In Response To Questions About My Sermon On The First Day Of Rosh Hashanah 5778

I am not a regular Facebook user (my sermons post automatically from my blog), but I have received messages from a number of concerned people alerting me to the conversations taking place on the Sinai page over the past 24 hours.

First of all, I am proud of the conversations that have been taking place in response to my sermon on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. We need to be able to communicate thoughtfully and respectfully. I cannot respond to every single issue that has been raised. Instead, I’ll share some broad thoughts.

First of all, this sermon was not delivered as a response to any earlier sermons.  As I wrote on my blog entry, I got many of the ideas from a Board of Rabbis of Northern California pre-High Holiday sermon seminar for Rabbis in late August.  I try to attend every year, and I often come away with thoughts that I incorporate into my remarks.

As someone who gets up in public most weeks to share my ideas with others, I have developed a number of principles for myself. Here are a few:

There are three sermons that I give each week: 1. The sermon I write. 2. The sermon I deliver. 3. The sermon that each individual person hears. Of course, this last one is different for everyone, as evidenced by the wide spectrum of reactions to this year’s Rosh Hashanah I sermon.

I am always speaking to myself. My sermons are the products (often incomplete) of my wrestling through difficult questions. The challenge of trying to communicate those thoughts to others forces me to try to organize and clarify my ideas in ways that others can understand. I focus on a wide variety of subjects, including Jewish textual interpretation, practice, thought, and belief, contemporary social or political issues, and more. Every time, I am striving to work through issues that interest me personally. I tell all of my B’nei Mitzvah students, “If you are boring yourself, you are probably boring your audience.”

Speak as a Rabbi. I am not a journalist, politician, or psychologist. I draw my authority to speak from the rabbinic tradition. Like everyone, I have lots of opinions. But when I speak from the pulpit, I need to do so rabbinically, relying on the teachings of Jewish tradition.

Be honest about Judaism. Jewish tradition is three thousand years old. In that time, Jewish thought and teaching has undergone tremendous changes. To claim that ancient sources provide direct support for contemporary issues is often disingenuous. For example, there is nothing in Jewish sources that explicitly posits communal obligations to provide universal health care. If I wanted to respond authentically to this issue (and I have), I would bring up that there are laws directed specifically to doctors, obligating them to care for anyone who needs it while prohibiting them from charging above-market prices for medications. I would point to those laws, along with other sources dealing with equal treatment of rich and poor, compassion, and human dignity to argue that in a society with sufficient means, Judaism should support the idea of “universal health care.”

Expect to receive a variety of responses to each sermon. A sermon is a tricky mode of communication. Listeners bring a lot of expectations – especially on the High Holidays.  I try to adhere (sometimes unsuccessfully) to the advice of my rabbinic mentor: “Give people space to disagree with you.” If I take a particular stance on an issue, I know that two things are certain to happen: 1. About 80% of the people in the room will agree with me. Some might even tell me it was a great sermon. 2. About 20% of the people in the room will disagree with me.  They might even get angry. I am reasonably certain that no minds will be changed. As a Rabbi, it is not my job to stand up and say things that confirm what 80% of the people in the room already believe. That does not accomplish anything. My job is to try to get 100% of the people in the room to think about an issue in a more in-depth way, and specifically from a Jewish perspective. For examples, check out a sermon I gave six years ago on abortion, or last year on immigration. Personally, I have plenty of opinions about individual issues. My weekly sermon is not the proper forum for me to share them.

As I go through life, my opinions and beliefs will change. One of the great (and often stressful) aspects of being a Rabbi is that I am exposed to a lot of (mostly) constructive critiques of my ideas by people with different viewpoints. It helps me grow tremendously. When confronted with a different opinion, I try to always ask myself “What is this person saying?  What from his or her experience leads him/her to say it this way? And what can I learn from this?” That said, in looking back on some old sermons, I realize that I have been pretty consistent over the years. I urge you to compare this year’s sermon to my Rosh Hashanah sermon from last year on how to argue, as well as a sermon from several months ago on being willing to change one’s mind,  and from five years ago, right after Obama’s second election victory, about talking with those with whom we disagree . I think you will find a similar theme running through all of them.

One issue that has been raised is whether the synagogue should be taking public stands and making statements on political issues. Historically, Sinai has never been politically active as an institution. It is not part of the culture of the synagogue. We do not have a social justice committee, and the systems to be able to have conversations with the community and make decisions about policy statements do not currently exist. As a Rabbi, I have freedom of the pulpit, meaning I can personally back any position I choose. And I have, sometimes publicly. See my sermon after the violence in Charlottesville, my speech advocating the abolishment of the death penalty, and my invocation this past January at the San Jose City Council meeting.

The Sinai mission statement begins “Congregation Sinai connects Jews to Judaism, each other, Israel, and the world.” I think we have done a pretty good job of keeping that mission at the center of our activities as a congregation. People come to Sinai for community, learning, and praying. Without a doubt, Tikkun Olam has become an important Jewish value over the last century.  Our synagogue, for its size, runs a healthy number of social action activities each year that I strongly support.  I wish we did more.  As I quoted Rabbi Tarfon towards the end of my sermon, “It is not for you to complete the task, neither are you free to desist from it.”

There are other synagogues that embrace, as part of their core missions, a commitment to social justice (which is not the same thing as social action). Those synagogues tend to be larger and better resourced. If Sinai members would like to form a social justice committee, I would support their efforts, provided that it is consistent with the mission of the synagogue and that it properly engages with all members of our community. We do not need to have unanimity, but we do need to make sure that all our members feel like they have the opportunity to express their views and be listened to respectfully. We should also be aware that synagogues that take political stances risk alienating segments of their community. Speaking directly, do we want synagogues to be known as either “Republican Synagogues” or “Democratic Synagogues?” It is already happening to some extent, dividing up between Orthodox on the right and Reform and Conservative on the left.  Personally, I see this as an unfortunate trend.

We are fortunate that there are plenty of opportunities for people to express their political viewpoints, including within the South Bay Jewish world. Locally, our Jewish Community Relations Council has done a wonderful job of getting our Jewish voice out into the public conversation. I encourage all of us to think deeply about the central issues of our day, being sure to explore all sides with open minds, so that we can formulate our own informed opinions, and then fight like mad for them, while always recognizing that those who disagree with us feel just as adamantly that they are right.

I am reassured to see that the conversation on Facebook has been conducted with passion, respect, and a willingness to learn from each other’s perspectives. This bodes well for us as we begin the new year.

Please respect that I prefer to have one on one, or emotional conversations face to face rather than in public forums. My door is open to anyone who would like to discuss this further.

Shanah Tovah.

The Day Of Forgotten Things – Rosh Hashanah 5778 (second day)

A Hasid once complained to the Gerer Rebbe that he was always forgetting his lessons.

“When you are eating soup, do you ever forget to place the spoon into your mouth?” the Rebbe asked.

“No, of course not,” was the student’s puzzled reply.

“Why not?” asked the Rebbe.

“Because I cannot live without food,” said the student.

“Neither can you live without learning,” responded the Rebbe.  “Remember this and you will not forget.”

The Jewish people is a people of memory.  Over the millennia, we have gotten pretty good at it.  Maybe the best.  This talent of ours is rooted in the Torah.  The Torah opens with the Creation of the world in six days.  On the seventh day, God ceases laboring.  It is this ceasing which completes the act of creation.  Later, God instructs the Jewish people to replicate God’s act of Creation by laboring for six days and then resting on every seventh.  Shabbat, the anchor of Jewish life, is an act of memory.

This weekly cycle of work and rest creates, as Heschel describes it, a Palace in Time.  Every Shabbat becomes a memorial for what we are marking today – the Creation of the universe.

And it is does not end there.  The entire Jewish calendar is built around memory.  All of our holidays memorialize formative events of Jewish history.  Exodus from Egypt.  Dwelling in booths in the wilderness.  Overcoming destruction in ancient Persia.  Even in recent times, we memorialize our people’s suffering in the Holocaust, and celebrate the establishment of the State of Israel.  Wherever we are in the physical world, our Jewish calendar emphasizes that sacredness is experienced not in space, but in time.

We do not encounter God by walking into particular locations.  We encounter God by being present in discrete moments of time.

As America struggle with how to remember difficult parts of its past, it would seem that our Jewish expertise may be able to offer some guidance.

And yet, we are no different than anyone else when it comes to forgetfulness.  Especially when it comes to our own lives.  What have we forgotten?

At forty one years old, I have forgotten many things.

Sometimes I forget where I put my keys.

I have forgotten the wonder of childhood, the belief that anything was possible, that there was no barrier between what is real and what is magical.  At a certain point, cynicism and skepticism intruded and shackled wonder.  (For a reminder of what it used to be like, just talk to a four year old.)

I have forgotten the dreams and imagination of youth, when I longed to be an astronaut, a Jedi knight, and a baseball player.

I have forgotten what it feels like to fall in love, to feel unquenchable passion and longing.

I have forgotten what it feels like to be present when a new life comes into the world, or when my child takes her first steps.

The idealism of youth has been replaced by a realism forced upon me by responsibilities and disappointment.  The excitement of unlimited possibility has been stifled by the realities of bills and deadlines.

Even more numerous are those things that I cannot even remember forgetting.

We could fill books with everything we have forgotten.

Indeed, we do.

We call Rosh Hashanah Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance.

But perhaps that is not the best name.  Maybe it should be Yom Hanishkachot.  The Day of Forgotten Things.

In the prayer Unetaneh Tokef, our Mahzor paints a vivid picture of the Heavenly Courtroom.  God is the Judge, Prosecutor, Expert, and Witness.  Vatizkor kol-hanishkachot.  God remembers all of the forgotten things.  The Book of Remembrance is opened, but God does not read it.  Ume’elav yikarei.  It reads itself, for the hand-imprinted seal of every human being is upon it.

The image of a courtroom, with the evidence comprised of all of the things we have forgotten, is powerful and scary.  But why is the emphasis on the forgotten things?

The nineteenth century Hassidic Rebbe, Yisrael Rizhiner, teaches that God remembers everything we forget, and forgets everything we remember.

We read in the Rosh Hashanah Prayer: “For You remember all forgotten things,” and “there is no forgetfulness before Your Holy Throne.”  This means that when a person performs a mitzvah, but then forgets it and demands no reward, then the Lord remembers it; but if the person keeps it in his memory and expects a reward for it, then the Lord forgets.

Also, when someone transgresses and remembers it, and repents of it, the Lord forgets about the sin; but when the a person pays no heed and forgets his sin, the Lord remembers.  (Louis I Newman, Hasidic Anthology, p. 400)

According to the Rizhiner, the sins we remembered and corrected.  And the mitzvot that we performed for their own sake, the good deeds that we did not allow to go our heads and inflate our hearts, these count as merits on our behalf.

But I suspect that many of us tend to do the opposite.  We act as if we are entitled to be rewarded for our actions.  We behave greedily, without taking responsibility for our mistakes, and yet we expect everyone else to pay for theirs.

And today, on the day of Judgment, it is the forgotten things recorded in the Book of Remembrance that determines our fate.

One of the three special sections of musaf is Zikhronot, remembrances.  Let’s recall some of its opening words:

Before You stands revealed all that is hidden, and every mystery from the moment of creation.

Nothing is forgotten in Your awe-inspiring presence, nothing concealed from Your gaze…

We cite ten verses from the Bible extolling Divine memory.  God remembered Noah and all of the animals on the ark, and caused the waters of the flood to subside.  God heard the cries of our ancestors in Egypt, and remembered the Covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  As destruction threatened Jerusalem, God remembered the idyllic time during the Exodus when God and Israel were like newlyweds.

We bring up these memories to remind God of moments when compassion overcame the demands of strict justice.

Remembrance is more than just awareness.  It is attentiveness.  God does not just remember Noah, God saves him.  God redeems our enslaved ancestors and restores an exiled people to its home.

Why have we placed these verses in our Machzor?  Could it be that we are pleading with God to remember because we feel that we have been forgotten?

We are surrounded by so much suffering.  Recent hurricanes and earthquakes remind us that, for all of our civilization and technology, we are helpless before the power of nature.  As we have just seen, God does not seem inclined to hold nature back.

Despite our immense privilege, living in the wealthiest country at the wealthiest time in history, so many of us feel that we do not have control over our own lives.  Housing is insecure, employment is shaky, relations are frayed.  Has God forgotten us?

Maybe we pray so fervently to God, the Rememberer of Lost Things, because we feel lost and abandoned.  Or maybe, on this New Year, we are reflexively pleading with ourselves to remember.  Perhaps it is we who have forgotten.

We have forgotten to be attentive to the needs of our neighbors.  We have forgotten to look at the world with awe and wonder.  We have forgotten to open our hearts in prayer and gratitude for all of the blessings that we take for granted.

Perhaps we need to add an “al cheit,” to the list of confessions that we recite on Yom Kippur.  Al cheit she-chatanu lefanekha be-hese’ach ha-da’at – “For the sin that we have committed before You of neglect and lack of conscious attention.”

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov was a gifted storyteller and a vivid dreamer.  His tales are imaginative, mystical, and deeply symbolic.  He tells a story of an angel named Yode’a, which means, “he knows.”

There is an angel who watches over people, even in the dark.  This is Yode’a, the Angel of Losses.  He watches lives unfold, recording every detail before it fades.

This angel has servants, and his servants have servants.  Each servant carries a shovel, and they spend all their time digging, searching for losses.  For a great deal is lost in our lives.

Even we, who are ourselves lost, search in the dark, aiding Yode’a.

And with what do we search?  With the light of the soul.  For the soul is a light planted in us to seek after what has been lost.

What kind of light is it?  Not a torch, but a small candle.  With it we can search inside deep wells, where darkness is unbroken, peering into every corner and crevice.  (Howard Schwartz, Leaves from the Garden of Eden, p. 21.)

How much have we forgotten!  How lost we are!  But we are searching.  The way to search, the way of the tzaddik, is to use the light emanating from our souls to illumine the darkness.  How can we use our souls to remember forgotten things?

Let’s begin remembering right now.  Turn to the person sitting to your right.  Tell that person one thing that you appreciate about them.  It has to be something you have never told them before.

I bet it feels pretty good to be acknowledged, to be remembered.  I bet it also feels pretty good to acknowledge someone else.  That is the feeling of our souls illuminating something that has been forgotten.

Let’s each commit to doing this at least once more today.

We can make the angel Yode’a‘s job a little easier and help ourselves and each other regain a little bit of what we have lost on this Day of Forgotten Things.

God Is On Everyone’s Side, And No One’s – Rosh Hashanah 5778 (first day)

Many of the ideas in this D’var Torah were taken from a presentation by Yehudah Kurtzer of the Hartman Institute.

Upon election to his second term, Abraham Lincoln delivered as his inaugural address one of the greatest speeches in American history.  It was four years into the Civil War.  The war would end and the President would be assassinated just a few weeks later.  Lincoln articulated one of the most profound statements of religious humility ever spoken.

He was meditating on the use by pro-slavery Confederates and abolitionist Unionists of religion to support the morality of their respective claims.  How is it possible for diametrically opposed sides to claim God’s blessing with equal passion and conviction?

Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes.

This is not to say that Lincoln wavered one iota in his belief in the evil of slavery and the moral imperative of eradicating it.  The best that President Lincoln can hope to do is, through his own wisdom and faith, choose a course and pray that it aligns with the will of the Almighty.

In the Torah portion for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, God is on everyone’s side, and no one’s.

As the reading opens, God takes note of Sarah, as promised, and she becomes pregnant with Isaac.  At her son’s birth, Sarah declares, “God has brought me laughter.”  (Genesis 21:6)

Some time later, Sarah demands that Abraham send away her maidservant Hagar along with Hagar and Abraham’s son, Ishmael.  Abraham is upset, but God reassures him, instructing, “whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says…”  And regarding Ishmael, God “will make a nation of him, too, for he is your seed.”

When the provisions run out, Hagar places Ishmael beneath a bush and walks a distance away so that she can weep without having to watch her son die.  It is then that God sends an angel who declares that “God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.”  The angel reveals a hidden well and reassures Hagar that Ishmael will father a great nation.

In the same story, God is on Sarah’s side, Abraham’s side, Isaac’s side, Hagar’s side, and Ishmael’s side – even while these individuals oppose each other.

What does God stand for in this story?  Life.  The flourishing of human potential.  Each of these characters, Isaac and Ishmael, Sarah and Hagar, and Abraham have a path before them that they cannot discern.  They cannot see the world as God sees it.  Each of them chooses what he or she thinks is the best course of action.  Those choices bring them into irreconcilable conflict with one another.

And yet God’s role is not to negate one or another person’s choices, but rather to direct them towards the paths that will lead to blessing.  God enters the story at three critical points.  The first is to bless Sarah with fertility.  The next is to reassure Abraham that Sarah’s seemingly cruel demand will in fact turn out okay, something that Abraham is incapable of realizing on his own.  God appears for the third time when Hagar has given up hope.  Once again, God directs Hagar to the well that will save Ishmael’s life and lead to his thriving.

These characters are blessed to have God step in at just the right moment to redirect them and let God’s will be known.  We are not so blessed.

We suffer from a terrible case of moral hubris.  It is a pervasive disease across the entire political spectrum: right to left, liberal to conservative, Democrat to Republican.

As we celebrate the world’s birthday, it is hard not to consider the extreme rancor that exists in society.  There is so much partisan hatred.  People are feeling more politics-derived anxiety in their personal lives than ever before.  It is tearing the social fabric apart.

Some of us right now are thinking, “It’s not me.  It’s the people on the other side who are unable to see things as they really are.  They are the ones who are full of hate, who are naive, who are blind to the truth.”

Consider the following:

A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Political Science found that “the level of partisan animus in the American public exceeds racial hostility.”  In other words, Americans hate people from the opposing political party more than they hate people of different races.  Further, partisan differences are driving people apart with regard to behaviors and identities that have absolutely nothing to do with politics.

We all know about the divisions between red states and blue states.  But increasingly, people of the same political parties are segregating themselves by neighborhood.  Parents are often upset when a child intermarries into a family of the opposite political persuasion.  A 2009 survey found that only 9% of marriages were between a Republican and a Democrat.

Dating websites have reported that party affiliation is a more important criteria in a potential mate than physical appearance or personality.  And it is not that people of similar values end up falling in love.  This political discrimination comes into play at the initial mate choice.

The animosity that we feel towards those from the opposing party is stronger than the favoritism we feel towards those from our own party.  Partisanship pushes us apart more than it pulls us together.

It has gotten so bad that party affiliation even compels us to change our preferences for things that have absolutely nothing to do with morality or politics.  The author of a recent study summarized the issue like this:

Imagine that you walked into an ice cream shop on Election Day.  You discover that the shop is filled with supporters of the presidential candidate you oppose, and you find supporters of that candidate morally abhorrent.  When you get to the front of the line, the worker tells you all of the other customers just ordered red velvet – normally your favorite flavor.

[The] studies demonstrated that when asked to order, you are likely to feel an urge to stray from your favorite flavor toward one you like less, politically polarizing an otherwise innocuous decision.

We are willing to abandon our favorite ice cream flavor because we perceive it to be popular with our partisan opponents!

This trend affects the Jewish world as well.  Increasingly, communities are become segregated by party affiliation.  Synagogues have split in half over politics.  It is tragic, because our Jewish values, shared history, and beliefs should be bringing us together.  Instead, partisanship is driving us apart.

But God does not have a party.  God is not from a “Red State” or a “Blue State.”

As a Rabbi, I struggle with how and when to engage with what happens out in the political realm.  As the Rabbi of a diverse congregation, what is my role?  What should Sinai’s role be?

Should it offer an apolitical respite?  Is it a sanctuary in space in the way that Shabbat is a sanctuary in time?

Or perhaps the synagogue is the place where we come to affirm our moral grounding.  Maybe we need a place to engage constructively and thoughtfully on what happens “out there.”

Some congregants urge me to get more political.  Others come to shul looking for a break from all of the noise and contentiousness “out there.”  Let synagogue be a place in which politics is not mentioned.  Let it be a place where we can focus on our inner lives, on the spiritual.

I would kind of like it to be both.  A place where we come together as brothers and sisters in unity.  Celebrating what we share in common, which is a lot.  And learning from each other’s differences with love and respect.

The truth is, regardless of our politics, most of us share the same essential moral beliefs.

Morality is a system of values and principles of conduct having to do with good and bad, right and wrong.  They are developed throughout childhood, strongly influenced by the people who raise and teach us.  They are molded by the standards of the communities in which we live.  Of course, religion plays a huge role.

Our core moral beliefs should direct our political viewpoints.  Let’s say that my moral code tells me I have an obligation to feed the hungry.  There are people in every society who do not have enough to eat, and cannot satisfy their basic needs.  The Torah tells me that I cannot remain indifferent.  I must do something about it.

That should lead me to take a political position.  What do I think is the best way to feed the hungry?  Should the government redistribute wealth from those who have it to those who do not?  Or, should it be left to individuals and private groups to take the lead, with the government either encouraging such efforts from the sidelines or simply staying out of the way?

While the Torah and the Rabbis legislate specific ways to give, the rules around tzedakah focus mainly on individual responsibilities, or those of a tight-knit community, not on society’s obligation.  They do not provide any specific guidance for determining how or even whether a government should provide welfare, food stamps, or social security.

This means that people with similar moral beliefs could end up embracing completely opposite policy solutions – even though we are pursuing the same goal.  This is a good thing, as none of us knows how to end poverty.  The best way to find solutions is through open political systems.

This is how it should work:  our moral convictions should lead to our political positions.

Unfortunately, things are working exactly backwards.  Partisanship has co-opted politics and corrupted morality.

The research shows that my primary allegiance is to my party, not to my morals.  When the opposing party embraces a particular idea, my knee-jerk inclination is to oppose it – not because my morals tell me to, but simply because my opponents favor it.  And the idea itself, along with those who support it, become morally tainted.

It is a serious problem when vast swaths of Americans label each other evil, racist, fascist, and communist because they hold different political views.  After all, it is possible for intelligent people to reach different conclusions.

Religion bears some responsibility for the extreme polarization that we now experience.  In the last century, Judaism and Christianity in America embraced the biblical prophets as models of righteousness.  This may sound surprising, but this embrace of the prophetic ideal has created some rather severe moral traps.  The left has been particularly drawn in.

The first trap is an oversimplification of the moral imperative.  Think about the central message of just about every single prophet in the Bible.  Let’s take, for example, Isaiah’s rebuke in the Haftarah that we will read next week on Yom Kippur.  It is beautiful and inspiring:

This is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke.  It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh.”  (Isaiah 58:6-7)

Isaiah seems to think that, if we only dedicated ourselves to it, we could end human suffering, inequality, and poverty.  The prophetic era lasted for hundred of years.  Most of the prophets offered some version of Isaiah’s message.  At no time did a prophet ever say:  “You guys are doing a great job.”  At no point in human history has a society ever managed to achieve Isaiah’s vision.

Why? Because the problems of human suffering are really complicated.  There is a reason why none of the biblical prophets succeeded.  They were overly simplistic and quite inflexible.

Think of Jeremiah.  He runs around speaking truth to power.  He lambasts the people for their greed and corruption.  He ends up getting himself thrown into a pit for his moral high-mindedness.  There is no doubt that Jeremiah was right.  He was living in a society that had lost its way.  He could see the righteous path forward.  But his message, like so many of the other prophets, failed to take into account the complexity of human beings.  He did not consider how they might feel if he insulted them.

The prophets label behavior as either good or bad, moral or immoral.  If you are not with us, you are against us.

This kind of righteousness is lonely, and if taken too far, can turn violent.

When Moses comes down from the mountain after the sin of the Golden Calf, he declares, Mi L’Hashem Elai!  “Whoever is for God, to me!”  There is no in-between.  The Levites heed the call.  At Moses’ instruction, they take their swords and march back and forth through the camp, killing “brother, neighbor, and kin.”  Three thousand die that day.

The Rabbis, in transforming Judaism, understood the risks inherent in the prophetic tradition.  Rabbi Yohanan declares, “Since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken from prophets and given to fools and children.”  (BT Bava Batra 12-12b)

Where the Bible speaks in absolutes, the rabbinic tradition is steeped in uncertainty.  The Talmud is filled with mostly unresolved arguments.  There is deep suspicion of anyone who would claim to know the will of God.

Another righteousness trap that we have made is in elevating the idea of tikkun olam as the religious goal.  Tikkun olam means, literally, “fixing the world.”  The term has been applied differently over the millenia.  At first, Tikkun Olam referred to a rabbinic decree that fixed a specific problem created biblical law.  Later, it took on mystical aspects.  The idea that tikkun olam is about social action and the pursuit of social justice is a uniquely 20th and 21st century innovation.  In many segments of American Jewry, however, tikkun olam has become the central religious message.

And this is a problem.

To speak of a fixed world implies, first of all, that I know what a fixed world looks like.  What does that say about someone who does not share my vision?  And finally, is it not a little audacious to imagine that the Jewish people, comprising less than two tenths of one percent of the world’s population, are going to be the ones to fix it?

Should we really be pursuing a perfect world?

A story in the Talmud relates a conversation between philosophers in Rome and Jewish elders.  “If your God has no desire for idolatry, why does He not just abolish it?”  “If it was something of which the world had no need,” they replied, “God would abolish it.  But what do people worship?  The sun, moons, stars, and planets.  Should God destroy the universe on account of fools?  Rather, olam k’minhago noheg.  The world pursues its natural course…”  (BT Avodah Zarah 54b)

We live in an imperfect world.  It is never going to become perfect.  There is no “fixing” the world.  The better model is that taught by Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot.  Lo alekha hamlakha ligmor, v’lo ata ben chorin l’hibatel mimenah.  “It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”  (Avot 2:16)  The world remains a work in progress.

The Rabbinic model, as opposed to the prophetic, is one of moral humility.  It is one of engagement with others, including especially those who disagree with us.  It is making sure, always, that the solutions we pursue emerge from the core moral principles of the Torah.  But we recognize that no human being can know the mind of God.

It is through struggle, together, that we get closer to it.

Lincoln concludes his second Inaugural Address with an appeal for compassion for the common humanity of all and a prayer for peace, knowing full well that the fight to end slavery had to continue until its conclusion.  We would do well to embrace his words.

… With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan–to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

Castrametation – Ki Teitzei 5777

I came across a new word just this past Thursday in a novel I am reading.  It was used as the title of one of the chapters.  “Castrametation.”  Does anyone know what it means?

Castrametation: the making or laying out of a military camp

Imagine my surprise the next day when I realized that castrametation is one of the themes in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki Teitzei.

And you shall have a marker outside the camp and shall go there outside.  And you shall have a spike (tent peg) together with your battle gear, and it shall be, when you sit outside. you shall dig with it and go back and cover your excrement.  For the Lord your God walks about in the midst of your camp to rescue you and to give your enemies before you, and your camp shall be holy, that He should not see among you anything shamefully exposed and turn back from you.  (Deuteronomy 23:13-15)

On a p’shat – plain sense – level, the Torah is describing castrametation – how the military camp should be organized.  Of course, there is the obvious element of sanitation and hygiene, which are at least as significant to the end results of a war as the actual fighting itself

The Torah frames it not as an issue of health, but as an issue of Sanctity.  When Israel goes to war, God is with them.  Their victory depends on God fighting on their behalf.  For God to remain, the latrines must be dug – and used – outside of the camp.  It is not about germs.  It is about holiness.

As we might expect, Jewish tradition digs through the p’shat to find broader messages for our lives.  Several Talmudic midrashim see the various elements of this law metaphorically.

The first midrash (BT Yoma 75b)understands this message not as an instruction about how to set up a military camp, but rather an allusion to the condition of the Israelites’ digestive tracks during their time in the wilderness.  The midrash begins by quoting Psalm 78 (vss. 24-25) which, referring to the manna, states “Man did eat the bread of the mighty (abirim)”  The Gemara asks what abirim are.  Eventually, it suggests that  the word abirim should actually be read as eivarim, which means “limbs.”  The manna was completely absorbed into the Israelites bodies.  There was no waste whatsoever.  How convenient!

If that is the case, the Talmud asks, why do we have to be told to dig a latrine and bury our excrement?  After tossing a few ideas around, the answer is given:

After they sinned, [the manna was not as effective.] The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: I [initially] said [that] they would be like ministering angels [who do not produce waste]; now I will trouble them to walk three parasangs [to leave the camp in order to relieve themselves].

So this is really a story about Israel’s sinfulness.  At first, there is no need to build a latrine, and God can walk about the Israelite camp without a problem.  But when Israel sins – by complaining about the manna, says Rashi – their intestines become less efficient.  Now the Israelites have to periodically leave camp to do their business so that they can maintain it as a place in which God can continue to reside.

Midrash number two, from Tractate Sotah (BT Sotah 3b) also tells a story of sin in the wilderness.  But this time, the focus is not on the entire camp, but on individual homes.  At first, Rav Hisda teaches, the Shechinah – God’s Presence – would reside within each and every Israelite home.  After they sin, however, God turns away from them so that God does not see any unseemly matter.

The commentator Rashi explains that the types of sin in question are those pertaining to sexual immorality.  That is why the focus is on God’s Presence within the individual homes of the Israelites.

The final midrash (BT Ketubot 5a) shifts the focus to the everyday situations in which each of us finds ourselves.  Like the first one, this midrash relies upon a pun in the Hebrew.

Bar Kappara asks what the Torah means when it says “And you shall have a spike (tent peg) together with your battle gear.”  “Battle gear” in Hebrew is azeinekha.  Don’t read it as azeinekha, Bar Kappara says, but rather as oznekha, which means, “your ears.”  This means that if a person hears something unseemly, an inappropriate thing, he should place his spike, that is to say, his finger, into his years.

We are exposed to situations that we know are not good for us on a daily basis.  I’ll give just one example: gossip – the most pervasive, and potentially harmful, sin in the Torah.  Even if I am not the person spreading the gossip, even hearing it can have terrible effects.

Gossip certainly harms the person being gossiped about.  The spreader of gossip is committing a sin which Jewish tradition compares to murder.  And when I hear it, it produces negative feelings about the other person, and even harms my own sense of self.

According to this midrash, whenever I find myself in the company of people who are gossiping, I should shove my fingers in my ears – figuratively by walking away, or perhaps even literally.

These three midrashim shift the focus from castrametation to our ability to maintain a community and home in which we are grateful for the blessings around us, respectful of each other’s boundaries, and cognizant of the kinds of people and situations we should place ourselves.  God’s Presence in our midst depends on our ability to maintain proper boundaries.

A 19th century Chassidic Rabbi named Jacob Kattina wrote a book called Korban He’ani.  In it, he directs our attention to an acronym hidden in the text.

כִּי֩ יְ-הֹוָ֨ה אֱ-לֹהֶ֜יךָ מִתְהַלֵּ֣ךְ | בְּקֶ֣רֶב מַחֲנֶ֗ךָ לְהַצִּילְךָ֙ וְלָתֵ֤ת אֹיְבֶ֨יךָ֙ לְפָנֶ֔יךָ

For the Lord your God walks about in the midst of your camp to rescue you and to give your enemies before you.

The last four words of this phrase – לְהַצִּילְךָ֙ וְלָתֵ֤ת אֹיְבֶ֨יךָ֙ לְפָנֶ֔יךָ “to give your enemies before you” – begin with the letters ל ,א ,ו ,ל – which are the letters in Elul – אלול, the Hebrew month in which we currently find ourselves.

Elul is the month before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we are supposed to be engaged in cheshbon hanefesh, taking stock of our lives.  What sins are we carrying from the past year?  Where are the broken places in our relationships with each other?  What is keeping us from experiencing God’s Presence in our lives?

Rabbi Kattina sees in this verse a “hint that in this month, the Holy One can be found among the Jewish people.  He then cites the Rabbis’ teaching about the verse from Isaiah: “Seek the Lord while He can be found, call to Him while He is near.”  (Isaiah 55:6) The gates of repentance are open, therefore let there not be seen in you anything unseemly and let your encampment be holy.

Let us use these next few weeks take an honest look at ourselves, our homes, and our community.  God wants to walk among us, in our homes, and in our communities.  But it is up to us to make our communities, our homes, and our selves worthy of God’s Presence.

Shabbat Shalom.