The stories of Abraham and Sarah are stories of journeys. From God’s initial communication to Avram, Lekh Lekha – go forth – his life consists of one journey after another.
The initial destination, “to a land that I will show you,” with its ambiguity, gives us a pretty good idea of what is to follow. Avram will continually set out into the unknown, never knowing how exactly things will turn out, but confident and faithful in God’s promise to him. This is why Avram is held up as the paradigm of the man of faith.
As soon as he receives the oppening message from God, Avram sets out with his entire household and all of his belongings to go to the land of Canaan. Let’s pay attention to the journey. He starts off in Shechem, which is in the northern part of the Promised land. There he builds an altar, and God promises the land to him and his offspring.
Avram turns south and builds another altar between Beit El and Ai. This is in the middle of the land that has been promised. He keeps traveling south toward the Negev. He has now traversed the entire land from north to south.
Not a terrible idea, by the way. If someone promised me a giant inheritance, I’d want to check it out also.
Then comes the surprise. “There was a famine in the land.” Surely this is not something that Avram anticipated. Without hesitating, he picks up his household again and leaves the land to which God has just led him.
He continues south, to Egypt. Before crossing the border, Avram turns to his wife.
I know what a beautiful woman you are. If the Egyptians see you, and think, ‘She is his wife,’ they will kill me and let you live. Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you.
They arrive in Egypt, and indeed, the Egyptians notice Sarai’s beauty. They even praise her to Pharaoh, who has her brought into the palace. Again, just as Avram predicted, it goes well for him because of her. He becomes quite wealthy.
Meanwhile, back in the palace, Pharaoh and his household are struck with mighty plagues. He seems to understand that this is due to the fact that she is a married woman, after all. So he summons Avram to the palace to scold him.
What is this you have done to me! Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Now here is your wife. Take her and leave!”
Men are assigned to oversee Avram, and he is escorted out of the country along with all of his possessions. Basically, he is deported. But he gets to keep his stuff. Avram then reverses his earlier journey. He goes up into the Negev with all of his wealth and then proceeds in stages to Beit El, where he worships again at the altar he had built previously.
What are we to make of this story, of Avram’s dishonesty?
The commentator Ramban is critical of Avram, claiming that he sinned twice. First, in leaving the Promised Land in the first place. Despite the famine, he should have had faith in God’s promise and ability to protect him. His second sin was lying to the Egyptians about being Sarai’s brother. He should have had faith in God’s ability to protect him. Instead, he sent his wife into a potentially dangerous situation
From a certain, modern perspective, we might call Avram a pimp. After all, under his instructions, Sarai is taken into the palace and Avram ends up making bank. And of course, neither the Torah nor the commentaries take into account Sarai’s perspective.
Because of these two sins, Ramban says, Avram’s journey is replicated by his descendants in the future. Think about the parallels. A plague drives the children of Jacob down to Egypt, where they eventually remain for four hundred years and become the Israelite nation. There, the Pharaoh issues a decree to kill all male children and, according to a midrash, bring all the girls into the Egyptian homes. To rescue the Israelites, God sends plagues against the Egyptians. Finally, when the Israelites leave to return to the Promised Land, they take great wealth from the Egyptians. According to Ramban, all of these events are punishment for Avram’s lack of faith in God’s ability to protect him.
A different commentator, Radak, suggests the opposite. This is indeed a test of Avram’s faith, one that he passes with flying colors. Avram received a promise that God will take care of him. Even though events immediately take a downward turn, i.e. a plague strikes the land that he is supposedly going to inherit, he stays the course. Avram accepts everything that happens to him with love, never questioning God’s inentions or methods. To Radak, Avram’s commitment to stay the course is a demonstration of his great faith.
So who is right? Is Avram a sinner, or a man of faith?
According to Professor Nahum Sarna, they are both missing the point. To understand what happened, we need to consider the values of the Ancient Near East. By the way, these are still values that are held in some parts of the world.
In the ancient world, a brother had authority and responsibility for an unmarried sister. If the Egyptians think Sarai is Abraham’s sister, they will likely come to two conclusions: 1. we better not touch her. 2. If she is available for marriage, we will have to negotiate a marriage contract with Avram.
Let’s imagine the scenario playing out. An Egyptian sees the beautiful Sarai. Thinking she’s single, he approaches Avram to seek marriage. Avram now has options. He can say no to the proposal. Or, he can pretend to negotiate, stalling while he and his household prepare their escape. Now imagine if they had been honest about being husband and wife. Remember, Avram is a foreigner. An Egyptian could readily kill Avram and simply take his now widowed wife, who no longer has the protection of any male figure. From this perspective, Avram made the best possible choice, a calculated gamble that he could stay alive, keep Sarai safe, and save his household until the famine ends back in Canaan.
Avram’s problem is that he fails to consider the possibility that Pharaoh himself will be the one to notice Sarai’s beauty. As we know from later events, normal rules do not apply to Pharaohs.
This sets the stage for the showdown between God and Pharaoh which, as Ramban astutely notes, presages the future showdown when Avram and Sarai’s descendants are rescued from Egypt and brought, at long last, to the Promised Land in final fulfillment of God’s promise.
At the end of day six of creation, all but one thing has come into existence by the word of God. And so God declares:
נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה אָדָ֛ם בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ כִּדְמוּתֵ֑נוּ
“Shall we make humanity according to our form and likeness?”
Who is this “we?” Does God have a design committee? Perhaps it is the “royal we?” The text is silent. So the midrash tells a story to answer the question.
When it comes time for the Holy Blessed One to create humanity, the ministering angels break off into factions and groupings. Some of them say yibarei! Let humanity be created! While others declare Al yibarei! Don’t let them be created!
“Kindness and truth met, justice and peace kissed.” (Psalm 85:11)
But this was no meeting of friends, no kiss of love. It was combat – pure and simple, with the fate of humanity in the balance.
Chesed, kindness, stands up and proclaims “Let humanity be created, for they will perform countless acts of gemilut chasadim, of lovingkindness.”
Then Emet, Truth, rises to object, “Don’t do it! They will all be liars!”
Tzedek, Righteousness, takes his turn and declares “Let them be created, for they will give untold sums of tzedakah!”
Finally, Shalom, peace, steps forward and laments, “Let them not be created, for they will be full of violence!”
The arguments fly back and forth between the angels. “Let them be created!” “Don’t let them be created!” Nobody can convince the other.
So what does the Holy Blessed One do? God grabs Emet, Truth, and casts her to the ground.
Stunned, the angels look up at God and ask, “How can you treat your seal in this way?” For Truth is the seal of God. “Let Truth rise back up from the ground!”
And then the angels turn back to each other, and the arguing breaks out again, even louder and more heated than before.
While they are otherwise engaged, God quietly sneaks out the back and creates the first human. God returns to the angels, shows them the new creation, and says “Why are you guys still arguing. Behold: humanity.”
According to this midrash, we should not read it as Na’aseh Adam (נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה אָדָ֛ם) – “Shall we make humanity?” but rather Na’asah Adam נַֽעֲשָׂה אָדָ֛ם – Humanity has been made in our form and our likeness. It is not a question that God asks the angels. It is a report, after the fact. A fait accomplis.
I love this midrash on so many levels. It expresses the moral complexity of being human. We can be wonderful to each other, left one another up with kindness and restore each other’s dignity. But we fight and argue. We deceive one another and behave as if we are always in competition. This is our struggle, as individuals and as a species.
The midrash also depicts a fight, a stalemate – in which nobody can convince each other of their point of view. When we cannot agree on the truth, it is impossible to see things from another point of view, to compromise, to find common ground. To break the tie sometimes requires letting go of our need to be right. So God casts truth to the earth. It can sprout again, but only if it is fed by righteousness and kindness.
Finally, the image of God sneaking out the back to go create humanity while the angels fight is just wonderful. How often does our need to win hold us back from ever moving forward in positive direction?
Mi va’esh u’mi va’mayim. Who by fire and who by water?
We are halfway through what is already one of the worst fire seasons around the globe. More than 2.2 million acres have burned here in California so far, exacerbated by drought. Large swaths of land around the Mediterranean burned. In July, the town of Lytton, British Columbia, in Canada, reached a record 121 degrees Fahrenheit and literally burst into flame.
Less than one month ago, Hurricane Ida wreaked devastation from Louisiana to the Northeast, leaving at least 115 people dead and causing more than fifty billion dollars in damage.
Two months ago, record rainfall in Western Europe caused massive flooding, killing at least 220 people, and washing away an entire town in Germany.
Mi va’esh u’mi va’mayim. Who by fire and who by water?
The most urgent issue facing humanity is our imbalanced relationship with the earth. It outweighs every other concern: Covid, freedom, democracy, racism, poverty, education, and Israel.
Our out of balance relationship with the earth puts our species at risk of extinction. If that happens, nothing else matters – at least from humanity’s perspective.
Every one of us must do better when it comes to the ways that we utilize the earth’s resources. And since none of us can do everything, we can direct our efforts towards those issues which seem most urgent to us and which we have the greatest capacity to influence.
There are so many ciritical issues, including for those who do not believe human beings cause climate change. Much of the western United States is in extreme drought conditions. Microplastics are everywhere, from the deepest seas to the highest mountains. Humanity’s encroachment into unoccupied areas, called WUI, the Wildland Urban Interface, puts people at greater risk from disasters like fire. The oceans are acidifying.
I plead with all of us. Pick at least one thing that you care about and do more than you are already doing.
Who is to blame for how things have gotten to be the way they are?
You may recall a famous ad that appeared regularly on television in the 1970’s. The scene opens with a Native American man paddling down a bucolic river in a canoe. His hair is in braids and he is wearing a leather “Indian” outift. The camera turns to the water. A single piece of trash floats by. Now we see an industrial nightmare. Large factories, container ships, and pollution spewing smoketacks dwarf the small canoe.The Native American drags his boat to the shore, where more trash litters the ground. As he begins walking, a voiceover proclaims:
“Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country.”
He is now at the side of a busy highway. As the traffic zooms past, a driver carelessly throws a bag of rubbish out the window. It lands, scattering garbage across our hero’s feet. The voiceover continues:
“And some people don’t.”
As the camera zooms in on the Native American’s face, a single tear rolls down his cheek and we are admonished,
“People start pollution, and people can stop it.”
This ad, which came to be known as the “The Crying Indian,” is considered by the Ad Council to be one of the “50 greatest commercials of all time.”
By every measure, it was super effective.
Part of a campaign by a nonprofit organization called Keep America Beautiful, it helped lead to the reduction of litter by 88% across 38 states. But that was not the real goal of “The Crying Indian.” As they say: follow the money.
The nonprofit Keep America Beautiful was not founded, as its name might suggest, by a bunch of do-gooder hippies. It was created in the 1950’s by the American Can Company and the Owens-Illiniois Glass Company, which were later joined by the likes of Coca-Cola and the Dixie Cup Company.
The goal of Keep America Beautiful was to oppose the influence of environmentalists. Prior to its founding, packaging was typically reusable. If you bought a Coke, you paid a deposit and then returned the bottle so that it could be sterilized and reused. In the 1950’s, as the plastics industry was taking off, bottlers and container manufacturers began to aggressively – and successfully – push single use packaging.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s there were increasing moves to enact legislation to limit the production of throwaway containers. So Keep America Beautiful began to sponsor ad campaigns like “The Crying Indian.”
The cynical strategy was based on the simple economics of supply and demand. If we want to do something about litter, we basically have two options: focus on the people who make the stuff or focus on the people who use the stuff. The suppliers, or the demanders. Supply or demand.
“The Crying Indian,” with its final message, “People start pollution, and people can stop it,” places responsibility on the demand side of the equation.
The suppliers of all of this packaging would shrug their shoulders and say, “we are just giving our customers what they want. It’s not our fault.”
In fact, it was their fault. Through a decades-long marketing strategy, they shifted public consciousness to center all of the blame and responsibility on the demand side. The result is that there were few limits placed on supply. The companies avoided having to pay the costs of pollution and disposal, and they earned billions and billions of dollars while the plastic accumulated.
I go to Costco and discover apples on my shopping list. Organic apples. But those apples come in a plastic clamshell. Now I, the consumer, am stuck with this piece of plastic that I do not want, but that is now my responsibility to deal with.Does it go in the trash or the recycling bin? Well, it’s got the triangle thing on it, but I recently heard that those triangle thingies are not reliable. Plus, the third world countries to which we used to ship all of our plastic are starting to say, “no thank you. We don’t want your trash.” As it turns out, much of that plastic heading for recycling was just being dumped in open air landfills.
Who is the manufacturer of that plastic clamshell? Who knows. What is their legal responsibility? Nothing whatsoever.
It is because Keep America Beautiful‘s ad campaign worked. Our economy does not include the price of disposal in the cost of manufacturing. The suppliers are off the hook.
By the way, the Indian who appeared in the ad was an actor who went by the name “Iron Eyes Cody.” His real name was Espera De Corti. He was a second generation Italian American.
What is your personal carbon footprint? How much CO2 and methane do your actions put into the environment? This is a question many of us have asked ourselves in recent years.
I can easily go online and find a website that will ask me to estimate the number of square feet in my home, my annual vehicle mileage, the number of airplane flights I take per year, and so on. Enter all the data, click next, and presto – my carbon footprint!
Where did the idea for the carbon footprint come from? Follow the money.
The ad agency Ogilvy started the campaign in 2005 on behalf of its client, British Petroleum. Just like “The Crying Indian,” BP wanted to keep the moral responsibility for oil production on the demand side rather than the supply side of the equation.
So BP encourages us to calculate our carbon footprint and then offers suggestions for how we can reduce it, knowing that we will not actually follow through in any economically substanative way. Meanwhile, BP will be there for us to supply all of the oil that we demand.
For its part, BP has made no effort to reduce its own carbon footprint. Quite the opposite – it has continued to expand its oil drilling, including a current multi-billion dollar project called “Thunder Horse” to construct an oil platform 150 miles south of New Orleans in the Gulf of Mexico. When all eight wells are completed sometime this decade, it will produce 250,000 barrels of oil and 200 million cubic feet of gas per day.
But it is our responsibility. After all, BP is just meeting our demand.
This strategy has been used over and over again – by the petroleum industry, tobacco companies, sugary beverage producers. “It’s not our fault. We are just giving the people what they want.”
But it is their fault.
Or maybe not entirely.
One of the most prominent sections in our Mahzor is the Vidui, the confessional. We recite Ashamnu and Al Chet. For the sins we have committed, forgive us and pardon us. We strike our chests in contrition.
Both of these prayers are alphabetical. The Ashamnu lists a single verb for each letter. Al Chet is a double acrostic, with two sentences per letter. We recite a litany of sins. Some are specific actions, while others are general attitudes of selfishness or duplicity.
All of the verbs end with -nu, which is the 1st person plural. We did all of these things. Surely not! I have definitiely screwed up a lot this past year, but I’m not that bad. I didn’t commit every sin on the list. For example, I know with certainty that I did not charge interest to anyone in 5781. I categorically reject that characterization.
We Rabbis will often explain this expression of collective guilt as a way to provide cover, to help those of us who might actually be guilty of one of these sins to face up to it.
Or maybe, in another sense, we actually are accountable for each other’s sins. These confessions are not personal admissions. We, as a collective entity, take responsibility for all that has happened in the lives of our congregation.
Or perhaps we, as Jews, take collective responsibility before God for all that the Jewish people have done.
Or if we widen the lens further, perhaps humanity is in some sense collectively responsible for all that we do as a species.
After all, we cannot avoid the consequences of each others’ actions. This has been made devastatingly clear during the Covid pandemic. Maybe the language of guilt and innocence is not the most helpful paradigm. Maybe it would be more constructive if we framed it this way:
There are actions that individuals and groups take which impact the lives of others. That is an unavoidable fact. When that happens, like it or not, we become responsible.
Humanity is responsible for humanity’s relationship to the earth.
As much as we might like to assign blame, the fire and the flood certainly don’t care whose fault it is.
Whether from a theological, ethical, or self-interest perspective, we are responsible for treating the earth appropriately.
Unfortunately, traditional Jewish law is somewhat deficient as a source of practical guidance. The basic categories developed two thousand years ago, at a time when there was no awareness of an interdependent global environment. Human beings did not know about chemicals that could not be seen or that could dissipate into the upper atmosphere.
Also, Jewish law tends to focus on the actions and responsibilities of individuals, not governments or corporations. In other words, on the demand side of the economic equation.
Nevertheless, our present situation is not entirely without precedent. In his twelfth century law code, Maimonides includes a section called Hilkhot Sh’khenim, Laws of Neighbors. He addresses a situation in which a person wants to build a feature or conduct business on his property that produces pollution that would travel beyond its borders.
If a person constructs a threshing floor in the midst of his (property), or builds an outhouse, or does work which raises dust, particles of earth, etc., he must move far enough away so that the pollution does not reach his neighbor and cause harm. Even if the pollution is carried by the wind, he is obligated to move far enough away…
Rambam, Laws of Neighbors 11:1
Jewish law deals with directly identifiable harm. And we can see from the examples that Maimonides gives that the pollution in question is all what we would characterize as “natural” byproducts.
But when the harm is indirect, such as plastic in the ocean or CO2 in the atmosphere, Jewish law has no explicit prohibition. And the earth itself has no standing to sue.
I wonder, if he was writing today, what other forms of pollution Maimonides would have included in the law.
The lack of specific legal precedents does not mean that Judaism is ambivalent. A famous midrash expresses humanity’s ideal relationship with the natural world.
When God created the first human beings, God led them around the garden of Eden and said: ‘Look at my works! See how beautiful they are — how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.’
Midrash Kohelet Rabbah on Ecclesiastes 7:13
Notice a few details. Human beings are the purpose of creation, but the world still belongs to God.
Detail two – All of the beautiful and excellent things in the world can be destroyed, but the damaged world itself will continue to exist.
Detail three – there is nobody else to repair it. We are on our own here. God will not step in to save the earth from our mismanagement.
Let’s take this a step further. In the Torah’s language, adam, humanity, is created in God’s image. That is a theological statement.
A scientist would ask if homo sapiens is fundamentally different than any other species. The answer is no and yes.
Every living thing is comprised of the same chemical materials, and is formed and behaves according to its DNA encoding.
We share the same survival instincts as all life forms, from the great whale to the spot of mold on a rock. We are drawn to that which helps our particular genetic material reproduce and repelled by that which puts it at risk. Most animals know instinctively that fire is dangerous and it is best to run away from it. We would call this “biological knowledge.”
On the other hand, homo sapiens is the only species that can understand how the combination of dry conditions, heat, heavy winds, and a lightning storm increases the chances of a forest fire. A philosopher or scientist would call this “explanatory knowledge” – the ability to tell stories or develop formulas or ideas that explain why things are the way they are.
Those explanations may or may not be true, but they do enable a human being to approach a choice and consider, for example, “What is the ethical thing to do?” Religion, science, the arts – these are all made possible by humanity’s capacity for explanatory knowledge.
This is what makes us unique among living creatures on earth, if not the universe. Shifting back to theological language, we might say that our capacity for explanatory knowledge is what it means to be made in God’s image.
That capacity has made it possible for us to develop civilization and technology, to learn how to live in environments in which our bodies could not survive with biological knowledge alone.
This quality has enabled us to spread out across the world, to reach a global population of nearly 8 billion people, to harness the natural resources of the planet such that humanity has thrived beyond what its mere biology would allow.
This quality is also what puts our continued survival on the planet at risk. And it is the quality that makes us the only ones who can restore the balance and save ourselves.
Whether from a theological or a scientific perspective, we are the ones who must radically change directions. Can we do it?
This afternoon, we will read the story of Jonah, the most successful prophet ever.
Although he tries to escape his mission, Jonah eventually realizes that there is no avoiding God. Reluctantly, he marches off to the giant metropolis of Nineveh, a city so large it takes three days to walk across. He climbs up on his soap box and proclaims, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overturned!”
The people respond immediately. They declare a fast, and put on sackcloth and ashes. When word reaches the king, he gets off his throne and he joins them, ordering everyone to participate, humans and even animals. God sees and forgives. Disaster is averted.
Can you imagine?
An entire society, top to bottom: the rich, the poor, the politicians, people of all ethnicities and religions – everyone recognizes the danger, accepts responsibility, and fully commits to change – overnight.
My children are really worried about whether the planet is going to be livable when they are adults.
While it would be nice to hold the greatest polluters accountable, I am afraid that it is up to humanity collectively, and us individually.
If you are in a position to make a difference on the supply side of the equation, you are our best hope. If you can influence the decision makers in government or are in government, or if you are in a position in your company to change policies and practices to be a better environmental steward, our children and grandchildren are counting on you.
Most of us are on the demand side of the equation. Whatever you are already doing, do more. If you can, install solar panels on your roof. Get rid of your gasoline powered car. Ride your bike or take public transit more. Rip out your lawn. Buy less stuff. Eat less meat. Move into a smaller space. Protect undeveloped land from human encroachment. We each have capacity, and we know best what we are capable of. Let others know what you are doing and celebrate each other’s actions. That is how we will make a difference.
May we be worthy of the trust given us by God to take care of this beautiful world with all of its excellent creations.
When the Sofer was here last weekend to complete our new Torah scroll, he pointed out something that I had not thought about before. He asked, when in the Torah do Abraham and Isaac talk to each other?
The answer is, only during the story of Akedat Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac, which we read this morning.
Abraham receives the call from God, a test, to “take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” (Genesis 22:2)
With alacrity, Abraham sets off on the journey, a donkey, two servants, Isaac, and wood for the sacrifice. On the third day, Abraham leaves the two servants with the donkey and continues up the mountain. He places the wood on Isaac’s shoulders, and himself carries the knife and the flint.
We now hear Isaac’s voice for the first time.
Avi – “Father”
And Abraham responds, hineni v’ni – “Here I am, my son.”
Hinei ha’esh v’ha’etzim, v’ayeh haseh l’olah – “Here are the flint and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”
Elohim yir’eh lo ha’seh l’olah b’ni, Abraham answers – “God will see to the sheep for the burnt offering, my son.” (Genesis 22:7-8)
And they continue on together.
That’s it, the only dialogue between Abraham and Isaac in the entire Torah.
The angel comes to stop Abraham at the last minute. Indeed, God does see to the sheep for the burnt offering. Abraham looks up and sees a ram with its horns caught in a thicket, which he offers up in place of Isaac.
In reward, God reiterates the blessing to Abraham. His descendants will be as numerous as the stars in heaven and the sand on the seashore. They will seize the gates of their foes, and the nations of the earth will bless themselves by them.
Since ancient times, Jews have read the Akedah as highly significant. Although it might seem surprising to us, it is traditionally portrayed positively, the ultimate test and proof of Abraham’s faith, a test that he passes with flying colors.
But the scene ends on an ominous note — depending on how we read it.
Abraham then returned to his servants, and they departed together for Beer-sheba; and Abraham stayed in Beer-sheba.
Where is Isaac? He is neither seen nor heard from.
Midrashim suggest a few possibilities. Abraham thinks to himself, “Everything I have is due to my commitment to Torah and mitzvot. I must ensure thay my offspring always maintain their faith.” So he sends Isaac off to study in the Yeshiva of Shem (Noah’s son). (Genesis Rabbah 56:11)
Another midrash claims that Abraham partially slaughtered Isaac on the altar. So Isaac goes off to the Garden of Eden to recuperate for the next three years.
Other midrashim connect the Akedah directly to Sarah’s death, which follows at the beginning of the next chapter. In one legend, Sama’el, otherwise known as Satan, frustrated that Abraham passed God’s test of faith, goes to Sarah and asks her,
“Do you know what has just happened? Your old husband has taken the lad Isaac and sacrificed him on the altar. He cried and and wailed but there was nobody to save him.” Hearing this, Sarah herself began to cry and wail, three long gasps like the tekiah of the shofar, and three broken howls like the shevarim. Then her soul departed.
Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 32:8
Even though the Akedah is traditionally seen as a “win” for Abraham, we still find notes of discomfort – a recognition of its painful and potentially alienating repercussions — if not for Abraham, then for Isaac and Sarah.
But I would like to come back to our initial question? Do we really think that this was the only conversation that ever occurred between Abraham and Isaac?
Of course not.
Yes, old Abe was surely an intense guy, but I imagine they might have gone out to throw the ball around at some point.
Maybe, just maybe, they would get together from time to time over a beer and laugh about that time when Dad almost sacrificed his son.
And while the conspicuous absence of any reference to Isaac coming down from the mountain does seem ominous, we might be overreacting.
Is it possible that Abraham and Isaac had a more normal relationship than we generally assume; that the Torah’s story of their three-day father-son camping trip might not be representative of their relationship?
After all, we know only what is shown to us on the outside.
We make a lot of assumptions about the meaning of a story like the Akedah. How much do our assumptions mirror our own concerns and viewpoints rather than describe what [quote unquote] happened? This is true as well of our relationships with one another. We do not know what happens behind closed doors, or closed tent-flaps, as the case may be.
We have spent much of the past year and a half physically-distanced. We cannot yet understand the full impact of this isolation. But let’s acknowledge for a moment some of the difficulties we have faced behind closed doors.
Much of our interactions have been by way of a two dimensional screen. We catch only partial glimpses of one another, and reveal just a fraction of ourselves, superimposed on a fake background of a tropical beach. The ability to mute ourselves or turn the camera off at will provides a further means of creating distance. Even when we have been together, we see just half of one another’s faces. We have been unable to see out of town family and friends. People who have been ill have had to spend their time in the hospital alone. Those who have lost family members have been unable to say goodbye in person. There are those who have experienced forced isolation with a sigh of relief. The removal of the pressure of social interactions has come as a blessing. Others have found their stress and anxiety levels rising. Parents have struggled to support their children, who have had to attend school from home and stay apart from friends. Often, we have been at a lost as to what to do when we see our children falling behind in schoolwork, withdrawing from friends, and suffering. We have coped with stress in ways both healthy and self-destructive.
Human beings are often quick to judge. Quick to come to conclusions based on what we see on the surface. But just as when we read the Akedah, our judgments of others are just as if not more likely to be a reflection of ourselves than an accurate depiction of the other. Let’s keep in mind: A person who appears confident could be terrified. A friend who seems happy could be suffering. Someone who seems normal may be experiencing abuse at home.
To really see another person requires that we set aside our ego, that we be open to learning something we did not already know and could have no way of knowing. This is difficult under normal circumstances, and even more so lately.
We do not know what goes on behind closed doors, whether the physical doors of a home, or behind the doors into the soul of another person.
What we encounter of each other is limited, but God sees what is beneath the surface, perceives that which is hidden and invisible from one another. God remembers all of the forgotten things, taking note of that which we do not see, which we fail to take into account.
This day of Rosh Hashanah is a celebration of grandeur, of Creation and renewal. But as we celebrate such grandeur, we turn inward, to the innermost parts of our selves, the parts that are hidden from each other, that may even be hidden from us. In the poetic language of the mahzor, however, all is revealed before God, for God is fundamentally different.
Atah hu yotz’ram, v’atah yode’a yitzram, ki hem basar va’dam – It is You who are their Creator, and it is You who knows their inclination, for they are flesh and blood.
This expression comes in the context of describing how God is waiting, every day of our lives, for us to turn in teshuvah. Each one of us is imperfect and mortal, our origin is from the dust and our end is to return to the dust. And the infinite God knows our innermost thoughts and feelings. The God of the universe, who surely has bigger, more important things to worry about, pays attention to the souls of each one of us. As we pray repeatedly during these holy days, God’s nature is forgiving and understanding, always willing to give us another chance.
Perhaps that is a lesson we might take to heart. The qualities we ascribe to God are those ideal qualities that we aspire to in ourselves.
We do not know what is going on beneath the surface. What happens inside homes, between family members. Behind the computer or smartphone screen. But it is safe to assume that there is an entire world. Each human being is an olam katan.
So before we pass judgment on what we think we see, let’s make that extra effort to be compassionate, just as we ask God to do. To try to understand, with patience. To give each other the benefit of the doubt, a second chance, a third chance.
With so much alienation and distance between us, we need each other more than ever. May this new year be a year in which we open our eyes and open our hearts to one another.
I will admit, I have been feeling a bit down Jewishly. It feels like we have taken a beating these last few years. Jews have been murdered while praying in synagogues.
Extremes on the political left and right have been asserting themselves more boldly. Strangely, they seem to find common cause in some of the same ancient stereotypes and lies: Jews are moneygrubbing, control the media and the banks, have dual loyalty, profit on the suffering of the poor, prey on children, etc.
During the recent fighting between Israel and Hamas, anti-Israel protests frequently spilled over into Jew-hatred, in which Jews are held collectively responsible for the actions of the state of Israel. Jews were physically attacked in New York and Los Angeles, not to mention cities all over Europe. Synagogues and Cemeteries have been vandalized.
The FBI just released its data on hate crimes in 2020. Of all crimes that targeted someone because of religion, 57.5% were against Jews.
Antisemitism shares much in common with other forms of hate: racism, anti-Muslim bias, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, and so on. But as the most ancient form of hatred, it also has unique characteristics.
I worry that these trends have caused many of us to hunker down, to even internalize some of the criticism.
With notable exceptions, it feels like we have been less willing to put ourselves out there.
Is there a solution? We are not going to change the minds of those who already hate us. But in reality, they are a small, albeit loud number.
The majority is simply unaware. In a recent poll, 46% of Americans could not identify or could barely identify the term ‘antisemitism.’
But this is not a sermon about antisemitism. This is a sermon about Jewish pride.
I am proud of what the Jewish people have given the world. I am proud of who we are as a people. This Rosh Hashanah, I would like to share with you why. I would encourage you to answer the following two questions yourself:
“Why do I choose to be Jewish?” “What makes me proud to be Jewish?”
The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks would often say “that non-Jews respect Jews who respect their Judaism, and non-Jews are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed by their Judaism.”
I cannot stop other people from Jew-hatred. But I can stand up and declare “I will not let it change how I feel about myself and my people.”
I do not believe in triumphalism. It is possible to be proud of one’s own people and history, its impact on the world, without denying the greatness of other cultures and religions and their positive influences on human civilization.
In fact, Judaism’s message is not meant for all humanity. It is a covenant with the Jewish people only. God does not prescribe a singular way of worship, nor claim that there is only one path to truth. God loves diversity. I appreciate and give thanks for what other peoples have given humanity.
Let’s start with origins. Egypt: 1300 BCE. Ramses II is the greatest Pharaoh of the greatest dynasty the world has ever known, now at its peak. Under his reign, Egypt is a military powerhouse, expanding its territory and influence. He directs the building of vast monuments, temples, and storehouses.
Living in Egypt are a poor, stubborn, and moody group of foreigners called the Hebrews. They have been brutally enslaved by the Egyptians and put to work building the storehouses of Pithom and Ramses.
If we ask an observer the following question: “Which of these two groups, the Egyptians or the Hebrews, is more likely to still be around in 3,300 years? What would the answer be?
Our ancestors gave the world the original model of freedom from tyrrany. The Exodus from Egypt is our people’s birth story. It has inspired countless freedom movements around the world.
Rooted in both the creation of the world and the exodus from slavery, Judaism gave the world the sabbath, a day on which we do not exert our control over nature, or over other people.
The Torah introduced monotheism to the world, replacing a world view that saw the gods as the personifications of nature waging a constantly recurring amoral and selfish battle.
The God of the Torah acts with justice and mercy. The Torah introduced the idea that all human beings are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.
With this spark of divinity residing within every person, Judaism brought a recognition of the value and dignity of every human life, whether rich or poor, free or oppressed, citizen or stranger.
The God of the Torah commands, transmitting Divine law through Moses the lawgiver. Underlying this concept is the recognition that something outside of humanity is the ultimate arbiter of justice. Morality is not relative. There is such a thing as good and evil, and humans have the ability to tell the difference between the two. But it is not always obvious or easy.
Moses knew what to say to our ancestors when they were about to leave Egypt. Three times he predicts that their children will come to ask them about the rituals of Passover. And he tells them to “explain to your child on that day, ‘It because what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.'”
Forty years later, as those very children are poised to enter the Promised land, Moses again tells them, “And you shall teach them to your children and you shall speak of them when you dwell in your home and when you go on your way, when you lie down and when you rise up.”
From the very beginning, our secret for survival was the transmission of our story and our knowledge from each generation to the next.
We did not build great colosseums, amphitheaters, or pyramids. The physical evidence for the existence of our Biblical ancestors is scant and relatively unimpressive compared to the architectural marvels constructed by the great Empires of the ancient world.
But where they left behind colossuses of stone and themselves disappeared from the earth, we have a living Torah that parents still pass down to their children.
The word Torah means instruction. It comes from the same root word as teacher, morah, and parents, horim. This is not a coincidence.
When I talk about Judaism to groups of non-Jews, I love showing them a page of Torah in which the commentaries surround the sacred text in the middle: Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Nachmanides, and others, disagreeing passionately with one another over the meaning of Torah.
It suggests that while the truth might be right in front of us, its discovery can only come through exposure to different ways of thinking. No human being is capable of understanding the Divine will, and we should never be too confident in our own knowledge – but it is possible to get closer to Truth.
Jews have always treasured learning. It is amazing to me that, when I study 2,000 year old writings of the Talmud and midrash, I join thousands upon thousands of other Jews who are studying these same ancient words on a daily basis.
Not just university professors or old rabbis with long beards; common Jews, eager to understand how our ancestors related to the same texts that we hold sacred today.
Every seven years, Jews fill Madison Square Garden, not for a concert or a basketball game, but to celebrate the completion of learning the entire Talmud, one page at a time.
This democratizion of learning seems rather unique.
You are undoubtedly familiar with the statistics – 22% of Nobel laureates have been Jewish.
Albert Einstein said:
The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, an almost fanatical love of justice and the desire for personal independence—these are the features of the Jewish tradition which make me thank my stars that I belong to it.
To be Jewish is to belong to a people. As much as we argue and fight with one another, the Jewish sense of belonging is special.
The word Yisrael applies to several things. It is the acquired name of the Patriarch Jacob. It is the word that describes the Jewish people. And it refers to the land promised to our ancestors. It means “the people that struggles with beings Divine and human and stays in the game.” That sounds about right.
We are an incredibly diverse bunch – we come from different lands and speak different languages. We have different skin colors. We welcome those who choose to join the Jewish people as full members, but we never proselytize.
Despite such diversity, we have a shared identity that uniquely connects us. Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh. All of Israel are interconnected with one another.
Judaism does not foster an extreme individualism, in which each person is alienated from the other. Nor do we promote a total collectivism, in which the uniqueness of each person is subsumed under the identity and interests of the group.
We freely quote the proverb of Hillel the Elder, but I must admit I never really gave much thought to its profundity before. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I.”
It expresses the tension between autonomy and responsibility for others. Where is the line demarcating the border between self interest and duty to others? It is in this tension that human dignity can be found.
I love that the Jewish concept of charity is tzedakah. It is not a voluntary act of generosity, but a matter of tzedek, justice. It is a commandment incumbent upon every one of us. We cannot escape our responsibility towards one another.
We are a people of memory. Much of that memory has to do with mourning past tragedies: the destruction of the first and second Temples; multiple expulsions; the Crusades; blood libels; the Spanish inquisition; the Chmielnitsky massacres; pogroms, and the Holocaust.
These are not just distant events. We tell them as our stories. These happened to people in our own communities, to our families, to us.
We do not allow ourselves forget, but neither do we allow ourselves to be buried by our history.
For nearly two thousand years, we were a scattered, diaspora people. 75 generations of Jews directed their prayers towards a country of Israel that did not exist.
We always prayed and dreamed for a time when things would be better. We continued to struggle with God and humanity with stubbornness and hope. We maintained a sense of humor throughout.
The establishment of the modern state of Israel, after the catastrophe of the Holocaust, is a testament to that historical optimism. It has brought new opportunities and challanges for the Jewish people that for 2,000 years were merely theoretical.
Rabbi Doniel Hartman applies the term “the troubled committed” to those, mainly American, Jews who are lovers and supporters of Israel while at the same time are deeply disturbed by “the enduring gap between ideals and reality.”
I am proud of the thriving democracy Israel has developed, its incredible flourishing in spite of so many forces working against it. I am proud that Israel is a technological giant, that it managed to be the first nation in the world to bring widespread Covid vaccinations to its people, that it is always among the first to send delegations of aid workers when disaster strikes impoverished countries. And so much more.
These are examples of the best of what a country founded on Jewish values can achieve.
And I am extremely troubled by Israel’s unequal treatment of Palestinians and continued occupation of the West Bank. The blessing of Jewish power must be guided by righteousness, and I worry that this is not always the case.
The failure to always meet its ideals is not a reason to abandon the first Jewish state in nearly 2,000 years. We can take pride in what Israel has acheived and support it to better live up to its potential.
Because to be Jewish is to acknowledge the world as it is, while living with hope for what it could be.
On the High Holidays, we appeal to God to forgive our sins and inscribe us in the Book of Life, to remove our sorrows and troubles and bless us with prosperity. Superficially, we are asking God to intervene in whatever physical fate awaits us in the year ahead.
When the holiday is over, what do we think is going to be different? Will our destiny somehow be changed because we spent hours upon hours in prayer?
What happens to me physically in the upcoming year will depend on some combination of three factors: what happens in nature, what other people do, and what I do.
Of those three, I only have any control over the last one. The possibility of teshuvah, of repentance, is a fundamentally optimistic approach to being human. It is the Jewish approach. Each of us can change, at any time.
Judaism believes in free will. Moses explains that in front of each of us there is a path of life and blessing, and a path of death and curse. While God has a preference for which path we take, the choice is ours.
In another metaphor, The Talmud teaches that humanity was created with the yetzer hatov and the yetzer hara, the good and the evil inclination. But the evil inclination is often misunderstood. The Rabbis recognize that “were it not for the evil inclination, no one would build a house, get married, have children, or engage in business.”
The struggle for every one of us is to direct the yetzer hara, the ego-driven aspect of ourselves that always wants to expand and grow, towards the service of the good.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov asks “If you are not a better person tomorrow than you are today, what need have you for a tomorrow?”
For thousands of years, Jews have prayed for the coming of the Messiah. But we are not looking for God to send someone to miraculously save us from all of our troubles. What we are really striving for is to build a world that is worthy of saving. So to answer the question, “when will the Messiah arrive,” the Jewish answer is “Not yet.”
I could go on, but those are some of the reasons I choose to be choose.
I do not anticipate that the pressures facing the Jewish people are going to let up in 5782.
This moment calls for us to remember who we are. Let’s each ask ourselves:
“Why am I proud to be Jewish?” And then act like we mean it.
May this year be one of strength and renewal for us and the Jewish people.
May we be inspired by the commitment of past generations to live with hope and faith as we face the opportunities and challenges of the present.
May we be worthy of transmitting all of that which makes us proud to be Jewish to future generations.
As far as I know, this morning’s portion contains the Torah’s only example of a building code.
When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.
For those who are wondering, a parapet is a fence.
As we might imagine, the Rabbis go into great detail outlining the particular requirements of this broadly-stated rule.
The Shulchan Arukh, the code of Jewish written in the sixteenth century by Joseph Caro, does a good job of summarizing the discussions and legal rulings that evolved over the preceding 1,500 years.
In chapter 427 of Choshen Mishpat, which happens to be the final chapter of the entire Shulchah Arukh, the laws of building a parapet are discussed.
It starts with particular details. Which kinds of structures are included? Houses and apartments, yes; warehouses and barns, no. Synagogues and schools, no. (But don’t worry, we have a parapet around the flat parts of our roof here at Congregation Sinai.)
How tall does a house have to be to require a parapet? How many walls? How high does the parapet need to be? And so on.
Closely reading the Biblical text, the rabbis identify both a positive commandment to build a parapet around the roof as well as a negative commandment to not bring bloodguilt upon your house. Thus, someone who fails to build said parapet transgresses two separate commandments of the Torah.
And then the Shulchan Arukh broadens the lens to include any physical structure which might pose a danger to other people, such as a well or a pit. If you have a manhole on your property, it needs a manhole cover or a fence around it.
And then the Shulchan Arukh takes an even bigger step back, stating that “one has a positive duty to remove and guard oneself from any life-threatening obstacle,” like unsafe drinking water.
Ending the discussion of the laws of building a parapet, and thereby ending the entire Shulchan Arukh itself, is the following statement:
Anyone who transgresses on these and similar matters by saying, “What business is it of anyone else if I put myself in danger,” or “I am not concerned with this,” he should be lashed for disobedience.
Shulchan Arukh 427:10
We began with the simple statement that a person who builds a private home must make sure that it does not have any features that might be dangerous to themself or anyone else. By the end of the section, the Rabbis have stated that the Beit Din, the Jewish court, can physically compel someone whose actions endanger not just other people, but even themself.
Jewish law has always struggled with the tension between individual autonomy and collective responsibility.
Laws such as these developed at a time when Jews were often left to their own affairs when it came to communal rules and behaviors.
Now, rather than following the Torah’s building codes, state and city regulations are in place to make sure that new construction is safe.
That there are limits to personal autonomy, especially when it comes to safety, is firmly established in Jewish law.
Consider this with respect to mask and vaccine mandates.
Our community has been so supportive with regard to the changing rules for masking and distancing in the synagogue. With the goalposts constantly moving, figuring out how to bring the community safely together has not been easy.
But we all seem to recognize the need to take into account the effects on others when we make decisions for ourselves, even when it means sometimes doing something inconvenient or uncomfortable.
Let’s come back to the Shulkah Arukh. Joseph Caro must have wanted to end the on a positive note. Because after warning that the person who disregards safety can be compelled through lashes, he writres the following:
May good blessings come upon the person who is careful with them [i.e. the rules about public safety].
Comfortable chairs! The beautiful sanctuary! Air conditioning!
It has been a long slog. Surprisingly, much of the last year already is starting to feel like a distant memory. It was not long ago that I was rolling out of bed on Shabbat morning to go to shul in my family room.
As life continues to return to normal – at least for those of us blessed to live here in well-vaccinated San Jose, I wonder what from the pandemic will stay with us?
This morning’s double Torah portion, Matot-Masei, concludes the Book of Numbers. To make sure we do not forget, it reviews every single stop in the wilderness at which the Israelites have camped over the previous forty years. It is important to remember everything that has transpired before the Israelites are allowed to reach their home in the Promised Land.
As the parashah begins, however, there is one final piece of action that requires attention.
At God’s instructions, the Israelites go to war against Midian. This is the conclusion of a long, drawn-out engagement that began back when King Balak tried to get the Prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites. Now, finally, the conflict comes to an end with battle.
One thousand men from each of the twelve tribes are selected to go to war. The Priest Pinchas joins them, equipped with the sacred vessels and the silver trumpets.
The Israelites achieve a great victory, devastating the Midianites and their towns, slaughtering men, women, and children, and taking vast booty.
I do not want to focus on those parts of the story, however. I would draw our attention to the return of the Israelites warriors to the community.
Moses instructs the soldiers:
You shall stay outside the camp seven days; every one among you or among your captives who has slain a person or touched a corpse shall cleanse himself on the third and seventh days.
On the seventh day, they wash their clothes and can then reenter the camp.
Why is there such a long and drawn-out reentry into the camp? If I was a soldier, the last thing I would want to do after returning home from war would be to wait outside for an extra week. I would want to return to my family as quickly as possible.
The answer has to do with holiness and purity. After so much contact with death, the soldiers are all presumed to be in a state of ritual impurity. If they return to the camp and mingle with the rest of the Israelites, they run the risk of passing along that corpse-contamination to others. The impurity could eventually spread all the way to the Tabernacle, which would then become unfit for God’s Presence.
And so, for the good of the entire nation, the 12,000 soldiers remain in quarantine outside the camp for one week, which is the length of time required to become pure again after a person has come into direct contact with a dead body.
Despite their overwhelming victory, I imagine these soldiers are still traumatized.
What would it feel like to reenter the camp? They have gone through the trauma of war. These seven days of quarantine, of physical and spiritual cleansing, give them a chance to make a transition to normal life, to heal. Only then can they come home.
We have a sense of what that feels like. After sixteen months away, we are now back inside our sanctuary for the first time.
It has been a traumatic year for so many. Isolation, disruptions in school and work. Some of us have gotten sick. Some of us lost family and friends to Covid.
For the sake of keeping each other free from contagion, we have had to be physically isolated from one another. For me, personally, it has been inconvenient. But I try not to forget about who has borne the brunt of this scourge. From increased rates of illness, to worse outcomes, to slower vaccination access, and increased unemployment – it is the same people who are always at greatest risk: the poor and marginalized.
Now here we are.
The Israelite soldiers returning from war partook in rituals to mark their return to the community. It is appropriate for us as well.
Birkat Shehecheyanu seems especially fitting at this moment. There are laws for when we are supposed to recite the Shehecheyanu. Basically, we recite it when we are doing something for the first time, or the first time in a long time. Here are some traditional occasions for Shehecheyanu:
When we eat a “new fruit” which we have not eaten in at least a year.
When we perform any mitzvah that has a fixed time and is not common, such as blowing the shofar or dwelling in the sukkah. This is why there is a shehecheyanu at the beginning of each holiday. There are those who recite shehecheyanu over a new article of clothes, but this really only applies to something special. If one buys a new house, one should recite Shehecheyanu. When we see a friend whom we have not seen in at least thirty days, we recite Shehecheyanu.
These are all traditional moments in life for reciting this prayer. What do they have in common? These are all moments of joy, whether we are talking about reaching a momentous occasion, seeing someone special to us, or performing a joyous mitzvah.
I suspect that we do not always think closely about the meaning of the words themselves when we recite it.
“Praised are You Eternal God, sovereign of the universe…”
Shehecheyanu – who has given us life. Simply being alive is a gift. We often forget that.
V’kiy’manu – who has sustained us. This is about flourishing. Not only do we have life, we have been blessed with the ability to flourish. The ability to do something new and exciting brings us above the level of mere living.
V’higianu lazman hazeh – And who has brought us to this moment. Judaism places more value on time than on space. All of our ritual mitzvot are oriented towards sanctifying time, recognizing the specialness of each moment.
Shehecheyanu, with its many opportunities for recitation, brings these three aspects of gratitude and awareness together. We acknowledge and praise God as the source of life, as the one who grants us the ability to flourish, and as the one ultimately responsible for enabling us to enjoy sacred moments.
This moment, when we are back in our sanctuary after sixteen months away, is an especially appropriate opportunity to say shehecheyanu. We have survived. While difficult, we have had opportunities to flourish. And while we have begun to enjoy life returning back to normal, these experiences have given us a new appreciation for how blessed we are in this, and every, moment.
In the middle of Parashat Nasso, we come upon some of the most well-known and beloved lines in the entire Torah. These words are so popular that they can be found on the oldest known writing of verses from the Torah, dating back to the first Temple Era.
In 1979, at an archaeological dig in the Hinom Valley in Jerusalem, two small silver amulets were found by a thirteen year old boy. They were dated to the sixth or seventh century, BCE, earlier than any existing manuscript of the Torah. Those amulets contained the words of the Priestly Blessing.
For thousands of years, these words have been used to invoke God’s blessings. In the Torah, Aaron and his sons are instructed to use these words to channel God’s blessings on to the people. We include them in the Amidah, reciting them out loud whenever there is a repetition. We follow the Ashkenazi tradition at Sinai of duchenning on Yom Tov. The priests come up to the bimah to bless the congregation during the Musaf service. Parents bless their children on Friday nights using these words, and the bride and groom receive this blessing under the chuppah.
Our tradition refers to it as the brachah hameshuleshet – The Three Part Blessing. In other words, it is a single blessing comprised of three parts. Its very structure expresses balance and completeness. It has three lines, each of which has two parts. The three lines are comprised of three, five, and seven words which are formed by fifteen, twenty, and twenty five letters, respectively. The opening phrase of the first line and the closing phrase of the last line each have seven syllables. Jacob Milgrom describes it as “a rising crescendo.” Scribes write the Priestly Blessing with unusual spacing, another indication of its specialness.
But what does this Threefold Blessing mean? Throwing up his hands, one commentator (Kli Yakar) declares: “Numerous ideas have emerged to explain the meaning of the blessings – each person explaining them according to his intellect.” I would like to look this morning at one particular interpretation offered by the nineteenth century author of the Torah commentary HaEmek Davar, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, known as the Netziv. Based upon his interpretation, we will see that the Threefold Blessing is in fact a single blessing, each phrase building upon its predecessor in a kind of story.
Moses is told to instruct the High Priest Aaron and his sons: “Thus shall you bless the children of Israel. Say to them…” Note that the blessing is delivered collectively, not to individuals. Consider how we recite the priestly blessing on holidays when we duchen. The priests channel God’s blessing to the entire congregation. That seems to be how Second Temple Priests would use it. If you were visiting the Temple, you could grab a priest wandering by and ask him for a blessing. He would then assemble a group and use these words.
But then, when we get to the words of the blessing itself, the grammar changes. Yevarekhekha. “May the Lord bless you” – singular. A priest, addressing a group, speaks to them in the second person singular.
The Netziv comments that this blessing is directed to each individual “whatever it is appropriate for that person to be blessed with.” He gives a couple of examples. For someone who is dedicated to Torah study, the blessing is for increased learning. For one engaged in business, the blessing is for financial success. And so on, a blessing of abundance for whatever is most valued by each person in the group being blessed. The second part of the first line is v’yishmerakha – “and protect you.” The Netziv points out that an abundance of blessing brings with it certain risks. V’yishmerekha asks that the blessing one receives does not become a stumbling block. A Torah scholar needs to be protected from pride. A wealthy person needs protection so that affluence does not lead to evil. And so on. A blessing, unchecked has the capacity to cause suffering. The first line, therefore, is concerned with you, the individual recipient of God’s blessing. May you have abundance in whatever you most need, and may that abundance not lead to suffering.
We continue with the second line. Ya’er Adonai panav elekha. “May the Lord cause God’s light to shine upon you.” The story of blessing progresses. Light figuratively shines from the recipient of blessing. Other people, observing such success, recognize that it comes from God. It is not a matter of mere luck. The end of the second line is vichuneka – “And be gracious to you.” The story continues. When other people see that God has blessed you, they will undoubtedly come to you to ask for you to pray for God’s blessing on their behalf. Vichuneka refers to God’s grace in answering the prayers of the petitioner on behalf of others. If the first line is focused on the recipient of blessing, the second line is about extending that blessing to other people. We are asked to share our blessings. To use the gifts we have received in a way that improves the world around us.
Yisa Adonai panav elekha – “May God lift up God’s face to you.” Does God have a face? What is a face? HaEmek Davar equates a face with a midot, personal qualities. Joy and anger are reflected on a person’s face. And so, this blessing, calling for God’s face to be lifted to you, is asking for God to direct Divine attributes such as kindness, mercy, and forgiveness, towards the recipient of blessing. V’yasem l’kha shalom – “And may God place upon you peace.” This comes at the end, after all the other blessings. Shalom is the vessel that strengthens all other blessings, says the Netziv. “Without peace, there can be no enjoyment of any blessing.” This completes the story. A person receives blessing, the particular success that is unique to that person’s talents and interests. The sucess does not become a curse. In fact, that success can be translated to spreading blessing and success to other people as well. The final step is God’s Presence, expressed through the metaphor of God lifting up God’s face to you.
The ending, shalom, is the coda. No blessing can be fully enjoyed unless there is peace. Or more accurately, “wholeness.” We might understand this spiritually as the kind of equanimity and peace experienced by a person who is at one with God.
Speaking more generally, when we have opporunities to develop and maximize our talents, and we use them in ways that leave the world around us better, that is the recipe for a life well lived. Such a person experiences God’s presence and knows shleimut, wholeness, in their life. Perhaps you know someone like that, or maybe you are someone like that. As a parent, when I bless my children on Friday night, this is the blessing for them that I hold in my heart.
This blessing contains a theology for what makes for a meaningful life. It is not enough to selfishly enjoy my own blessings. I have to work to make it possible for others to experience blessings as well. But it also contains a recognition that managing one’s blessings can be difficult.
Shalom can refer to an individual, spiritual feeling of wholeness, but we might also see shalom in more tangible terms. Peace and stability in the world around me. Without that kind of shalom, it is impossible to fully experience blessing.
The ceasefire between Israel and Hamas began yesterday (5/21/21). To be clear, it is a ceasefire, not peace. We are far from peace. As I said last week, we are very distant from Israel. I am reluctant to dictate what I think Israel should or should not be doing.
But when I look at recent events, it seems to me that Israel is still struggling with how to live with the blessing of Jewish power. Israel has achieved so much in such a short time. As Rabbi Donniel Hartman pointed out this week, every war Israel has fought since 1973 has been an assymetrical war. It has fought against enemies with less technology, less hardware, and less military advantage. Israel’s existence has not been at stake for nearly fifty years. Israel is not fighting for its survival, and this is a tremendous blessing.
This blessing creates other kinds of challenges. Israel wrestles with how to conduct itself morally in a world that is extremely complicated and morally ambiguous. World opinion is fickle, influenced by millenia of anti-semitism and by knee-jerk inclinations to automatically take the side of those with less power. Israel still struggles to deal with opponents, such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran, that deny its right to exist, that – intentionally and strategically – put Israel in morally impossible situations by launching rockets from civilian areas to civilian areas. Jews are being attacked in Europe, in Canada, and here in America simply for being Jewish.
And – Palestinians in the West Bank continue to live under Israeli military occupation and under blockade by Israel and Egypt in the Gaza Strip. Regardless of where fault might lie, living conditions for Palestinians, especially in Gaza, are terrible and should evoke our compassion. Our hearts should break for the devastation that they are experiencing.
And – especially in recent years, Israel has behaved with a certain degree of triumphalism, passively allowing or even actively encouraging the continued building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. It has allowed discrimination against Arab citizens in Israel to persist. Yes, they are citizens and they can vote, but that is not all there is to living in a democracy.
There are no simple solutions to any of these problems.
The Priestly Blessing suggests that the appropriate response to our own blessings is to share it with others. It does not seem to me that we have honestly done this with the Palestinians. I am not naive. Israel faces very real and dangerous obstacles, including those who seek its destruction. Until we all fully recognize that everyone should be entitled to pursue lives of dignity, freedom, prosperity, and democracy, including Palestinians, true blessing will remain elusive.
Remember the story of the threefold blessing. It starts with abundance, and asks that our experience of abundance not lead to suffering. Then, it asks that our abundance be something that we can share, so that others can experience their own blessings as well. Only then does God raise God’s face to us. Only then do we experience true Shalom. A Shalom that serves as a vessel for all other blessing.
Trying to claim that the Torah supports this or that contemporary economic system or policy is like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole.
Jews have lived in many places and times and dealt with many different economic and political systems. In all of those systems, there was economic struggle and human suffering, along with thriving and flourishing. We survived as a people due to cultural and religious adaptability.
Rather than try to awkwardly shoehorn the Torah into our modern theories, why don’t we instead look at what the Torah actually describes?
Parashat Behar, the first of this morning’s double parashah, presents a priestly vision of economic justice in ancient Israel. It offers details about land ownership, debt, poverty, and wealth. It describes indentured servitude and slavery.
By looking closely, perhaps we might learn something about the economic system that actually existed at the time.
First and foremost: there is no land ownership. It all belongs to God, who apportions the land to whom God sees fit. “The land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.” (25:23) This is a core concept that we must understand. Nobody owns property.
The parashah begins with a description of the shemitah, the sabbatical year. Just as every seven days ends with Shabbat, every seven years ends with Shemitah.
The Israelites are permitted to work the land and collect the harvests for six years. The seventh year is a Shabbat Ladonai – A Sabbath unto the Lord. Every seventh year, the land must be allowed to rest. There can be no harvesting or planting. Everyone is entitled to eat what the land produces on it. The Torah specifies “you” – the Israelites, along with their slaves, employees, indentured servants, and animals.
Every seven shemitah years ends with the Yovel, the Jubilee year. On Yom Kippur of the Jubilee year, the shofar is sounded throughout the land. All harvesting and planting is forbidden, as in the Shemittah year. In addition, all property returns to the person whose holding it originally was, or his heirs. All indentured servants are automatically redeemed as well, going free and returning to their ancestral lands.
The Torah then describes the cycle of misfortunes that lead a farmer into servitude. When things first start going downhill, the farmer can take out an interest free loan to buy seed. If that does not work, the farmer sells part of his land for more seed. But not the land, actually. It is the annual productive capacity of the land, multiplied by the number of years remaining until the Jubilee. This makes sense, since the farmer gets the land back on the 50th year. If he manages to do well, he can repurchase the land at any time before then, redeeming it. It is his perogative.
If that does not work out, he can sell the productive capacity of his remaining property. He then remains on the land and becomes a sharecropper. The purchaser of the land has to supply the tenant farmer with seed, and the farmer tries to pay off his debt with the proceeds from the harvest.
If this does not work, the farmer sells himself and becomes an indentured servant. The purchaser now takes on full responsibility for his well-being, including paying him wages. If he makes enough to pay off his debt, he goes free. Otherwise, he must wait until the Jubilee year.
All of this applies to Israelites dealing with other Israelites. The Torah specifies different treatment for non-Israelites. Non-Israelite slaves are owned in perpetuity. They cannot redeem themselves and do not go free in the Jubilee year.
So what can we say about this economy? There is no land ownership. While a successful farmer can increase his holdings for a time, it gets reset every 50 years, so there cannot be any accumulation of wealth. There does not seem to be any money in this system. Everything is based on agricultural commodities. Since all land ultimately remains under the control of the original family, there is little flexibility. Newcomers cannot break in to this system. A person who does not want to be a farmer does not have many options, since wealth is concentrated in the productive capacity of the land.
At the same time, there is a strong concern for justice, and for preventing people from falling through the cracks when things turn poorly for them. Israelites are responsible for their neighbors. Even when someone becomes impoverished, they retain their rights and must be supported by those who are better off. Plus, the ability to redeem the land is totally in their hands. The purchaser is not allowed to refuse to sell it back.
Was this economic system ever put into practice? During the first Temple era, we do not know for sure. But the Prophet Jeremiah makes a point of redeeming his ancestral land before he goes into exile when the First Temple is destroyed. In the Book of Ruth, Boaz redeems the land owned by Ruth’s deceased husband.
Biblical scholars argue about the extent to which these laws were observed. But the fact that the Torah can construct such an elaborate system of wealth redistribution implies that it is reacting to some situation on the ground. Behar represents the priestly vision for a just redistribution of wealth.
During the Second Temple era, however, the shemittah and Yovel laws were definitely being observed. Nehemiah makes reference to it in the fifth century. Philo and Josephus, in their histories, describe its practice during the late Second Temple period.
But the economic situation that Jews are living under is nothing like what existed centuries earlier. Let’s fast forward to the late Second Temple period, after the biblical era has ended. The Romans are in charge. The economy has changed drastically. Property ownership exists.
There is now money, which allows for a much more complex, growth-oriented economy. Think about what money is for a moment. The Emperor issues an order to make coins. The coins have limited intrinsic value, based on what kind of metal they are made of. But the government sets a value for those coins, a value that holds to the extent that people are willing to use it.
To expand the economy, the government encourages the issuing of credit, either by banks or by wealthy individuals. They make interest-bearing loans, which increases the money supply, allows businesses to grow, and allows trade to take place over vast distances.
A wealthy class emerges. Rich people need somewhere to park their money, so they do the obvious thing. They invest in real estate. Gradually, smaller farmers become squeezed out and are forced to sell their lands to wealthy absentee landowners, who typically dwell in the cities.
Jews, of course, are living under Roman rule, and they have to adjust to this system. Those Jews living in the land of Israel are also bound by the Torah’s agricultural laws, including those of the Shemittah and Yovel.
According to Deuteronomy, debts are cancelled every seven years, during the Shemittah. That is a problem. Why would anyone make a loan, especially an interest-free loan, if it is subject to cancellation at the end of each seven year cycle?
The result are as expected: credit dries up for those who are most in need. The poor remain poor, and the wealthy refuse to step in.
This situation led Hillel HaZaken, Hillel the Elder, to take action. Mishnah Tractate Shevii details the laws of the Shemittah year. The tenth chapter introduces an economic innovation that Hillel introduced. It is called a prozbul. The word most likely comes from the Greek pros boule, which means “before the council.”
The prozbul was a contract in which a creditor appears before a Beit Din, a Jewish court, and declares, “I turn over to you, so-and-so, judges of such and such a place, that any debt that I may have outstanding, I shall collect it whenever I desire.” (Mishnah Sheviit 10:4) In other words, the debt, which by law should be cancelled, is transferred over to the court. The court is not a person, and therefore has no obligation to cancel the debt. After the Shemittah year is over, the creditor reclaims the debt from the Beit Din.
Why did Hillel issue this decree, which so clearly goes against the spirit, if not the letter, of the Torah? The Mishnah answers that question.
When he observed people refraining from lending to one another, and thus transgressing what is written in the Torah, “Beware, lest you harbor the base thought, [‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching,’ so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing].” Hillel enacted the prozbul.
Mishnah Sheviit 10:3
According to the Mishnah, those with means behaved exactly as we would have expected them to. They stopped making loans. That is why Hillel made this dramatic change. To put it into modern terms, “he eased up on banking regulations in order to get the economy moving again.”
The prozbul is one early example of how Judaism evolved to deal with a new economic reality. Over the past two thousand years, there have been many more developments. The best ones recognized, as Hillel the Elder did, the Torah’s underlying concern. “Beware, lest you harbor the base thought so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing.”
Whatever the economic system, whether it be barter, feudalism, mercantilism, capitalism, socialism, whatever’ism, we are supposed to take care of each other. There will always be some who do well while others struggle. We have seen this very clearly during the pandemic.
Food Banks around the country have distributed food in record numbers. We have been warned lately that the numbers of homeless Americans will rise dramatically when national and state eviction moratoriums end in the near future. I am not going to suggest that there is an obvious or simple solution to these problems. We live in a vastly complex global economy that defies simple solutions.
But we would do well to remember the values expressed by the Torah laws: to be compassionate and generous with our neighbors, to not encumber them with unpayable debt, to support them when they stumble, and to give them opportunities to redeem themselves.
I have been working on my garden this week. I have planted tomoatoes and peppers. I laid down my drip irrigation system. I went to the hardware store and bought enriched garden soil. While it may seem like a lot of work, compared to ancient times it was really quite easy.
What is the nature of humanity’s relationship to the earth?
While very much in touch with the land, and full of practical knowledge—probably much more so than most of us today—ancient humans did not have a scientific understanding of the world around them. Whether it rained or not, whether the wind blew or was still, was due to active oversight by God. And so, I imagine that there was a certain amount of awe and humility that accompanied gardening in ancient times.
We see evidence of this attitude, this awareness of our frailty vis a vis the natural world, throughout the Torah. Parashat Emor includes one of the Torah’s sacred calendars. Appearing next to instructions for priests about maintaining their pure status, it focuses understandably on the sacrifices that the priests must offer in the Temple.
One of those offerings pertains to the season in which we find ourselves right now. God instructs Moses to inform the Israelites:
Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving to you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the priest.
Notice that this is the very first offering that the Israelites in the wilderness will bring after they enter the Promised Land. They are supposed to bring this sheaf offering, the omer, on the second day of Passover. The priest will take this offering and elevate it. The Torah continues:
Until that very day, until you have brought the offering of your God, you shall eat no bread or parched grain or fresh ears; it is a law for all time throughout the ages in all your settlements.
Until this omer is brought, the Israelites are not permitted to consume any of the grain from the new crop.
What is an omer? A sheaf. What’s a sheaf? You’ve surely seen pictures. Think of long stalks of grain, bundled together. A sheaf is the quantity of stalks that a person could carry under one arm. One sheaf’s-worth of stalks contained about 4 dry pints of grain.
So what is the Torah asking the Israelite farmer to do?
Let’s talk about pre-modern agriculture. It was extremely time consuming and labor intensive. It is not for nothing that Adam’s curse upon eating of the fruit includes the line, “by the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat.”
The first step is preparation of the field by ploughing; then sowing it with seed; then hoeing; then removingl thorns and weeds; then harvesting the stalks of grain, then bundling them into sheaves. After that comes the most labor intensive step of the entire process: threshing. This is when the farmer separates the grain kernels from the straw by beating the stalks of wheat. To thresh one bushel of wheat—about 8 dry gallons—by hand, would typically take about an hour. Finally comes winnowing, which is when the grain kernels are separated by tossing it up into the air and letting the wind carry off the chaff. At this point, the farmer has grain that can be stored in silos. Until the last few centuries, this has been the normal procedure for producing grain. It was incredibly hard work and not particularly efficient.
The Omer offering adds some additional steps for the ancient Israelite. Removing an omer’s worth of grain from the silo, the farmer would bring the offering in a basket to the Temple in Jerusalem. The Rabbis of the Mishnah describe what happened next. The farmer would
place [the grain] into a hollow, perforated [metal] vessel and then roast it over the fire. They would then spread the roasted kernels out on the ground of the Temple courtyard to be cooled by the wind. Next it would be ground in a mill. Finally it would be sifted 13 times. This would result in a tenth of an ephah’s worth of the finest quality flour (about one quart).
What an enormous amount of work for such a small offering. What is its purpose? A midrash suggests an answer.
Rabbi Levi said: Even assuming that you have ploughed, sown, hoed, removed the thorns, reaped, made sheaves, threshed and laid up corn in the granaries, if the Holy Blessed One did not produce a little bit of wind for you to winnow, what would you live from? Thus, you must only give Me wages for the wind.
Leviticus Rabbah 28:2
In other words, it is a symbolic gift to the Lord for the gentle breeze that enables the farmer to conduct the step of winnowing, which depends on a breeze to blow the lightweight chaff away from the denser grain.
Of course, there are countless other ways in which the farmer depends on God’s directing the natural world to enable human beings to conduct our livelihood. Rain in the right quantities at the right times. Peaceful borders. No blight or insect infestation, and so on. Most farmers lived a subsistence lifestyle, powerless to affect so many of the conditions upon which livelihood depended.
An adjacent midrash makes a similar point.
Rabbi Yannai said: Normally, when a person buys a pound of meat in the marketplace, he has to go through so much trouble and anxiety. [Remember, meat was super expensive in those days, and there was no refrigeration.] But though people sleep in their beds, the Holy Blessed One causes the wind to blow, and raises up clouds, and causes plants to grow, and fruits to be plump, and all we have to give Him [in return] is the payment of the omer. Thus is it written: “You shall bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the priest.” (Leviticvus 23:10)
Leviticus Rabbah 28:1
In this midrash, Rabbi Yannai describes a number of other ways in which we depend upon the orderly functioning of the natural world: He mentions God laboring to bring wind and rain, cause plants to grow, and fruit to form. And we take most of those phenomena for granted, most of the time. We literally sleep through the cycle of nature.
That is the purpose of the omer offering: to get us to acknowledge how dependant we truly are on God, the director of the natural cycle.
It is a fitting reponse to experiencing the wonder and awe that we feel when we contemplate the miraculous interdependence inherent in the world around us.
What ought we to do as a symbolic offer of the Omer?
Something that would acknowledge our dependence on God, and instill a sense of humility in our relationship with the world around us.
Because I can have a successful garden regardless of whether it rains or not. All I have to do is turn on the tap and add the fertilizer. The reminders of our dependance are less obvious.
But there are so many indications that our relationship with the earth is out of balance: microplastics everywhere – in our water, our soil, our air, and our mountains; increasingly destructive fires, decreasing sources of groundwater.
The world will continue spinning, and the laws of nature will continue to perform as intended by God. Human behavior is the variable in the equation.
Will we stay asleep in our beds while nature moves forward?