The Prozbul – Hillel’s Financial Creativity – Behar 5781

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.

While We Sleep – Emor 5781

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.

Levitucs 23:10

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.

Leviticus 23:14

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).

Menachot 10:4

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?

Do Not Hate Your Kinsman, Love Your Fellow – Acharei Mot/Kedoshim 5781

Parashat Kedoshim is close to the physical center of the Torah. It begins with the instruction: You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.

At close to the center of the law code which follows, we find the iconic words: V’ahavta L’re’acha Kamocha. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. This is the Torah’s formulation of the Golden Rule, the core principle that lies at the heart of most religions and ethical systems.

But this apparently simple expression is deceptively complex. To understand it, I invite us to look at it in context. 

V’ahavta L’re’acha Kamocha appears in Leviticus chapter 19:18.  It is only part of the verse, and it follows 19:17, which provides additional context and helps us understand what it is that God is asking of us.

So let’s look at those two verses in their entirety:

You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your fellow openly so that you will not bear punishment because of him. You shall not take revenge or bear a grudge against members of your people. You shall love your fellow as yourself: I am the LORD.

Leviticus 19:17-18


Several details jump out right away. The first verse speaks of hate while the second speaks of love. Ramban notes that these verses are set up in a chiastic format. ABBA

“Don’t hate your kinsfolk in your heart” vs. “Love your fellow as yourself.”

“Reprove your fellow openly” vs. “You shall not take revenge or bear a grudge against members of your people.”

Plus, the “Thou Shalt” and the “Thou Shalt Not” are reversed. Verse 17 says don’t hate but do reprove while verse 18 reverses it, don’t take revenge, but do love.

In each case, the emotional instruction adds something to the more practical part of the commandment. But don’t think that hate and love are mere emotions. In the Torah, they are actions. When the Shema tells us to love the Lord your God, it is telling us to express our covenental obligations of love through actions. Inversely, hatred in the hatred implies a sense of active plotting against another person. We need to keep this important detail in mind as we explore further.

Let’s start with verse 17. Reprove your fellow openly so that you will not bear punishment because of him. That sounds like a dangerous proposition. I see my fellow commiting a sin and the Torah tells me that I must rebuke him. I have to try to stop whatever sinful activities that are being committed.

This commandment suggests that we have responsibilities towards the other members of our community. Like it or not, the impacts of many of my decisions and actions will reverberate to the people around me. The Torah is saying that my neighbors do not have to sit idly by and watch me bring disaster on to the community. In fact, they are not allowed to sit idly by. This positive commandment instructs other people to intervene on my behavior.

Of course, the potential for abuse is obvious. I try to always keep in mind the advice that my late father-in-law, Gary Romalis, may he rest in peace, used to offer, “Unsolicited advice is never appreciated.”

But if I trust my friends and neighbors, and know that they want what is best for me, I might be open to being reprimanded when I am behaving like a selfish jerk. I might appreciate the correction.

I think the Torah might be aware of this as well, as it offers a qualifier. “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart.”

Jacob Milgrom explains that the emphatic doubling of the verb, hokheach tokhiach, implies that reproof must be done openly. This reading helps us understand the commandment to “not hate your kinsfolk in your heart.” Hatred stored up in the heart has the tendency to fester. It is better to get it out in the open.

This is a theme that appears many times in the Bible. “Open reproof is better than concealed love,” states Proverbs (27:5). Proverbs also recognizes that it takes wisdom to receive rebuke. “Do not reprove a scoffer, for he will hate you, reprove a wise man and he will love you.” (9:8)

Taken together, we find themes of love and hate bound up with the notion of commenting on the behavior of friends, family members, and neighbors. Reproof must be motivated by love, and never hatred. And it can only be heard by someone who is open to receiving it.

The community that lived in Qumran, as reflected in the Dead Sea Scrolls, was an extremely tight-knit brotherhood. Strict rules governed daily life. Members of the community were required to reprove one another openly. Listen to what one of their documents states:

…if he kept silent about him from day to day, and accused him of a capital offense (only) when he was angry with him, [the accused’s] punishment is upon [the accuser], since he did not fulfill the commandment of God who said to him, “reprove your fellow openly so that you will not bear punishment because of him.”

Damascus Covenant Scroll 9: 2-8

A brother had to bring everything out into the open. Keeping things bottled up would allow hatred to grow. Another Qumran document provides guidance for how to offer rebuke:

To reprove each his fellow in truth, humility, and lovingkindness to a man: Let him not speak to him in anger or complaint or stub[bornly or in passion] (caused) by an evil disposition. Let him not hate him intrac[tab]ly, for on that very day shall he reprove him so that he will not bear punishment because of him.

1QS 5:25-6:1

Rebuke must be loving and humble.

The next verse in the Torah continues the theme. 

You shall not take revenge or bear a grudge against members of your people.

It is so easy to judge other people’s actions. We jump to conclusions all the time, and before we know it, we are consumed. The Torah warns us against it. The Talmud (BT Yoma 23a) offers a simple example that illustrates the difference between taking revenge and bearing a grudge. I am paraphrasing.

Let’s say I ask my neighbor to borrow a hammer. My neighbor says, “No way, it’s mine.” The next day, my neighbor comes knocking on my door, “Hey Josh, can I borrow a shovel.” 

“Are you kidding me?!  You wouldn’t lend me your hammer yesterday, and now you want my shovel.  Get lost!” 

That, says the Talmud, is revenge.

Let’s say, after my neighbor refuses to lend me the hammer and then has the audacity to ask for my shovel, I instead say, “Here. Take it. You see, unlike you, I am not selfish and greedy. I am the kind of person who lends out his tools.”

That is what it means to bear a grudge.

Both of these examples are the kind of typical reactions that, I imagine, most of us would have. That is why the Torah instructs us to “love your fellow as yourself.”

Even though my neighbor wouldn’t lend me the hammer, I cannot let myself succumb to hate. What does it feel like to need a shovel when you don’t have one? It does not matter that my neighbor was greedy yesterday. When someone needs a shovel, my job is to lend it to them. Because I know what it is like to need a tool.

The Talmud’s example, of course, is a bit trite. There are much more serious offenses that impose barriers between people. It is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to imagine that we should not feel hatred in our hearts against someone who has really wronged us. 

It is perhaps easier to imagine such common trust and acceptance in a small village in which everyone knows everyone, or a tight-new Qumranic brotherhood in the desert. A complex, diverse, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and highly interconnected world simply does not foster the level of trust and acceptance of one another that the Torah imagines.

How often do we pass judgment on other people’s actions, allow hate to fester, hold grudges, bear resentment?

Yet, this is the central command of the Torah, the ethical principle upon which all of Judaism is based, the underpinnings of holiness. 

We are not to be passive to wrongdoing, hokheach tokiach, You shall openly rebuke. But our rebuke must never be driven by hatred, must always be motivated by love for one another. How do we do this?

The Baal Shem Tov inspringly brings it together.

Just as we love ourselves despite the faults we know we have, so should we love our fellows despite the faults we see in them

Telushkin 1997: 466

May we have the honesty and acceptance to do so.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Jacob Milgrom, The Anchor Bible: Leviticus 17-22, pp. 1646-1656

Death and life are in the power of the tongue – Tazria-Metzora 5781

Underneath the surface, this week’s double Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora, is about the power of words.

On its surface, we cover a variety of topics relating to purity and impurity. Childbirth, scaly skin disease, plagues that erupt on clothing or houses, bodily discharges. All of these conditions have the potential to bear impurity.

Tzara’at is often, and misleadingly, translated as leprosy. Jacob Milgrom uses the term “scale disease, ” so that is how I will refer to it.

What are we dealing with? I have sometimes been guilty of referring to this as the Torah’s version of “public health.” There are many different forms that that tzaraat takes. It can appear on a person’s skin or scalp. It can be on clothing, fabric, or leather. Or, it can emerge on the walls of a building. The Torah describes the course of progression. There is a tremendous amount of detail.

But tzara’at does not resemble any skin affliction known to dermatology. What we are dealing with here is a spiritual condition, not a medical condition.

In chapters 13 and 14, the word tahor — pure — appears 36 times; tamei — impure — appears 30 times.  The word for healing, nirpa, appears just 4 times. 

Who performs the diagnosis – a wise person, a medicine man or woman, a prophet? No. It is the priests who are assigned this duty, the ones who are charged with maintaining separation between purity and impurity.

What is the remedy? The metzora must rend their clothes, bare their head, cover their upper lip, and call out “impure! impure!” as a warning to others to keep away. But we are not concerned with contagiousness of disease. We are worried about the contagiousness of impurity, which can be conveyed through touch or through being under the same roof.

Because the metzora has this status of impurity, they must dwell outside the community.

When the priest determines that the scale disease has run its course, he performs a ritual of purification on behalf of the Israelite who then must wait a week and bring sacrifices for expiation.

Tzara’at has little to do with medicine. The Torah’s treatment of it is ritual, not medical.

In the ancient world, death goes with impurity, life with purity.

In the Book of Numbers, Aaron and Miriam complain about their brother Moses on account of the Cushite woman that he has married. In response, God afflicts Miriam with “snow-white scales.” She become s a metzora’at.

Aaron turns to Moses. Pay close attention to how he describes what has happened. “O my Lord, account not to us the sin which we committed in our folly. Let her not be as one dead, who emerges from his mother’s womb with half his flesh eaten away.”

What have we learned about tzara’at?

1.  It is the result of sin.

2.  It makes Miriam look like a corpse, a stillbirth.

Moses intercedes with a prayer, but she still must remain outside of the camp for seven days during her period of ritual purification. There is nothing medical going on here. It is all about purity and impurity.

Our tradition must find religious meaning for these categories in a world in which there is no functioning priesthood. The Rabbis do not disappoint.

Already in the Torah, we found that tzara’at is associated with sin, impurity, and death.

The Rabbis run with that.

Noting that the word for a person afflicted with scale disease is called a metzora, they make a pun.  Metzora is an acronym for the expression motzi shem ra, which means literally “bring out a bad name.” It is the Hebrew expression for gossip in all of its forms.

The case of Miriam and Aaron proves the point. What sin did they commit to merit Miriam’s punishment? They were speaking ill of Moses, specifically concerning the ethnicity of his wife.

So it is not such a stretch for the Rabbis to make the connection between gossip and tzara’at.

A Talmudic Sage asks why the metzora is required to dwell outside the camp.  Why must they be ostracized from the community? The answer is that, through words, the metzora created separation between husband and wife, between neighbor and neighbor. And so, the punishment is to themselves be separated from the community. 

The Rabbis have transformed what in the Bible was a spiritual matter into a moral lesson. The person who destroys community through their words is themself removed from the community.  This could be seen as a punishment, or we might also see it as the natural consequence of speaking destructively.

The Torah begins with words. God speaks the universe into existence. From one day to the next, God declares, “Let there be light.” “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water…” “Let the water below the sky be gathered into one area, that the dry land may appear…” 

And then comes life. “Let the earth sprout vegetation…” “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures…” “Let the earth bring forth every kinds of living creature…” And finally, “Let us make humanity in our image…” Day after day, God creates through words.

What other kinds of words does God use in that opening week?  “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and master it…”

The universe begins with words. Words bring life and blessing. This is the side of purity and good. The opposite, of course, is death and curse, the side of impurity and evil. This too can be the result of words. 

The lesson of Tazria-Metzora is that our words have tremendous power. We can emulate God’s act of creation, using our words for good, for building one another up. For making the world better. For making life flourish. Or, when we use our words improperly, we destroy, we bring death. We separate ourselves from one another like the metzora banished to the edge of the camp.

The Rabbis point out that every act of lashon hara harms three people: the one who is spoken about, the one who is spoken to, and the one who does the speaking. The expulsion of the metzora from the camp is an appropriate metaphor for the potential of our words to destroy community. 

Proverbs gets it exactly right when it states “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”  (Proverbs 18:21)

The corrosiveness of words is so evident and widespread in our world. I often feel powerless to avoid it. But if we remember the potential harm that words cause everyone involved, including ourselves, perhaps there is something we can do.

Before speaking, let’s ask, “Are the words that I am about to say more likely to build or to destroy? Will my speech promote peace or further division?” When listening, it is ok to say, “Can we discuss something else,” or “I prefer not to talk about someone who is not around.” Finally, and this is the hardest of all, take a break from the news, and stop checking the feed. It is not making the world any better, it is not bringing people together, and it certainly is not making your life any better.

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”  Let’s make it life.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Rabbi Shai Held, The Heart of Torah, Volume 2, pp. 47-51

Jacob Milgrom, The Anchor Bible: Leviticus 1-16, pp. 816-824

Between the Sacred and the Profane – Shemini 5781

Parshat Shemini describes the inauguration of the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle that the Israelites built to bring the Divine presence into their midst.

Aaron, as the newly consecrated High Priest, leads the final ceremony, which reaches its climax when a heavenly fire shoots out of the Tent of Meeting to consume the sacrifices that he has prepared on the altar.  The people respond by falling to their faces, shouting.

Meanwhile, Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons, have taken their fire pans and offered incense.  The same conflagration that consumes their father’s offerings engulfs them along with it.  

Moses jumps into action, ordering the removal of the bodies and warns Aaron and his remaining sons, Elazar and Itamar, against interrupting the inauguration ceremony by going into mourning. The Israelites will mourn on their behalf.

Then, suddenly, the story breaks.

God speaks, addressing Aaron directly.

וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר יְהוָ֔ה אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֖ן לֵאמֹֽר׃

And the LORD spoke to Aaron, saying: 

Leviticus 10:8

This is unusual. On only two other occasions in the Torah does God speak directly to Aaron, both in Numbers, chapter 18.  Usually, God speaks to Aaron through Moses. And this is highly significant. Almost all of the rules pertaining to the priesthood are delivered to the Israelites collectively. There is no secret manual of sacrifices to which only the priests are privy. This contrasts with other ancient rites in which that esoteric material is kept secret from the general public.

So if God is speaking directly to Aaron, there must be something special about what comes next.

We might expect God to say something about the tragedy that has just befallen Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. Maybe offer comfort. Or provide an explanation for what just happened

But no, instead God delivers instructions against drinking alchohol while performing priestly duties.

יַ֣יִן וְשֵׁכָ֞ר אַל־תֵּ֣שְׁתְּ ׀ אַתָּ֣ה ׀ וּבָנֶ֣יךָ אִתָּ֗ךְ בְּבֹאֲכֶ֛ם אֶל־אֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵ֖ד וְלֹ֣א תָמֻ֑תוּ חֻקַּ֥ת עוֹלָ֖ם לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶֽם׃ 

Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die. This is a law for all time throughout the ages,

Leviticus 10:9

Midrashim and commentaries try to find connections between this prohibition and the tragedy of Nadav and Avihu. One solution claims that Nadav and Avihu’s mistake is that they were drunk when they made their incense offerings. But there is no indication that the esh zarah, the strange fire, that they brought had anything to do with drunkenness.

Another commentator suggests that it is a warning to Aaron and his surviving children not to drown their sorrows in drink. But again, nothing in the text suggests that this is a temptation under consideration.

God’s instructions to Aaron continues, although the syntax is strange. The sentence begins with an infinitive. It makes the Hebrew feel like a continuation from a different speech.

וּֽלֲהַבְדִּ֔יל בֵּ֥ין הַקֹּ֖דֶשׁ וּבֵ֣ין הַחֹ֑ל וּבֵ֥ין הַטָּמֵ֖א וּבֵ֥ין הַטָּהֽוֹר׃ וּלְהוֹרֹ֖ת אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אֵ֚ת כָּל־הַ֣חֻקִּ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּ֧ר יְהוָ֛ה אֲלֵיהֶ֖ם בְּיַד־מֹשֶֽׁה׃

And to distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean; and to teach the Israelites all the laws which the LORD has imparted to them through Moses.

Leviticus 10:10-11

Rashi, somewhat awkwardly, connects this passage to the prohibition against serving while intoxicated. In other words, you have to stay sober so that you will be able to properly distinguish between “the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean.” 

Or perhaps it should be read as an empahtic, and not directly connected to the preceding verse. וּֽלֲהַבְדִּ֔יל The essential duty of the priesthood is “to distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean and to teach the Israelites” all of God’s laws.

We see here an inner and an outer focus.  The priests have jobs themselves to do. They are tasked with maintaining separation within the sanctuary on behalf of the community.  While everyone knows the rules, only the priests have to concern themselves with fulfilling them. Of the Torah’s 613 commandments, somewhere between 201 and 293 of them only apply when the Temple is standing.

But the priests also have an outward-facing role. They are teachers. According to Deuteronomy (17:7-9), the priests serve as judges, deciding legal disputes and interpreting God’s laws when questions arise.

In the midst of their inauguration, just after tragedy strikes, God speaks to Aaron directly to summarize the essential role of the priesthood.

You may remember a passage from Exodus, when the Israelites recieved the Torah at Mount Sinai. They are instructed to be a “kingdom of priests, a holy people.” And so we see that the role of Aaron and his offspring may be seen as a means to that ultimate end. 

You may have recognized the language in what God tells Aaron. וּֽלֲהַבְדִּ֔יל בֵּ֥ין הַקֹּ֖דֶשׁ וּבֵ֣ין הַחֹ֑ל ul’havdil bein hakodesh uvein hachol — “and to distinguish between the sacred and the profane.”

We use these words in the blessing for Havdallah. As Shabbat ends, we quote God’s directions to Aaron. But instead of the priests having a set of narrow responsibilities for keeping sacred apart from profane, pure from impure, the words undergo a cosmic reformulation. 

It is now God who makes this distinction:

Praised are You, Adonai our God, sovereign of the universe, who distinguishes between the sacred and the profane, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations, between the seventh day and the six days of creation. Praised are You, Adonai, who distinguishes between sacred and profane. 

All of creation: time, space, people, point toward these distinctions.

If that is the ultimate goal, perhaps that explains why God interrupts the disastrous inauguration ceremony to remind Aaron, and us, what it is all about. Right now, everything is a mess. 

Leviticus 1-16 (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries) Hardcover – December 1, 1998

Pure and impure, sacred and profane — all are mixed up. That is why we need the priesthood: to perform the job in the sacred Temple, and to teach the people how to live in a world in which the proper balance is maintained. 

But eventually we will become worthy of the title, a “kingdom of priests, a holy nation.” We remind ourselves of that every week, when we mark the transition from sacred to profane. The Sabbath we have just experienced, a taste of the world to come, is our sample for what a world in balance could be like.

Bibliography

Leviticus 1-16 (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries) by Jacob Milgrom

Words Matter: On the Attack Against the US Capitol – January 9, 2021

Before the election last November, I asked our members to refrain from making political comments in certain synagogue contexts in the interest of maintaining our community as one in which Jews of differing political persuasions could all find a home. I commend us for doing a pretty good job of that.

And so I have been struggling with how to respond to this week’s storming of the Capitol by a mob whose stated goal was to violently prevent our elected representatives from performing their sacred constitutional duty.

What I realized is that what happened on Wednesday was not politics. It was rebellion and anarchy: the rejection of politics. It was an assault on democracy and decency, a denial of everything America stands for.

Not since 1814 has something like this happened, and that was during a war against another sovereign nation. Ever since John Adams quietly conceded to Thomas Jefferson in 1801 after a humiliating electoral defeat, the United States has never failed to have a peaceful transfer of power from one President to his successor. For centuries, the American example has been a model for younger democratic nations, and an inspiration to individuals living under authoritarian regimes who dreamed of freedom and democracy.

What that mob did on Wednesday undermined all of that. It was the opposite of politics.

If you are like me, you have spent the last several days poring over analysis and commentary. I do not want to repeat what you can read elsewhere by those who are more knowledgeable and eloquent than I.

I always try to remember that I am a Rabbi. You have heard me say this many times before. My authority to speak from this pulpit (right now it is a metaphorical pulpit) is derived from our Jewish tradition.

So how might our tradition speak to the violence that was perpertrated this week?

First of all, there is a long-standing concept in Jewish law of dina d’malchuta dina – The law of the land is the law. Whenever we have been subjects of a government that is governed by laws, we follow those laws.  When our Israelite ancestors were sent into exile in Babylonia, the Prophet Jeremiah said: “seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the LORD in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper.”  (Jeremiah 29:7)  Ever since, Jews have included prayers for God to bless the government and its advisors. This was true in ancient Babylonia and Persia, in Rome, in Czarist Russia, and most especially in the United States.

America’s republican system of representative democracy is the best protection of minority rights that the Jewish people have ever known. As Jews of all political persuasions, we should be deeply offended by scenes of rioters openly wearing Holocaust-denying clothing, flashing white power signs, erecting a noose outside the Capitol Building and parading the Confederate Flag through the halls of Congress.

I have also been thinking a lot about language and leadership. Ours is a tradition of words. Our method of study involves ultra fine parsing of our sacred texts. The ideal model for learning is the chavruta: two partners, friends, arguing with their own words over the meaning of someone else’s words.

We have categories of mitzvot that specifically focus on the words that we use, specifically on the how the words that come out of our mouths have the potential to harm.

The most well known of these categories is lashon hara – “the evil tongue.” This is the term that refers to gossip and tale-bearing. It is when a person spreads information about another person that, although true, causes harm. A related term is motzi shem ra – “to bring out an evil name.” This applies to defamation or slander: the spreading of harmful lies.

The midrash compares the tongue to an arrow. “Why? Because if a person draws a sword to kill his fellow man, the intended victim can beg mercy in the hopes that the attacker will change his mind and return the sword to its sheath. But an arrow, once it has been shot and begun its journey, even if the shooter wants to stop it, he cannot” (Midrash Tehillim 120, ed. Buber, p. 503).

Another midrash makes a further comparison.  “Lashon hara that is spoken in Rome can kill in Syria.”  (Genesis Rabbah 98:19)

When a person in authority uses their words to incite followers to violence, this figurative statement becomes literal.

Another category of Jewish law that focuses on words is geneivat daat – stealing the mind.  It applies to many different kinds of interpersonal interactions.  Genevat Da’at is using one’s words to deceive or manipulate another person.  Genevat Daat occurs whether or not the information is true, if its purpose is to create a false impression or exploit another person in some way. According to one midrash, stealing a person’s mind in this way, because it is “more personal and direct,” is an even more heinous offense than stealing something physical.

Judaism teaches that leaders have enormous responsibility. Their personal behavior as role models, the way that they comport themselves in public, and the words they use to their followers, have the power to create or destroy. The words that leaders utter matter even more than they do for the common person.

When a person in a position of power uses his words to incite a mob to violence, that person has betrayed the trust that has been placed in him.

Former President George Bush pointed it out clearly in his written statement on Wednesday. He wrote: 

I am appalled by the reckless behavior of some political leaders since the election and by the lack of respect shown today for our institutions, our traditions, and our law enforcement. The violent assault on the Capitol — and disruption of a Constitutionally-mandated meeting of Congress — was undertaken by people whose passions have been inflamed by falsehoods and false hopes.

Statement by President George W. Bush on Insurrection at the Capitol

While members of Congress huddled in secure safe rooms, President-Elect Joe Biden addressed the nation. One line stood out to me in which he articulated the particular responsibility bestowed upon the President of the United States. He said: 

The words of a president matter, no matter how good or bad that president is. At their best, the words of a president can inspire. At their worst, they can incite.

Remarks to the Nation by President-Elect Joe Biden

All of the institutions of the Conservative movement came together to issue a joint statement this week. I would like to conclude by reading its ending. 

The basis for democracy stems from the Torah’s belief that every person is created equally in God’s image and is therefore entitled to equal representation in government and equal protection under the law. Each week we pray during our Shabbat worship to “uproot from our hearts hatred and malice, jealousy and strife. Plant love and companionship, peace and friendship, among the many people and faiths who dwell in our nation.” This prayer is more than an expression of faith. It is a call to action, and we have much work to do to heal the deep wounds and divisions which afflict the United States and society.

May the new US leaders, who are coming to power this month at every level of government, rise to the responsibility the voters have entrusted to them to bring healing and exercise responsible governance.

Statement on the Attack on the United States Capitol by Organizations of the Conservative Movement of Judaism

Amen

Joseph’s Identity – Miketz 5781

As this morning’s Torah portion, Miketz, begins, Joseph has languished in jail for a while. If you recall from last week, Joseph’s brothers had sold him into slavery when he was seventeen years old. Eventually winding up in the home of an Egyptian courtier named Potiphar, Joseph becomes head of the household, second only to his master.

That all comes crashing down when Potiphar’s wife, frustrated that Joseph will not respond to her attempts to seduce him, instead accuses him of trying to rape her. Furious, Potiphar sends Joseph to the king’s prison, where he resides for more than two years.

As before, Joseph rises up in the prison hierarchy until he is placed in charge of all the other prisoners. This puts Joseph in the position of being sought out for advice by the other prisoners. After some time, the royal baker and wine steward approach Joseph with their disturbing dreams.

Joseph correctly interprets them to predict that the baker is scheduled to be exectuted while the stewared will be restored to his former position.

Miketz opens with Pharaoh’s fateful dreams.  The steward, having completely forgotten about Joseph, suddenly remembers the time when he was in prison and a Hebrew youth, a na’ar ivri, correctly unravelled the meaning of his dream. 

Joseph, still seen as a Hebrew, is brought to Pharaoh’s court, where he again solves the somnolescent condundraum. Once again, Joseph’s natural skills lead to his promotion to Pharaoh’s Hand, the second most powerful person in Egypt. Notice the pattern?

Pharaoh gives Joseph his signet ring, dresses him in fine clothes and a gold chain, and parades him through the streets on the royal chariot, proclaiming Avrekh to the onlookers as he passes by.

Does this ring any bells?  (Sounds like Mordechai in the Book of Esther)

Pharaoh then renames Joseph Tzafenat Paneach and gives him an Egyptian wife. Her name is Asenat, and she is the daughter of a man named Poti-Phera, Priest of On. If that name sounds familiar, it is. It is remarkably close to Joseph’s former master, Potiphar.

Is this the same person? Impossible to say, but one commentator suggests that Pharaoh is making a calculated, strategic move here. (Iturei Torah, Vol. 2, pp. 370-371.)  Who is the person most able to bring Joseph down in scandal? Potiphar, who knows all about Joseph’s past sins, alleged or real. That could mean trouble. But if Joseph becomes family by marrying Potiphar’s daughter, the skeletons are more likely to remain in the closet. 

Joseph immediately sets out to educate himself for his new position by embarking on a tour throughout Egypt.

This all occurs when Joseph is thirty years old. He has spent forty three percent of his life so far away from his family and homeland.

In his new position, he quickly enacts his policy proposals, collecting vast stores of grain for Pharaoh. Towards the end of the seven years of plenty, Joseph and Asenat start a family. They have two sons, Menashe and Ephraim.

By this point, Joseph has spent his adult life, and more than half of his entire life, outside of the land of Canaan, away from his family. How does he feel about his identity?

Joseph’s brothers totally rejected him, sending him into slavery and exile. He now has an Egyptian name, wife, and children. His father in law is Egyptian clergy. He has money, honor, and power in Egyptian society. He dresses and speaks like an Egyptian. He even walks like an Egyptian.

If you were Joseph, how would you see yourself?

He tells us. Listen closely to the explanations that Joseph offers for his sons’ names. Both explanations are positive. Joseph acknowledges God for granting him some sort of respite from his earlier miserable situation.

The firstborn is Menashe — כִּי־נַשַּׁ֤נִי אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־כָּל־עֲמָלִ֔י וְאֵ֖ת כָּל־בֵּ֥ית אָבִי —”for God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home.” 

Next is Ephraim — כִּי־הִפְרַ֥נִי אֱלֹהִ֖ים בְּאֶ֥רֶץ עָנְיִי — “for God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.” 

 Notice that for his firstborn, Joseph refers to his parental home as a place of hardship — amali. For his second born, Joseph refers to his new home as a place of affliction – oni. Both places have been difficult for him—Canaan because of his family troubles and Egypt because of his enslavement and imprisonment.

Joseph sees in Menashe an opportunity to finally move on from the hardship of his childhood. His son’s birth symbolically enables him to “forget.” In Ephraim, Joseph sees fertility, the ultimate sign of blessing.

What is the message? Joseph has shed his Hebrew past and embraced his new Egyptian identity. Interesting, however, that he continues to acknowledge God as the source of his good fortune.

The famine strikes, and it is global. Jacob sends the ten brothers who had sold Joseph into slavery down to Egypt to purchase food. The text is very clear that Joseph recognizes them immediately but they do not recognize him – neither his appearance nor his voice. Joseph, by all accounts, is completely Egyptian.

Seeing his brothers show up in his chambers for food must have come as a shock to Joseph. Despite his embrace of Egyptian life, he realizes that he cannot forget his father’s house.

There are a few hints in Parashat Miketz that Joseph still harbors elements of his earlier identity: faith and food. Throughout events, Joseph credits God for his success. It is God who enables him to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams and it is God who blesses him with forgetfulness and fertility.

When he accuses his brothers of being spies and nevertheless grants them permission to return home as long as they leave one of their number behind as his prisoner, Joseph states et ha-Elohim ani yarei – “I am a God-fearing man.” A strange statement in the land of Horus and Ra, Isis and Osiris.

A bit later in the story, when the brothers have returned to Egypt for more food, Joseph hosts them for a meal. The Egyptian servants refuse to eat with the Hebrews, as to do so would be an abomination. Joseph, on the other hand, stays in the room to dine with them. He even offers portions of food from his own table, extra portions going to his full brother Benjamin.

Through these interactions, Joseph, overcome with emotion, occasionally leaves the room to weep.

Over the next two Torah portions, as Joseph pushes his brothers harder and harder to ascertain the extant of their repentance, he opens up more and more to his past. By the end of the Book, Joseph fully reconciles with his family.

Jacob, now in Egypt, blesses the sons whose births once symbolized abandoning the land of his father and building a home in a new land.

Although he never returns to the land of Canaan, Joseph makes his surviving relatives swear that they will bring his bones back when they eventually return to the Promised Land. Many generations later, Moses fulfills that promise.

The theme of fate is strong throughout this story. Joseph’s teen-age dreams that his brothers will one day bow down before him are always in the back of our minds. We know that there will be a reunion, but the characters themselves do not.

We just finished celebrating Chanukah. The Maccabees launched their rebellion to protect their right to continue to follow the Torah in the land of their ancestors. Not only were there Jews who were actively assimilating, and trying to assimilate the rest of Judean society. The Greek authorities had actually outlawed some of the core practices of Judaism like Torah study and circumcision. The Maccabees fought to prevent the active, intentional cultural eradication of Jewish life in the Promised Land.

Ever since, Chanukah has symbolized the Jewish people’s struggle to maintain our identity, especially as we find ourselves living among larger non-Jewish cultures. America has been good to the Jews. Never in our history have we been more free to practice our religion outwardly and proudly, without fear of persecution. Ironically, it has never been easier to leave our ancient heritage behind and assimilate into the surrounding culture.

Joseph’s struggles predate the Maccabees. Only for Joseph, the struggles were personal and emotional. They were wrapped up in the difficult dynamics of his family. And the rising and falling of his fortunes in non-Hebrew society.

An Egyptian name, language, marriage and culture—despite embracing all of these things, Joseph still comes back to family.

Whose story most closely resembles our experience – Joseph or the Maccabees?

The Courage to Act – Chayei Sarah 5781

Last Shabbat, the Jewish world lost one of its great teachers, thinkers, and advocates, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of Great Britain. Rabbi Sacks was an Orthodox Rabbi, a philosopher, theologian, and politician. He was one of the most recognized and respected Jewish thinkers in the world.

Rabbi Sacks served as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013. In 2005, he became a Knight Bachelor for “services to the community and inter-faith relations.” In 2009, he was granted the title Baron and given a life peerage with a seat in the House of Lords.

Rabbi Sacks emphasized the study of knowledge in all of its forms, both from within and outside of Judaism. He utilized the terms Chockmah and Torah to describe the pursuit. He wrote,

Chokhmah is the truth we discover; Torah is the truth we inherit. Chokhmah is the universal language of humankind; Torah is the specific heritage of Israel. Chokhmah is what we attain by being in the image of God; Torah is what guides Jews as the people of God. Chokhmah is acquired by seeing and reasoning; Torah is received by listening and responding. Chokhmah tells us what is; Torah tells us what ought to be.

Jonathan Sacks, Future Tense (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2009), p.221

In his drashot, Rabbi Sacks was as likely to cite Shakespeare as Rashi. He had a gifted ability to communicate the universal truths of human existence, drawing deeply on the wellsprings of Torah and Jewish teaching, 

He was committed to interfaith work, often appearing on British television as a commentator to wide audiences. “No one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth,” he wrote in his book The Dignity of Difference. Rabbi Sacks was noted for his deeply held embrace of both particularism and universalism, although he backtracked after receiving criticism from Haredi Jews. He believed that Judaism had something to say, and had an important role to play, in fixing the problems of the world.

In my work as a Rabbi, people sometimes share articles or drashot with me that they read and find to be meaningful. I cannot think of another person whose teachings have been shared more than Rabbis Jonathan Sacks’. 

At his funeral this week, Gila Sacks delivered an emotional eulogy for her father. She said about him, “He taught us that the world is to be challenged, and that there is no such thing as an unsolveable problem.”

The best way to honor a great teacher is to share his teachings. So I turned to one of Rabbi Sacks’ drashot on this morning’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah

Over the course of three parashiyot, God blesses Abraham numerous times. The blessings essentially come down to two promises. One, Abraham will inherit the entire land of Canaan. And two, Abraham will be the father of a great nation, a nation that will be a blessing to the world.

In fact, each of these blessings occurs five separate times over the course of the previous two Torah portions.

As this morning’s reading begins, however, Abraham’s prospects are not looking good. Over the course of Chayei Sarah, Abraham takes important actions that are the first steps towards the fulfilment of God’s blessings.

The first to be addressed is land. Sarah dies, and Abraham must prepared for her funeral. The problem is that he is a foreigner in Canaan, with no land to his name. He turns to the Hittites, living in Hebron, with a proposal. Ger v’toshav ani imachem. “I am a resident alien among you, please let me purchase land to bury my wife.”

Abraham is in a difficult situation and he knows it. As a foreigner in a highly tribal society, it is nearly impossible for him to own land. The Hittites, who seem to respect Abraham, offer him the opportunity to bury his wife wherever he chooses.

Abraham knows what he wants, and he asks for Ephron to sell him the cave of Machpelah. Ephron offers to give Abraham the field with the cave so that he can bury Sarah. But gifts can be rescinded. So Abraham asks again to purchase the land at whatever price Ephron names. Ephron slyly tells him the cost, “A piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver-what is that between you and me?”

Abraham pays the money, and the land becomes his. To emphasize the legally binding nature of the transaction, the Torah ends the story with a summary of the contract.

So Ephron’s land in Machpelah, near Mamre—the field with its cave and all the trees anywhere within the confines of that field—passed to Abraham as his possession, in the presence of the Hittites, of all who entered the gate of his town.

Genesis 23:17-18

Notice the details – the land is described by location, along with the trees growing on it. Abraham is identified as the new owner. And the witnesses are specified. The deal is accomplished in public, before the entire town.

Then the story concludes with Abraham burying Sarah. By performing an action on the land, he takes formal possession of it.

The importance of this story cannot be overstated. This is the first fulfillment of God’s blessing of Abraham

The Torah turns to the next part of the blessing. Abraham knows that it can only be fulfilled through Isaac, but things do not seem to be moving forward on that front. At this point, Isaac is at least 37 years old. He is unmarried and still living at home. “Failure to launch,” would be an apt description.

So Abraham sends his servant to Aram-Naharaim, outside of the land of Canaan, to find a wife for Isaac from among Abraham’s kinsmen.

As with the land negotiations, it is not easy. The servant, acting as Abraham’s proxy, embarks on the long journey, bringing ten camels laden with treasures.

Upon arrival, he meets Rebecca, and bestows lavish gifts of gold and silver jewelry upon her, her brother Laban, and her mother. As with the purchase of the Cave of Machpelah, this is an expensive transaction. And he must deal with deception as well. When the servant indicates that he would like to return with Rebecca, her mother and brother try to delay. When the servant insists, they put the question to Rebecca herself, who agrees to leave immediately.

As before, external politeness hides distrust and greed. In the end, Abraham gets what he wants, but the price is dear.

Noteworthy in both of these stories is God’s absence. There are no conversations with angels, prophetic encounters, or appearances of mysterious wells. Neither Ephron nor Laban have scary dreams in the middle of the night warning them of what will happen if they do not give Abraham what he wants.

These are stories of struggle and persistence, of taking charge of one’s fate in a way that has permanent implications for the future.

At the beginning of Chayei Sarah, the prospects of God’s blessings to Abraham being fulfilled are bleak. By the end, events are set in motion. Rabbi Sacks writes that

“yes, Abraham will have a land. He will have countless children. But these things will not happen soon, or suddenly, or easily. Nor will they occur without human effort. To the contrary, only the most focused willpower and determination will bring them about. The divine promise is not what it first seemed: a statement that God will act. It is in fact a request, an invitation from God to Abraham and his children that they should act.”

“…Now, as then, the divine promise does not mean that we can leave the future to God…. Faith does not mean passivity.  It means the courage to act and never to be deterred. The future will happen, but it is we – inspired, empowered, given strength by the promise – who must bring it about.”  

Jonathan Sacks, Covenant and Conversation, pp. 126-127

I can think of no more important message for us.

Because We Are Family – Lekh Lekha 5781

I did not originally intend to post this D’var Torah, as I wrote it specifically with the intention of it being heard in real time. After a number of requests, I have decided to post it. This has been an incredibly emotional time for most of us. For this sermon in particular, I felt it was important that we see each other’s faces – at least over Zoom. After services, I invited those who wished to continue to discuss the issues raised. I found the ensuing discussion to be honest and respectful. Please keep these factors in mind as you read this.

One of the main themes of the Book of Genesis is family. When the very first human is created, God quickly declares that it is not good to be alone. The human is split, revealing Adam and Eve, the first family. The rest of the Book is a struggle to figure out how to get along.

As Lekh Lekha begins, God tells Abram to leave his family behind and go somewhere new. He arrives in Canaan, encounters a famine, and flees with his household to Egypt. When the famine ends, Abram and Sarai return to Canaan, camping out in the Negev, near Beit El. By this point, Abram has acquired lots of wealth, consisting of animals, silver, and gold. But no land.

Lot, his nephew, also travels with him. He too has become wealthy, although the Torah only specifies that his wealth consistsa of flocks and tents. Lot is beginning to separate from his uncle and establish his own household.

Because flocks require pastureland, shepherds are by nature nomadic. When the animals have eaten all the food that the land can provide, it is time to move to greener pastures. One can imagine that there is a certain degree of competition among shepherds for the best pastureland. That is exactly what happens between Abram and Lot’s shepherds.

Parenthetically, the Torah informs us that the Canaanites and Perizzites were then dwelling in the land.

Abram, seeking to prevent the conflict from escalating, approaches his nephew with a plan. “Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land before you? Let us separate: if you go north, I will go south; and if you go south, I will go north.”

Abram, the older, wiser one, gives Lot the first choice, which is actually the opposite of what we might expect. Abram, the head of the family, older and wealthier, should be the one to get first choice. But instead he offers it to Lot.

Lot looks around in all directions, sees how green the land is in the Jordan river valley, and heads East. Abram goes the opposite direction and settles in Hebron.

What were the shepherd fighting about? Rashi, drawing upon a midrash, labels Lot’s shepherds as wicked. They would lead their flocks into fields that belonged to other people.

Abram’s shepherds would rebuke them.  “You guys shouldn’t be doing this. It’s theft!” 

Lot’s shephereds would respond: “The entire land has been given to Abram, and he has no heir. Our master Lot, as his nephew, will inherit from him. So it is not actually theft.” 

Ramban disagrees. In typical fashion, he cites Rashi’s comment in its entirety, and then explains why it is wrong. The clue to what is actually going on is the parenthetical comment that “the Canaanites and the Perizites were then dwelling in the land.”

Ramban explains that the words az, “then” as in “The Canaanites and Perizites were then dwelling in the land,” indicates that they are also nomadic shepherds who would set up their encampments in a certain place for a year or two and then move on to another location.

At this point, Ramban points out, Abram does not yet possess any land of his own, but he, (along with his nephew), have large flocks. This is an obvious recipe for conflict.

When Lot’s shepherds bring their animals into the pastures occupied by Abram’s animals, the resulting combined flocks are too large to go unnoticed. When the local population hears about it, predicts Ramban, one of two things will follow. Either, the Canaanites and Perizites will drive Abram and Lot out of the land, or they will attack them and take the herds for themselves.

Seeking to prevent such an outcome, Abram comes forward to Lot with a solution.  “To avoid conflict, we need to separate.” But he adds, ki anashim achim anachnu – for we are brother men. In other words, we are family.

This commitment is real. For even though they go different directions, Abram always recognizes his obligations to his nephew.  The following chapter describes a war in which Lot is taken captive. When word reaches Abram, he does not hesitate. He immediately assembles a fighting force from among his household and sets out to rescue his nephew. He travels as far as Hobah, which is north of Damascus.  This is quite a distance. They engage in battle, rescue Lot and the other captives, and take back all of the possessions that had been captured. 

Later on, after Abram has become Abraham, he argues for the sake of the innocent people living in Sodom when God declares an intent to wipe out the city because of its wickedness.

While not mentioned explicitly, it is not far-fetched to imagine that Abraham’s eagerness to save the city on account of the few righteous people is motivated by his desire to save his nephew.

Indeed, Lot and his family are the only ones whom the angels try to rescue before the cataclysm. Lot’s descendants become the Moabites and the Ammonites. Moab, of course, being the national origin of Ruth, the great great grandmother of King David.

This is a narrative about the struggles within a family over how best to utilize public resources. Our story focuses more on Abram’s perspective. In his wisdom, he recognizes that the only way for them to survive is to create some distance. To agree to disagree, if you will.

But that does not mean that the family ties are broken. As we saw, Abram sticks by Lot to the end.

You probably had a chance to read the email that I sent to the congregation last Sunday in which I asked that we refrain from making political comments in certain contexts. The email generated a lot of responses. In this real-time setting, I would like to elaborate on a few points.

First and foremost, I am not advocating that any of us should be complacent. It is our duty as Americans to be involved in our democracy, to make our voices heard through voting, and to do our part to build a more just society. There is so much at stake, and our voices need to be heard.

As Jews especially, we have to be involved. America is the first country in the history of the world in which Jews were considered to be full citizens. With all its problems, we have so much to be thankful for. We have a duty to be involved. 

And we should be smart about it. If you are not on social media, Yasher Koach. For those who are, I am sure you are aware of how difficult it is to have an open-minded disagreement there. For any given post, if I agree with it, my conviction is reinforced. If I disagree with it, my conviction is reinforced. 

I have been trying to think whether I have personally ever changed a strongly held political belief based on something that someone sent me or a comment I read online and I have not been able to come up with a single example. Usually, when I read something, I feel either angry or vindicated.

For a powerful illustration of the problem with Facebook and all of the other social media platforms, I urge you to watch the documentary The Social Dilemma on Netflix. If you have kids middle school aged and above, watch it with them. It shows how these technologies have contributed to much of the extreme divisiveness in society. These are incredibly powerful tools for connecting us to one another, but there is a dark side that was never the intention of these technologies’ founders.

What could be wrong with the “like” button? As it turns out, quite a lot.

In my email, I asked us to not make political comments on the Sinai Facebook page. That’s it. Why? Because what tends to happen is that a few people have a sometimes heated discussion back and forth. But they forget that there could be a hundred people or more watching silently from the sidelines. Without a three dimensional interaction, we have no way of reading how our words are being heard by those who are reading them. The result can be very divisive within our community.

Feel free to post on your own wall, but as a general piece of advice, I would urge us to be clear about what we are hoping to acheive with any given post or comment that we make. 

I also asked for us to refrain from political comments during and after Zoom services. People have different levels of comfort with their participation on Zoom – and that is fine. What I have noticed is that when those of us who are more comfortable interacting with one another do so, we tend to forget about the other people who are also logged in—often with microphone and video turned off.

Does this mean that we should not be sharing ideas with one another, or that we should never argue about politics within our community? Of course not. We just need to find a way to do so that is open-minded and respectful. Why should I expect you to listen to what I have to say if I am not willing to listen to what you have to say? Humble curiosity is a good thing.

There is something else to consider. Cole Buxbaum, who passed away earlier this year, may his memory be a blessing, once got up in front of the congregation and shared something that has stuck with me. He described how happy he was that with all of the chaos and conflict out in the world, shul on Shabbat was a place where we could gather together despite our differences, and be reminded that we are all part of the Jewish people. He said it with such emotion and sincerity – it really made an impression.

I think that is what draws a lot of people who come to services at Sinai.

A final note, and I have shared this many times with our community. There are pulpit Rabbis out there who are more politically outspoken than I am. I teach what I believe to be core values of Judaism, and I generally hold back from explicitly pushing particular policies. This is driven by my understanding that most people do not like to be told what to do or believe.

But if we can learn what Judaism might have to say on any given issue, we might be able to look at our own preconceived notions from a different perspective. I want us all to be challenged. To all be open to learning something new and considering ideas from a different angle.

And then, to do everything we can to go out into the world and right the wrongs around us.

Although election day is this Tuesday, and there is a good chance that we will not have an announcement for some time. 

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs issued a statement this week on Elections and Democratic principles that was signed on to by more than 90 Jewish organizations, including the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements.

The bedrock of American liberty is a strong, thriving democracy and an engaged citizenry. The COVID-19 pandemic has altered almost every aspect of the way we live, including how we vote in elections. It’s a longstanding tradition that nonpartisan groups across the spectrum do their part by encouraging their members and the larger community to vote. This year, these non-partisan efforts are even more essential to ensuring that every vote is counted and everyone can participate in our democracy.

We call upon all government leaders, candidates, and elected officials, Democrats and Republicans, at every level and branch of government to recommit to our nation’s core democratic principles and oppose violence emerging from the far right or the far left. In the case of contested or close elections we ask for patience and trust in the system, as we allow for every valid vote to be counted. We ask civic and faith leaders to set a standard of discourse, oppose violence and encourage peaceful engagement in the political process. We must sustain and carry out these ideals and principles in both our words and our actions at this critical moment in our history.

https://www.jewishpublicaffairs.org/a-jewish-statement-on-elections-and-democratic-principles/

When Abram knew he and Lot needed more space between them, he gave Lot the first choice of where to settle, and he kept on loving him. Why? Because they were family.

Birthdays and Yahrzeits – Yom Kippur 5781

In 1888, Ludvig Nobel died in France from a heart attack. The story is told that a French newspaper mistakenly reported that it was, in fact, Ludvig’s brother, Alfred, who had passed away. The obituary called Alfred a “merchant of death” who had made his fortune developing new ways to “mutilate and kill.”

Alfred Nobel was indeed an arms developer and manufacturer. He invented dynamite, and over the course of his career filed 355 patents for various explosives components. Alfred owned nearly 100 munitions factories.

When he read the mistaken obituary, Alfred Nobel came face to face with his legacy. He could not bear to be remembered for causing death and destruction.

In 1895, Alfred Nobel signed his last will and testament. In it, he devoted his fortune, worth around $265 million today, to a series of annual prizes that would be awarded to individuals from around the world “who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” The categories included physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace. Economics was added in 1968.

Alfred Nobel died the following year. The first Nobel prizes were awarded in 1901, and have since been granted to more than 500 people, including Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Winston Churchill, and Martin Luther King, Jr. When we think of Alfred Nobel today, we think of the prize that bears his name.

Did Nobel’s late-in-life awakening serve as atonement for his earlier actions?  That is for God to say, but the good that he did at the end of his life is surely meaningful in its own right. It leaves Alfred Nobel with a complicated legacy.

The Nobel prizes are announced every year on December 10, the anniversary of Alfred’s death. Interesting that his birthday was not the date selected.

In America, we tend to celebrate great people on their birthdays. Presidents Day is sandwiched between George Washington’s birthday on February 22 and Abraham Lincoln’s on February 12. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day occurs on the third Monday of January to mark his birthday on January 15. Cesar Chavez Day occurs on March 31, also his birthday.

What is the difference between the date of birth and the date of death? What is a birthday? What does it represent?

It is fundamentally arbitrary. A birthday has significance because we say so.

It marks some multiple of 365 days since the day on which a person was born. Put another way, it is when the earth is in the exact same position in its orbit relative to the sun as it was when that person entered the world. 

One week from today, on October 5, the earth and sun will be aligned exactly as when my wife was born, for the 46th time. So happy birthday Dana.

The birth of a baby is just about the happiest thing in life. But why? The kid has not done anything yet.

All of the joy that we feel is for the potential that this child embodies. At a bris, and sometimes at a Simchat Bat, the baby is placed in Elijah’s Chair as if to say, this child could potentially be the mashiach, could be the one to make the world worthy of redemption.

Birthdays are about hope. By celebrating them, we suggest that having been born was a good thing. According to “celebration industry analysts” in 2018, the Children’s Birthday Party industry in the United states was worth $38 billion. That’s a lot of hope.

On the other hand, each successive birthday celebration reminds us that the time since our birth is increasing and the corresponding time to our inevitable end is shrinking.

Perhaps that is why some people become sensitive about their birthday and their age as they get older, as in when someone, only partially in jest, announces that they are celebrating their 29th birthday for the fortieth time.

Judaism does not traditionally celebrate birthdays. Instead, we observe the yahrzeits of those who have passed.

Yahrzeit is a Yiddish word that literally means “time of year.” It is the anniversary of a person’s date of death, according to the Hebrew calendar. While there are terms that reflect similar practices for Sephardic Jews, the word yahrzeit has migrated into Ladino as well.

We mark a yahrzeit in a few significant ways. Mourners light a memorial candle to burn for the entire day. The flame is seen as a symbol for the soul, and is inspired by the verse in Proverbs (20:27): Ner Adonai nishmat adam.  “The light of Adonai is the soul of a human.”

Mourners go our of their way to find or even assemble a minyan so that they can recite the Kaddish.

In synagogue, on the preceding Shabbat, we read all the names of those whose yahrzeit will occur in the upcoming week. While this technically serves simply as a reminder to mourners to light the candle and recite the Kaddish, the recitation and hearing of the name has become a ritual in and of itself. Relatives attend services on the preceding Shabbat to hear the name of their loved one being read.

Other customs to mark a yahrzeit include giving tzedakah, studying Jewish texts, and visiting a grave. Of course, telling stories about our loved one is central.

Where the birthday marks the potential, still unrealized future actions of a person, the yahrzeit marks the impact and legacy that a person has already made. It honors a life in its entirety. Birthdays look to the future. Yahrzeits look to the past.

Judaism evaluates a life based on the sum total of a person’s accomplishments – the good and the bad. As long as I have breath, my legacy is still incomplete. It is not yet time to celebrate.

Later this afternoon, we will observe Yizkor, a service in which we remember our loved ones who are no longer with us. Yizkor is about remembering what they meant to us and how they impacted us. We recognize that, even in death, the souls of the dead are bound with the souls of the living. 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away a week ago Friday, on September 18. It was the 29th of Elul, 5780, Erev Rosh Hashanah. Over the past week, the tributes have poured in as people around the nation have honored her life and legacy.

Joan Ruth Bader was born on March 15, 1933 in Brooklyn, New York. She was a pioneer and a fighter throughout her career. She was one of only a few woman in law school at Harvard. She transferred to Columbia and graduated first in her class. RBG was the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court and its sixth—and longest serving—Jewis Justice. In death, she was the first woman and the first Jew to ever lie in state at the US Capitol.

From the beginning of her career, Ginsburg fought for gender equality and women’s rights. She argued, and won, many cases before the Supreme Court. She joined the Court in 1993 as a moderate consensus builder and later became the leader of its liberal wing. Notably in the last decade, she became a defender of voting rights.

Her chambers were decorated with the passage form Deuteronomy, Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” 

RBG was always outspoken. She made a point of writing and reading her dissenting opinions from the bench when she had a point to make. She gave great interviews and could sometimes be a bit hasty in her comments – a testament to her freshness.

Her best friend on the court was her ideological opposite, the late Antonin Scalia, with whom she would dine and go to the opera. They were an example to the rest of us that it should be possible to have close relationships with those with whom we disagree.

Over the past decade and a half, the Notorious RBG became a pop icon and an inspiration to younger generations – which came as a total surprise to the petite Jewish grandmother from Brooklyn.

I do not know if we will remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s birthday, but I am pretty sure that we will remember her yahrzeit. The date of her passing on Erev Rosh Hashanah has special significance to Jews. She got to live every day of 5780, which feels so appropriate for a woman who pursued justice every day of her life, even when she was lying in her hospital bed.

RBG was a pioneer in life. Now that she is no longer with us, she continues to inspire us as someone who made every day of her life count. Usually we say, “May her memory be a blessing.”  For her, we can say “Her memory is a blessing.”

Of course, there are few people who achieve her level of greatness. Most of us will not have such far-reaching impact. But we do not have to compare her accomplishments to our own.

That is the force of the story about Alfred Nobel. It was when confronted with his own life’s legacy that he decided to change course. 

Yom Kippur is the day on which we face our mortality. It is the day when we consider our life as if it is at the end. If The Mercury News screwed up and printed our obituary, what would it say? Would we be pleased with the report?

There are two unique parts of the Yom Kippur service that occur in every Amidah over the course of the fast: Selichot and Vidui.

Selichot are the penitential prayers. We chant the thirteeen attributes of God, emphasizing God’s forgiving, patient nature. We know we have made mistakes. We want to be better, and so we are asking for another chance.

The Vidui is the confession. This is when we collectively list all of the ways in which humans miss the mark. We pound on our chests for each of them. While none of us has violated every sin on the alphabetical lists, we know in our hearts which ones apply to us.

Selichot always precede the Vidui. We want to make sure that God hears our confessions from the side of compassion. S’lakh lanu, m’khal lanu, kaper lanu, we sing. “Forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.” Atonement is essentially the opportunity for a new start.

Yom Kippur includes elements of both the Yahrzeit and the birthday. When we get through the day, we experience a kind of rebirth. While nothing from our past is erased, we now have another chance to add to our story.

What a wonderful blessing and charged opportunity.

Earlier in the Covid crisis, I heard a piece of advice for high school students that stuck with me. Imagine, when all this is over, when a college admissions officer asks you the following question: “What did you do during Covid?” how will you answer?

I don’t think that is a question for just high schoolers. It is for all of us.

How have I spent this time? 

RBG, who fought cancer for the past four years, continued her life’s work of pursuing justice, issuing Supreme Court decisions from her hospital bed.

Our lives have been inhibited in so many ways. I do not need to list them. But that should not be an excuse to give up. It should be an opportunity to do something in a different way.

When we come out of Yom Kippur, the world around us will be the same. The question that we must ask ourselves is, will I?