Five Sets of Clothes and 300 Shekels of Silver – Vayigash 5779

This morning’s Torah portion takes place in Egypt.  Joseph’s brothers have returned to Egypt to buy food.  This time they have brought Benjamin with them, following the instructions of the Viceroy, who happens to be their long lost brother Joseph in disguise, although they do not know it yet.

Once again, Joseph tests his brothers to determine if they have changed since they were kids.  He hides a silver goblet in Benjamin’s sack of grain, accuses him of theft, and declares that he will keep him imprisoned.

As Parashat Vayigash opens, Judah steps forward to make an impassioned plea on behalf of his youngest sibling.  News of Benjamin’s captivity would surely bring about their father’s death.  And furthermore, Judah has pledged his own life for the lad’s.  Judah begs Joseph to take him captive and release Benjamin.

Convinced that the brothers have sincerely repented, Joseph finally reveals his identity in an emotional, tearful reunion.  Joseph instructs his brothers to go back to the land of Canaan, gather up their belongings, and move the entire household down to Egypt, where they will be provided for.

Then, Joseph sends them away with gifts for the journey.

(כב) לְכֻלָּ֥ם נָתַ֛ן לָאִ֖ישׁ חֲלִפ֣וֹת שְׂמָלֹ֑ת וּלְבִנְיָמִ֤ן נָתַן֙ שְׁלֹ֣שׁ מֵא֣וֹת כֶּ֔סֶף וְחָמֵ֖שׁ חֲלִפֹ֥ת שְׂמָלֹֽת׃

To all of them he gave each man changes of raiment; but to Benjamin he gave three hundred shekels of silver, and five changes of raiment.  (Gen. 45:22)

What is Joseph thinking?  What possible reason could he have to give Benjamin favorable treatment?  Is this not the exact kind of behavior that led to so much suffering in the past?

When they were kids, Jacob favored Joseph over all of the others.  He loved him more.  He did not make him work out in the fields.  Jacob even gave Joseph the infamous “Coat of Many Colors,” which symbolized everything that the brothers hated about him.

Joseph is now repeating the exact same provocations.  Not only does Joseph favor Benjamin, he does so with clothing.  That detail had to have registered with their siblings.  What is going on?  Is Joseph naive, or cruel?

Neither.  It is another test.  Joseph is not done with his brothers.  So far, he has applied the pressure directly to see if the brothers will take responsibility for each other when confronted with an outside threat.  They have passed this test.

Now Joseph sends them back into the wilderness, unsupervised, with a brother who has been given special treatment.  It will be easy enough for Benjamin to get “lost” or “eaten by a wild animal” on the way.  He has recreated the conditions under which they sinned many years earlier.

But Joseph does not want them to fail.  Two verses later, he undermines the purity of his test by warning them to behave.

וַיְשַׁלַּ֥ח אֶת־אֶחָ֖יו וַיֵּלֵ֑כוּ וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֔ם אַֽל־תִּרְגְּז֖וּ בַּדָּֽרֶךְ׃

As he sent his brothers off on their way, he told them, “Do not be quarrelsome on the way.”  (Gen. 45:24)

But that does not tell us why Joseph chose to favor Benjamin in this particular way. Why does Joseph favor Benjamin with these specific gifts?  Why five sets of clothing and 300 shekels of silver?

The Talmud (BT Megillah 16b) asks about the clothing.  “Is it possible that Joseph would stumble in the very thing that had led to his own suffering?”  The Talmudic Sage Rav teaches that Joseph has a very good reason to present Benjamin with five sets of clothing.  Through prophecy, Joseph knows that many generations in the future, a famous descendant of Benjamin will appear before a King wearing five articles of clothing.  Do you know who it is?

וּמָרְדֳּכַי יָצָא מִלִּפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ בִּלְבוּשׁ מַלְכוּת תְּכֵלֶת וָחוּר וַעֲטֶרֶת זָהָב גְּדוֹלָה וְתַכְרִיךְ בּוּץ וְאַרְגָּמָן וְהָעִיר שׁוּשָׁן צָהֲלָה וְשָׂמֵחָה.

And Mordecai went forth from the presence of the king in royal apparel of blue (1) and white (2), and with a great crown of gold (3), and with a rob of fine linen (4) and purple (5); and the city of Shushan shouted and was glad.  (Esther 8:15)

By giving him five sets of clothes, says the Talmud, Joseph offers this hint to Benjamin.  Your offspring are destined for greatness.

What about the 300 shekels of silver?  A medieval Spanish commentator named Rabbeinu Bahya offers a creative answer.  Once again, Joseph is sending a hidden message, this time to all of his brothers.  In this case, it is a message about their guilt.  Bear with me, as his argument is built on several details and involves a math equation.

Here is the first detail.  The Talmud (BT Gittin 44a) rules that if a Jewish slave owner sells his slave to a non-Jew, he can be forced to pay a penalty of up to ten times the price of the slave in order to redeem him, and then he must set the slave free.

Since slaves owned by Jews were obligated to observe many of the mitzvot, selling such a slave to a non-Jew who would not permit their continued observance would be particularly harsh.  That is why the Rabbis of the Talmud impose such a harsh penalty.  That is the first detail: a tenfold penalty for selling a slave to a Gentile.

The second detail is from the Book of Exodus.  

אִם־עֶ֛בֶד יִגַּ֥ח הַשּׁ֖וֹר א֣וֹ אָמָ֑ה כֶּ֣סֶף ׀ שְׁלֹשִׁ֣ים שְׁקָלִ֗ים יִתֵּן֙ לַֽאדֹנָ֔יו וְהַשּׁ֖וֹר יִסָּקֵֽל׃

But if the ox gores a slave, male or female, he shall pay thirty shekels of silver to the master, and the ox shall be stoned.  (Exodus 21:32)

This sets the value of a slave at 30 shekels of silver.

Joseph was sold into slavery by ten of his brothers.  Who did they sell him to?  A wandering band of Ishmaelites, i.e. non-Jews.  If the value of a slave is 30 shekels of silver, and the penalty for selling a slave to a non-Jew is ten times the sale price, what is the total penalty?  It is basic math.  30 x 10 = 300 shekels of silver, payable by each of the ten brothers.

Benjamin, Joseph’s younger brother, was not involved in the sale, so he has no obligation to pay the penalty.  When Joseph, in his joy at being reunited with his family, decides to give gifts to all of his brothers, he settles on the convenient number of 300 shekels.  This erases the ten brothers’ debt to him.  Benjamin, who has no debt, winds up with 300 shekels in his pocket.

This is a creative answer to why Joseph would place such a potential stumbling block in his brothers’ path.  It was no stumbling block at all.

It’s Easy to Promise Something You Don’t Have, But Hard to Deliver It When You Do – Vayetze 5779

If there is one thing that I have learned about parenting, it is this: never promise your kids anything.  They will hold you to it.  So whenever I am asked, “Do you promise?” the answer is always, “No.”

At the beginning of this morning’s Torah portion, Vayetze, Jacob is fleeing from the land of his birth, Canaan, on his way to Haran.  He is trying to escape from his brother Esau, who in his anger at Jacob for stealing the blessing that should have been his, has vowed to kill him.

When he reaches the border, Jacob stops at an unnamed place to lay down for the night.  Taking a rock for a pillow, he goes to sleep by the side of the road.  He dreams of a ladder extending from the ground up to heaven.  Angels are ascending and descending, and God stands next to him.  In the dream, God blesses Jacob, promising offspring as numerous as the dust on the earth.  They will inherit the land and be a blessing to the world.  Furthermore, God will remain with Jacob, protecting him while he is abroad, and never leaving until this promise has been fulfilled.

That’s a great dream!  Not bad for a night’s sleep.

Jacob wakes up, knowing that something amazing has transpired.  “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.  “How awesome is this place!  This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.”

He takes his stone pillow, sets it up as a pillar, anoints it with oil, and names the site Beit El—the House of God.  Then Jacob makes a vow:

If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house—the Lord shall be my God.  And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God’s abode; and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You.  (Genesis 28:20-22)

Jacob has just promised three things: 1.  The Lord shall be My God.  2.  This pillar shall be God’s abode—Beit Elohim.  3.  I will set aside a tithe—that is to, ten percent of everything he owns.

How are we to understand this vow?  It seems kind of redundant.  God has just promised to protect Jacob and return him safely to the land of Canaan.  Why does Jacob need to repeat it?

The cynic would take offense at Jacob’s audacity.  It sounds like he is bargaining with God, or even extorting God to protect him.  “You want to be my God?  You want me to worship You? Then You had better deliver!”

But remember, at this point in his life, Jacob has absolutely nothing.  He is so poor that he has to use a rock for a pillow.  He has, quite literally, nothing to give.  

So he offers God a share in future earnings.  All that he can do is make a vow:  “I don’t have anything I can give You now, but when You do what You say You are going to do, and I have become rich beyond my wildest dream, then I will promise to give You one tenth of everything I own.”

That is quite a promise.  Will Jacob deliver?

By the end of this morning’s Torah portion, twenty years have passed.  Jacob has established a large family and amassed a tremendous fortune.  The time has come for him to leave Haran and return to the land of Canaan.  The parashah ends with Jacob setting off on the return journey with his entire household.

Next week’s portion begins the long anticipated and feared reunion with Esau.  The reunion goes better than expected and Jacob moves on to Shechem with his family.  After the rape of his daughter Dina and the subsequent massacre of the men of the town, Jacob picks up and moves again.  Finally, he arrives at Beit El, the same place at which he had his dream of angels rising and descending a ladder.  This is the same place where, without a penny to his name, Jacob vowed to present a tithe to the Lord in exchange for God’s protection and blessing.

God appears to Jacob once again, blesses him, changes his name from Jacob to Israel, and promises that his descendants will inherit the land.  

God has certainly delivered God’s part.  Now it is Jacob’s turn.

Remember, Jacob promised three things:  Commitment to God, a pillar, and a tithe.  Jacob sets up a pillar on the spot to mark the occasion, pours a libation over it, and anoints it with oil.  Is this the same pillar or a different one?  Not clear, but Jacob clearly has indicated his commitment to God.  Promise one—check.  Promise two—check.  Promise three—…silence.

Did Jacob renege on his promise?  Has he broken his vow?

The Torah does not say, but let’s see if we can unpack it.  When Jacob returns to the land of Canaan twenty years later, he brings with him a large family and a significant fortune.  Ten percent would amount to quite a sum – made up largely of livestock.

Who is to be the recipient of Jacob’s tithe?  Tithe giving was a well-known, widespread practice in the Ancient Near East.  A worshipper would typically bring the tithe to the priests officiating at a temple or to the King in his royal court.  The problem for Jacob is that all of the temples in his day are idolatrous, and there is certainly no royal personage deserving of his loyalty.  There is no obvious person to whom he can give ten percent of his wealth.

Perhaps he could offer it up directly to God as a burnt offering?  That is what the commentator Rashbam suggests, but he does not seem to be bothered by the extraordinary number of animals that would have been slaughtered and burned to ash.  

Rabbi David Kimchi, known by the acronym Radak, is a medieval Bible commentator from Provence, France.  Radak interprets Jacob’s promise to set aside a tithe as a promise to give tzedakah to people in need who fear and worship God.  Feeding the hungry, he says, is a gift to God.

Radak cites another possibility from a midrash (Genesis Rabbah 70:7).  Jacob tithes his children.  He sets aside one tenth of his sons.  Who is the lucky lad?  Levi, whose descendants will spend more time than their brother tribes in service to God.  The Priests and Levites, who officiate in the Temple, both come from the tribe of Levi.  Radak suggests that Jacob dedicated extra time imparting to Levi the esoteric wisdom and teachings of the Torah.

Radak’s two answers offer important insight that suggests two ways that we can express gratitude for the blessings that we receive.  In the first answer, the tithe is a gift of wealth.  In the second answer, the tithe is a gift of service.  Both are accepted by God.  

It is easy to promise to do something tomorrow that I do not have the capacity to do today.  When tomorrow arrives, what is the likelihood that I will actually follow through?

Our elected officials do this all the time.  

It is for this reason that the Rabbis do not approve of vows.  They know that we have a hard time standing by our word, so they discourage us from making the commitment unless we are fully prepared to follow through.

To this day, many Jews use the expression b’li neder—meaning “without a vow.”  It is a way of saying, I intend to do something, but I am not promising, because something might get in the way that is out of my control.

As a totally hypothetical example, a person might tell a spouse, “B’li neder, I’ll clean out the garage over the Thanksgiving weekend, when I have all of that free time.”  Meaning, “I know you want me to clean out the garage, and it would make me really happy if I were to do that for you when I have all of that free time next week, but there is a really good chance that something else is going to come up that I want to do more.”

Jacob wants to do the right thing.  His vow is sincere.  But without a penny to his name, he’ll promise anything.  He is desperate.  The real test is going to come later, when he is wealthy.  Will he remember his earlier promise?  When he has made his fortune, will he be willing to part from it?

I’ll speak for myself.  I have never been in Jacob’s shoes.  I have never found myself in a situation in which I had nothing, and did not have anyone to whom I could turn.  So I am in no position to judge Jacob for his vow.  

I grew up in an upper-middle class family that could provide for my needs, including paying the majority of my college expenses.  I hope to be able to do the same for my children.

While it might not seem this way in wealthy Silicon Valley, this is not the reality for the majority of Americans, and certainly for most of the inhabitants of the planet.

I read just this morning about 3,000 migrants from Central America who are currently in Tijuana, Mexicot.  Their numbers are expected to swell to ten thousand in the coming months.  As I read about them, I began to consider, “what would it take for a person to uproot his children, leave his native land, and travel over 1,000 miles by foot to an unknown country?  How bad would things have to be?”  I cannot even begin to imagine.

I imagine that many of those who have chosen to make that journey have made promises to God, offering promises in exchange for blessing and protection.  I bet Jacob’s desperate promise, made on his journey leaving the only home he has ever known, might seem familiar to some of these migrants.  

Maybe we should try to put ourselves in Jacob’s shoes.  Each of us has been the recipient of enormous blessings to get to where we are today.  What should we give back?

Who in our community needs help?  Who in the global community?  What of our wealth can we give, and what service can we offer that can begin to repay all of the incredible advantages and privileges that we enjoy?

Perhaps the Torah’s silence on whether Jacob fulfilled his vow suggests that for those who have experienced blessing, it is easy to forget about those who still struggle.

We owe it to God to not forget, and we serve God when we use the blessings we have received to be the blessing that lifts up another person.

When Will We Realize That The Guns Are The Problem? – Toldot 5779

Here we are again.  One week ago, we came to synagogue in shock and mourning over the massacre of eleven mostly elderly Jews who had come to synagogue to pray.  Today, we are still reeling from the murder of 12 young adults who had gathered to dance for college night at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks.  One of the victims had survived the Las Vegas shooting last October.

When I woke up to the news two days ago, I just felt nauseous.  My heart is sick from this senseless violence.  When will this end?  What is wrong with our society?

There are indications that the shooter had a history of mental illness, and possibly PTSD from his service in the Marines.  

What do these, and all of the other mass shootings have in common?  Guns.

Every time there is another tragedy, we start arguing about gun control again.

Does Judaism have anything to say about gun ownership?  As is typical, one can manipulate the sources to support any conclusion.  We have gun enthusiasts in our congregation.  My bias is definitely anti-gun.  I grew up in a home in which there were no toy guns.  We were not allowed to turn anything into a toy gun.  So it is pretty ingrained in me.  

I am not unique.  The common wisdom is that Jews don’t own guns.  In fact, there is data to support this.  According to a 2005 study, Jews had the lowest rate of gun ownership among all religious groups in the United States.  The Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements have repeatedly issued formal calls for increased gun control, turning to Jewish law and tradition to support their positions.  That is something on which we all agree.

Where does this Jewish antipathy towards guns come from?

Since ancient times Jewish law has not looked favorably upon weapons.  It is forbidden to sell weapons to idolaters, and to Jewish bandits.  In other words, to someone who might use those weapons inappropriately.

A Mishnah (Shabbat 6:4) discusses whether the weapons that a soldier might carry during peacetime should be considered as decorations or tools.  At the end of the discussion, the Sages declare that even though they must sometimes be used, weapons are inherently disgraceful.  As proof, the Mishnah quotes the famous passage from Isaiah, describing a messianic vision of a world at peace.  “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  Nation will not take up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”  (Isaiah 2:4)

Finally, because the laws of kashrut require animals to be slaughtered in a specific fashion, hunting has never been popular in Judaism, for practical reasons.  Plus, it is considered to be cruel to the animals.  This disapproval for hunting is evident in the Torah itself.  We find it in this morning’s parashah, Toldot.

Esau is one of two people whom the Torah describes as a hunter.  The other is Nimrod.  Neither of them are Israelites, and both are portrayed negatively.

In the beginning of the parashah, Rebecca gives birth to twin boys, Jacob and Esau, after a difficult pregnancy.  Shortly after introducing them, the Torah summarizes their personalities: “Esau was a man who knew the hunt, a man of the field, and Jacob was a simple man, a dweller of tents.”  (Gen. 25:27)

Reading the text straightforwardly, we see the classic juxtaposition of the hunter vs. the shepherd.  The commentators delve deeper into the contrast between the two brothers.

Rashi, citing the midrash, claims that Esau would hunt his father, Isaac, with his words, deceiving him into thinking that Esau was a kind, observant young man.  He hid his true nature.  Never mind that it is Jacob who is the one to do the actual deceiving.

Another commentator, Ibn Ezra, claims that hunting is by its nature a deceit-filled activity in which the hunter must trick his prey in order to catch it.

Esau, as depicted by the Rabbis, is a murderer, a brigand, and a rapist.  In contrast to the violent, weapon-loving Esau is Jacob, the mild-mannered brother who uses his head instead of his hands.  He is the one whom the Rabbis prefer, placing him in the Beit Midrash, the Academy, instead of the houses of idolatry.  

The Midrashic depiction of these brothers reveals the Rabbis’ preferences for which kinds of behaviors to emulate and which to avoid.  Their bias against physical violence and arms is abundantly clear.

On the other hand, the principle of pikuach nefesh directs us to do almost everything possible to save life.  There are ancient sources which emphasize the permission, or even obligations, to defend oneself or an innocent person who is under attack.  One might defend gun ownership for purposes of self-defense.

But there are clear limits.  Despite acknowledging the permissibility of using force in certain circumstances, the Rabbis are always concerned with going too far.  Someone who kills in self-defense, in a situation in which it would have been possible to only injure the assailant, is considered to liable under Jewish law.

It is fair to say that Judaism would support fairly rigorous gun regulations.

Over the last few years, the idea of “Common Sense Gun Laws” has been tossed around.  Even though they are so “common sense,” they still generate opposition from the NRA.  Practically, this means that nothing happens at the Federal level.

To be clear, there is no agreement on what “common sense” means.  Here are some of the regulations that are typically described as “Common Sense Gun Laws.”

• A ban on semi-automatic weapons, or assault-style weapons

• A limit on the capacity of bullet magazines

• Red flag laws, in which a relative or police officer who is concerned about a gun owner’s mental state can go to a court to determine whether that person’s gun rights can be suspended.

• And of course, closing the gun show loophole, which permits gun sales from private owners or at gun shows without background checks.

But this week’s killings would not have been prevented by any of these measures.  California already has the most restrictive gun laws in the country.  We have enacted most of the “common sense,” provisions on a statewide level.

The shooter had a license for the handgun that he used.  He also used a high capacity clip.  Although these have recently been made illegal in California, the ban is currently held up in court.  The shooter’s mother had reported her concerns over his mental health, and he had been evaluated earlier this year no decision was made to remove his weapons.

The shooter in Pittsburgh used three handguns and an AR-15 rifle, all purchased legally.  Perhaps more restrictive laws might have made a difference, but I am skeptical.

Most gun deaths do not occur in mass shootings, but it is the mass shootings that tend to generate the most emotional reactions in us.  Gun violence in America is an epidemic .  In 2013, there were 33,636 deaths by firearms.  Of those, 11,208 were homicides, and 21,175 were suicides.  

It’s not the regulations that make the difference.  It’s the guns.  States with higher rates of gun ownership experience higher rates of firearm homicides, while non-firearm murder rates remain at normal levels.

Federal law prohibits the Centers for Disease Control from spending any money to study the public health aspect of gun violence, including mass shootings.  This makes it very difficult to get usable data.

The National Firearms Act forbids “any system of registration of firearms, firearms owners, or firearms transactions or dispositions [to] be established.”  This means that the government does not know where the guns are, who owns them, or even how many exist.

When we compare the rate of gun-related deaths in the United States to that of other countries, the contrast is shocking.  According to the OECD, the U.S. has the 4th highest incidence of firearm homicides out of 34 developed nations, behind only Mexico, Turkey, and Estonia. 

Compared to other countries, the United States does very little to restrict gun ownership.  The result: there are a lot of guns.  That is why we have so many gun-related suicides, murders, and mass shootings.  If guns were not around, gun violence would not exist.  That is common sense.

Do not expect this to change anytime soon.  While it might only be a fraction of Americans who own guns, we have a national fascination.  Why does the Second Amendment guarantee “the right to bear arms,” and why do people feel so passionate about it?

In America, the idea of private gun ownership is built on suspicion.  Part of the American mythos is that we have a deep mistrust of the state.  We need to be able to own guns to protect ourselves from a government that might become corrupt, or from other people when the government is unable to protect us.

Is gun ownership a God-given right?  Of course not.  It is a human-bestowed right.  There are many countries in the world that come close to outlawing guns altogether.  Would we say that they are violating God’s will?

Private handgun ownership is essentially illegal in Great Britain.  Even the police do not typically carry guns.  In the 12 months that ended in March 2016, the highest number of firearm deaths in four years was recorded:  26.  This is consistent with other countries around the world.

But we in America like our guns.  So we have to ask: Is it possible to have a society in which there are a lot of guns without high murder rates?

Let’s do a thought experiment.

Imagine a society in which, to own a gun, a person had to undergo extensive background checks.  The government would look into criminal, physical and mental health history.  The person would need to demonstrate a bona fide reason for needing a gun, such as living in an area that is particularly dangerous, or working as a civilian security guard.  Anyone with a gun would need to take a training course on responsible gun ownership.

Because the disproportionate amount of gun deaths occur in young adults, a person would have to be at least 27 years old to be eligible for a license.  If he or she had undergone combat training as a combat soldier in the military, the age would be 21. 

The owner must demonstrate that there is a gun safe in the house. To maintain the gun license, a person would need to complete a refresher course every three years.  Since a person’s mental state changes over time, the gun owner would receive a psychological evaluation every six years.

Finally, since the purpose of the gun is for self-defense, an owner would be limited to owning one handgun, and would be restricted to owning 50 bullets at any given time.  

There could be some variations for those who use guns for sport or for hunting.

How does that sound?

I have just described the gun ownership laws of one country.  Can you guess which one?

Israel

There is no “right to bear arms” in Israel. The private gun ownership rate in Israel is 7.3 guns per 100 people.  In America, it is 88.8 guns per 100 people.

But wait, you are thinking.  I have been to Israel.  There are guns all over the place.  It seems like everyone has a gun.  Soldiers.  Police.  Guards outside of buildings.  The vast majority of firearms in Israel are issued by the military, and fall under military jurisdiction, which has extremely tight rules.  Anyone who violates those rules would have to face a military tribunal.  Only 4% of guns in Israel are not issued by the military.  So there are a lot of guns in Israel, but the regulations on those guns is extremely tight.

What is the result?

In 2009, the death rate in Israel from guns was 1.86 per 100,000 people.  In the U.S. in the same year, it was 10.3 — 6 times higher.

In America, protection from the state underlies the obsession with guns.  In Israel, the attitude is the opposite.  Guns are seen as tools for the protection of the state.

I don’t know what it will take to change the culture of suspicion that pervades our nation.  We need to do what we can to foster greater cooperation and trust among one another.  That is the only way that we will be able to bring about Isaiah’s vision.

“They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  Nation will not take up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” 

May that dream become a reality speedily, in our day.

Opposing Antisemitism After Pittsburgh

I am indebted to this powerful Rosh Hashanah sermon by Rabbi Angela Buchdahl at New York’s Central Synagogue, from which I borrowed some ideas and several sources.

I have stated, on more than one occasion, that this is the best time and place to be Jewish in human history.  We have never enjoyed so much freedom, success, safety, and acceptance by the wider society than we do today.  I still believe that.

But last week, we were reminded that antisemitism is very real, and it is not going away any time soon.

Last Shabbat at the Tree of Life synagogue, eleven Jews, men and women between 54 and 97 years old, were murdered while praying.  These are their names:

Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfrie, Rose Mallinger—97 years old, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, along with his brother—David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, Irving Younger.  May their memories be a blessing.

These were the most dedicated members of their community, the ones who, week after week, showed up at the beginning of services to ensure that there would be a minyan.  They are martyrs: Jews who died for the sanctification of God’s name.  

Their murderer, whose name I will not mention, shouted “All Jews must die” as he slaughtered them.

He did not care if his victims were Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox.  It did not matter to him whether they were Democrats or Republicans, or whether they leaned to the right or to the left.

All that mattered was that they were Jews.

While the shooter seems to have been working alone, his beliefs were consistent with views embraced by those who identify as part of White Power, Neo Nazi, or Alt-Right movements.  In an article in the The Atlantic last December, journalist Luke O’Brian summarizes White Nationalists’ fears of Jewish influence.

The Holohoax, as it is known, gives its adherents an excuse to blame everything they hate on a cabal of Jews: Feminism. Immigration. Globalization. Liberalism. Egalitarianism. The media. Science. Facts. Video-game addiction. Romantic failure. The NBA being 74.4 percent black. According to the Holohoax, it’s all a plot to undermine traditional white patriarchy so Jews can maintain a parasitic dominion over the Earth.

They see Jews as the top of the pyramid, the ultimate cause of everything that they consider bad.  

Saturday’s murderer had been railing against HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which is one of several agencies that partners with the Federal Government to settle refugees – legal refugees, by the way.  HIAS had sponsored National Refugee Shabbat the week before, and Tree of Life Synagogue had participated proudly.

In one of his final online posts, the shooter wrote: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people, I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”  

Who is to blame for letting immigrants in the country?  The Jews.  The ultimate Other.

Antisemitism has a long and terrible two thousand year history.  We have suffered countless persecutions: expulsions, forced conversions, torture, massacres during the Crusades, the blood libel, blame for the Black Death, the Inquisition, ghettos, the Chmielnitzki Massacres, pogroms, and of course the Holocaust.  

All of these and more were driven by hateful, antisemitic lies and stereotypes.  Jews are responsible for Jesus’ death, Jews are usurers, they are greedy, they have big noses and ears, they run the media, there is a secret organization of Jews that is controlling the world.

While these stereotypes originated in Christendom, they eventually spread into Muslim lands, where blood libels persist to this day and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is still in print.

While we seem to have made great progress after the horrors of the Holocaust, the old antisemitism is still very much with us.  

Anyone who has traveled to Europe and tried to visit a Jewish community knows that synagogues there are fortresses.  To attend services on Shabbat in many communities, you have to first send a picture of your passport.  I attended Tisha B’av services in Trieste, Italy, a few years ago.  We barely had a minyan, but we were protected by an Israeli security guard at the door, two machine gun wielding Italian carabinieri, and two undercover police officers.

A synagogue is supposed to be a welcoming place.  It is a House of Worship, a sanctuary, a place of peace.  Sadly, antisemitism prevents this.  But not in America.

Yes, there are some very large, mainly urban synagogues that employ security, but we take for granted that our shuls are open places.  We take pride in it.  As Sinai’s Rabbi, I am constantly inviting people to join us on Shabbat for services, and to stay for lunch afterwards.  I insist, with 100% sincerity, that we love having guests.

In the last week, we have been questioning this sense of safety and security.  We have learned most painfully that antisemitism in not just words and rhetoric.

While Jews in America are trusted and seen positively by higher percentages than ever, we are also seeing increasingly nasty antisemitism on the fringes of both the right and the left.  Let me give a few examples.  As I do, pay close attention to your emotions.  How do you feel as I describe the following examples?

First, the right.

A Republican candidate for State Senate in Connecticut sent out a campaign mailer this week attacking his opponent, Democratic State Representative Matthew Lesser, who happens to be Jewish.  The ad depicts a photoshopped picture of Lesser with bulging eyes, a maniacal grin, hands clutching wads of cash — not dissimilar to other antisemitic caricatures of Jews that have appeared over the past centuries.

Last year, White Nationalists held their Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, which resulted in the murder of Heather Heyer.  President Trump infamously told reporters, “I think there is blame on both sides…  You had some very bad people in that group… but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”  The Alt-Right took his words as an endorsement.

Just last week, the President proudly declared himself to be a “nationalist.”  And at a rally Saturday night, just hours after the massacre in Pittsburgh, he railed against immigrants, referring to this coming Tuesday as the “election of the caravan.”

Many have drawn connections between the President’s frequent anti-immigrant, anti-Other language and the hate-driven violence that we have recently witnessed, including the shooting of two African Americans in Kentucky, and the mailing of 14 pipe bombs to targets that the President has verbally attacked repeatedly.

That’s on the right.  How about the left?

Traditionally, the Jews of Great Britain have been strong supporters of the Labour Party.  But its current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has tolerated and even encouraged antisemitic rhetoric and actions within the party for years.  In 2012, Corbyn hosted a panel comprised of a number of Hamas members.  In 2013, he suggested that “Zionists don’t understand English irony.”  In 2014, he attended a memorial ceremony and placed a wreath for the terrorists who murdered Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.  Just recently, the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee refused to accept the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism.

Ilhan Omar is a Democratic representative in Minnesota’s House of Representatives.  This past August, she won the primary for the Democratic nomination for the House of Representatives in Minnesota’s 5th District, meaning she is all but certain to win the general election this Tuesday.  In 2012, she tweeted, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.”

Liberal Jews should be natural allies for the Women’s March.  And yet, three of the Co-Chairs, most notably Tamika Mallory, have refused to denounce the march’s association with Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, who has a long history of blatantly antisemitic rhetoric, including praise of Hitler.

Just last Spring, Mallory attended the Nation of Islam’s annual gathering, at which Farrakhan praised her and declared “the powerful Jews are my enemy… the Jews have control of those agencies of government” like the FBI.  The Jews are “the mother and father of apartheid,” and they are responsible for “degenerate behavior in Hollywood turning men into women and women into men.”  When confronted with this, Mallory refused to disassociate herself or the Women’s March from him.  Quite the opposite, she has often praised and appeared in photographs with Farrakhan.

So let me ask a question.  Over the last four minutes, I spoke about antisemitism on the right and antisemitism on the left:  A Republican ad depicting a Jewish opponent with classic antisemitic imagery; President Trump’s divisive rhetoric encouraging right wing extremists.  I spoke about the leader of the British Labour Party’s tolerance, and even encouragement of antisemitic behavior.  I mentioned a soon to be elected Democratic Congresswoman who made references to global Zionist conspiracies.  And I spoke about an organizer of the Women’s March who has refused to renounce Louis Farrakhan.

Which made you more angry?  Be honest.  Who did you find yourself trying to excuse in some way?  

My guess is that those who consider themselves to be politically liberal got angrier about the antisemitism on the right, while those who consider themselves to be conservative got angrier about the antisemitism of the left.  And both sides probably found themselves minimizing, dismissing, or even rejecting the antisemitism on their own ideological side, or getting mad at me for even suggesting it.

I have been looking at myself this past week, and I have found that I have done all of these things.

On the Conservative Rabbis’ listserv, less than 24 hours had passed, and there were already arguments raging over who was to blame for the rhetoric that encouraged the shooter.  Of course, there were those who placed responsibility on President Trump for fanning the flames of hatred.  But in response, there were accusations that it was in fact President Obama who started the divisive language that led to Trump’s election and Saturday’s tragedy.

Here is what I have observed about how Jews react to antisemitism.  We blame the antisemitism of the other side.  It makes us so mad.  “Why don’t other Jews see it?” we ask in exasperation.

And then we ignore, excuse, or minimize the antisemitism on our own side.  “Those are just a few fringe elements,” we tell ourselves.  “They don’t really matter.”

What is the result?  A few things.  No antisemites change their minds.  Jews on the right and Jews on the left get angrier at each other.  We widen the rifts within the Jewish community. 

Right now, there is a small window of cooperation in our grief.  I was impressed by a joint editorial written by the ideologically opposed Editors-in-Chief of the Forward and The Algemeiner, and signed by a dozen leaders in Jewish journalism.  It was titled #WeAreAllJews.

We […] join together to unequivocally condemn this brutal act of antisemitism and all deadly acts of hate. We also condemn the climate of hate that has been building for some time now, especially on college campuses and on social media, where the veneer of anonymity has allowed antisemitic cesspools to flourish, and from irresponsible political leaders who engage in hateful speech and who are abetted by the silence of others.

I think we can all agree on the following:  Antisemitism is evil, whether it comes from the right or the left.  I can accept that you have a different opinion than me about taxes, or health care, or immigration policies.  But if there is one thing that ought to unite us, it ought to be our Judaism.  We have got to be united in opposing anyone who expresses hatred against the Jewish people, or who stokes that hatred.

What is more important?  Being a Democrat or Republican, a Conservative or a Liberal, or being Jewish?  Why would we ever let political affiliation to drive a wedge in the Jewish community?

Don’t just blame the other side.  From now on, I want all of us to commit to calling out the antisemitism that persists on the fringes of our own political perspectives.  Those who are active in progressive causes need to stay engaged.  And similarly with those involved in conservative causes.  Do not allow the organizations and movements that you care about to get hijacked by antisemitism.  Do not allow antisemitic—or any hateful language—to go unchecked.  

Racism and hatred should not have a place in our politics.  If we do not call it out, then we are responsible for allowing it to grow.

This past week, our wider Jewish community gathered together on two occasions.  The first was a service of mourning on Sunday night.  It was attended by more than 400 people who felt an urgent need to come together to express grief and offer each other comfort.

The second gathering was an Interfaith Vigil of Solidarity Against Hate, which took place on Tuesday.

It was a special event.  More than 600 people assembled at the plaza in front of San Jose City Hall.  Mayor Sam Liccardo and the entire City Council attended, along with Joe Simitian, President of the Santa Clara Country Board of Supervisors, Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, and many of our other local elected officials.

There were also dozens of clergy, and laypeople of many faiths and ethnic backgrounds.  Protestant Ministers and Pastors, Catholic, Episcopalian, and Greek Orthodox Priests, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs. These religious leaders brought their congregants with them.

We came together to say that we will not succumb to hatred.  Despite many differences, we are united as human beings, and as Americans.  While the need that brought us together was tragic, the experience of standing shoulder to shoulder was so reassuring. 

How did such a diverse crowd come together?

On Saturday, as soon as news about the shooting emerged, I started receiving personal emails from interfaith colleagues and friends.  They expressed their sorrow to me and offered condolences to our community.  They said that they would be reciting prayers and lighting memorial candles during their worship services the next day.  They offered to help our community in any way possible, including standing outside our entrances during service so that we would feel safe while we prayed.

Who was it that sent these messages?  Some were members of a small interfaith group of which I am a member.  We have met every month for the past couple of years to study and learn from each other.

One email came from a representative of the Evergreen Mosque.  Last year, when that community received a bomb threat, I was one of several dozen people of different faiths who stood outside the entrance to support their community during its Friday prayers.  

Another came from a leader in the local Hindu community, who I have gotten to know through a different interfaith organization.

When we decided to hold the Interfaith Vigil, I immediately sent out the notification to my interfaith colleagues, and many of them came, on very short notice.

All of my local Rabbinic Colleagues had the same experiences.  And this is true of the countless other interfaith vigils, services, and rallies which have taken place around the country this past week.

A threat, or God forbid an attack, is uniquely personal to the community that experiences it.  Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bazeh.  All Jews are interconnected with one another.  At the same, how remarkable it is that people from extraordinarily different traditions feel such profound empathy for one another.

Can you imagine this happening in any other time or place in history?

I suspect that many of you had experiences this week in which non-Jewish friends, acquaintances, or co-workers reached out to express their condolences and sorrow.  Why do you think they did that?

Because they see you as a whole person, and they know that being Jewish is an important part of who you are.  And they value you for that.  That is what makes America so special.  And that is why I do not think we are facing the same situation as Germany in the 1930’s, or even contemporary Europe.

Antisemitism will certainly continue to exist.  It may even turn violent.  But I have faith in the goodness of most people.  

I was reminded this week of a letter that President George Washington wrote to the Hebrew Congregations of Newport, Road Island in 1790.  While his address is specifically addressed to the American Jewish community, it really expresses the best of what pluralism and religious freedom is supposed to be in America – for people of all faiths.  I would like to conclude with these words by our Founding Father.

The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation.  All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship…

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.

Amen.

Tzedakah or Selfishness – Vayera 5779

Justice, tzedakah, is one of the recurring themes in this morning’s Torah portion, Vayera.  As God contemplates the fate of the Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities in the Jordan River Valley, God decides to hire a consultant.  

Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do… for I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children… to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right…—tzedakah u’mishpat.

God tells Abraham about the plan to destroy the two cities because of the extreme wickedness of their inhabitants.  Abraham immediately challenges God:  Ha’af tispeh tzadik im rasha  

Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?  What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it?…  Far be it from You… to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty…

God is convinced, promising “If I find within the city of Sodom fifty innocent ones, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.”

This is just the opening salvo in the negotiation.  Abraham lowers the threshold to 45, then 40, 30, 20, and finally 10 innocent people to save the remainder of the population.  God agrees every time.  

It seems, based on God’s original assessment, that this was the plan all along.  After all, God has already identified Abraham as someone who will pass on the values of tzedakah and mishpat — justice and righteousness — to his children.

It turns out that there are not even 10 righteous individuals in the two cities, leaving God free to carry out the original sentence.  Perhaps if Abraham had gone still lower…  God would probably have agreed.

This story depicts Abraham at his best.  He puts everything on the line for the sake of his fellow human beings.  These particular human beings are the worst of the worst,  but Abraham cannot sit idly by, even for such a depraved population.

Soon afterwards, Abraham and Sarah find themselves the land of Gerar, which is near Gaza.  As in a prior encounter with Pharaoh in Egypt, Abraham passes off his wife, Sarah, as his sister.  So what happens?  The King, Avimelech, thinking that she is single, has Sarah brought into his household.  [She is 89 years old at the time, but never mind.]

Before anything happens, God speaks to Avimelech in a dream.  “You are to die because of the woman you have taken, for she is a married woman!”

Still in the dream, Avimelech defends himself.  “O Lord, will you slay people even though innocent? — ha’goy gam tzadik ta’harog?  Sound familiar?  Avimelech makes the argument with God on his own behalf as Abraham made earlier on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah.  God agrees, and instructs Avimelech to return Sarah to her husband.

The next day, Avimelech confronts Abraham.  “What did I ever do to you?  You’ve brought disaster upon us.  You have done things to me that ought not to be done!”

Abraham’s response is difficult to hear. “I thought,” he says, “surely there is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.”  (Gen. 20:11)  Then he offers some weak excuse explaining how Sarah is really his half-sister, and he did not technically lie.  Whether she is his sister or not is irrelevant.  What matters is his hiding the fact that she is a married woman.

Abraham, who had just recently behaved so nobly, now thinks only of himself.  He puts a lot of people in danger.  First of all, Sarah.  As soon as they arrive, she is taken to the palace, presumably to be made part of the harem.  Avimelech is endangered, as even a King is not allowed to be with a married woman.  And finally, because Abraham is, well Abraham, Avimelech’s entire household is stricken with temporary infertility, merely for bringing Sarah in to the palace.  If things had gone further, God’s wrath would have turned lethal.

Abraham assumes the worst of Avimelech and his people.  He condemns them before he even meets them.  But Abraham is wrong.  These are not wicked people.  As it turns out, Avimelech is a God-fearing man, with a sense of justice.  

This story has close parallels to the earlier story.  Only this time, it is Avimelech playing the role of the prophet standing in the breach, arguing for justice against a vengeful God.  In this case, like the previous, God wants to be convinced.  God wants tzedakah, justice, to reign.  God does not want the innocent to suffer the fate of the guilty.  As before, Abraham must personally intercede, praying to God for the health and well-being of Avimelech and his household.  But Abraham’s prayers come only after Avimelech bribes presents him with sheep, oxen, servants, land, and silver.

Abraham does not come out well in this story.  Is this the same person who put everything on the line to argue with God on behalf of people that he knew were wicked?  He is supposed to be the optimist, the one devoted to bringing justice into the world.  He should at least have given Avimelech the benefit of the doubt.

What are we to make of Abraham?  The Torah does not hold back in presenting its heroes as flawed individuals.  They make mistakes.  Sometimes, their opponents have qualities going for them as well.  The underlying theme of these two stories is tzedakah.  God wants justice.  God does not want the innocent to suffer punishments that should be reserved just for the wicked.  And in both stories, it seems that God is not capable of holding back the injustice without human intercession.

Abraham’s abrupt turn from being a justice-hero to behaving with selfishness and distrust teaches us something about the impact that fear can have, even on the best of us.  Abraham is afraid.  He says so himself.  His fear leads him to treat others unfairly, including his own wife.  He succumbs to stereotypes.

And Abraham, remember, is a good man.  He is the one whom God has selected to be a blessing to the world, and to teach his children about justice and righteousness.  If Abraham is susceptible to fear, how much the more so are we!

I don’t think I need to detail the many examples of how fear leads to injustice.  In this case, the victim was King Avimelech, a person in power.  But usually, the ones who are most harmed by fear and distrust are those without power.

The lesson from both stories is that God needs human intercessors to bring tzedakah into the world.  Any of us has the capacity to be such an intercessor, just as any of us has the capacity, through fear, to turn our backs on our brothers and sisters.

As Jews, we take this on as a special obligation, going all the way back to Abraham, whom God selected to “instruct his children… to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right.”

May we always strive to live up to that ideal.

A Natural Family with a Supernatural Mandate – Lekh L’kha 5779

The Silicon Valley Introduction to Judaism class began this past week.  It is a wonderful example of collaboration in our Jewish community.  I, along with Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist colleagues, teach this class every year.

Adult students have an opportunity to learn from Rabbis of different denominations.  Classes rotate, depending on who is teaching that night, between the Jewish Community Center, Congregation Sinai, Congregation Beth David, Congregation Shir Hadash, and Temple Emanu-El.

At the first Introduction to Judaism session, students are invited to introduce themselves and share their reasons for taking the class.  Every year, there are a variety of reasons given.

Some students are Jewish adults who either never received a Jewish education, or who feel that they want to learn about Judaism in a more sophisticated way, as compared to the child-focused education they received years ago.  Some are members of synagogues.  Some are not.

There are also non-Jewish students who are lifelong learners.  Their spiritual and intellectual journeys have led them to learn about different faiths and traditions.

Some class participants are interested in converting to Judaism.  This can include those who have a Jewish partner, as well as those who have decided to explore Judaism on their own.

Finally, some non-Jewish students do not intend to convert, but are committed to supporting their Jewish partners in building a Jewish home and raising Jewish children.

As students describe the journeys that led them to the Introduction to Judaism class, there are often incredible stories.

Some share strange, mysterious family traditions.  Often they involve lighting candles at particular times during the year, or avoiding certain kinds of foods. In some families, there are secrets that are known only to the older members from earlier generations, who hush up in seeming embarrassment whenever the topic arises.

Usually, these suspicions of a Jewish past point to a possible Sephardic family connection.  But not always.

With the growing popularity and availability of DNA testing, it is now possible to confirm long-held suspicions of Jewish ancestry.  That is increasingly serving as the impetus for people to explore Judaism as a way to regain a lost family heritage.

Also at the first session, we divide students into small groups and give them an assignment: Write a one sentence definition of Judaism that is grammatically and syntactically correct – no run-ons.  It is a very difficult assignment which students have a tough time completing.  That is kind of the point.

Judaism is not a religion in the way that we typically think of religion.  Simply by being born to a Jewish mother,  a person is Jewish regardless of what he or she believes.  Don’t learn from this, however, that Judaism does not have particular beliefs.  It does.

So does this make Judaism a race?  Not at all.  For if Judaism was a race, it would be impossible to convert.  And yet Judaism has always welcomed converts, as we will see shortly.

Professor Jon Levenson expresses the difficulty in defining Judaism succinctly in his book, Inheriting Abraham.

The people Israel is neither a nationality in the conventional sense nor a church-like body composed of like-minded believers or practitioners of a common set of norms.  Having something in common with both of these more familiar identities, it reduces to neither of them.

Levenson has stated the difficulty of coming up with a definition.  Then he offers us one:

Rather, as the call and commission of Abram already indicate, it is a natural family with a supernatural mandate.

“A natural family with a supernatural mandate.”  We are family, and we strive to rise above our base nature as human beings to embrace a set of divinely-given, shared practices and values.

This morning’s parashah, Lekh L’kha, opens with God instructing Abram to leave behind his home and his father’s household and travel to the land that God will show him.  Without asking any questions, Abram packs up his household and begins the journey.

וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָם אֶת־שָׂרַי אִשְׁתּוֹ וְאֶת־לוֹט בֶּן־אָחִיו וְאֶת־כָּל־רְכוּשָׁם אֲשֶׁר רָכָשׁוּ וְאֶת־הַנֶּפֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר־עָשׂוּ בְחָרָן וַיֵּצְאוּ לָלֶכֶת אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן וַיָּבֹאוּ אַרְצָה כְּנָעַן:

Then Avram took Sarai his wife and Lot his nephew and all of their property which they had acquired and the persons that they acquired in Haran, and they went towards Canaan and they came to the land of Canaan.  (Genesis 12:5)

A midrash focuses on a peculiar phrase in this sentence.  v’et ha’nefesh asher asu.  Many translations say “the persons that they acquired,” which refers to the many servants that had joined their household.  Abram had done quite well for himself in Haran, apparently. 

An often-cited midrash (Genesis Rabbah 39:14) understands it a bit more creatively.  Literally, I might translate v’et ha’nefesh asher asu as “the soul that they had made.”  Is it possible to create life?

Rabbi Eleazar ben Zimra explains that if all of the people of the world were gathered together, we could not even make a fly, much less a human being.  The Torah says that the soul that was made refers to all the people that Abram and Sarai converted.  We learn that whoever brings idolaters into the fold is considered to have created them.

In other words, Abraham and Sarah were busy in Haran.  They were teaching their neighbors about God, and leading them away from idolatry.

In Levenson’s terms, they were joining the family.  This family is comprised not of people who are related by blood, but by those who share beliefs and values.  That is who Abraham and Sarah brought with them to Canaan.

Rambam, the great 12th century Rabbi, physician, philosopher, and community leader was the leading authority in his day.  People would write to him from all over the world for advice and legal rulings.

A question was once asked of him by a man named Ovadiah, a convert to Judaism.  Ovadiah notes that the language in many of the prayers uses us or we, in reference to events that occurred to previous generations.

Eloheinu v’Elohei avoteinu — “Our God and God of our ancestors”

Asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav — “You who have sanctified us through Your commandments”

She’asah nissim la’avoteinu — “You who performed miracles for our ancestors”

Ovadiah asks Rambam if he, as a proselyte, whose ancestors were not part of the Jewish people, is allowed to recite all of these words.  We can only imagine what experiences Ovadiah might have had that led him to ask this question.

Rambam, in his answer, does not mince words.  He wants to make sure that Ovadiah, and anyone else who might think to raise a similar objection, gets the point.  His answer begins: “You must recite it all in its prescribed order and should not change it in the least.”

In his explanation, Rambam refers to Abraham, who taught people about God and urged them to reject idolatry.  Abraham instructed everyone in his household to follow God’s ways by engaging in righteousness and justice.

For this reason, anyone who converts to Judaism, throughout the ages, is considered to be a student of Abraham and a member of his household.  In other words, part of the family.

Not only that, Abraham is considered to be the father of all converts.  Jews-by-choice, when taking on a Jewish name, are considered to be the children of Abraham and Sarah, and are therefore referred to as ben or bat Avraham Avinu v’Sarah Imeinu—“the son/daughter of Abraham our Father and Sarah our Mother.”

Therefore, when a Jew by choice recites “our God and God of our ancestors,” it is a true statement.

While discovering Jewish roots in a DNA test may lead a person to explore their roots, it is not a determining factor, at least from a religious point of view.  Halakhah, Jewish law, does not tend to operate on the microscopic level.  

A few years ago, there was a young American woman from a Russian-speaking family who wanted to participate in a birthright trip.  She was asked to take a DNA test to prove that she was eligible.  She was ultimately denied.

This is unfortunate, and is certainly inconsistent with Jewish law.  I hope it is not a precedent.

Jewish identity is not in the blood.  It is in the family stories that are passed down from our grandparents.  It is in the moral lessons that parents impart to their children.  Jewish identity is also something that can be chosen by those who seek to be part of the Jewish family.

Does this mean that there will sometimes be questions and arguments about who is in and who is out?  Absolutely.  But we are a family, after all.  And families are messy.

Etrog: The Fruit of a Goodly Tree – Succot 5779

Today is the Shabbat of Succot.  It is the one day of the holiday on which we refrain from the Arba Minim, the Four Species.

It is similar to how we do not blow the shofar when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat.  Instead, we refer to zikhron teruah, the memory of blasting.  

So let this morning’s drash serve as a zikhron arba minim.  A memory of the Four Species.

In Sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus (23:40), the Torah give us the details.

וּלְקַחְתֶּ֨ם לָכֶ֜ם בַּיּ֣וֹם הָרִאשׁ֗וֹן פְּרִ֨י עֵ֤ץ הָדָר֙ כַּפֹּ֣ת תְּמָרִ֔ים וַעֲנַ֥ף עֵץ־עָבֹ֖ת וְעַרְבֵי־נָ֑חַל וּשְׂמַחְתֶּ֗ם לִפְנֵ֛י ה֥’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶ֖ם שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִֽים׃

You shall take for yourselves on the first day: the fruit of a goodly tree, branches of date palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.

Four species: Fruit of a goodly tree – it is not clear what tree it is.  Branches of date palm trees – that is the lulav.  Boughs of leafy trees – that also is not clear, although it is understood to be the myrtle, or hadas.  And finally, willows of the brook – that is the aravah.  

Let’s focus on the pri etz hadar, the fruit of a goodly tree.  What is this fruit that the Torah is talking about?

The etrog, of course.  Everybody knows that.  Known also as the citron, or citrus medica.  

You might be surprised to learn that, 2,000 years ago, there was no such thing as an orange, a lemon, or a grapefruit.  All citrus fruits today are the result of the hybridization of three original species.  Pomelos and mandarins are known to have been in cultivation for the past two thousand years, and originated in China.  The citron is native to India and has been in cultivation for at least 2,300 years. 

Theophrastus of Eresos was an historian who accompanied Alexander the Great.  In his book, Historia Plantarum, he describes the citron that he encountered during a trip to Babylon in approximately 310 BCE.  He refers to it as “Median Fruit” and claims that it cannot be eaten.

It seams that Alexander brought it back with him to the Mediterranean.  It was the first citrus fruit to be introduced to the region.  There were no citrus fruits in the land of Israel during the biblical period.

Or, at least, that was the assumption until a recent archaeological discovery.  A layer of plaster from an ancient palace on the grounds of Ramat Rahel, a kibbutz in Southern Jerusalem, was dated to the Persian period (5th or 4th century BCE).  In that plaster, an Israeli archaeo-botanist discovered pollen from a number of plants, including the citron.

This suggests that etrog trees might have been imported from Persia to Israel during the early second Temple period.  Further supporting this find is the word etrog itself, which seems to be a derivation of the Persian name for the citron, turung.  

Textual and archaeological evidence exists that indicates that by the first or even second century, BCE, the citron, or etrog, was being used by Jews as one of the Four Species during Succot.

One of the only letters found to have been written by Bar Kochba himself during the revolt of 132-135 CE includes the following instructions:  

Shimon to Yehudah Bar Menashe: Kiryat Arabaya. I have sent two donkeys. You shall send two men with them to Yehonatan bar Be’ayan and to Masabla. They shall pack and bring back to you palm branches and etrogim. You should send others from your place to bring back myrtles and willows. See that they are tithed. Send them all to my camp. Our army is large. Peace.

In the midst of the fighting, Bar Kokhba made sure that his soldiers would be able to observe Succot properly, with the Four Species in hand.

Synagogue mosaic floor from Hamat Teveriah, 4th century. Note the Four Species in the bottom left corner.

Images of the Four Species, with etrogim appearing prominently, appear all over the mosaic floors and fresco walls of ancient synagogues from the Roman and Byzantine era.  It is one of the most frequently-appearing religious symbols, which indicates how important it was in the ancient world.

Rabbinic texts—the Talmud and early midrashim—agree that “fruit of a goodly tree” refers to the etrog, and there are many explanations as to why.  Here are a few:

Does hadar, “goodly,” refer to pri, the fruit, or to etz, the tree?  It could be either, and the expression could be translated either as “fruit of a goodly tree” or “goodly fruit of a tree.”  The Talmud (BT Sukkah 35a) concludes that we should understand it both ways.  Both the fruit and the tree must taste the same.  Only the Etrog meets this standard, the Talmud concludes.

Rabbi Abahu offers a different explanation.  Hadar, he claims, is related to dirah, a dwelling place.  Pri etz ha-dar.  the fruit that dwells on its tree year round.  The citron is not a seasonal tree.  It produces fruit year round.

Ben Azzai draws a connection between hadar and the Greek word hydro, meaning water.  Citron trees require intensive irrigation.

Others (Song of Songs Rabbah) identify the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden as the Etrog.  Genesis (3:6) describes the woman’s impression of the tree: “The woman saw that the tree was good for eating.”  Rav Abba of Acco asks, “what other tree is there whose wood and fruit are both edible?  It can only be the etrog.”

One thousand years later, Maimonides seems to doubt the validity of any of these explanations.  The fact that everyone knows the Torah is talking about the etrog, despite such a vague description, is proof of the validity of an oral tradition going back to Moses.

But it was Eleazar ben Yehudah of Worms, from the late 12th and early 13th centuries, who proved it *conclusively* using gematria.  But first, we must recognize one of the fundamental rules of gematria: a difference of plus or minus 1 is irrelevant.  Let’s add up the numerical value of the letters in pri etz hadar.

פְּרִי עֵץ הָדָר – pri etz hadar 

80 + 200 + 10 + 70 + 90 + 5 + 4 + 200 = 659

אתרוגים – etrogim (plural of etrog)

1 + 400 + 200 + 6 + 3 +10 + 40 = 660

Seems conclusive to me.  

In any event, we can say with almost 100% certainty that Jews have understood “fruit of a goodly tree” to mean the etrog for over 2,000 years.

This was fine when most Jews were living around the Mediterranean, where citron trees grow easily.  As Jews began to move further out into the Diaspora, however, acquiring an etrog for Succot became more of a challenge.  In addition, Jews stopped being farmers—often because they were forbidden by Christian authorities.  This meant that they would have to rely on non-Jewish farmers, who may not have been aware, or may not have cared, about halakhic concerns.

The main halakhic concern is grafting, when a branch is attached to healthy root stock from a different species.  A grafted etrog, called murkav, is not acceptable.  Italian Jews were said to have been able to identify etrogim grown on a grafted tree on sight.  This was not the case for Jews who lived outside of cultivation zones.

A Jew living in northern Poland found himself at the mercy of the Jewish trader who would import etrogim for the holiday.  This resulted in a considerable amount of dishonest behavior.  In medieval times, local lords would grant exclusive charters to individual merchants to be able to conduct their trading practices.  These charters were often granted in exchange for bribes.

There were some years in which etrogim simply could not be obtained.  There are some prominent Ashkenazi Rabbis who gave permission to communities to use grafted etrogim, or even a previous year’s etrog, which had become completely dried out and would therefore not have been permissible under normal circumstances.

The difficulty of acquiring an etrog was so great that communities would sometimes import a single fruit, which would be owned in partnership by the entire community.

Through the seventeenth century, etrogim grown around the Mediterranean were shipped by way of Genoa or Venice, port cities located at the top of the Western and Eastern sides, respectively, of the Italian boot. 

By the eighteenth century, most etrogim made their way to Northern Europe through the port of Trieste, which is located in what is today northeast Italy, at the very top of the Adriatic Sea.

With the rise of Napoleon, borders between French and Austrian controlled areas became closed, upsetting trade routes and interfering with the traditional paths that etrogim took each year.

Only the Ottoman Sultan’s territories in the Eastern Mediterranean remained unaffected. Etrogim from that area were shipped through Corfu, an island off the coast of Southern Albania and Northern Greece, and on to Trieste.

The Sultan’s etrogim came to be known as Corfu Etrogim, and were highly regarded as being of great quality and consistency.  Because of tight controls, they could also be trusted to not come from hybrid trees.

In 1840, the Sultan let his exclusive monopoly on etrog production expire.  Without central controls, etrogim could no longer be relied upon to be ungrafted.  Etrog production exploded on islands surrounding what is today Greece.  The Rabbi on Corfu gave his hashgacha, his seal of approval, to them—without ever actually inspecting the orchards.

Eastern European Rabbis objected.  In 1846, they issued a collection of teshuvot, legal decisions, banning all etrogim from the area, advising that Jews should instead purchase etrogim grown in Parga, Corsica, or North Africa.  

This turned out to be impossible.  Most Mediterranean etrogim were being shipped through Corfu, where Greek traders packaged them together indiscriminately.

Further exacerbating the problem was the practice, also by Greek traders, of literally dumping etrogim into the Adriatic Sea to create scarcity and raise prices.

This led to a wholesale ban on Corfu etrogim by most of the Rabbis in Eastern Europe, the Chief Rabbi of England, and Rabbis from several German cities.  Sephardic Rabbis were more likely to permit the use of Corfu etrogim.  Some Hassidic Jews not only permitted the Corfu etrog, but even came to prefer it, seeing it as symbolic of Hassidism itself.

In addition to the religious issues, there were also economic implications.  Controversies arose between competing authorities, some of whom had personal financial stakes in the permissibility or otherwise of the Corfu etrogim.

Despite gains made under the Enlightenment and under the influence of Napoleon’s granting of citizenship to the Jews, antisemitic sentiments were widespread.  With growing Jewish boycotts of Corfu etrogim, attitudes towards Jews worsened.

In 1891, the Jews of Corfu were accused of ritual murder, leading to pogroms against the community.  In response, even more Rabbis issued bans against the fruit.  More moderate leaders advised caution, fearful of exacerbating the situation.

With European demand falling, Corfu etrog traders tried to market directly to the American Jewish public by touting the high quality of the fruit.  “Real Corfu Esrogim” almost became a name brand.

A Latvian immigrant named Ephraim Deinard was not impressed.  He was a professional traveler and writer, but not a Rabbi.  In 1892, Deinard wrote a pamphlet in Hebrew entitled God’s War Against Amalek in which he did not mince his words:

The shriek of the children of Israel on Corfu, the island of blood, pierces heaven. These cursed beasts, these Greeks, children of Antiochus the tyrant, after two thousand years have still not gorged themselves sufficiently upon the blood of our fathers. Not a year passes, but these cannibals slander us with accusations of ritual murder in all the countries of Greece, Turkey, and Russia. Before our eyes runs the blood of our brethren in Salonica, Smyrna, Odessa, Alexandria, Port Said, and Corfu.

Calling out the New Yorkers who were importing Corfu etrogim, he wrote:

. . . they are traders in the blood of Israel . . . and since there is hardly a man in Europe who will touch them [the etrogim] they bought these etrogim dripping with the blood of the sons of Zion. . . . These circumcised anti-Semites . . . have connived with importers from Trieste and a group of Galician Jews . . . to mislead the people of God.,  

Deinard identified the “robbers’ hideout” of these dishonest merchants: 185 East Broadway.

Around the same time, Jewish farmers living in Palestine were beginning to grow etrog trees.  The Fruit of the Goodly Tree Association was founded by Palestinian growers to promote their product.

The Chief Rabbi of Jaffa at the time, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, offered his endorsement.  He stated that when the Torah declares ul’kachtem lakhem, literally, “you shall take for yourselves… fruit of a goodly tree…” it implies, you shall take purely – that is not steal.”  He adds, “you shall take for yourselves” means “you shall take from yourselves,” that is to say from Jews and Jewish soil.

Today, most of the etrogim that we get are from Israel.  During shemitah, or sabbatical years, supply shifts to other sources, such as Greece, Italy, Morocco, and Yemen.

Don’t get too bogged down in this long, and sometimes unsavory, history.

The Torah tells us to take for ourselves pri etz hadar.  The fruit of a goodly tree.  From this expression comes the idea of hiddur mitzvah: the beautification of the mitzvah.

It is possible to simply go through the motions when we fulfill our ritual obligations.  The Torah suggests that there is a higher level that we can achieve.

It has become customary to try to get our hands on the most beautiful etrog available.  

This was true when entire communities would join together to purchase a single, sad etrog that had made the long, thousand mile long journey from a remote Mediterranean island by boat, mule, and cart.

It is a bit easier for us today, as our etrogim are shipped by overnight delivery, each in its own insulated and foam-lined box.  But there is something special about it.

The Etrog is a strange fruit.  We don’t eat it.  With its bumpy skin, it looks kind of ugly.  It has a unique, beautiful smell. 

Every year, I savor the moment when I first take my etrog out of its box.  I inspect its skin, check to see that it has its pitam intact.  Then I inhale its special smell.  Beautiful.  Moadim L’simchah.  Have a Happy Succot.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Erich and Rael Isaac, “A Goodly Tree” in The Sukkot/Simhat Torah Anthology, ed. Philip Goodman.

Jenna Weissman Joselit, “The Trail of the Elusive Etrog,” The Forward, Oct. 2, 2008

Gabriel Moskovitz, “The Genesis of the Etrog (Citron) as Part of the Four Species,” Jewish Bible Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 2, 2015

Eliezer Segal, “Citric Asset