not what he actually said.  He pointed out that there are some places in Germany where it is not safe to be visibly identifiable as Jewish.  We already know this.  When I was traveling in Europe a few years ago, I did not wear my kippah for the same reason.

The fact that Dr. Klein’s government position exists is proof that the German government recognizes the rise in anti-semitism in Europe, and specifically in Germany, and is trying to take it seriously.

Parashat Bechukotai features one of two great tokhehkhot, rebukes, in the Torah.  They are presented as blessings and curses which are conditional to our faithfulness to the God’s mitzvot.

But more than just a carrot and stick, these blessings and curses tell a story of rising, falling, and rising again.  We start with blessings.  All the good stuff an ancient Israelites would want.  Rain in the right amounts at the right time, strength, peace, abundance.  The curses are the inverse of the blessings, although they are presented in much more grisly detail.

The story continues.  The land itself kicks us out and we are sent into exile, where those of us who manage to survive continue to suffer persecution under the oppression of our enemies.  We look back with nostalgia and regret for what we have lost, and the mistakes we have made.

But God does not forget, and the covenant remains in effect.  There will come a time when God will remember and restore us.

Yet, even then, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or spurn them so as to destroy them, annulling My covenant with them: for I the Lord am their God. 

Leviticus 26:44

Already in the days of the Talmud, our Sages recognized the rising and falling cycle of Jewish history.  A baraitta interprets this verse as referring to God sending messengers to save the Jewish people from their under various oppressive regimes: Babylonia, Greece, Persia, and the Romans.

Our collective fate will continue to rise and fall.  But there is hope for the future.  Looking ahead, “I am the Lord your God,” predicts a time when no nation will be able to subjugate us.

We are a stubborn people.  For all of the mistakes and imperfections, we have remained faithful to our history and our covenant for thousands of years.  God is as stubborn as we are.  In the meantime, history continues in cyclical fashion.  We are now witnessing rising levels of antisemitism.  And it makes no sense.

Right wing antisemites attack Jews for being too liberal, allowing foreigners to infiltrate the country.  Left wing antisemites attack Jews for being racsists and declare Zionism to be white supremacy.  In Germany, the neo-Nazi party called The Right, endorses BDS, which is typically associated with the far left. The one thing that unites antisemites is that, whatever they think is wrong with the world, they all agree that it’s our (the Jews’) fault.

Reuven Rivlin, the President of Israel, issued this statement: “We acknowledge and appreciate the moral position of the German government, and its commitment to the Jewish community that lives there, but fears about the security of German Jews are a capitulation to anti-Semitism and an admission that, again, Jews are not safe on German soil.” 

Unfortunately, he is correct.  Anti-semitism is rising in Germany.  In 2018, there were 1,646 anti-Semitic crimes in Germany, which represented an increase of 10% over the previous year.  90% of those were classified as coming from neo-Nazi groups.  Anti-semitic crimes committed by Muslims in Germany are also rising.

Where will things go from here?  For better or worse, Dr. Klein’s provocative comment last week has created dialogue.  A few days later, he walked back his statement and issued this declaration:  “I call on all citizens in Berlin and everywhere in Germany to wear the kippa on Saturday, when people will agitate unbearably against Israel and against Jews on Al-Quds Day”

Al-Quds Day, was established by the Iranian government to coincide with the end of Ramadan.  Al-Quds is the Arabic word for Jerusalem.  It generally features parades with lots of Hezbollah flags and speakers demanding the destruction of Israel.  This year, German politicians are calling for large counter protests to oppose the hate-filled antisemitic demonstrations.

The Bild, Germany’s top-selling daily newspaper, put a make-your-own kippah on its front cover on Monday and published a front page commentary titled, The Kippah belongs to Germany.  Thanks to Miriam Leiseroff for translating the article from German, which I’d like to read in full.

Actually, we must be eternally grateful that Jewish life flourishes in Germany again.  We must resolutely defend what may be considered a historical miracle and gift to our country.

But the reality looks different and is expressed in the appalling (and unfortunately correct) warning of the Antisemitism Commissioner, who discouraged Jews from wearing a kippah all over the country.

Anyone who is a Jew still must hide this fact after seven decades since the Holocaust in order to be safe anywhere in Germany.

To this we have only one answer:  No, this cannot be!  If it is so and if it stays so, we fail before our own history.

Therefore the newspaper BILD is printing a kippah to cut out.  Assemble, dear reader, this Kippah.  Wear it so your friends and neighbors can see it.  Explain to your children what a Kippah is.  Post a photo with a Kippah on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.  Go out on to the street with your Kippah.

If only one person in our country cannot wear a Kippah without endangering himself, the answer can only be for all of us to wear a Kippah.

The Kippah belongs to Germany!  Die Kippa gehört zu Deutschland!

https://www.bild.de/politik/kolumnen/kolumne/kommentar-die-kippa-gehoert-zu-deutschland-62202206.bild.html

Actually, the kippah belongs to us.  But we can certainly appreciate the sentiment, and the support.  I cut out one of the kippot and made one for myself, which I am proud to wear.

We are blessed to live in safety, in a place where Judaism thrives openly.  May it continue to be so.  And may our brothers and sisters in Germany and around the world experience a day, soon, when it is possible to openly and proudly wear a kippah anywhere and everywhere.

Breaking the Downward Spiral – Behar 5779

We constantly hear about the tremendous disparities in wealth between the ultra rich and everyone else.  Just this morning, the front page article in the Mercury News reported that Elon Musk received $2.29 billion(!) in compensation in 2018.  

Parashat Behar presents an economic system that recognizes the inevitability of wealth disparities, but strives to prevent those disparities from becoming locked in across generations.  In the course of prescribing economic resets every fifty years, the Yovel system abolishes the enslavement of Israelites by their fellow Israelites.

Underlying the concept of the Yovel is God’s ownership of the land.  Humans are entitled to settle and work the land, but at no point are we to be considered its owners.  At the time of the Israelites’ settlement of Canaan, the land was apportioned among the tribes, and further subdivided according to clans and families.  This allotment is meant to be eternal.

A farmer who possesses a field owns the produce that the field yields, but not the field itself.  The Yovel, or Jubilee, occurs every fifty years.  The entire land remains fallow, like in a sabbatical year.  In addition, all land returns to the original owners or their descendants.

The Yovel system recognizes that some landholders will be successful, while others will fail.  In three stages, it describes the gradual descent into poverty of a farmer who is not so fortunate. (Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus: A Continental Commentary.)

In the first stage (25:25-28), a farmer has a bad year and does not have enough money to purchase seed to plant on his land.  He takes out a loan.  Then the crop fails, and he finds himself unable to pay his debt.  He sells part of his land for the estimated value of the number of harvests from now until the Yovel year.  In effect, he has leased the land. If his luck turns around, however, he retains the right to repurchase the land at any time.  Not only that, but his closest relative has an obligation, if he can afford it, to redeem the land so as to keep it in the family to which it was originally apportioned.

In stage two (25:35-38), the farmer has not been able to redeem it, and his crops have failed on his remaining land.  He takes out another loan to pay for seed, and he defaults again.  He now must turn over all of his remaining land to the creditor who owns his debt.  But, he gets to remain on the land as a tenant farmer.  The new owner lends him seed to work the land, and he pays off his debt using proceeds from the harvest.  The creditor is not allowed to charge any interest for the loan.  If the farmer succeeds in paying off the loan, he gets his land back.  If not, it reverts to him anyways in the fiftieth year.

In stage three (25:39-43), things are even worse for the farmer.  His crops have continued to fail and he can no longer feed himself and his family.  In this case, he enters the his creditor’s household as an employee.  He is no longer entitled to any of the profits from the land. But he is not a slave.  The creditor must pay him wages, which the farmer uses to repay his debts.  In the fiftieth year, he goes free and gets his land back.  The creditor is not allowed to treat the farmer like a slave, and is forbidden from mistreating him.

This story of a farmer’s financial decline is quite sophisticated.  It depicts a downward economic spiral in which his options gradually narrow due to increasing poverty and debt. This model of the economic downward spiral has not changed much over the past three thousand years, on both the personal, and macroeconomic level.  When an individual or a nation becomes impoverished, or as is often the case, starts out impoverished, it is almost impossible to rise.

What is unique in the Yovel system, however, is that the farmer retains inalienable rights throughout his decline.  He can repurchase the land at any time.  He does not pay interest on his loans.  He goes free in the fiftieth year.  The Yovel system recognizes that we cannot prevent a person from experiencing bad fortune, whether deserved or not.  But we can have a society and an economy that does everything possible to rehabilitate that person.

The Yovel was not a pipe dream utopia.  It was written to be implemented.  It should come as no surprise to learn that it was never successfully put into practice.  It is a timeless, universal principle that those who have wealth will always resist efforts by others to take it away from them.

That is why we find the prophets constantly complaining about the gross economic inequalities in Israelite society and the crushing burden of debt on those who are least able to handle it. The Book of Proverbs astutely observes that “The rich rule the poor, and a borrower is a slave to a lender.”  (Pr. 22:7)  It is as true now as it has always been.

But there are some positive developments taking place that are attempting to break the downward spiral. One of the ostensible purposes of the criminal justice system is the rehabilitation of those who have broken the law.  At all levels, we are terrible at it.  Recidivism rates, the likelihood that someone released from prison will return, are over 60%, which is unacceptably high.  There are many factors.

One important correlation is that prisoners who are able to gain employment after release are less likely to commit crimes in the future.  But of course, the stigma associated with being a former criminal makes it extremely difficult to get a job.  Thus, the downward spiral continues. with no Yovel to break the cycle.

The bipartisan First Step Act, which the President signed into law in December, aims to address this problem by creating more incentives for prisoners to undergo job training while in prison so that they will be better prepared to enter the work force right away.  Time will tell if it will make a difference.

Another increasing problem is the student debt crisis.  Americans owe more than $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, a number which has risen disproportionately over the past decade.

A person who is saddled by debt before even entering the work force is going to have a much harder time getting ahead than one who is not.  A young adult who graduates with debt delays achieving life milestones like getting married, having children, and purchasing a home.  The pressure of debt limits the choices and risks that a person can take.

Last week, billionaire investor Robert F. Smith made a surprise gift to the graduating class of Morehouse College, a historically black men’s liberal arts college in Atlanta.  “We’re going to put a little fuel in your bus,” he pledged as he announced that he would pay off the student loans of this year’s entire graduating class.

This is especially significant because African American college students graduate with greater amounts of student debt than any other group.  In addition, over the course of a career, an African American worker with a college degree can expect to earn close to a million dollars less than his or her white counterpart. 

In making his generous gift, Robert F. Smith is betting that these graduates will have an easier time getting started on their careers, and will, over the long run, achieve greater success and contribute more to the economy and their communities, and will be able to pass along more opportunities to their children in the next generation.

These two developments, which remove barriers to getting ahead, will make a difference in  thousands of lives.  One is a change in government policy that aims to break the cycle of crime.  The other is an inspired action by a private citizen to give a push forward to an entire class of new graduates. But there is so much more that could be done at every level to relieve the pressures that hold people back.

The Yovel‘s system of wealth redistribution would have significantly flattened the wealth disparities between the well off and the struggling, and would have ended multi-generational poverty.

It didn’t work.

But it does inspire us with a vision of how to treat each other with dignity, how to remove barriers that prevent people from succeeding, and how to break the downward spiral of debt and poverty.

Don’t Cut Off the Species (Human or Otherwise) – Emor 5779

In 1598, Dutch sailors landed on the Island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.  There, they discovered a creature that no human being had ever before seen.  They named the bird the Dodo.  Poor bird.  With such a name, you know it was doomed from the start.

The Dodo was not particularly fast, and it was incapable of flying.  Apparently, it was also rather tasty.  A hungry sailor, without much difficulty, could easily catch a Dodo and roast it up nice and juicy. Imported animals like pigs, dogs, and rats found that Dodo eggs made for a scrumptious snack, and were easy to steal out of the nest.

Within a few decades, the Dodo was no more.  It has since become the most famous extinct animal on the planet.  I suspect it might have something to do with the name.

It serves as a cautionary tale.  The Dodo’s range was limited to the small island of Mauritius, so it literally had nowhere else to go.  Human greed, lack of compassion, and absence of foresight led to the disappearance of this strange bird.

There are categories of Jewish law that address these character deficiencies.  The laws of Bal Tashchit prohibit us from using up resources wastefully.  Tza’ar ba’alei chayim, means the “suffering of living creatures,” and refers to commandments protecting animals from unnecessary suffering. These and other areas of Jewish law have their roots in the Torah.  One of the important sources of Jewish law regulating how we treat animals appears in this morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Emor.

Most of the parashah focuses on rules for the priests.  After describing special privileges as well as limitations on their behavior, God gives Moses instructions pertaining to animals that are brought by Israelites as sacrifices.  In the midst of these regulations, we read the following commandment:

וְשׁ֖וֹר אוֹ־שֶׂ֑ה אֹת֣וֹ וְאֶת־בְּנ֔וֹ לֹ֥א תִשְׁחֲט֖וּ בְּי֥וֹם אֶחָֽד׃

No animal from the herd or from the flock shall be slaughtered on the same day with its young.  (Lev. 22:28)

This verse seems fairly straightforward.  Most commentators connect this passage to another passage from the book of Deuteronomy.

If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young.  Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life.  (Deut: 22:6-7)

Both passages address the relationship between an animal and its offspring.  In this morning’s parashah, the focus is on herd and flock animals.  In Deuteronomy, the focus is on bird eggs or fledglings that one may find in a nest.  For both commandments, the Torah offers no explanation or rationale.

Maimonides, the great medieval Rabbi, physician, and community leader, sees in these commandments a lesson about compassion.  He focuses on the emotional pain of the mother.

“There is no difference in this case between the pain of man and the pain of other living beings,” he writes, “since the love and tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reasoning, but by imagination, and this faculty exists not only in man but in most living beings. If the Torah provides that such grief should not be caused to cattle or birds, how much more careful must we be to not cause grief to our fellow men.”  (Guide for the Perplexed III:48)

In other words, the Torah commands us to consider the emotional suffering of all living creatures.  Even though we are permitted to consume meat, we still must be concerned with the suffering of animals.  It is noteworthy that he does not hold that we should be merciful towards animals exclusively for their own sake.  Maimonides is ultimately concerned with the cultivation of character.  Compassion for animals is important because it conditions us to be compassionate towards our fellow human beings.

Nachmanides, living shortly after Maimonides, has great respect for his predecessor.  He quotes him often, although usually it is to disagree with his explanations. Nachmanides claims that both commandments are meant to discourage us from having a cruel and unforgiving heart.

Then he continues.  Even though we are permitted to eat meat, provided that we slaughter the animal correctly, the Torah does not permit us to be so destructive as to destroy the species.  When a person kills the mother and her offspring on the same day, or takes the eggs or fledglings without first sending away the mother bird, it is as if that person has cut off the entire species.  (Nachmanides on Deut. 22:7)

What a radical statement!  Slaughtering two generations of an animal on the same day, from a symbolic standpoint, is like eradicating the species.

I am pretty sure that the concept of species eradication was not on people’s minds in thirteenth century Spain.  For Nachmanides to bring it up is surprising.

Like Maimonides, Nachmanides is still mainly focused on the harmful effects that such a destructive action has on a person’s character.  If God was truly concerned with animals, why would we be allowed to eat them in the first place, and why would God have commanded that we offer them as sacrifices?  The Torah’s concern with animal suffering, or with species extinction, is ultimately about the harmful impact that such callous behavior has on the human soul. Nevertheless, Nachmanides seems to be aware that species extinction is a problem, and that human beings have an important role as caretakers of the earth which, after all, belongs to God.

Today, we are very much aware that species can become extinct through human carelessness and callousness – and not just symbolically.  Just look at the Dodo.

Two weeks ago, the United Nations issued a chilling report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.  It was the most comprehensive study of its kind.  Species are now going extinct at a rate between 10 and 100 times greater than the average over the past 10 million years, and the rate is increasing.  Out of the approximately 8 million species of plants and animals on earth, one million are at risk of extinction in the coming decades as a direct result of humanity’s impact on the planet.  

The report pointed to five primary ways that human activity has produced these deteriorations in ecosystems.  They are, starting with the greatest impact: (1) changes in land and sea use; (2) direct exploitation of organisms; (3) climate change; (4) pollution and (5) invasive alien species.

The Chair of the committee, Sir Robert Watson, warned: “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever.  We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

In other words, if we take a human-centered approach (like Maimonides and Nachmanides), the harm that we have caused to the global environment puts humanity at risk.

He goes on to say that all hope is not gone  “…it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global…  Through ‘transformative change’, nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably – this is also key to meeting most other global goals.  By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”

We have a lot of work to do.

Jewish law does not typically make broad, sweeping pronouncements upon entire industries.  It does not prescribe government regulations, nor does it make specific pronouncements about how to balance economic growth with sustainability.  

Jewish law tends to focus on the specific case before the individual.  It is concerned with the measurable impacts of a person’s behavior.  But Judaism does have something to say more generally about our relationship to the Earth, and our responsibility to the living things that call it home.

Nachmanides looked at the Torah’s prohibitions against slaughtering two generations of animals on the same day, and declared it to be the symbolic equivalent to species extinction.  

What would he say about the ways in which we consume the planet’s bounties today?  Or about the impact that human expansion has on waterways and forests?  Or how the pollution that is dumped into the air, water and ground when resources are extracted threatens the survival of indigenous plants and animals?

He might say that it comes down to how each of us consumes the resources of our planet.  We know that the impact of human progress extends way beyond what we see right in front of us.  We also know that the risk of species extinction is not merely symbolic.  We should not pretend otherwise.  We cannot bury our heads in the sand.

Psalms declares “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell within it.”  With the knowledge that we now have, can we say that our behavior, as a species, honors this sentiment?

What would it look like to live in a global society that honored the earth as belonging to God, and recognized that we are one of millions of species that depend on it to thrive?

Wouldn’t it be nice to know.

Acharei Mot 5779 – Dispel the Darkness

This morning’s Torah portion has kind of a dark title.  Acharei Mot means “after the death.”

“The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord.”

Following are detailed instructions of the ritual of atonement that Aaron and future High Priests are to perform on Yom Kippur.  The purpose of these rituals is to purify the Tabernacle, and later the Sanctuary, which becomes stained with ritual pollution during the preceding year.  

As the nexus between heaven and earth, the place where the Shechinah, God’s Presence, comes to dwell amidst the people, this is especially important.  The Shechinah is not able to remain in a polluted shrine.  The rituals we read about this morning serve to cleanse it of its impurities.

Why do these instructions that Aaron receives need to be preceded by a reference to the deaths of his sons, Nadav and Avihu?

Perhaps it is meant as a warning.  Entering the Holy of Holies, the most sacred precinct, is a potentially dangerous endeavor.  Only the High Priest is permitted to do it.  And he has to be extremely careful.  One mistake can result in death.

The mention of Nadav and Avihu is meant to serve as a warning that the risk is real.  The task of the High Priest is so great, that he needed to approach it with the utmost respect and care.

But that was then.  We take this warning figuratively today.  When we enter the synagogue, we bring our whole selves.  We come with respect and care, just like the High Priest.  Prayer in synagogue is a confrontation with our own mortality – symbolically, not literally.

A synagogue, just like a Church, a Mosque, or a Temple, is supposed to be a place of peace.  A place that is open to all, where worshippers are safe to enter.  Because it is only when we feel a sense of safety and security that we can really allow ourselves to be vulnerable.  To pour out our gratitude, our fears, our happiness, and our sadness before our Creator.

Last week, during Shabbat services, right before the Yizkor memorial service on the eighth day of Passover, the prayers of our brothers and sisters at the Chabad of Poway were interrupted with bullets.  

We mourn the death of Lori Gilbert-Kaye, may her memory be a blessing.  She was murdered as she used her body as a shield to protect Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, enabling him to evacuate children to safety.  Rabbi Goldstein was shot in the hand, losing a finger.  Almog Peretz was shot in the leg.  Noya Dahan, an eight year old girl, was injured by shrapnel.

This attack occurred six months to the day after thirteen worshippers were murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

It is sickening.  As Jews, an attack in a synagogue hits especially close to home, making us feel unsafe in our own house of worship.  But it is just as sickening as the murder of Muslim worshippers at a mosque in Christchurch and Christian worshippers at churches in Sri Lanka.

I resist the temptation to say “Where were you God?”  The evidence would suggest that it is not in God’s nature to prevent such things.  This hatred and violence is a human disease.

We observed Yom HaShoah this week, Holocaust Remembrance Day.  We know all too well about the evils humans are capable of.  Sadly, there have been other times in our history when our houses of worship were not places of refuge.

The part that is so frustrating is that the vast, vast majority of people are kind, generous, and compassionate (or at the very least: nonviolent).  We were all greeted this morning by friends from our interfaith community who came to express their love and support for us.  How moving it was to be reassured that, although we may have different rituals, we share the same values of peace and freedom.

It is such an exceedingly small number who are prepared to act out their hatred.  The nature of terror is that it seeks to create irrational fear that is disproportionate to the threat.

What do we do now?  Do we allow a few extremists paralyze us, to prevent us from living?  We cannot.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, who lived in far more precarious times, famously said: Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od.  V’ha’ikar lo lefached k’lal.  The whole world is a very narrow bridge.  And the main principle is not be afraid at all.

Here at Sinai, we take safety seriously.  We have taken many concrete actions over the years, and continue to do more, to make sure that this will continue to be a house of peace.  A place where we can be vulnerable spiritually and emotionally… not physically.

Our response must be to continue to live, to sing and dance, to be together.  We must not be afraid at all.  That is the true act of faith.

Minutes after being shot, Rabbi Goldstein stood up on a chair and addressed his congregation.  “Am Yisrael Chai!” he declared.  “The people of Israel live!”  He continued, “We are going to stand tall, we are going to stand proud of our heritage.  If a little light can dispel a lot of darkness, than many lights can truly illuminate the whole world.”

We have to be those lights, for each other, and for the world.  I am so proud of all of us who are here, overcoming fear, to dispel the darkness.

I Need Your Help: Invite Someone Extra to Your Seder – Shabbat HaChodesh 5779

You probably noticed that we took out three Torah scrolls this Shabbat.  That is the highest possible number for any service of the year.  

The first is for our regularly scheduled parashah, Tazria.  The second is for Rosh Chodesh.  Today is the 1st day of the month of Nisan.  The Third Torah is to mark Shabbat HaChodesh, which is the Shabbat immediately preceding Rosh Chodesh Nisan, or, as in our case this year, when Rosh Chodesh occurs on Shabbat itself.

The Shabbat HaChodesh reading is taken from the Book of Exodus, chapter 12.

God tells Moses and Aaron: HaChodesh hazeh lakhem rosh chodashim.  This month for you shall be the head of the months…

We read about the special instructions that the Israelites must follow, beginning today, the first of Nisan.  Not only do they need to get ready for leaving Egypt, at last, they also have to start preparing for Pesach.

Nowadays, we know that Pesach is coming when we see the five pound boxes of Matzah added next to the Hamantaschen display at Costco.  The Israelites did not have Costco yet, so they needed a reminder from God.

Here is a summary of how the Israelites are to get ready for the very first Pesach:  On the tenth day of the month, each household must select an unblemished, one-year-old male sheep or goat.  They must then watch over it for three days, making sure that nothing happens to it.

On the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, they are to slaughter it.  They take the blood and paint it on the doorposts and lintels of their homes.  This serves to ward off the Angel of Death while he is rampaging through Egypt, massacring all the firstborn.

Each household then roasts its selected animal over a fire, and eats it that night with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.  They are not allowed to have any leftovers the next day.  Whatever is not consumed that night must be burned up.

The Israelites are supposed to eat in their traveling clothes – loins girded, staff in hand, sandals on feet.

God’s instructions then turn from the present to the future.  The people of Israel will continue to celebrate this seven day festival of unleavened bread every year in remembrance of being rescued from slavery in Egypt.

The instructions stuck.  Not only do we still observe The Festival of Matzah, we also recreate the build-up to the moment of freedom.  That is why we read this special passage about how to prepare.  It is as if we are receiving these instructions as well.

Some of the particulars, however, are no longer practical.  Is anyone here planning to bring a lamb into their living room in about ten days?  How about painting blood on the doorposts and lintels?  It might need a new paint job, anyways?

But the essential messages in the Torah reading are still central to our holiday.  Just as our ancestors did, we clean the chametz out of our homes and eat matzah for seven days.  We celebrate the first night with a special feast.  The Torah says to eat it: “loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand: and you shall eat it hurriedly…”

Our Seders today are anything but hurried.  But, in our house we encourage our guests to come dressed up in whatever they would wear if they were exiting Egypt the next day.

There is one other detail in the Torah reading that we make a big deal about, but I wonder how well we are actually fulfilling it.  The very first instruction to the Israelites is to bring a lamb into the house.  But that might not be practical for everyone, so the Torah states:

“But if the household is too small for a lamb, let him share one with a neighbor who dwells nearby…”  (Exodus 12:4)

In other words, people are supposed to get together for these meals.  From the very beginning, the ideal seder has had a large guest list. 

As the tradition of the seder transitioned from the Biblical model—centered around the sacrifice at the Temple—to the rabbinic model—modeled after the Greek symposium—many of the components were maintained.

This includes the idea of including others at the meal.  As we begin the Maggid section of the Seder, we throw open the door and announce:

הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא דִּי אֲכָלוּ אַבְהָתָנָא בְּאַרְעָא דְמִצְרָיִם.

כָּל דִּכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵכוֹל.

כָּל דִּצְרִיךְ יֵיתֵי וְיִפְסַח.

This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.

Let anyone who is hungry come and and eat,

Let anyone who is in need come and participate in the Pesach.

This is one of the only parts of the Haggadah which is in Aramaic, which was the common tongue in ancient times.  That means that it was especially important that participants at the Seder understood these words.

It might be influenced from a passage in the Talmud, describing one of the practices of Rav Huna, an exceedingly wealthy 3rd century Babylonian Sage.

“Whenever Rav Huna would eat bread, he would open the doors to his house and say…”

And now I am going to recite the Aramaic: 

כל מאן דצריך ליתי וליכול

“Whoever needs, let him come in and eat.”

It is almost identical language to that which we find in the Haggadah.  For Rav Huna, it was every meal.  For us, it is just on Pesach.  

A Pesach seder has lots of guests.  It is not uncommon for ten, twenty, thirty, even forty people or more to cram around a table that starts in the dining room, extends into the living room and ends in the hall closet.

At Sinai’s Second Nigh Community Seder, we typically welcome over one hundred people around the tables in the social hall.

But how seriously do we take the words of the haggadah?  When we open up the door, and announce, “let anyone who is hungry come and eat,” do we really expect someone to be waiting on the doorstep?

I need your help.

One reality of the Bay Area is that most people who live here are not from here.  Most of us tend to not have extended family living nearby.  For those who do, the Pesach seder is often an annual family reunion.

Other households have traditions of getting together every year.  The invitation does not even need to be extended, because the tradition of celebrating together has become a fixed custom.  My family in Seattle has an automatic invitation for the second night Seder every year.

But there are many people in our community, I assure you, for whom there is not a seder to which they can count on an automatic invitation.

At my house, we are happy to be welcoming 25 people to our seder this year.  But I have been informed that we have reached the limit of what we can handle, if not space-wise, than certainly sanity-wise.

As the Rabbi of the community, I am concerned about our members.  I worry about people whom I suspect may not have a seder to attend.

So I am asking for your help.  If you are hosting a Seder this year, please add a few more chairs.  Think about someone who might not have a place to go, and invite them.  

If you already have six people coming to your seder, make it seven.  Ten?  Make it 12.  Twenty?   Really, there is very little difference between twenty and twenty five.  It’s chaos either way.  I promise that you will still have leftovers.

Think especially about singles, people without children, and people who are relatively new to the area, or to the congregation.  Also, think about someone who has recently converted, or who is exploring Judaism. 

One of the great things about Sinai is that we welcome so many people from such different backgrounds.  Invite someone whom you don’t know that well.  Invite a person that you have seen coming to shul lately, but whom you have not met yet.  Our family seder’s are enriched every year by having guests from such different backgrounds.

Ha lachma anya is the opening statement of our telling of the story of freedom.  These words ought to mean something to us.

This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.

Let anyone who is hungry come and and eat.

Let anyone who is in need come and participate in Pesach.

Shabbat Shalom.  Chag Kasher v’Sameach.

Shabbat Zakhor 5779 – Esther the Feminist Hero

This morning is known as Shabbat Zakhor, the Shabbat immediately preceding the holiday of Purim.

Purim is my favorite.  At my shul in San Jose, we bring the bar up front of the sanctuary, right next to the bimah.  It’s so loud we pass out earplugs.  Our costumes give us the opportunity to don our alter-egos, and the partying is unmatched by any other holiday in the Jewish calendar.  Raucous merriment is the norm, and typical social rules are (mostly) set aside for one day.  It is even considered acceptable, I regret to say, to make fun of the Rabbi – but I do not recommend it.  Purim is the Jewish carneval, our opportunity to put a farcical spotlight on the hypocrisies and challenges embedded in society.

Megillat Esther, which we will read this Wednesday night and Thursday, embodies this spirit of farce, addressing some of the same societal challenges that we face today.  But there is so much about this story that we miss by not understanding it in its social context, and by not reading it closely enough.

Esther is unusual as one of only two books in the Hebrew Bible named after a woman (Ruth is the other).

But before Esther enters the scene in chapter two, we meet Queen Vashti.  She hosts a separate women’s banquet during her husband’s six-months-long party.  In his drunken state, the king thinks it would be a good idea to summon Vashti to appear before him and all of his guests wearing her crown.  Vashti refuses.

Furious, the King turns to his closest advisors for counsel on the proper legal response.  The men of the court are terrified that all of the women in the empire will follow the Queen’s brazen example and despise and defy their husbands.  Following the advice of one of his advisors, Achashverosh banishes Vashti. 

In recent years, feminist readers have found a hero in Queen Vashti.  She is a strong, proud woman who stands up to the male establishment with her emphatic refusal to submit to the King’s demeaning command.  

When the boorish King banishes her, Vashti marches out of the palace proudly, head high, leaving behind her legacy as a proto-feminist martyr.

In contrast, Esther seems passive–she is simply an object, used by Mordechai and Achashverosh for her looks.  Many contemporary readers accuse Mordechai of pimping out his niece.  Read the Megillah closely.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

If there is a feminist hero in this story, it is most certainly Esther, not Vashti. 

Adele Berlin, author of the JPS commentary on Esther, explains that to really understand these figures, we need to know something about ancient Persian society.

It is completely inappropriate for husbands to participate in drinking banquets in the presence of their wives.  That is why Vashti hosts a separate women’s banquet.  

When Achashverosh summons her to his party to show off her beauty, he is the one breaking the rules.  In so doing, he places the queen in an impossible situation – she can lower herself to the level of a concubine or slave, or, she can disobey the King.  Either way she loses.

She chooses to disobey and suffer the consequences.  She defends social norms by insisting that the queen should not be put on display.  In refusing, she maintains her dignity as her husband loses his.  Adele Berlin describes Vashti as playing the role of “the strong-willed royal woman.”

But really, Vashti represents those whom society places in impossible situations:  “Do what is asked of you and stay repressed.  Suffer the consequences if you step out of your role.”  Perhaps that is why we don’t hear Vashti’s voice.  

Think of the billions of people in the world who struggle in societies in which women are repressed, children don’t receive decent education, or poverty, malnutrition, and lack of access to health care limit opportunities to get ahead.  People without basic rights have a tough time challenging the status quo.

Esther is the real feminist hero of the Megillah.  She breaks all the rules, and gets away with it.

When the King sends his soldiers out across the Kingdom to gather all of the young women, Esther, an orphan refugee, is rounded up as well.  

Esther is special in many ways.  While she is described as shapely and beautiful, she has another quality that is frequently repeated in the text.  Chen – best translated as “grace.”  Chen is an inner quality by which Esther charms everyone she meets.  Chen seems to be a combination of emotional intelligence, wisdom, and confidence.

After Esther is taken, Mordechai, who has raised her like a daughter, follows his niece to the palace, hoping to overhear snippets of news.

In the harem, where the young virgins go through an entire year of preparation before appearing before the King, Esther quickly rises to the top.

The time arrives for her to go to Achashverosh.  Although she is entitled to bring anything she wants with her, Esther requests nothing.  All she needs is herself and her chen.  The King is immediately charmed, and crowns her as Queen.

In chapter three, we meet Haman, who bribes King Achashverosh to allow him to kill all of the Jews of Persia in revenge for Mordechai refusing to bow down to him.  At the end of the scene, Haman and the King sit down to drink while the city is dumbfounded by the quickly spreading news.

Thus begins chapter 4, in which Esther takes charge.  Upon hearing the terrible news, Mordechai tears his clothes, puts on sackcloth, and covers his head with ashes – all signs of mourning.

Esther hears about her uncle and sends a eunuch named Hatach to talk to Mordechai, check things out, and bring back a report.  Mordechai tells him the whole story, and even shows him Haman’s decree with the King’s seal.  He sends Hatach to Esther with the message that she must go before the King to appeal for mercy on behalf of her people.  In fact, Mordechai commands her to do so.

Esther does not comply.  “Everyone knows,” she says “that if any person, man or woman, enters the King’s presence in the inner court without having been summoned, there is but one law for him—that he be put to death.  Only if the King extends the golden scepter to him may he live. Now I have not been summoned to visit the King for the last thirty days.”

In this episode, we tend to see Mordechai as a paternalistic father-figure trying to convince his young, naive niece to intercede on behalf of the Jewish people.  This is not what is going on.

Esther’s response is not an outright refusal.  In fact, her statement shows deeper thoughtfulness and strategy than her uncle’s.  She understands the intricacies and risks of court life.  Consider her words the opening salvos in a political negotiation.

Mordechai responds, again through Hatach, playing shuttle diplomat.  “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the King’s palace.  On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish.  And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.”

How should we understand this densely packed statement?  Is it a threat?  Is Mordechai trying to appeal to Esther’s ego, dangling the prospect of becoming the hero of the story.  In any event, it seems, on the face of things, that Mordechai has taken Esther’s response as a refusal to act, and now he is trying to change her mind.

Esther responds with a plan.  She sends word to Mordechai to assemble all the Jews of Shushan and fast for three days.  Meanwhile, she will do the same with her court in the palace.  Then she throws in a bit of melodrama, “and if I am to perish, I shall perish.”

Esther throws Mordechai’s threats back at him.  She will indeed try to intercede, on her own terms.  She makes sure that Mordechai understands the risks she is taking.

We are now back where we started from.  The chapter opened with Mordechai and the Jews of Shushan in mourning.  Now, Esther has declared her solidarity with the Jews of Shushan by calling for a three day public fast, also an act of mourning.  In the postscript to the chapter, Mordechai returns to the city, and does what Esther has commanded him.

Notice that the exchanges began with Mordechai commanding a resistant Esther.  Now it is Esther who is doing the commanding.  And Mordechai obeys.  Their roles have reversed.  In its subtle way, the Megillah has shown us Esther’s transformation.

Remember Vashti’s big moment of defiance?  She refuses to appear before the King when she is summoned, and suffers the consequences.

Esther now does the exact opposite.  She shows up uninvited—a big no-no—but her boldness is rewarded.  “Even to half the Kingdom, it shall be yours,” offers Achashverosh. 

What is her request?  It’s modest: one small soirée, which is so successful that she follows it with a second.  When the King is good and tipsy, Esther goes for the big reveal.  Listen to how she builds up the tension:

If I have found grace in your eyes—chen—Your Majesty, and if it pleases Your Majesty, let my life be granted me as my wish, and my people as my request.  For we have been sold, my people and I, to be destroyed, massacred, and exterminated.  Had we only been sold as bondmen and bondwomen, I would have kept silent; for the adversary is not worthy of the king’s trouble.”

She pauses.  “Who is he and where is he who dared to do this?” screams the King.

“The adversary and enemy,” replies Esther, drawing it out for maximum impact, “is this evil Haman!”

Her timing is impeccable.  Haman’s fate is sealed.  But Esther is just getting started.

She acquires all of Haman’s property.  She introduces her uncle Mordechai to King Achashverosh.  She puts Mordechai in charge of her new acquisitions, and the King assigns Mordechai to the newly vacated position of Viceroy.

She appeals to the King for permission for the Jews of Persia to defend themselves from their attackers, which he eagerly grants.

When the reports come back, the King himself brings the news to Esther.  The Jews of Shushan have killed 500 of their enemies, including the ten sons of Haman.  The King offers her another request.  She asks not only for permission to defend themselves again the next day, but also to impale the corpses of Haman’s sons and put them on display.

The King grants her request, and the Jews of Shushan kill another 300 people.  Across Persia, Esther’s people kill 75,000 of their enemies.

At this point, we might refer to her as Esther the Bloodthirsty.

By the end of the story, Esther is effectively ruling the Persian Empire.  She has taken down the second most powerful person in the court, and positioned her uncle to be his replacement.  She has put down a rebellion, saved her people, and become fabulously wealthy.

To accomplish all of this, Esther has broken every rule of Persian society, and everyone around her either does not notice, or does not care.  If we are looking for a feminist hero, someone to serve as a model for breaking the rules of a patriarchal society, there is nobody better than Esther.

As we celebrate Purim in a few days, let’s consider the strength of character of Queens Vashti and Queen Esther.  How did they handle a society that restricted their options?  What might they teach us about addressing the inequalities that persist in our world?  And if you are thinking about dressing up like Esther for Purim this year, let me suggest that a Disney Princess dress might not quite capture her essence.