Purim and the Coronavirus – Shabbat Zakhor 5780

Today is Shabbat Zakhor.  We have a special Torah reading and Haftarah for the Shabbat before Purim.  It is the only Torah reading which, according to Jewish law, individuals are required to hear.  It is that important.  It begins, Zakhor.

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt—how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.

Deuteronomy 25:17-18

The Torah is emphatic about the requirement to blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.  Punctuating this command are the words lo tishkakh – “Do not forget.”

What is the connection to Purim?  Haman, the wicked villain of the Purim story, is identified in the Megillah as an Aggagite.  That is to say, a descendant of Agag, the Amalekite King whom we will read about in the haftarah.

The story of Purim is set approximately 900 years after the Amalekites attacked our ancestors in the wilderness.  Deuteronomy’s warning was still unfulfilled.  

But the message extends beyond the literal Amalekites.  Amalek can appear in many guises, and has done so throughout history.  

What is the particular quality of Amalek’s wickedness?  The Torah identifies it explicitly.  They went after the weak and famished stragglers on the periphery of the of the nation.  They targeted those least able to defend themselves.

In the story of Purim, the Jews are an obscure, exiled people living in a foreign land.  They have no power or influence in the court.  When Haman plots to murder every last Jew throughout the Empire, he is emulating the modus operandi of his ancestors.  The Jews of Persia are like the famished and weary stragglers in the wilderness.

At the end of the story, Mordechai and Esther send out edicts throughout the Empire, instructing the Jewish people to observe the 14th and 15th days of Adar as annual holidays of celebration.

It is not merely an excuse for a party, however.  There is meaning and purpose behind the festival of Purim.  The story of persecution and deliverance is one that has repeated throughout our history.  There have been countless Haman’s and Amalekites who have targeted the Jewish people.  

But we are a people that does not forget, and this is, in no small part, a primary reason for our survival.  While our calendar has many days of sadness and mourning, we also have days for celebration.  That is what Purim is.  Purim stands in for all of those times in our history when we have been targeted by those stronger and more powerful than us.  It is the most “realistic” book in the Bible.  God is hidden, without a single explicit reference.  Similarly, our experience of reality requires us to look beyond the empirical to find God’s Presence.

I would like to read to you a short article that appeared in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s daily bulletin on March 9, 1945.  It was posted in Gladbach, Germany.

Belated Purim services were held here yesterday in a castle belonging to Dr. Joseph Goebels by front-line troops who were too busy fighting last week to pause for the traditional observances.

Capt. Manual Poliakeff of Baltimore, a Jewish chaplain, carefully arranged the candles over a swastika-bedecked bookcase in Goebbels’ main dining room. Pfc, Arnold Reich of Meadville, Pa. and Corp. Martin Willen of Baltimore assisted the chaplain.

The services were attended by a large crowd which filled the vast room. Jewish and non-Jewish soldiers were in the audience, and the Jews explained to their Christian comrades about Haman and why it was so fitting that Purim services should be held in a castle belonging to Goebbels.

I can only imagine the intensity of emotions that were felt by those who found themselves celebrating Purim in Goebbels mansion.  The message of Purim is that, in a dark and dangerous world, we have to celebrate life whenever we can.  

Israel, despite being an incredibly stressful, high-pressured place to live, has adopted this approach.  It is routinely ranked as being on of the happiest places to live, according to the World Happiness Index.  In 2019, it was ranked 13th, having fallen two places.

It is not what we expect from a country that deals with terrorism, rockets, and regular threats of annihilation from Iran.  But it is also a nation whose citizens know that they have got to keep living, that they cannot dwell only on the bad things.

This year, Purim takes on a different tone as we find ourselves in the midst of an emerging global pandemic.

The Coronavirus is neither Haman, nor the Amalekites.  But like them, it is particularly dangerous to vulnerable populations: the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

Like in the Megillah, deliverance will come through the well thought out actions of human beings: doctors, nurses, public health officials, and scientists.  But we also have roles to play.  Before Esther went to see the King, she asked the Jewish people of Shushan to fast and pray with her for three days.  There was an important role for the “non-experts” to play.

Jewish law holds a person accountable for even inadvertent harm caused by our bodies.  I am always responsible for what my body does, even while I am sleeping.

Maimonides codifies it in his law code, the Mishneh Torah.  He says that, as far as liability for causing an injury to another person is concerned, there is no difference if a person strikes someone by hand, injures them by throwing a stone or shooting an arrow, or “spits or sneezes and causes damage with his spittle or mucus while it is being propelled by his power… [A person] is liable for all of them, as if he had caused the damage with his hands.”  (Chovel Umeizik 6:10)

These rules are repeated in the Shulchan Arukh as normative Jewish law.  

Maimonides and the Shulchan Arukh were from the 12th and 16th centuries, respectively, so they can be forgiven for not knowing about germs.  It is striking that they conceive of a person causing inadvertent harm through spittle and mucus.  Although for them, the worry is that somebody might slip and injure themself.

We now are aware, of course, that illness can be transmitted through the same bodily fluids.  Extending the principle, we find that we are halakhically obligated to follow precautions of the sort that the CDC and the county health department are recommending.  It is an issue of Jewish law.

Parents, you can tell your kids that “the Rabbi says you have to wash your hands.”

We sent out an email on Thursday in which we asked members of the community to take responsibility for each other in specific ways.  I would like to repeat them now:

  • If you have—or recently had—symptoms of illness, including fever, coughing, runny nose, sore throat, stomach bug, vomiting, or any other sickness, DO NOT come to shul. 
  • If you have an underlying immune condition or chronic heart or lung problem, you should also probably stay away.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds after contact with common locations like door handles or railings.
  • If washing your hands is not possible, please make use of the alcohol-based hand sanitizer.  It is not as effective as good hand washing.
  • Try not to touch your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • If you need to cough or sneeze, please do so into a disposable tissue. If none is available, sneeze into your elbow. Then go wash your hands.
  • We are on “Elbow Bump Protocol.”  Head nodding is fine.  No hand shaking.  
  • Do not directly kiss the Torah or Mezuzot.
  • If you are in any way involved with food preparation or serving, always wash your hands thoroughly beforehand and use the disposable gloves available in the kitchen.

At Kiddush:

  • Don’t use your hands.  Only use a serving utensil.
  • Please keep an eye on children, and gently remind them not to use their hands.

Most of this seems like common sense, but we tend to get sloppy and lax when we are not paying direct attention.

Our joy on Purim this year is diminished a bit, both because of the extra precautions that we are forced to take, and more importantly by the awareness of those who have died from this disease, those whose lives have been disrupted in profound ways, and those who will continue to get sick.

To the Rabbis of the Talmud, illness was more mysterious than for us.  Humanity had little to no ability to cure illness.  A person who got sick was pretty much in God’s hands.  After the death of a colleague’s child, Reish Lakish offers a series of prayers on behalf of the deceased, the mourners, those who have come to comfort the mourners.  He even offers a prayer on behalf of the entire Jewish people.

Master of the worlds, redeem and save, rescue and deliver Your people, Israel, from the pestilence and from the sword…  and from all types of afflictions that suddenly erupt and come to the world. Before we call You are already responding. Blessed are You, Adonai, Who halts the plague.

Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 8b

We pray for healing for those who are ill and for health and wellness for us, our communities, and all people.

May we all have a happy and healthy Purim.

Remembering By Counting Time – Bo 5780

Today’s date, according to the Hebrew calendar, is the 6th of Shevat in the year 5780. What do each of the those terms mean?  Let’s go in reverse. 

  • 5780 – According to Jewish tradition, this points back to the creation of the universe.  In other words, to the beginning of time itself.  
  • Shevat – This is the name of the month, based on a calendar of 12 months which begin with Tishrei, which also marks the creation of the world, the beginning of time.
  • 6 – That is the day of the month, which means that the new moon made its first appearance 6 days ago.

Each component of this date refers to absolute time, dating back to creation itself.  While this may be the Jewish way of recording time, this is not the Torah’s way of recording time.

The very first of the 613 commandments in the Torah appears in this morning’s portion, Parashat Bo.  God tells Moses and Aaron, 

 הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים רִאשׁוֹן הוּא לָכֶם לְחָדְשֵׁי הַשָּׁנָה

This month shall be for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you. 

Exodus 12:2

Our tradition understands this passage to be commanding Moses and Aaron, and the subsequent leaders of the Jewish people, to establish a calendar.  This commandment occurs in the context of the Israelites’ preparations for leaving Egypt.  The tenth plague is about to strike the Egyptians, after which they will finally leave Egypt.  First, they receive instructions for observing the holiday of Passover, which occurs on the night of the 14th day of the month.

What month is it?  Today, we call this month Nisan.  But the name Nisan occurs nowhere in the Torah or the Prophets.  The majority of the Hebrew Bible has a different way of describing dates.   The Torah will say something like, “And it was in the second year, in the second month…” (Numbers 10:11)  Second year from what?  Second month from what? We are not talking about absolute time.  We are talking about relative time.

Relative to what?  To the Exodus from Egypt.  “And it was in the second year, in the second month…” refers to year number 2 in the wilderness, in the second month after the month when the Israelites left Egypt. The Torah’s calendar has, as its reference point, the Exodus from Egypt.  Both years and months refer back to that event.

The 13th century medieval commentator, Nachmanides, helps us understand what this all means.  “This month shall be for you the beginning of the months,” the Torah tells us.  Lakhem—”For you” only.  This system of counting is meant just for the Jewish people, not for all of humanity.  Its meaning is particular, not universal.  While this may be the first month dating from when you left Egypt, it does not correspond to the first month of creation.

Nachmanides explains that the Torah wants us to always orient ourselves towards the moment of Exodus when God redeemed our ancestors, and us, from slavery in Egypt.  In Deuteronomy we read, “that you may remember the day you left Egypt all the days of your lives.”  (Deut. 16:3)  The Torah’s calendar ensures that we do exactly that.

So what would today’s date be, according to the Torah’s calendar.  It is the 6th days of the month.  That is the same.  The month has no particular name.  We can just call it the tenth month since the month of leaving Egypt.  As for the year, we have no clue.  Something along the lines of 3,270 years since the Exodus, but scholars disagree with each other, and the Bible itself is inconsistent.  

We do not use the Torah’s calendar.  We do not count our years or our months from the Exodus. We do not even know how. Are we ignoring something that the Torah explicitly tells us to do?

Yes we are.

But don’t worry.  This is not a recent development.  They did not do it in Nachmanides’ day either. Nachmanides notes that the names of the months that we actually use—Tishrei, Cheshvan, Kislev, etc.—have nothing to do with anything in the Torah.  They are not even Hebrew words.  They are Persian.  When the First Temple was destroyed in the year 586 BCE, many people were sent into exile in Babylonia.  A few decades later, the Persian Empire defeated the Babylonian Empire and took over.  The Persian King Cyrus, whom the Bible refers to as mashiach, God’s anointed one, sent these exiles back to the land of Israel to rebuild the Temple.  They brought some traditions with them, including new months.  What we refer to as the Hebrew months are mentioned in the Book of Esther, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and some of the exiled prophets. 

They are the Persian names of the months.  Nachmanides notes that in his own day, the people who live in Persia and Media, modern day Iraq and Iran, continue to use the same names for the months. He explains that we use these foreign month names to serve as a reminder that we were once in exile in Babylonia, but God brought us out and returned us to our land.  Nachmanides concludes:

So we now commemorate the second redemption with our month names as we did up until then with the first redemption.

How we measure time is important.  What reference points do we use?  Biblical Israel used the Exodus from Egypt as its reference point.  Later, we switched reference points.  As for years, we look to Creation.  For months, we look to the return from exile. The Jews of Nachmanides day also hoped and prayed for a return.  The Babylonian exile was a metaphor for their own situation.  The Persian months gave hope to them, and us, that the state of exile can eventually end.  Until it does, we will continue referring to today as the 6th of Shevat.

We use other important reference points to measure time.  January 27, which fell on Monday this past week, marked the 75th anniversary since the liberation of Auschwitz.  It is a day for remembering the horrors that took place there, and drawing lessons for today.  1.3 million people were imprisoned there during the Holocaust, of whom 1.1 million were murdered, making it the most deadly of the death camps.  My grandfather’s family, from Lodz Poland, died there.

Ceremonies were held at Auschwitz itself earlier this week, sponsored by the Polish government.  More that 200 survivors returned to the death camp to mark the occasion, some for the first time. Other ceremonies took place at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, where leaders from countries around the world gathered to remember.  

What do we do to commemorate? We hear first person testimonies from the increasingly smaller numbers of survivors who are still with us.  We warn ourselves and the world about the increasing numbers and brazenness of acts of antisemitism around the world.  The horrors of the Holocaust also serve as a call to avoid indifference to violence and discrimination against minorities.

But as time passes, awareness of the Holocaust is fading.  A 2018 survey reported decreasing awareness of the Holocaust, especially among younger Americans.  Two thirds of adults between 18 and 34 were unable to identify what Auschwitz was. Large numbers indicated that they thought it was important to learn about the Holocaust.  93% overall agreed that the Holocaust should be taught in schools, and 80% said that it was important to teach so that it would not happen again.  So there is a lot of work to be done.

A week from Sunday, we will be hosting a concert here at Sinai as part of the Violins of Hope project. The Violins of Hope are a collection of more than 70 string instruments originally owned and played by European Jews in ghettos and Nazi death camps during WWII, which have been lovingly restored over the past two decades by renowned Israeli violin-makers Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein.

Some concentration camp musicians owe their lives to these instruments. The music they played lifted them above their cruel, day-to-day reality. It gave the musicians hope. And did the same for their fellow Jewish inmates.

“Hope is a stubborn thing,” says Weinstein. The legacy of Jewish hope drives Weinstein to restore every Holocaust violin he can get his hands on to make them speak again. These instruments are the focal point of an impactful initiative designed to promote the power of hope through music, reaffirming that the voiceless can indeed have a voice as we reiterate our responsibility to “never forget.”

If you have not already done so, I urge you to buy tickets to the concert, which will be performed on some of these special instruments, as soon as Shabbat is over.  We will have a special opportunity to hear Intonations: Songs from the Violins of Hope, which was commissioned specifically for the Bay Area performance.  It was composed by the renowned composer-librettist team of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer.  We are one of only two locations at which this piece is being performed, and Jake Heggie will be speaking, so it is a special opportunity for us. This is one of many ways that we can preserve the memory of the Holocaust so as to remind ourselves how much work we have to do to ensure that it never happens again.

The Mighty Nile – Vaera 5780

Twenty five years ago, I was fortunate to be able to travel to Egypt.  One of the touristy things to do in Cairo is to hire a small sailing boat called a felucca to go out onto the Nile River. It was a beautiful day, and a great memory.  At one point, our guide generously offered to make us tea, promising to make the experience even better. So he reached over the side of the boat, scooped up some fresh Nile River water, and set it to boil.

I passed on the tea.

The Nile is one of the great rivers of the world.  Depending on who you ask, it is either the first or second longest river.  For much of human history, whoever controlled the Nile was arguably the most powerful person in the world.

The Nile is the life-blood of Egypt, the source of all its power and strength.  The annual rising and flooding of its waters feeds its people.  The one who rules the Nile is the master of Egypt and all who live there.  It is easy to understand why the pharaohs of Egypt tended to think highly of themselves.  

Much of the action in both this morning’s Torah and Haftarah portions takes place at the Nile. In the Haftarah, it is the year 586 BCE, the end of the First Temple period.  The Kingdom of Judah, about to be overrun by the Babylonians, has desperately aligned itself with Egypt.  The Prophet Ezekiel, knowing that nothing can avert the coming tragedy, prophesizes that Israel will eventually be redeemed, but Egypt is about to be shmeisted.  (That’s a technical term) Listen to how the Prophet describes it:

I am going to deal with you, O Pharaoh king of Egypt, tanin—Mighty monster, sprawling in your channels, who said, Li Ye’ori va’ani asitini—My Nile is my own; I made it for myself.

Ezekiel 29:3

Literally, “Mine is the Nile, and I have made myself.”  The Pharaoh of Ezekiel’s time is a self-declared god, answerable to nobody.  He is personified as a tanin, a mythical sea monster dwelling in the River.  What plans does God have for this Pharaoh?

I will put hooks in your jaws, and make the fish of your Nile cling to your scales; I will haul you up from your Nile, with all your Nile fish clinging to your scales.  And I will fling you into the desert, with all your Nile fish.  You shall be left lying in the open, ungathered and unburied: I have given you as food to the beasts of the earth and the birds of the sky.  Then all the inhabitants of Egypt shall know that I am the LORD.

Ezekiel 29:4-6

Pretty specific.  God will haul out Pharaoh from the Nile and leave his corpse to rot, unburied, in the desert where it will be eaten by scavengers.  That was the haftarah.

Let’s turn now to the Torah portion.  Again, the Nile River is the battleground where God exerts power over an impotent Pharaoh. For the first demonstration, Moses and Aaron appear before Pharaoh and his court.  Aaron throws down his rod and it turns into a… tanin.  Remember that word?  The same word Ezekiel uses to describe the mythical sea monster in the Nile.  It is not the usual word for snake.  That word is nachash. When Pharaoh’s magicians replicate the trick, Moses and Aaron’s tanin eats up their taninim.  The meaning of this demonstration is obvious.

The next confrontation, we read, takes place at the banks of the Nile River, early in the morning.  Why does that Torah go out of its way to inform us of the time of day? A midrash (Tanhuma Va’era 14) offers a colorful explanation.  Pharaoh considers himself a god.  Divine beings, of course, do not need to use the bathroom or wash themselves.  If Pharaoh’s subjects were to see him engaged in such humble tasks, they would doubt his divinity.

So what does he do?  Every day, Pharaoh arises at dawn to sneak down to the banks of the river by himself for his morning ablutions.  That is why God chooses that moment to send Moses and Aaron to confront Pharaoh.  It is to embarrass him and demonstrate his corporeality.  Moses is saying, “I know your secret.”

Keep in mind that the purpose of a midrash is often to use the biblical text to say something about current situations.  That is what the Prophet Ezekiel does.  He hearkens back to an earlier time when the Israelites found themselves dealing with Pharaoh in Egypt.  In the case of the midrash, the Sages are perhaps referring to rulers in their own day, Roman Emperors or other Kings who claim divinity and infallibility. This dawn showdown continues with the first plague.  God gives instructions to Moses:

Say to Aaron: Take your rod and hold out your arm over the waters of Egypt—its rivers, its canals, its ponds, all its bodies of water—that they may turn to blood; there shall be blood throughout the land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and stone.” Moses and Aaron did just as the LORD commanded: he lifted up the rod and struck the water in the Nile in the sight of Pharaoh and his courtiers, and all the water in the Nile was turned into blood and the fish in the Nile died. The Nile stank so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile; and there was blood throughout the land of Egypt.

Exodus 7:19-21

It is comparable to Ezekiel in its vividness.  The Nile, as the battleground between God and Pharaoh, is a powerful symbol.  It is the source of Pharaoh’s strength and the symbol of his divinity.  He is the Nile’s creator and master.  But he is powerless to prevent this transformation of the the source of his authority into a symbol of death.

Think about what else the Nile represents.  To the Israelite slaves, the Nile has already become a symbol of terror and dread.  Pharaoh’s decree, described in chapter one of the Book of Exodus, to murder every male baby by throwing it into the Nile must have transformed the river, which was seen as the source of life, into a symbol of death—at least for the Israelites.

Except for one.  Moses is different.  Remember, after Moses’ birth, his mother places him in a basket sealed with pitch and floats him down the river.  Maybe someone will rescue him, she hopes. Her wish is fulfilled.  Pharaoh’s own daughter encounters the basket when she is bathing in the river (sound familiar?), and understands immediately that he must be a Hebrew baby.

So what does the Nile mean to Moses?  As the adopted child of the Egyptian Princess, he surely must have had some positive memories of it.  On the other hand, he knows that the Nile is  a place of death to his people.  But, the Nile River also saved him from drowning.  His basket did not sink, and somehow it arrived in the best possible place.  His name, moshe, meaning “I drew him out of the water,” alludes to his miraculous redemption in the Nile.

Now, God is sending Moses down to the Nile to confront Pharaoh, and doing some pretty nasty things to it.  How does Moses feel about that? Our great commentator, Rashi, notices a subtle detail.  Moses is not the one who actually strikes the water with the rod.  That action is performed by Aaron.

And then, for the second plague, Moses again instructs Aaron to strike the waters of the Nile with the rod.  That brings up the frogs, who hop slimily out of the waters and invade absolutely everything, homes, beds, kneading bowls, and toilets.  Rashi asks why Moses does not perform these first two plagues himself.  After all, he conducts most of the others.

The answer is that these are the only two plagues that are produced by smiting the waters of the Nile, the river which once protected Moses when he was an infant.  That is why Aaron, not Moses, does the smiting for the first two plagues.

We can see Moses’ mixed emotions. This incredible river is the source of life and prosperity.  Its consistent annual rise and fall makes Egypt the breadbasket of the world, and the place of refuge when famine strikes in the days of Jacob and his sons. The very source of life and blessing, however, becomes a means for power, dominion, and cruelty.  In both the Torah and Haftarah, God punishes a Pharaoh and a nation that has become haughty and overly self-assured.  Perhaps that is why Moses is torn at the Nile.  He can see its potential for blessing and curse.  He knows it personally, because he has experienced it.

We have many gifts in our lives.  The choice is whether we will use them for blessing or for curse.  Our tradition is one that fully embraces the idea of free choice.  We are told to choose life.  The Torah’s purpose is to guide us towards treating our gifts in a way that makes them blessings.

I Believe with Perfect Faith in the Constancy of Gravity; or Why We Ignore Miracles – Shemot 5780

What is a miracle?  I’ll offer a simple definition: a miracle is a supernatural event performed by God.  In other words, when something happens that breaks the rules that we expect the world around us to obey, it is a miracle.

If I drop something—this book, for example—I expect that it will fall to the ground.  All of my past experience in life tells me that this will happen.  I would bet money on it.  In fact, I would stake my life on it.

Why?  Because I believe, with perfect faith, in the constancy of gravity.  

If, when I let go of the book, it floats in the air, or flies away, that would be a supernatural event.  It would violate the theory of gravity upon which I have risked my life.  That would be a miracle.

In this example, I have just introduced two words which we typically associate with religion rather than science: faith and miracle. Faith, or emunah, as understood in Jewish tradition, is not how it is typically depicted in the wider society.  When we use the word “faith” in English the focus is on the so-called believer. If I say, “Johnny believes in God,” most people would understand me to be saying something about Johnny and would probably make other assumptions about him.  This is not the Jewish idea of faith.

In the Torah, the term emunah does not refer to the believer, but rather to the object of that belief.  Emunah in God is better described as a sense of God’s constancy.  God can be relied upon to have consistent qualities.   When the Torah says in this morning’s reading vaya’amen ha’am—”And the people believed” (Ex. 4:31)—it is not saying that the Israelites think that God exists.  Rather, the Torah is stating that the Israelites have accepted that God is going to do what God said, namely, bring them out of Egypt.

Emunah in Judaism is the acceptance of the constancy of something, whether it be a quality of God, the reliability of another person, or the authenticity of a prophet.  That is why I feel comfortable saying that I have faith in the constancy of gravity.

If the book were to fly away, I would be faced with a dilemma.  Either my faith in the constancy of gravity would fall apart, or I would find some way to explain my flying book does not actually violate the laws of gravity.

Or maybe I would just pretend that it never happened.  Yeah.  That’s probably what I would do.

Moses encounters the first miracle of Sefer Shemot, the Book of Exodus.  It occurs after he has fled from Egypt.  He arrives in Midian, marries Tzipporah, and joins the household of her father, Yitro.  One day, Moses is out in the wilderness with his father-in-law’s sheep when he notices something unusual, something which seems to violate the laws of nature in which Moses, you, and I all believe.He sees a bush that is on fire without being consumed.  Moses immediately thinks to himself, “there is something wrong with this picture,” and he turns aside to investigate.

You or I would recognize immediately that a bush that burns without being consumed is a violation of the first law of thermodynamics.  It contradicts the principle of the conservation of energy.  Such a thing is not possible in this universe. That, by definition is a miracle.  It is the equivalent of this book floating when I let go.

What would encountering such a miracle lead a person to do?  Well, let’s look at Moses. The Burning Bush certainly gets his attention, “I’ve gotta check this out,” he tells himself.  He approaches, and God’s voice calls out, “Moses, Moses!”

“I’m right here.”

“Stay there.  Take off your shoes.”

I’m paraphrasing a little.  By the way, that’s what I tell my kids when they walk into the house.  

We hear nothing more about the Burning Bush.  It turns out that the miracle was merely to get Moses’ attention.  The real message is that God has decided to free the Israelites from slavery, and Moses is the guy who is going to bring the message. At this point, what response should we expect?  Moses has seen a violation of the first law of thermodynamics.  God just spoke to him.  What should he say?   Something like, “At your service.  Just tell me what to do.” Instead, Moses offers a series of objections, beginning with “Who am I?”  Then, “Who are You?”  Followed by, “What if they don’t believe me?”

God, of course, has an answer to each one of Moses’ excuses. To establish Moses’ credibility with the Israelites, God offers him a few miracles to perform.

Miracle one.  “Take your staff. Throw it on the ground and it will turn it into a snake.  Then grab the snake by the tail and ‘poof!’  It will turn back into a staff.”

Miracle two.  “Put your hand inside your shirt.  When you pull it out, it will be covered with white snowy scales.  Now put it back inside your shirt.  When you pull it out again, your hand will be back to normal.”

Miracle three.  “Take some water from the Nile River.  Pour it on the ground and Voila!  Blood.  Gross.”

God assures Moses: “They’ll believe you after the first miracle.  But if not, they’ll certainly believe you after the second miracle.  But if not, the third miracle will surely do the trick.”

This is not super reassuring.  But to be certain that Moses is convinced, God has him actually perform the first two miracles, right there on the mountainside. At this point, would you be convinced?  Moses isn’t.  “I don’t talk good.  Please pick somebody else.”  Moses does not seem to be very impressed by these miracles.

What about the Israelites?  When Aaron and Moses go back to Egypt, they perform the miracles, as instructed.  The Israelites believe… for a little while.  As soon as Pharaoh increases the workload, their faith collapses and they turn on Moses and Aaron, cursing them.  And who can blame them, really. Moses then starts complaining to God, again. So much for miracles.

Why are these supernatural suspensions of the laws of the universe so ineffective?  Are Moses and the Israelites simply unfaithful and ungrateful?  Not at all.  They are human.

Maimonides, the great twelfth century rabbi, philosopher, and physician, offers an explanation as to why these miracles are so unconvincing.  (Yesodei Torah 8:1) Whoever bases his or her belief on miraculous signs, Maimonides suggests, will always retain some doubt in their heart.  Maybe it was just a trick performed through sorcery or witchcraft.  We will find some way to explain away the miracle to preserve our worldview.   Moses’ credibility is not established through miracles.  After all, the Egyptian court magicians are able to replicate these opening miracles, as well as the first few plagues.

Maimonides continues.  The only miracles that do instill some degree of faith in Moses’ leadership are those that come in response to some necessity.  The Sea of Reeds divides so that the Israelites can escape Egypt, and it crashes back together in order to sink the pursuing Egyptian chariots.  The manna is sent to prevent the Israelites’ starvation.  The rock gives forth water to satisfy their thirst.  The earth splits open to swallow Korach and his followers when they rebel. All of these miracles come in response to a crisis.  The greatest of the miracles in the wilderness, however, is the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.  The Israelites hear with their own ears and see with their own eyes the presence of God on the mountain, and witness the sound of God communicating with Moses face to face. It is not until that moment, says Maimonides, that the Israelites become fully committed to Moses.

Why then?  What is needed to make them believe?  Personal experience.  That is the point that Maimonides is making.  The mere witnessing of a supernatural event can only lead to a hollow faith.  True faith emerges only from lived experiences.  Trust in the wisdom and authenticity of another person only results when we have been through something together.

As I said before: I believe in the constancy of gravity.  I don’t really understand gravity, mind you.  But I have loads of experience with it.  And I trust the really smart people, those who do, in fact, understand something about gravity, when they insist that it is real.  I have so much faith in the constancy of gravity that I am willing to jump up in the air, believing with all of my heart that I am not going to go hurtling off into space.

Why do I trust the scientists who tell me that gravity is constant?  Because of education.  From a young age, I was taught that science is credible and important.  Like all of you, I learned about the scientific method in grade school, and went through my share of biology, chemistry, and physics classes. That training instilled in me a trust in scientific study and an appreciation of those who dedicate their lives to it.

Religious belief is a bit trickier.  As Jews, we are asked to accept the authenticity of Torah and the authority of those who interpret it.  Life has meaning and purpose, and the Jewish people have a role to play in the redemption of the world. None of these can be demonstrated by a scientific proof or empirical evidence.  I cannot prove to you that God exists, Moses lived, humans have souls, or even that there is such a thing as good and evil.  

But we are not asked to merely believe blindly.  The Jewish notion of emunah does not rely on miracles or proofs.  It does not ask for leaps of faith.  Emunah is developed over a lifetime and is built upon experience and community; on trust in each other and our shared experiences; on our common history and on the lessons passed down from parents to children.

And Joseph Lived… And Joseph Died – Parashat Vayechi 5780

L’chayim! To life!

The name of this morning’s Torah portion is Vayechi, which means “and he lived.”  It comes from the word Chai, as in l’chayim.  To life!

The major focus of the reading, however, is death.  It is not the first time.  This is similar to descriptions of earlier figures like Sarah and Abraham, whose deaths are also introduced by some form of the word chayim.

The opening words of Parashat Vayechi are Vayechi Ya’alov — “Jacob lived seventeen years in the land of Egypt, so that the span of Jacob’s life came to one hundred and forty-seven years.  And when the time approached for Israel to die…” and so on. Most of the parashah describes Jacob’s actions over the course of his final days.  

He says his goodbyes to his family members.  First he calls his son Joseph to his bedside, along with Joseph’s sons Efraim and Menashe.  Jacob offers a special blessing to them, effectively granting Joseph the double portion that typically went to the firstborn.

Then Jacob summons all of his sons to his side to offer his final words to each of them.  He instructs them to return his body to Canaan, the Promised Land.  They must bury him in the ancestral grave at the Cave of Machpelah.  

When he dies, Jacob’s body is embalmed over the course of forty days in preparation for its journey.  Then the Egyptians mourn him for seventy days.  There is a grand procession as Jacob’s sons accompany his body to the Promised Land.  When they finally bury him, they mourn for an additional seven days.  This is the most extensive funeral description in the entire Bible.

The last five verses of Vayechi are a miniaturized repetition of the earlier parts of the Torah portion. While the bulk of the parashah describes the final days of Jacob, the coda describes Joseph’s passing.  In doing so, it follows a nearly identical pattern.

When it comes time for Joseph to die, the Torah introduces the episode with the word Vayechi, just as it had with Jacob.  Vayechi Yosef me’ah v’eser shanim, “and Joseph lived one hundred and ten years.” We then read how Joseph spends his final days.

Like Jacob, Joseph lives to see his progeny, children of the third generation.  In other, words, he is a great grandfather.  Before his death, Joseph gathers his family together for a final blessing.  He also makes them swear to bring his bones up to the Promised Land. All of this is in emulation of Jacob.

Then we encounter a new word.  Vayamot — “And he died.” Earlier it said, Vayechi Yosef me’ah v’eser shanim.  Now, five verses later, it says, Vayamot Yosef ben-me’ah va’eser shanim — “And Joseph died at one hundred and ten years.”  Note that the Torah has repeated the length of Joseph’s life.  We will come back to that.

Joseph is embalmed, like Jacob.  Unlike his father, Joseph’s body is placed in a coffin and stored in Egypt.  The final burial is going to have to wait. This ends both the parashah, as well as the entire book of Genesis.

This unfulfilled promise to bring Joseph’s bones back to the Promised Land is an ominous ending.  Life in Egypt is to be temporary.  The children of Jacob should not get too comfortable in this foreign land.

We come back to the word vayechi.  And he lived.  Jacob, and Joseph, teach us an important lesson.  It is not the length of years that matter so much as how we live them. When it comes time to die, the Torah emphasizes how they lived.  Even in their infirmity, Jacob and Joseph both used their remaining time most effectively.  They gather their family together, despite a history of some very difficult relationships.  They offer final blessings, and instructions.  They let their children know how they wanted to be buried and remembered. We can say that they did not spend their dying days dying, but rather living.

Now we come back to the repetition of Joseph’s lifespan: one hundred and ten years.  Why is it repeated in the span of just five verses? 19th century Polish Rabbi Chayim Aryeh Leib suggests that it is to emphasize that Joseph died with a shem tov – a good name.  That is to say, when he died, his name was still Joseph.  Even though he had been the viceroy of Egypt for eighty years, even though Pharaoh had bestowed upon him the Egyptian name of Tzafnat Paneach, he still insisted on keeping his Hebrew name, Yosef.   For this reason, the Torah specifies that Joseph lived for 110 years, and when he died after 110 years, he was still Joseph.

Each generation learns from the previous.  A midrash explains that the Israelites, throughout their time enslaved in Egypt, kept their Hebrew names.  That was one of the reasons that they merited redemption. To this day, Jews may have secular names in the language of their country, but we also have our Jewish names, which we use in all of our religious activities.

Parashat Vayechi is about generations passing on lessons about what is important, not by speaking, but by living.  We learn that to live Jewishly is to live with intention. Jacob teaches his sons how to live out his final days, and Joseph clearly is paying attention. Joseph, the only one of the brothers who lived most of his life in Egypt, outside of the homeland, keeps his identity to the very end.  Future generations follow his example.  Centuries later, when God remembers the promise to the Patriarchs, the Israelites still have their names, and still have their identity as the children of Jacob.

What is Judaism? – Legacy Shabbat 5780

What a difficult week it has been!  I would like to begin by remembering our brothers and sister who were murdered al kiddush hashem on Tuesday this week in the shooting at the Jewish grocery store in Jersey City. We remember veteran police officer Detective Joseph Seals, who bravely laid down his life in the line of duty, when he tried to stop the attackers.  He leaves behind a wife and five children. We mourn the deaths of 32 year old Mindy Ferencz, who co-owned the grocery store with her husband.  She leaves behind three children.  Moshe Deutsch was a 24 year old rabbinical student from Brooklyn.  Douglas Miguel Rodriguez was an employee at the grocery store.  49 years old, he immigrated from Ecuador and leaves behind a wife and two children.  These innocent civilians, may their memory be a blessing, were targeted for no reason other than that they were in a Jewish grocery store.

Sadly, these antisemitic acts of violence are becoming all too common.  This most recent attack reminds us that antisemitism exists in many different elements in society.  It is real, growing, and becoming more violent.  

Although the timing is coincidental, the next day, the President signed an Executive Order instructing federal agencies to apply the same prohibitions “against…forms of discrimination rooted in anti-Semitism” as it does to discrimination based on race, color or national origin.  The Executive Order is based on the bipartisan Anti-Semitism Awareness Act of 2019, which is still going through Congress.  There has been some confusion around what the Executive Order means, so I will try to explain what it actually says.  

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits any program or activity that receives Federal funding from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin.  Federal funds can be withheld if such discrimination is found to exist.  Title VI explicitly excludes religion from its list of protections.  The new Executive Order says that discrimination against Jews is to be included along with race, color, or national origin as a reason for withdrawing funding.

In other words, being Jewish is understood to be not just a religious identity.  This is pretty much the same approach that the Obama Administration used, by the way.  The new Executive Order differs substantively in just one way.  It orders the consideration of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism.  Both the E.U. and the U.N. have called upon all member nations to adopt this definition, and fourteen countries already have.

Criticism of Israel, of course, is not inherently antisemitic.  The IHRA definition of Antisemitism includes the specification of ways in which criticism of Israel crosses the line.  Examples include: the accusation that Jews have a dual loyalty, the use of classic antisemitic symbols to characterize Israel or Israelis, and “claiming that the existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”  These can be considered by federal agencies when investigating a Title VI complaint.  Pretty technical, and not clear whether it will result in any change in approach.   

The particular focus of the Order is to protect Jewish students on many college campuses, who are tragically on the front lines of antisemitism in America.  Those of us living in the suburbs are largely insulated.  The opening section of the Order notes:

the rise of anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic incidents in the United States and around the world. Anti-Semitic incidents have increased since 2013, and students, in particular, continue to face anti-Semitic harassment in schools and on university and college campuses.

https://www.scribd.com/document/439372691/Combating-Anti-Semitism-2019-Executive-Order#from_embed

The main purpose of the Executive Order is to enable federal funds to be withheld from colleges and universities that are not addressing antisemitism on campus.

What does it mean for Jewish identity to be included in the same category as “race, color, or national origin?”  It feels like it could result in unintended consequences, but I do not know how else secular law could define it

I am not going to get into all of the explosive questions that are raised. What I would like to share is that, whenever I am asked to make a presentation to non-Jewish groups about Judaism, there is a particular point that I always try to make.

Judaism is not a religion in the way that we typically think of religions.  If we polled our congregation, we would find significant numbers of members who would claim to be agnostic or atheist.  These are proud Jews; Jews who attend synagogue regularly; Jews who enthusiastically participate in the Passover Seder and tell the story of the Exodus as their personal story. I am not aware of any religion in which someone who explicitly denies the existence of  God can be considered to be a member.  Judaism is clearly more than just a religion.

Judaism is not a race or a skin color.  There are Jews from countries all over the world.  We welcome converts as full members of the Jewish community, no matter their origins. Judaism has aspects of ethnicity and national identity, but the level of diversity in Judaism far exceeds that of any other ethnic or national group.

The truth is, Jewish identity is unique, which is why it is so difficult to describe.  

Jews everywhere have shared history, embracing the same set of origin stories and myths.  We all look to the Torah as our Sacred Text, although it means different things to different people.  The religion of Judaism is an important part of Jewish identity, but not the only part.

The land of Israel has been a central focus for the Jewish people since Abraham, although its exact significance has always been open to interpretation.  History, beliefs, texts, land: all of these are woven together to create the Jewish people. It is such a strong identity that we feel kinship with Jews everywhere.  They are our brothers and sisters.  When something happens to a Jew, it is personal.  Whether in our own community, in New Jersey, in Israel, France, Russia, Argentina, or Uganda.  Jews are family.  

This is what I try to convey when I present Judaism 101.

Today, we are marking Legacy Shabbat.  I want to state, clearly, that I am uncomfortable with using fear to encourage financial support.  I prefer to focus on the countless positive reasons that make our institutions worthy of support.

I have tried to share how excited I get about the complicated question of how to define Judaism.  Being Jewish involves so many dimensions.  Both Sinai and Hillel are actively engaged in all aspects of Jewish identity on a daily basis.  We serve diverse populations of people from many different backgrounds who share a common Jewish identity.  

We are committed to embracing our shared history, providing for religious commitment and growth, deepening our connection to Israel, and cultivating solidarity with our Jewish brothers and sisters around the world.

We are here to make Judaism thrive.  That is why the Silicon Valley Jewish Community Legacy Project is so important.  It is a cooperative program among synagogues and Jewish agencies in the South Bay, including Congregation Sinai and Hillel of Silicon Valley.  This is how the program works.

First of all, let me say, “We should have good health and live to be 120.  Pooh, pooh, pooh.”

When the end comes, we are likely to leave assets behind.  The Legacy Project is a commitment to leave some portion of your estate to Congregation Sinai, Hillel, or any of the other Jewish institutions in the area.

There are a number of ways that you could set this up.

You could name Sinai as a beneficiary in your Will, Living Trust, IRA, Retirement Plan, or Life Insurance policy.  You could set it up so that Sinai would receive a specified amount of money, or a certain percentage.  You could bequest a real estate holding to Congregation Sinai.

The Silicon Valley Jewish Community Legacy Project is organized through the Federation.  All that it involves is filling out a single piece of paper—a “Declaration of Intent.”  This lets Sinai, Hillel, and any other organization that you have designated know that it has been named as a beneficiary.

Then, it is up to you to make the arrangements in your own Estate planning.

When Congregation Sinai or Hillel receives funds from a Legacy Gift—and it should be many years from now—it will add them to its Endowment Fund.  The principal will remain intact, and the interest will provide financial support every single year, indefinitely.  This will serve as your legacy to future generations.

Legacy giving by members and friends of Sinai is going to be the most important source of funds to cover the increasing costs of operating the synagogue.

If you want Congregation Sinai to be a place of worship, learning, and gathering for future generations, joining the Sinai Legacy Project is the single most effective thing that you can do. It is really quite simple, and will not cost you anything.

To those who have already made a Legacy commitment, “Todah Rabbah.” To those who have not, I am asking you straight up: “Will you make a Legacy Commitment to Congregation Sinai and to Hillel of Silicon Valley?  Will you do it in the next two and half weeks, before the end of 2019?”

I hope you will join Dana and I in making that commitment.  

Disappointment and Thanks – Vayetze 5780

I got the idea for this D’var Torah from “Can We Be Grateful and Disappointed at the Same Time?” in The Heart of Torah, by Rabbi Shai Held, pp. 60-63.

It is no exaggeration to point out that the Torah pays much more attention to its male characters rather than its females.  Even when women do play a role in the story, there tend to be  fewer details and less character development.  So it is especially important for us to pay attention to our biblical heroines.

Let’s talk about Leah.  When we think of Leah, what comes to mind?

She is the older sister of Rachel. She is unloved. She has weak eyes. She has lots of children. Does she have any positive traits?

She is one of the Matriarchs.  But even we demote her.  Listen to our egalitarian siddurElohei Sarah, Elohei Rivkah, Elohei Rachel, v’Elohei Leah.  She comes last, even though she is older than her sister Rachel.  It’s like we are mentioning her name out of a sense of obligation.

Let’s see if we can learn more about Leah, who after all is one of our Matriarchs.  What does she teach us?

As the story opens, we hear about Rachel, who is beautiful and shapely.  Presumably, she has many suitors.  After all, Jacob falls in love with her as soon as he sees her.  Jacob agrees to work for seven years to win her hand.

Throughout this time, we hear about Leah only once.  The Torah tells us that Lavan had two daughters.  Leah has “weak eyes,” in contrast to Rachel, who is “shapely and beautiful.”  This brief description of the sisters foreshadows the events to follow. The ambiguous description of Leah’s weak eyes is ironic, given that Leah is the one whom others fail to see. 

In a society in which a daughter is only married by her father’s arrangement, it is safe to assume that Leah has never had a suitor.  Nobody has come asking for her hand.  Without deception, her father seems to think, he will never marry her off.  On the night on which Jacob is supposed to marry Rachel, Laban substitutes Leah.  

Leah is so invisible that Jacob does not even notice until the next morning.  How does he react?  Does he have anything kind to say after spending the night with Leah?  He does not utter a single word to his new wife.  Instead, he lets his father in law have it. “What is this you have done to me?  I was in your service for Rachel!  Why did you deceive me?”  (Genesis 29:25) He is furious.  We can picture the froth spraying out of Jacob’s mouth.

But what of Leah?  Imagine her feelings as she sits there shamed and embarrassed.  Leah already knows how little her father thinks of her.  Her husband has just confirmed that he shares those feelings. How heartbreaking.

A week later, Jacob marries Rachel.  The Torah wastes no time informing us that “Jacob cohabited with Rachel also; indeed, he loved Rachel more than Leah.”  (Genesis 29:30)

Then we catch the first glimpse of compassion, although it does not come from any human source.  “The Lord saw that Leah was unloved and He opened her womb; but Rachel was barren.”  (Genesis 29:31) She may be invisible to her father, her husband, and presumably her sister, but God sees Leah.

She names her firstborn son Reuven, offering two explanations for her choice:  “Ki ra’ah Adonai b’onyi—”The Lord has seen my affliction”—and ki atah ye’ehavani ishi—”Now my husband will love me.”  While the Torah tends not to describe the inner feelings of its characters, Leah’s sadness, disappointment, and desperation are all too clear. She has another son, whom she names ShimonKi shama Adonai ki-senuah anokhi—”For the Lord has heard that I am unloved.” Leah names her third son Levi, explaining atah hapa’am yilaveh ishi—”This time my husband will become attached to me.”

Notice the verbs she employs for her first three sons:  ra’ah, shamah, yilaveh.  See me.  Hear me.  Become attached to me. Leah, unloved, feels unseen, unheard, and untouched.  She is desparate for recognition.

Then she has a fourth son, whom she names Judah, YehudahHapa’am odeh et Adonai—”This time I will praise the Lord.” Something has changed.  The name Leah chooses does not reflect her suffering and disappointment.  Her home life is still the same.  Jacob still ignores her.  But she seems to have made peace with it.  With Yehudah, Leah offers her thanks to God.  She is begins to carry gratitude along with her disappointment.

In the Talmud (BT Berakhot 7b), Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai declares: From the moment when the Holy Blessed One created the world, there was not a single person who gave thanks to God until Leah came and thanked him by declaring, “This time I will praise the Lord.” This is not precisely true.  There have been others who have given thanks to God, and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai surely knows this.  So what is he getting at?

Rabbi Shai Held suggests that earlier expressions of thanks in the Torah all come from a place in which everything is wonderful.  According to the Midrash, Adam offers a prayer of thanks when he notices how perfectly assembled the human body is. Noah makes a sacrifice to God after he safely exits the ark on to dry land with his family and all the animals.

Leah, in contrast, is not happy with her situation.  Life is far from wonderful for her.  But for the first time, she is able to express appreciation alongside her disappointment. Emphasizing the lesson, this child, Yehudah, the child of gratitude, is the one who will rise above his brothers.  Even though he is the fourth born, Yehudah will step forward to be the leader in the negotiations with Joseph in Egypt. Yehudah, the tribe will become the dominant tribe in the South.  King David will come form Yehudah, and when the monarchy divides, Yehudah will transition into the southern kingdom.  Eventually, of course, Yehudah becomes the adopted national identity of the people of Israel, and today we call ourselves Yehudim.

We do not often think about the origins of that name, how it emerges out of a condition of sadness and disappointment.  But does it not express a fundamental truth of human existence?  Life is not how I expected or hoped it would be.  But in that incompleteness, I still strive to see the good, and to express gratitude.

The name Yehudah offers a fitting complement to the other name of the Jewish people, Yisrael, which Jacob receives after wrestling with the angel.  “You have striven with beings divine and human and prevailed.”  Life is a struggle.  To be a part of the children of Israel is to stay engaged with it.

Yehudah is about being able to hold thanks and disappointment in the same hand.  If we look at the long history of our people, we see that it is a fitting name indeed.  Has there ever been a time without disappointment?  Through it all, we have struggled to retain a sense of optimism, and to give thanks whenever the opportunity arises.

We learn this lesson from Leah Imeinu, our Matriarch—Leah.