Breaking the Downward Spiral – Behar 5779

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It didn’t work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have a lot of work to do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wouldn’t it be nice to know.

Acharei Mot 5779 – Dispel the Darkness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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