The Friendship of the King – Rosh Hashanah 5783

What is the first thing that pops into your mind when I say the word “King?”

Given recent events, I imagine that the passing of Queen Elizabeth II and the coronation of King Charles III probably come to mind.

In the United States, the concept of royalty is not particularly relevant to our lives. Our nation was founded when we gained independence from a king. It is a matter of national pride that we have no royalty.

Monarchy is not a particularly common form of government these days. The British Crown, as a Constitutional Monarchy, is largely symbolic.  There are just a handful of absolute monarchies left in the world, and I am not sure that any of them are in places that you or I would want to live.

And yet, “King” is one of the dominant symbols and the primary metaphor that we use to describe God on Rosh Hashanah.

Our High Holiday liturgy is filled with pageantry. All of the ark openings. The standing. The sitting. Much of the music we sing is meant to sound like a royal procession.

We shift the beginning of the morning service so that the first word is hamelekh, the King. What is the most iconic prayer of Rosh Hashanah? Avinu Malkeinu, Our Father our King. We even braid the Challah into a round loaf resembling a crown. Rosh Hashanah is a coronation, a crowning of the King of Kings on the New Year.

This is expressed nowhere better than in a glorious piyyut which we will sing in a little while. Here is a preview. It can be found on page 150 in the mahzor. In this particular melody, the last line of the poem serves as the congregational response. The words are v’yitnu l’kha keter m’lukhah – “And they will give You a crown of kingship.”

The prayer imagines a future in which all of humanity joins in glorious unity, rejecting all forms of idolatry and recognizing God as King. Let’s practice singing it right now. I’ll sing the leader’s part without using any words. All you have to do is repeat the exact melody that I sing, using the final line v’yitnu l’kha keter m’lukhah.  After three lines, we’ll join together in the niggun, a wordless melody.

[SING]

When we talk about a human King, what qualities come to mind?

Kings are not like us. They sit far away, upon an elevated throne. They have absolute power. The King is the law. The King is male.

What does it mean when we describe God as a King? This metaphor might work for some of us. Or, maybe we try not to think too hard about what “God is King” might imply. Or, maybe the idea of God as a King turns us off.

I personally have a difficult time with it.  When teaching Avinu Malkeinu to our religious school students recently, I struggled with how to translate it and explain its meaning. I ended up using “Ruler,” which is not really the same thing. For the handout, I hedged by just writing Avinu Malkeinu in English,

What do we say in Avinu Malkeinu? “Our Father, Our King. Have mercy on us, answer us, for our deeds are insufficient; deal with us charitably and lovingly, and redeem us.”

We ask for compassion from a King who is far away. ‘We don’t deserve your mercy,’ we admit. There is no claim whatsoever that we can make. We are entirely in Your hands; we exist at Your whim. Maybe that is the appropriate way to understand our relationship with our Creator, but it does not feel very good.

Maimonides says that there are no words that can accurately define God. We can only say what God is not. All descriptions are metaphors which, if we took them literally, would make us guilty of idolatry. For the most part, our descriptions of God are really descriptions of the best qualities that we hope to see in ourselves: kindness, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, reliability, constancy, fairness, justice. We project on God those qualities to which we aspire…

…which brings us to another problem with Kings. They are, by and large, terrible. In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses tells the Israelites that there may be a time in the future when they say “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me.” When the request comes a few centuries later, in the days of the Prophet Samuel, he agrees to help the Israelites, but tells them, “You can do it, but you’re not gonna like it.”

Here are some of the rules that Moses outlines for Kings: he can’t have too many horses, he can’t send people back to Egypt to get more horses. He can’t have too many wives.  And further, the King can’t do whatever he wants. He must keep a copy of the Torah with him at all times, read it daily, and follow the commandments closely.  And, he cannot set himself above his subjects.  Basically, he does not get to do any of the fun stuff that Kings like to do. With all due respect to Mel Brooks, “It is not good to be the King.”

When the Israelites do establish a monarchy, it is essentially a disaster, with a few exceptional bright spots here and there. And let’s not even get started with the non-Israelite kings.

If human royalty is so terrible, why on earth is it the metaphor we use for God?

The Rabbis are aware that the nature of God’s Kingship is fundamentally different than an earthly King. The Talmud (BT Avodah Zarah 11a) tells the story Onkelos bar Kelonimos. According to one legend, he was the nephew of the Roman Emperor Titus. He converted to Judaism in the first century, CE, and wrote what came to be known as Targum Onkelos, the earliest Aramaic translation of the Bible.

News of Onkelos’ conversion spreads, and the Roman emperor sends a troop of soldiers to arrest him. As the soldiers approach, Onkelos starts reciting verses of Torah, as one does. He is very persuasive, and they convert.

The emperor sends in another troop of soldiers to arrest Onkelos. This time he instructs them: “Do not talk to him.”

They arrest Onkelos, and as they are walking along, he says to them: “I just have one thing I’d like to say. It is the job of the junior officer to hold the torch for the senior officer. The senior officer holds the torch for the Duke. The Duke holds the torch for the Governor. And the Governor holds the torch for the King. So,” he asks the soldiers. “Does the King hold the torch for the people?”

The soldiers, mesmerized by Onkelos, forget their orders and answer: “No. Of course not.”

Onkelos turns to them and says: “And yet, the Holy One holds a torch for the Jewish people.” Then he quotes Exodus: “The Lord went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light.” (Exodus 13:21).

Hearing this brilliant exposition, the entire second troop of soldiers converts.

Word reaches the Emperor, who he is beside himself. As he sends out the third troop, he commands them: “Do not speak with him at all. Not a word!”

The soldiers follow their orders. They arrest Onkelos and start marching. As they are walking along, Onkelos sees a mezuzah on a doorpost. He puts his hand on it and looks over at the soldiers: “What is this?”

They look at one another, thinking of the Emperor’s order. But they are curious. So one of them shrugs his shoulders and quietly whispers for Onkelos to answer his question.

So Onkelos says: “The standard practice around the world is that the king sits inside his palace, while his servants stand guard at the gates, protecting him from any threats. But when it comes to the Holy One, it is the opposite.” He points to the mezuzah. “God’s servants, the Jewish people, sit inside their homes with their mezuzahs on their doors, while God stands guard over them.” 

When the soldiers hear this, what can they do but convert on the spot? 

The Emperor does not bother sending any more soldiers.

This story is all about contrasting the human King with the Divine King. Notice how the Roman Emperor remains inside his palace while his servants, the guards, are sent outside to supposedly protect his interests. Onkelos, who has chosen to be a servant of God, is protected by verses of Torah. Even when he is out on the road, the Divine King is with him to light his way and guard him from harm.

Although calling God “King” might seem like such a given, it might be surprising to learn that God is not a King in the Torah. None of the Patriarchs or Matriarchs relate to God in that way. Moses never instructs Pharaoh to submit before the King of Kings. When the Israelites build a place of worship, they construct a Tabernacle, not a palace.

The word melekh, King, referring to God, or its related verb, occurs just three, or possibly even only two times in the entire Torah, which creates a problem for our machzor.

The Musaf service contains three special sections called Malkhuyot – Kingship, Zikhronot – Remembrances,  and Shofarot – Shofar blasts. Each of these sections are comprised of ten verses from the Hebrew Bible: three from Torah, three from Writings, three from Prophets, and a final verse from Torah. The verses conclude with a closing blessing, followed by shofar blasts.

The Talmud has no problem at all in associating Zikhronot – Remembrances –  and Shofarot – Shofar blasts – to Rosh Hashanah, or in finding appropriate verses. But it really struggles to find four verses from the Torah for Malkhuyot. Most appear in poems. The first is from the Song of the Sea: Adonai yimlokh l’olam va’ed – “The Lord will reign for ever and ever.” The second is recited by Balaam, the non-Israelite Prophet, when he utters words of blessing upon the Israelites. We’ll come back to it. The third verse, from Deuteronomy, might actually be referring to Moses instead of God. The fourth verse is Shema Yisrael, which does not even have the word melekh. None of these four verses have anything to do with Rosh Hashanah.

Now back to our verse from Balaam. Summoned by the human King Balak of Moab to curse the Israelites, Balaam instead offers words of blessing, including our verse:

No harm is in sight for Jacob, No woe in view for Israel. 

The Lord their God is with them, And the teruah of the King among them.

Numbers 23:21

Ut’ruat melekh bo. Do you hear anything familiar? The teruah of the King among them. What is teruah? It means “blasting,” probably referring to a trumpet fanfare announcing the King’s entrance. It is one of the three notes sounded by the shofar. It is a word used to refer to our holiday – zikhron teruah – a remembrance of blasting.

So maybe we can make an indirect connection.  If melekh has a connection to teruah, and teruah is associated with Rosh Hashanah, then by analogy melekh is connected to Rosh Hashanah. If A = B, and B = C, then A = C. Maybe.

Before we get too excited, let’s look again at teruah. Does it actually mean “blasting?”

Remember Onkelos? His Aramaic translation uses a curious word.  It says ush’khinat malk’hon beineihon – “The Shechinah of the king is among them.” No blasting. Instead, it is the Shechinah, the indwelling of God’s Presence. Rather than triumphant horns, the image shifts to one of intimacy and comfort.

Perhaps this is what leads the commentator Rashbam to explain the verse in this way. The word Teruah is related to the word re’ut, which means “friendship.”  On the inside of our wedding rings, Dana and I have the words Zeh dodi v’zeh re’i inscribed.  “This is my beloved, this is my friend.”

Teruah therefore means friendship.  ut’ruat melekh bo – “and the friendship of the king is among them.”

Turning to the opening words of the verse, Lo hibit aven b’ya’akov – Rashbam explains that God does not want to punish the children of Israel even when they sin.  Literally, “God cannot see sin in Jacob.”

What kind of King is this? One who is in intimate relationship with the beloved, who deliberately overlooks sin, ignoring imperfections, who is blinded by love. 

That is a very different image of a King. Instead of the majestic, male, distant Ruler seated upon a lofty throne, with trumpets blaring, this King is at our level, feminine perhaps, a loving companion who accepts us with all of our imperfections. In other words, nothing at all like a human king.

What kind of relationship do I want with my Creator? No question that there is a rather large power imbalance. But don’t I want to be seen and accepted by the universe, told that I matter?

While our High Holiday liturgy is filled with royal language and imagery, I struggle to relate to those metaphors. Maybe this other type of King, the loving companion, offers an alternative.

If it is true that God knows us better than we even know ourselves, then maybe what we want from God is to be a close friend, an intimate companion.

What do we need from our closest relationships? We need to be accepted for who we are and loved — no matter what.

We talk about the unconditional love of parents for their children. Unconditional means love without judgment, accepting our child for exactly who they are.

That is pretty difficult to achieve, because we actually judge our kids regularly. We hold them to the standards we set for ourselves – standards which we often fail to meet. We judge them by our own deficiencies.

And they feel judged by us, even when we are trying to accept them for who they are. Judgment interferes with acceptance and love.

As parents, isn’t it our jobs to try to set aside our judgment, to make sure our kids know that they are seen, accepted, and loved?

The same is true of any quality relationship with another person, whether a lover, a  family member, or a friend.

A true friend is someone with whom I am safe to be vulnerable. Someone who, when I share my deepest secrets, my shame, will not judge me. A real friend will accept me in all my imperfections. With all of my self doubt. 

We are asked each year to take account of our souls, to perform Cheshbon HaNefesh. This requires brutal honesty. And it is hard to be so open if I know that I am going to face judgment. But if I know that I am opening up to a loving companion…

This intimacy and companionship is what so many of are missing after the past two and a half years. It is starting to feel like we are getting back to normal. But we are still so divided, so quick to judge. We cannot expect God to be a loving companion in our midst unless we are also prepared to be that for each other.

The dominant depiction of God is as the King of the universe, sitting on His high and lofty throne, but perhaps what we really want is for God to be a companion in our midst, accepting and loving us for exactly who we are. 

And perhaps that loving companion is also what we want, what we need from — and to be for — each other.

The Sound of the Snake – Chukat 5782

The Israelites are reaching the end of their journey through the wilderness. Despite their destination being within reach, they still find cause to complain. As they are making their way up the Eastern side of the Jordan River, they become impatient, speaking out against God and Moses:

Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food.

Numbers 21:5

It is kind of hard to blame them. They have been eating manna for forty years now. But God does not appreciate complainers. God sends snakes which bite the people. Many die.

The story follows the typical pattern. The Israelites come to Moses, admit that they sinned when they spoke out against God and Moses. “Please intercede for us,” they plead.

Moses immediately steps in to the breach, and God offers an unusual remedy: Aseh lekha saraf – “Make a seraph figure and mount it on a standard. And anyone who was bitten who then looks at it shall recover.” (Numbers 21:8) A seraph is a fiery serpent angel-type figure.

Moses complies, and he makes what is essentially a ‘snake on a stick.’ When someone is bitten by a serpent, they look at it and recover.

The Mishnah asks the obvious question. Can this inanimate object kill or give life? Doesn’t this fly in the face of the Torah’s many prohibitions against making graven images? The answer is that there is nothing magical about it. It’s power is symbolic. When Israel would look up at this snake on a stick, their hearts would turn towards their Father in heaven. Their faith restored, God would heal them.

It is not the most convincing argument. After all, the same could be said of any graven image.

A midrash (Genesis Rabbah 31:8, Yalkut Shimoni on Nach 15:4) points out that there are four occasions in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible in which the expression  Aseh lekha, literally, “Make for yourself” appears. On three of those occasions, God gives clear instructions about how to make the item in question. The first is when God tells Noah to build an ark out of acacia wood. The second is when Moses is told to make two trumpets out of silver. The third is when Joshua has to make knives out of flint so that the Israelites can circumcise themselves. The fourth “make for yourself” appears in this morning’s Torah portion, when God tells Moses Aseh lekha saraf – “Make for yourself a seraph.”

No instructions are given regarding what raw materials to use. Moses is left to his own devices to figure it out. First, he thinks about using gold, zahav. Then he considers using silver, kesef. Rejecting those two precious metals, he settles instead on the much less valuable copper, nechoshet. Why?

According to the midrash, Moses does not like the sound of the words zahav and kesef. But nechoshet sounds like nachash, the Hebrew word for snake and nashach, the Hebrew word for bite.  And so the Torah says

Then Moses made a copper serpent (nechash nechoshet) and mounted it on a standard, and when bitten by a serpent (im-nashach hanachash), anyone who looked at the the copper serpent (nechash hanechoshet) would recover.

Numbers 21:9

In other words, Moses chose copper because he liked how the word sounded. (Notice that the Torah changes God’s word, seraf, to nachash.  Both words refer to serpents, but only one of them sounds good.) The midrash concludes that this proves that the Torah was given in Hebrew, the holy tongue. The alliteration would not work in any other language.

There is a deeper meaning at work here.

When we think about snakes, we are reminded of the infamous snake, the nachash of the Garden of Eden, the one who approached the woman with words of deception to trick her into eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. She observes the tree, sees that it is good for eating, a delight to the eyes, and desirable to contemplate. So she eats the fruit and shares it with the man who is with her.

Rabbinic texts personify the nachash as the Yetzer Hara – the evil inclination.  It is by observing the tree, really looking at it, that the yetzer hara speaks to her heart and leads her to violate God’s instructions.

Similarly, if we see the plague of snakes in today’s parashah as symbolizing the Israelites’ lack of faith in God’s providence, their succumbing to the physical discomforts of the moment, the power of the nachash nechoshet becomes more clear. It is the inverse of the Garden of Eden story, the image of the serpent has the power not just to dispel faith, but also to reinvigorate it.

In this moment, Moses does not yell at the Israelites, call them ungrateful, or try to convince them that they are wrong to complain. He takes a different approach. He uses art. Art inspires the imagination, which leads us to see the world differently. As the greatest of our Prophets, the one who reaches the highest level of spirituality and achieves the greatest mastery over the yetzer hara, Moses understands how to use art to get through to the Israelites. He makes a metal sculpture, upon which the Israelites can gaze; and, he composes a linguistic work of art, employing language in a way that penetrates the walls around the heart.

Both forms of creative expression spark an emotional reaction that grabs the Israelites’ attention, surprise them, if only for a moment. Shaken from their complacency, they take a step back and realize all that God has done for them. The Yetzer hara loosens its hold. Self-centerdness departs. They step up one spiritual level. At last, the Israelites realize: ‘We are almost at our destination. Surely God can lead us across the finish line. We can tolerate this manna for a little while longer.’

Abortion – It’s Personal

Almost fifteen years ago, shortly after we arrived in San Jose with our two children, Dana became pregnant.  We were overjoyed, and excited to expand our family in our new home.

At the 12 week ultrasound, we learned that we were going to have a boy.  But there were indications that something might be wrong.  We were told to return for a follow-up ultrasound two weeks later. Perhaps the issue would resolve itself.

Sadly, the abnormalities were even more pronounced. Without going into details, our baby, if it survived the pregnancy, would have numerous physical defects requiring multiple surgeries to survive. It would likely never leave the hospital.

Furthermore, the placenta was growing through the wall of Dana’s uterus and into her bladder in a way that put her at increasing risk for permanent physical disability or even death.

As a husband and father, I was there to love and support my wife. Whatever she wanted to do in this situation, I would be by her side. Dana could not imagine risking our two beautiful, healthy children growing up without their mother. With dread, we started exploring options for termination of the pregnancy.

Who did Dana turn to for support in making her decision? To me, of course. To her parents and sisters. To her doctors.

The procedure that she needed was highly specialized, one that most OB-GYN’s did not have the experience or knowledge to perform.

Fortunately, Dana was able to be seen by an experienced team at UCSF Medical Center who were kind, compassionate, and understanding.

At sixteen weeks, the initial goal was for Dana to undergo an abortion and keep her uterus. The abortion took place on a Wednesday. For the next two days, she remained in critical care with internal bleeding that would not stop. She received multiple blood transfusions.

By Friday, it was clear that Dana needed surgery to save her life, and so she underwent a complicated, high risk hysterectomy. Thank God it was successful. She remained in the hospital for another week until she was finally strong enough to come home.

Dana is still in touch with the doctor who saved her life. That doctor and her team were only able to gain those specialized skills because abortion was legal. Due to the passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973, they were able to receive training, publish and share journal articles, learn from one another, and develop expertise in performing routine medical and surgical abortions, as well as complicated cases like Dana’s. None of this could happen when abortion was illegal.

Abortion bans that only provide exceptions to save the life of the mother do not produce doctors with the skills required for Dana’s surgery. If abortion had been illegal, there would have been no medical team with the necessary skill, and my children might have grown up without their mother.

I know this from my late father in law, Dr. Gary Romalis, z”l, who did his medical internship at Cook County Hospital in Chicago in 1962. In those days, there was no training in providing abortions. Instead, he learned the hard way. In his own words:

The first month of my internship was spent on Ward 41, the septic obstetrics ward. Yes, it’s hard to believe now, but in those days, they had one ward dedicated exclusively to septic complications of pregnancy.

About 90% of the patients were there with complications of septic abortion. The ward had about 40 beds, in addition to extra beds which lined the halls. Each day we admitted between 10-30 septic abortion patients. We had about one death a month, usually from septic shock associated with hemorrhage.

I will never forget the 17-year-old girl lying on a stretcher with 6 feet of small bowel protruding from her vagina. She survived. 

When he opened his Vancouver practice in 1972, in addition to caring for pregnant women and delivering babies, Gary and his partners also dedicated themselves to make sure that “a woman should be able to decide for herself if and when to have a baby.” He was a pioneer in developing safe abortion techniques and training future generations of physicians. There is a direct line connecting Gary’s life’s work and his daughter’s life-saving surgery.

We received a lot of support from the community, both in terms of the space we requested, as well as the physical and emotional support that we needed. One of the surprises were the many women who would come up to Dana, often in tears, to share their own stories of a devastating pregnancy loss, or of a life-saving abortion.

I suspect that many people in this room, probably most, have their own stories. Abortion is a deeply personal issue.

Roe argued that a right to privacy, while not explicitly contained within the Constitution, can be derived from the first, fourth, ninth, and fourteenth Amendments. In his decision, Justice Blackmun ruled that the Constitution protected “zones of privacy” which encompassed areas like contraception, marriage, child rearing, and abortion.

That rationale is what has now been struck down by the decision written by Justice Alito. The conclusion of the new decision states:

Abortion presents a profound moral question. The Constitution does not prohibit the citizens of each State from regulating or prohibiting abortion. Roe and Casey arrogated that authority. We now overrule those decisions and return that authority to the people and their elected representatives,

In other words, states are free to restrict abortion without any interference from the federal government.

With the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, millions of women living in dozens of states will lose the ability to make this personal choice, including 13 states with “trigger laws” that have already gone into effect.

I am not a constitutional scholar, so I am not really qualified to speak to the legal arguments. But I do know, from experience, that this decision will restrict the choices of millions of people in the most personal way imaginable, and will result in women dying.

The question of whether to terminate a pregnancy involves issues of belief, culture, religion, family circumstances, finances, and so much more. During the time in which Dana and I were dealing with our situation, we talked about how much risk to her life we were prepared to accept to go ahead with the pregnancy. We considered our ability to care for our children if Dana became disabled. We talked about whether it was right to bring a child into the world who would suffer for its entire short life, whether we would be able to care for him, and how it would impact our other children. We talked about Jewish law and values. 

I am so grateful that we had the freedom to make our decision.

Coming out of the Jewish tradition, the idea of the government, at any level, getting so intimately involved in individuals’ personal lives is deeply troubling.

Abortion is a topic which Jewish law has dealt with for thousands of years. Unfortunately, we do not have the women’s voices. But we do have the legal and religious writings of men on the topic. Like so much in Judaism, abortion is a nuanced issue.

First of all, we must state unequivocally that Judaism is a pro-natalist religion. P’ru ur’vu – “be fruitful and multiply,” is a mitzvah. Judaism is unabashedly pro-child. In the Talmud, the Sage Reish Lakish declares, “The world exists only because of the breath of children.”

As an exemplification of this, the State of Israel is the “world capital” of in vitro fertilization. The state fully funds IVF treatments for up to two “take home babies” for every woman up to the age of 45. Four percent of Israeli children today are born by IVF, compared to one percent in the US. This right extends to all citizens: Jew and Arab, straight and gay, secular and religious, married and single.

Without a doubt, Judaism has a strong bias towards having children. But it also recognizes that having children can be difficult and dangerous. The Mishnah, nearly two thousand years ago, codified the law on abortion:

If a woman is having difficulty giving birth, the child must be cut in her womb and brought out limb by limb, for her life takes precedence over its life. If the greater part of the child has already come forth, he must not be touched, because one life must not be taken to save another.

Mishnah Ohalot 7:6

The Mishnah is dealing with a situation in which there are complications during a delivery, which occurred frequently until modern times. It states that an abortion is not just optional, but mandatory in order to save the mother’s life. This is true up until the majority of the child has exited the womb.

The medieval commentator Rashi explains why the mother’s life takes precedence over the fetus. This is what he says:

Until the child has emerged into the world, it is not considered a person (lav nefesh hu), and it is permitted to destroy it to save the mother’s life. However, once the head has emerged, it is considered as born, and one may not harm it, for one life may not be taken to save another.

The question “When does life begin?” is not the correct question. The correct question is “When does personhood begin?” Rashi’s answer is unambiguous. It begins when the head has emerged from the mother. Up until that point, lav nefesh hu – “it is not a person.”

Over the years, Rabbis faced cases in which a woman inquired as to the permissibility of abortion in her particular situation. As we would expect, there have been a range of approaches on the topic. Some Rabbis restricted abortion to only the clearest cases of explicit physical danger. Others had a broader interpretation of what constitutes a threat to a mother’s life.

The former Chief Sephardi Rabbi of Israel Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai ben Uziel, had a particularly expansive understanding of what would be permitted.

It is clear that abortion is not permitted without reason. That would be destructive and frustrative of the possibility of life. But for a reason, even if it is a slim reason, such as to prevent her embarrassment, then we have precedent and authority to permit it.

Mishpetei Uziel vol. Ill, H.M. no. 47; See Feldman, pp. 289-291

Rabbi Uziel does not differentiate between life-threatening situations and those that are detrimental to health. He allows for mental anguish, a sense of shame, fear of disgrace, or even a reason such as fear of disfigurement to be valid reasons for an abortion under Jewish law, if that is how the woman feels.

To summarize the Jewish position: Judaism is pro child. It discourages abortion except in cases in which there is a threat to the mother. There are a range of approaches taken by religious authorities over the centuries, some more expansive and others more narrow. A fetus does not become a person until its head emerges from the womb.

The Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards, which determines halakhah for the Conservative movement, in 1983 affirmed the right to an abortion in cases in which the ‘continuation of a pregnancy might cause severe physical or psychological harm, or where the fetus is judged by competent medical opinion as severely defective.’

In light of this, the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement has strongly supported the halakhic necessity of access to abortion, based on biblical and rabbinical sources, as well as legal decisions. It has opposed efforts to limit access to abortion or stifle reproductive freedom.

In a statement yesterday, the Rabbinical Assembly declared:

Denying individuals access to the complete spectrum of reproductive healthcare, including contraception, abortion-inducing devices and medications, and abortions, among others, on religious grounds, deprives those who need medical care of their Constitutional right to religious freedom. 

Of course, other religious traditions see it differently. The Catholic Church, and some Protestant Churches, hold that personhood begins at conception, and therefore oppose abortion. Other Christian denominations support abortion rights. Islam, as far as I understand it, takes an approach similar to Judaism. It considers ensoulment to take place at 120 days, and has different rules for abortion at different stages of fetal development.

The point is that there is not and has never been a consensus on the question of when personhood begins and whether and in what circumstances, an abortion should be permitted. This is not a question that science can answer. It is and will always be a matter of belief, which is why it should be considered an issue of religious freedom.

The overturning of Roe v. Wade allows states to establish the law based upon a particular religion’s interpretation of when personhood begins. How does this not run afoul of the anti-establishment clause of the First Amendment?

A state can now prevent a pregnant woman from following the dictates of her own religion and seeking counsel from her chosen spiritual advisor in a matter that pertains to her own body. How does this not violate the free exercise clause of the First Amendment? What is religion for if not to guide a person through the most fundamental questions of life?

The R.A. concluded its statement yesterday with the following call to action;

There will continue to be legislative battles in the United States on both the federal and state levels that pose existential threats to reproductive freedom, especially so-called ‘heartbeat’ bills, which violate the foundational principle of separation of church and state. The Rabbinical Assembly emphatically opposes all such laws and Legislative or Executive moves and instead calls on members of Congress to decisively codify Roe v. Wade into law to enshrine the right to health, freedom, and dignity for all Americans.

Which brings me back to the point with which I started. This is personal. While facing a devastating decision to terminate a wanted pregnancy, Dana and I at least knew that there would not be legal barriers and that Dana could access the best care available.

I am terrified that someone else’s wife, mother, or daughter, will die because they do not have access to the same safe, legal abortion services that were available to us.

Rise, O Daughters of Priests and Levites – Emor 5782

As you know, Congregation Sinai is a traditional, egalitarian, Conservative synagogue. There are a range of religious practices within the Conservative movement. Sinai, from a liturgical perspective, tends to be on the more traditional side.  Our service is entirely in Hebrew. We chant the full Torah reading, rather than using the triennial system. We do not abbreviate our service in many of the ways that one might find in other Conservative synagogues.

Like almost every Conservative synagogue, we are egalitarian. Any Jew above the age of B’nei Mitzvah counts towards making a minyan. There is no distinction by gender in leadership roles during services. We have the same expectations, and teach the same skills and knowledge, to all our children. Every child in the religious school wears a head covering, and all B’nei Mitzvah wear a tallit. For many years, our practice has been to accept, without judgment, any Jew according to their preferred gender identity.

I am aware of only one way in which our practice has not been fully egalitarian, and that is our treatment of kohanim and leviim — of priests and Levites.

According to tradition, Kohanim are descendants of the first High Priest, Aaron, and Leviim come from the ancient tribe of Levi. They officiated in the Tabernacle when the Israelites were in the wilderness, and in the first and second Temples. This morning’s Torah portion, Emor, addresses specifically the laws governing the kohanim, including restrictions they had to follow, as well as privileges that they enjoyed.

While Jewish identity is passed on matrilineally, one’s status as a kohen or levi is determined by patrilineal descent.

In keeping with Jewish tradition, Sinai’s practice until now has been to call up the son of a kohen for the first aliyah and the son of a levi for the second aliyah. I have been clear and open over the years to anyone who has asked that we would not consider changing this practice until someone to whom it affects comes forward with this request; in other words, someone with “standing.”

It has taken many years, but that person has finally come forward. In the interest of full transparency, that person is my daughter, Noa.

I speak today wearing several hats.  I am the Rabbi of Congregation Sinai. I am a kohen. And, I am the father of a daughter.

As the Rabbi of the congregation, I serve as mara d’atra, literally “master of the place.” I have the responsibility to decide on questions of Jewish law and ritual practice. The Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards, the CJLS, is a Conservative institution that addresses questions of halakhah, Jewish law. A local mara d’atra can rely upon a decision of the CJLS for their own community.

The CJLS, in a 1989 teshuvah written by Rabbi Joel Roth, approved extending the first and second aliyot to daughters of kohanim and leviim. I will explain the reasoning behind that decision in a few minutes.

I should add as well that there are CJLS teshuvot that allow for a congregation to dispense entirely with the kohen, levi, yisrael system. Many Conservative synagogues follow that practice.

As a kohen, I have had many significant religious experiences over the years in synagogues and communities around the world. It is an important part of my family identity, passed down by my father. Needless to say, I am called up to the Torah a lot, probably receiving more than 50% of all first aliyot at Sinai.

As for the answer to whether Sinai will call up a bat kohen for the first aliyah, I will have to be able to look my daughter in the eye and explain my decision.

You already know my answer. We are expanding our practice to call for the first and second aliyah anyone, regardless of gender, whose father is a kohen or a levi.

Before I start to explain why, I want to be clear about a few points. We are talking only about being called up for the first two aliyot. Questions around women’s involvement in Jewish ritual are not a single halakhic issue. Counting in a minyan, leading services, chanting Torah and Haftarah – each of these has been dealt with independently. Further, the priestly and levitical lines are passed only through the father. This decision does not apply to birkat kohanim, the Priestly Blessing. That is a separate issue which could potentially be dealt with at another time.

I would like to make one additional comment. Ritual is extremely personal. The prayers we recite, the melodies we sing, how we conduct services— these evoke strong feelings.

A change in any long-held practice can be difficult. Let’s keep in mind that every ritual that feels to us like it is mi-sinai – going all the way back to Mt. Sinai, actually started in a particular place by a specific person.

There was once a first Shabbat when someone thought it would be a good idea to read the Torah in public. There was a first time when someone said a blessing before that reading. There was one Shabbat when a person decided to divide the reading up into seven parts. Someone once thought it would be a good idea to honor people in the community with each of those readings.

There was a first time when a woman was called up to the Torah, which, by the way, occurred many centuries ago. There was a first Shabbat here at Congregation Sinai when a woman was called to the Torah.

Every time such an innovation occurred, it replaced a practice that preceded it. And you can be sure that there was always someone who was uncomfortable with that change.

The other thing I would like to mention is that some practices which might seem to be quite ancient are actually relatively recent innovations in Judaism.

So, why do the first and second aliyot go to Kohanim and Leviim?

The Mishnah, dating from the second century in the land of Israel, states the following:

These are the matters [that the Sages] instituted on account of the ways of peace: a priest reads first, and after him a Levite, and after him an Israelite, on account of the ways of peace…

Mishnah Gittin 5:8

This is the earliest description of the practice of kohen, levi, yisrael. A few questions arise. First of all, why? This tradition almost certainly reflects an innovation that developed after the destruction of the Second Temple, when kohanim and leviim were unable to perform their sacred responsibilities.

Second, what does the expression “on account of the ways of peace” — mipnei darkhei shalom — mean?

The Gemara addresses the first question by offering several alternative biblical verses as the imputed origin of the practice. The fourth verse suggested is by Rabbi Chiya bar Abba, who posits a verse from this morning’s Torah portion, parashat Emor

and you must treat him as holy, since he offers the food of your God; he shall be holy to you, for I, the Lord, who sanctify you am holy.

According to Rabbi Chiya, this means that in any matter of sanctity, a kohen should go first.

A Sage from the school of Rabbi Yishmael derives from this instruction to treat the kohen as holy that he should be accorded with the honor of speaking first in the study hall, leading the birkat hamazon, the grace after meals, and serving himself first at a meal.

What is the nature of this holiness which merits such special treament? There are essentially two possibilities. Either, they derive from the special sacrificial responsibilities of a kohen. Or, kohanim have a general sanctity independent of their duties in the Temple.

If it is based on their ritual duties, than we would expect that a kohen who was unable to perform those duties would not be eligible to receive these special honors. Specifically, this morning’s parashah states that kohen who has a physical defect, such as someone who is blind, or lame, or has a limb that is too short or too long, or a broken arm or leg, or a hunchback, a growth in his eye, and so on. A kohen with any of these physical disabilities is unqualified to participate in the Temple rituals. To even enter the sacred precincts would profane them.

If the privileges specified in the Talmud, such as receiving the first aliyah, derive from the kohen’s eligibility to perform the Temple service, than we would expect a physical disability to disqualify him from receiving the first aliyah as well.

But the Torah specifies that he is able to eat from kodashim, from sanctified food which is a perquisite of the kohanim. So he would seem to have some degree of inherent kedushah that is independent of his fitness to serve.

Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, a mid-twentieth century Orthodox Rabbi, ruled in the case of a kohen who received a disfiguring injury in the Holocaust was eligible to receive the first aliyah. He concludes that

the elements of priestly prerogative are not contingent upon his serving at the altar at all, and even where a priest is not entitled to serve at the altar, as a [disfigured priest], he nonetheless retains the sanctity of the priesthood, and the verse “he shall be holy” applies to him.

Rabbi Oshry concludes that kohanim receive the first aliyah due to their inherent sanctity.

Now back to the Mishnah. It indicates that the kohen should read from the Torah first “on account of the ways of peace.” What are these “ways of peace?”

Originally a kohen could forego his right to the first aliyah in favor of it going to a great sage or other dignified person. What you could imagine happening happened. People started to quarrel over who merited receiving the kohen‘s giving up the first aliyah. “Why did he allow this guy and not me?”

So the Sages enacted a ruling to prohibit a kohen from ever giving it up. The first aliyah must go to a kohen to prevent fights from breaking out in shul. (Incidentally, there were many times over the centuries when Rabbis agreed to find a way around this requirement – often for fundraising purposes.)

Finally, we come to b’not kohen – daughters of priests.

Do daughters of kohanim have any sanctity, and if so, what is the nature of that sanctity? While there was no ritual role played by the daughters of kohanim in the Temple, perhaps they have some degree of inherent sanctity. And if so, does that sanctity accrue to them only when they are in their father’s household, or does it remain with them after they are married?

In his teshuvah, Rabbi Roth points to three areas in Jewish law in which daughters of kohanim retain their rights even when they are no longer living in their fathers’ households. In other words, does a kohen’s daughter become a regular Israelite after she gets married?

One of the perquisites of the priesthood was the right to eat Terumah, a kind of Temple tax that Israelites gave. Remember, kohanim could not own land, so they relied upon farmers for their sustenance. Terumah is in a status called hekdesh, sanctified, and can only be eaten by kohanim and their households. If someone else consumes hekdesh, they have to pay for what they ate, plus a penalty.

When a bat kohen marries an Israelite, she loses her right to eat Terumah. If she does so inadvertently, however, the Mishnah clarifies that she does not pay the penalty that an Israelite would have to pay. Why not? This morning’s Torah portion states “no stranger may eat the sacred food.” Since she is not a ‘stranger’ to Terumah, she does not have to pay the penalty. (Sifra Emor 6:2)

Another perquisite of kohanim were the matanot kehunah, the gifts for the priests. According to the Talmud, a bat kohen retains her rights to eat these gifts even after she gets married and leaves her father’s household. (Rashi on BT CHullin 131b)

The final case speaks of both daughters of kohanim and leviim. According to the Torah, a first-born male child belongs to God. It must, therefore, be bought back, or redeemed, by God’s representative, a kohen. This occurs during a ceremony called pidyon haben. Parents give five silver shekels to a priest on the thirtieth day if their first-born child is a boy. There are exceptions. The son of a kohen, a levi, a bat kohen, and a bat levi do not have to be redeemed.

A Talmudic Sage explicitly ties this exemption to the actual womb of the mother. Exodus states, “whatever opens the womb among the children Israel.” In other words, there is something inherently holy about the womb of a bat levi and a bat kohen.

On a related note, a Talmudic anecdote refers to the Israelite husband of a bat kohen who regularly accepted the five silver coins for pidyon haben on account of his wife’s status. (Tosafot on BT Pesachim 49a)

These are three examples of ways in which a bat kohen has inherent sanctity that is not limited to when she is under her father’s household.

So if the approximately two thousand year old tradition of the first aliyah going to a kohen is based on the inherent sanctity of a kohen, independent of his service in the Temple, and if a bat kohen also has a measure of inherent sanctity, there are grounds for an egalitarian service to include any child of a kohen for the first aliyah.

But should we?

Historically, questions such as these have been difficult for Congregation Sinai. I arrived here shortly after the community decided to become egalitarian. Part of that decision, as many of you know, involved a compromise whereby our liturgy retained many of the elements of a traditional service while including women in the minyan and in leadership. The resulting traditional egalitarian service was one of the things that drew me to Congregation Sinai.

These are important values for me. Sometimes, a conflict arises between values. 

There have been incredible advances in gender equity. While not all the way there, we do not tolerate, by law or by accepted social norms, discrimination on the basis of gender in the workplace, in politics, or in society. Denying a person a job or advancement because of their gender is not only illegal, we now understand it to be wrong and immoral.

Today, a religion that does not give women the same opportunities as men must deal with a dilemma: Why do we accept something in our house of worship that would be intolerable out in the world? Any community that holds on to non-egalitarian practices must have an answer to that question.

That answer will be acceptable for some folks, and will most certainly be disappointing to others.

In the context of our practices at Congregation Sinai, the question of calling up the daughter of a kohen or levi for the first two aliyot is a really minor issue. It affects an incredibly small portion of our membership, and does not involve any change in our liturgy. It is now many years that we have called up men and women equally to the Torah.  

That is why I have decided, as the Rabbi of Congregation Sinai, that we will begin to call up daughters of kohanim and leviim for the first two aliyot during services. This brings us in line with the practices in a majority of Conservative synagogues.

This ruling applies to any person born Jewish whose father is a kohen. Like b’nei kohanim, A bat kohen cannot received aliyot two through seven, and like b’nei leviim, a bat Levi cannot receive the first aliyah, nor aliyot three through seven.

Lo Ta’ashok – Do Not Oppress Your Fellow – Kedoshim 5782

Parashat Kedoshim opens with the command, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, and holy. Followed are mitzvot, positive and negative commandments, that define for us what that path of holiness looks like. Included are many ethical imperatives relating to the way we treat one another in daily life.

Kedoshim recognizes that we live in a broken world. There is social and economic inequality, people who behave dishonestly, and loads of selfishness and spite. Nevertheless, or perhaps even because of this brokenness, we have the capacity to be holy. Indeed, it might be the central religious imperative of the Torah.

Many of the commandments in Kedoshim are as urgent today as they have ever been. 

לֹֽא־תַעֲשֹׁ֥ק אֶת־רֵֽעֲךָ֖

וְלֹ֣א תִגְזֹ֑ל…

You shall not oppress your fellow

You shall not commit robbery…

Leviticus 19:13

These two commandments are juxtaposed in other places in the Torah as well. They are clearly a pair, but have their own distinct meanings. What is the difference between oppression and robbery?

In his Mishnah Torah, Maimonides differentiates them in opposite order. Gezel, robbery, is when a person takes another person’s property by force, whether I take it out of your hand, or enter your property, whether objects or animals. Even if I enter a field and eat the produce. This is all considered to be gezel – robbery.

Oshek, oppression, occurs when a person has something belonging to another person already in their possession, with the owner’s knowledge and consent, but then refuses to return it when called upon to do so. Maimonides gives examples such as a loan or wages. The rightful owner is unable to claim the property back because the possessor is dangerous or stubborn. Oppression, therefore, is when I already have in my possession something that belongs to someone else, but I refuse to return it.

A Talmudic Sage, Rav Chisda, illustrates oshek in the following way: I borrow money from you, and you knock on my door to collect it. I say, “Go away and come back tomorrow.” So you come back tomorrow, and again I say, “Go away and come back later.”  (BT Bava Metzia 111a)

Not only have I refused to give you what is rightfully yours. I have also wasted your time and added to your frustration.

A story is told in Midrash Mekhilta (Mishpatim 18) about two Rabbis who are captured by the Romans during the Hadriatic persecutions.

As they are being taken to their execution, Rabbi Shimon turns to Rabbi Yishmael and says: “Rebbi, my heart is faint, for I do not know why I am going to be killed.”

He is looking for theological meaning for his death.  He must have done something, he assumes. There must be some sin on his soul to explain his suffering and approaching death.

So Rabbi Yishmael asks him: “Did anyone ever come to you for judgment or a ruling and you kept them waiting while you finished your drink or put on your shoes, or got dressed? The Torah says “If afflict you afflict” (Ex. 22:22). It does not matter whether it is greater or lesser.

Realizing that, indeed, there have been times when he made those who came for counsel wait for him to fulfill his own needs, Rabbi Shimon is satisfied. “You have consoled me, Rebbi,” he replies to his teacher, as he continues on to his death.

This might not be a satisfactory explanation for you or I, but Rabbi Shimon is on a different level. This midrash understands oppression in terms of time. Valuing one’s own time more than another’s, withholding a service that another person is counting on, is considered a form of oppression.

Nechama Leibovitz shares an anecdote of when, in the 1930’s, the renowned labor leader Berl Katzenelson admonished officials from the Histadrut (the Labor Union), the Kupat Holim (the Health Service), and civil servants generally, for the malpractice of withholding service during official office hours. Apparently, there was a widespread practice of putting up “will be back soon” signs while the employees sat around drinking tea. This was disrespectful of the public’s time, a form of oppression, withholding services from people who needed them.

A passage in Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, laments that the victims of oppression are usually alone and powerless.

I further observed all the oppression that goes on under the sun: the tears of the oppressed, with none to comfort them; and the power of their oppressors—with none to comfort them.

Ecclesiastes 4:1

In his typical fatalistic way, the author does not condemn the oppressors, nor does he encourage his readers to act to lift up the oppressed. He is simply describing the way of the world. Thus it has always been, and thus it will continue to be.

The late eighteenth century Rabbi and early Enlightenment scholar, Naftali Hertz Weisel, connects the oppression described by Ecclesiastes to the commandment not to oppress one’s fellow. “Oppression,” he says,

is exercised by the strong against the weak, as in [and here he quotes the passage from Ecclesiastes,] “I further observed all the oppression that goes on under the sun: the tears of the oppressed, with none to comfort them; and the power of their oppressors—with none to comfort them.” This is the meaning of oppression throughout Scripture…

Let’s try to bring these ideas into the present. A mitzvah contained in the holiness code prohibits us from holding on to money or possessions that belong to another person. The Torah describes this as oshek, oppression. The Rabbis take this very seriously, and extend the mitzvah to include not only things, but time as well. I am not allowed to make someone wait who is counting on me. Recognized since ancient times, the victims of this kind of oppression are almost always the poor and the powerless. 

In the complex society and global economy in which we live today, navigating ‘the system’ is so much harder for some people than for others. Access to the resources which, in the modern era, are considered to be fundamental human rights, is not the same for everyone. This is true whether we are talking about a person’s ability to receive quality health care, reproductive services, or education; to obtain healthy food, breath clean air, and drink safe water.

לֹֽא־תַעֲשֹׁ֥ק אֶת־רֵֽעֲךָ֖ – “Do not oppress your fellow,” calls upon me to ask myself, what is in my possession, literally and figuratively, that ought to be available to my neighbor as well, regardless of wealth or status? 

Unknown Departures and Journeys – Pekudei 5782

Don Isaac Abarbanel was one of the most prominent Jews who ever lived. Born in 1437, he was an accomplished Torah scholar from a young age. He knew Latin, Greek, philosophy, astronomy, and mathematics. He was extremely adept at finance, and in 1471 he became the royal treasurer of Portugal in the court of Alphonso V. He would later hold the same position in the Spanish court of Ferdinand and Isabella, where he tried, unsuccessfully, to prevent the expulsion of Jews from Spain. In exile, he was later drafted to serve in the court of the King of Naples.

Abarbanel was also a regular teacher in synagogue, and a book of his commentaries to the Bible is based on his public lectures. One of his personal causes was securing the release of Jews who had been taken captive and held for ransom. I would like to read a letter that he wrote in 1472 to a friend of his, Yehiel of Pisa, a wealthy Italian Jew known for his philanthropy. 

In his letter, Abarbanel was referring to Jews in Morocco who had been taken captive by Portuguese slave traders. Sadly, this was not a rare occurence for Jews. 

Dear Yechiel of Pisa,

I would like to tell you about events that have taken place among the Jews of our region.

The King, long may he live, gathered some ships and sailors to travel to Africa, where he conquered territories and fought in the city of Arzila. Thank God, no Jews died, but two hundred and fifty were captured – men, women and children – and they are hungry, thirsty, naked and much in need.

When we saw the children of Zion sold as slaves and servants, we, the leaders of the Jewish community of Portugal, decided to call for their freedom and pay the ransom for their release.

Like the twelve tribes of Israel, we sent twelve emissaries, myself included, from city to city and country to country to take the children of Israel out of “ Egypt” and collect money to pay for their ransom.

Thus far, we have ransomed two hundred and twenty of the captives for a large sum of money – ten thousand gold coins. As all their property has been stolen and they lack clothing and food, we must provide for all their needs.

We have thirty prisoners yet to ransom, who have fallen into the hands of very harsh masters.

This is a brief account of the events that we have been struggling with day and night.

On hearing this, all Jews will be outraged and profoundly moved.

Yitzhak Ben Yehuda Abarbanel 

Coming to the rescue of Jews in need, wherever in the world they happen to be living, has always been considered a central religious obligation. Maimonides wrote that “there is no commandment greater than the ransom of prisoners.”

I do not know for certain whether Yehiel of Pisa responded to Abarbanel’s appeal for assistance, but I suspect he came through. Yehiel died in 1492, and his fortune was spent aiding Jews who had been expelled from Spain that same year.

As a people, we know about being forced to leave our homes and journey to often unknown lands. Most of the people in this room have stories in your family history, if you yourself did not personally experience such upheaval. Such stories go back our foundations as a people.

The Book of Exodus concludes with this morning’s Torah portion, Pekudei, as the Israelites complete the building of the Tabernacle.  Everything is set up properly, the structure itself along with the Holy of Holies. All of the furniture is brought in and put in place.

Finally, when all is completed, “the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.” We learn that whenever the cloud lifts, the Israelites know “to set out, on their various journeys.” But when it remains in place, it is an indication that they are to remain in place.

The final verse of the parashah, and the entire Book, summarizes this GPS – God Positioning System.

כִּי֩ עֲנַ֨ן יְהֹוָ֤ה עַֽל־הַמִּשְׁכָּן֙ יוֹמָ֔ם וְאֵ֕שׁ תִּהְיֶ֥ה לַ֖יְלָה בּ֑וֹ לְעֵינֵ֥י כׇל־בֵּֽית־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בְּכׇל־מַסְעֵיהֶֽם׃ 

For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys.

Exodus 40:37

Towards the end of the Book of Numbers, when the Israelites have nearly reached their final destination, Moses records all of the Israelites’ journeys over the previous forty years – specifying every stop along the way.

וַיִּכְתֹ֨ב מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶת־מוֹצָאֵיהֶ֛ם לְמַסְעֵיהֶ֖ם עַל־פִּ֣י יְהוָֹ֑ה וְאֵ֥לֶּה מַסְעֵיהֶ֖ם לְמוֹצָאֵיהֶם: 

Moses recorded their departures for their journeys as directed by the Lord. And these are their journeys, according to their departures. 

Numbers 33:2

Notice that the word order of “departures” – motza’eihem – and “journeys” – mas’eihem – switches.

The sixteenth century Italian Rabbi, Seforno, comments on these journeys. He explains that “sometimes the starting points were good places and the points for which they set out were bad ones, sometimes the opposite; in either case, the Israelites had no advance knowledge of when and where they were to travel—yet they never refused to go.” Seforno then explains that setting forth on a new journey and arriving at a new place are each difficult actions in and of themselves, something that he may have had personal knowledge about, as he spent part of his own life poor and on the road.

How true that is. It is hard to begin a new journey, to leave the place that you have known. It is all the more difficult when the destination is unknown. And arrival at someplace new does not mean the end of difficulties. Anyone who has had to immigrate to a new land knows this from personal experience.

Seforno’s insight is that the Israelites, despite such difficulties, were always willing to follow where God’s Presence directed them. And we know how difficult it was for them. Perhaps he is glossing over some of those challenging moments in the Torah when the Israelites longed to return to slavery in Egypt rather than face a dangerous and uncertain fate in the wilderness.

They had difficulty adjusting to new lands, new cultures and people with different practices and beliefs.

We are right now witnessing a human tragedy unfold in Ukraine.  As we pray here this morning, more than one million civilians, mostly women and children, have already become refugees in less than two weeks.  The UN is expecting that number to continue to rise many times over. So far, other European countries are accepting them, but there are long lines at the borders as people fleeing for their lives wait for their requests for asylum to be processed.

Meanwhile, countries and organizations have mobilized to ship humanitarian aid, food, clothing, temporary shelters, and medical supplies for the millions of people who are unable to leave or who have chosen to stay.

Of course, as we know, there are many Jews living in Ukraine, who are among those faced with the choice of staying or leaving. Just yesterday, 120 Jewish orphans in Odessa were able to be evacuated to after a harrowing bus journey through Moldova, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic on their way to Berlin.

Israel has already received over 1,500 refugees, around ten percent of whom are eligible for Israeli citizenship under the law of return. Ayelet Shaked, the Interior Minister, said that Israel is preparing to accept 100,000 refugees. And it has sent supplies and mobile hospital units.

If there is one mitzvah that the State of Israel embraces wholedheartedly, which brings together Jews of all political stripes and religious perspectives, it is the redemption of captive Jews. Indeed, this was one of the primary motivations that has and continues to drive Zionism.

We are far away, and it would be easy to not let this refugee crisis affect us. But I urge us not to ignore it. Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh LaZeh – All of Israel are interdependent on one another.

The easiest way to help is exactly the same as what Abarbanel asked of Yechiel of Pisa. It is our religious duty to help fund the relief and rescue efforts. There are many ways to do so. The APJCC is collecting new items. There is a list, so please check it first. You can donate money to many organizations that are supporting or are actively working on the ground. Some include United Hatzalah, Israaid, The Schechter Institute, and others. 

We continue now with a prayer for peace.

1200 Years of Jews in Ukraine

I have been thinking a lot about my grandmother this week. Baba Fania, zikhra livracha, was born in a city called Kamenets-Podolsk, in Ukraine.  She moved with her family to Kremenchug when she was a girl.

Her father died when she was young, so she and her sisters were left to be raised by her mother, my great grandmother, Chana. It was the 1930’s and so she received a good Soviet education, in Yiddish. She came home one day and told her mother that there was no God. Her mother smacked her, and declared emphatically, “I don’t care what they are telling you out there.  In this house, there is a God.”

As I was eating challah last night, I was thinking of a story that she told.  At times, they could not get any eggs. In order to get the golden color, they would take used tea bags and brush them over the dough.

My Baba escaped from Ukraine in 1941, just before the Nazis came into town. Her sisters and mother did not make it out, and were murdered along with the rest of her family. Dana and I named our son after my grandmother’s cousin, who died in the Holocaust.

Over the last several days, as we have observed the tragedy unfolding in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I have been thinking a lot about my Baba Fania. I have never been to Ukraine, but it is has felt very personal to me. I know that I must have distant relatives there, who are surely fearing for their lives.  I do not know how far back my own family’s history extends, but for sure it is many centuries. 

The history of Jews in Ukraine is a long one, and has gone through dramatic ups and downs, often at the same time.

Jews first arrived in Ukraine in the eighth century as refugees fleeing from the Byzantine Empire, Persia, and Mesopotamia. The earliest written reference to Jews in Galicia, Western Ukraine, is from 1030 CE.

Some time in the centuries that followed, the territory that is today modern Ukraine was taken over by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. As part of their administration, they would settle wealthy Polish Catholic nobles in Ukraine, and then encourage Jews to immigrate and serve as merchants. Jewish life prospered financially and culturally, and the population grew.

As might be expected, the local Ukrainian population, which was Eastern Orthodox, was kept in serfdom.

Resentment grew until, in 1648, as the Kingdom faced growing internal and external threats, Bogdan Chmelnytsky launched a Cossack rebellion. This led in 1651 to the incorporation of Ukraine by the Russian Tsar as a protectorate.

The Chmelnytsky revolt was devastating. Blaming the Poles for selling them “as slaves into the hands of the accursed Jews,” the Ukrainian Cossacks and Crimean Tatars murdered between fifteen and thirty thousand Jews and destroyed three hundred Jewish communities. The population declined dramatically, as many more Jews fled as refugees or died of disease and starvation.

But within a few decades, the tide would turn. The early 18th century saw the birth of Yisrael ben Eliezer, otherwise known as the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism. Heavily influenced by Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, Chasidism was incredibly popular and spread through much of Eastern Europe, making a huge and lasting impact on Ashkenazi Jewry.

By the end of the 18th century, the Russian Empire had completely annexed Ukraine, which created a problem, as Jews were not permitted to live in Russia. This led Catherine the Great to create the Pale of Settlement, which encompassed, among other areas, all of present day Ukraine.

Jewish life thrived through the eighteen hundreds, with the population growing and Jewish religious and cultural life expanding. At the same time, antisemitism was brutal. In 1881, Jews were falsely blamed for the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. With the encouragement of the authorities, pogroms were launched against Jewish communities throughout the Pale of Settlement, including in Ukraine. 

Tsar Alexander III introduced the May Laws in 1882 that imposed systematic discrimination against Jews, establishing quotas for educational and professional positions. This led to even more widespread poverty and mass emigration. The 1886 edict of Expulsion forced the removal of Jews living in Kyiv.

Another intense wave of pogroms in 1905 led to another wave of emigration. Multiple blood libels cases occurred between 1911 and 1913.

For context, this is the time period of Fiddler on the Roof. A lot of new ideas were spreading through Europe at this time, and Jews were attracted to some of the new ideologies that suggested an answer to the problems they were facing, that seemed to never go away. Jewish thinkers and revolutionaries were attracted to ideals of the enlightenment and internationalism. Jewish revolutionaries embraced socialism and became Communists. Others embraced Zionism, with many making aliyah to Palestine.

After World War One, during a short time period of 1917 to 1921, while the Russian Revloution was taking place, the Ukrainian People’s Republic presented a hopeful, albeit short-lived, moment for Jews. It was an independent socialist state that emerged in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution.  Yiddish was an official language, even appearing on currency. All government posts and institutions had Jewish members and all rights of Jewish culture were guaranteed. It was the first government to establish a Ministry for Jewish Affairs.

But the backlash was severe. Anti-communist Ukrainian nationalists went to war against the Soviets, and in the process killed approximately one hundred thousand Jews in pogroms between 1918 and 1921.

By 1921, Ukraine had been conquered by the Soviets, becoming one of its republics. The 1920’s saw brutal efforts to eliminate Jewish religion and leave it with only a secular cultural identity, explaining why my grandmother learned in Yiddish that there was no God.

The Holocaust was devastating. More than one million Jews were murdered by the Nazis and many Ukrainian collaborators.

In 1941, there were 2.7 million Jews living in Ukraine. In 1959, that number was 840,000. By 1989, there were less than 500,000 Jews living in Ukraine.

Ukraine gained its independence in 1991, and this led to continued changes in the situation for Jews living there. Hundreds of thousands of Jews emigrated, most making aliyah to Israel.

At the same time, throughout the 1990’s, Jewish life began to reemerge. There was a lot of interest from Jewish communities in Israel and the West to support Ukrainian Jews and help them come back. The government has returned dozens of old synagogues and other buildings to the Jewish community which had been confiscated by the Nazis and the Soviets.

While antisemitism seems to have declined in the past thirty years, there have certainly been many instances of antisemitic attacks.  A far right Ukrainian nationalist party gained more than ten percent of the popular vote in 2012. On the other hand, last year, in 2021, the Ukrainian Parliament adopted a new law defining antisemitism and providing compensation for victims.

Attempts to determine the number of Jews currently living in Ukraine are wildly varying. Questions of Jewish identity, after 70 years of Soviet suppression, make it difficult. A 2020 census estimated 43,000 self-identifying Jews, but 200,000 would qualify for aliyah under the Law of Return. The European Jewish Congress claims that there could be as many as four hundred thousand people with Jewish ancestry in Ukraine.

Most Jews live in the cities Kyiv, Dnipro, Kharkiv, and Odessa. Those who live in villages tend to be elderly, and extremely poor. There are multiple synagogues, Hebrew schools, day schools, mikvaot, kosher restaurants, and six Jewish community centers. There are Jewish summer camps, which were able to resume this past summer after closing for Covid restrictions.

Ten Jewish newspapers are published in Kyiv alone, four of which have circulations of more than ten thousand. A weekly television program, Yahad, is shown on state television.

Most of these Jewish institutions are run by Chabad-Lubavitch. The Reform movement is active in 20 cities.

The Conservative movement has also been active in Ukraine since independence. Through Masorti Olami, the global branch of the Conservative Movement, Ramah, and the Shechter Institute in Jerusalem, it runs programs supporting communities in multiple cities. It sponsors youth groups, and has been operated a Camp Ramah since the early 1990’s. There are several Masorti Rabbis serving Ukrainian communities.

Right now, some members of the Ukrainian Jewish community are fleeing to the West.  Others are staying where they are, praying for peace and trying to survive. Not surprisingly, the Jewish Agency is receiving many inquiries lately about making aliyah.

And of course, we must mention Volodymyr Zelensky, who was elected President of Ukraine in 2019 with 73% of the vote. Zelensky is Jewish and the descendant of Holocaust survivors. At the time of his election, the Prime Minister of Ukraine happened to be Volodymyr Groysman, who is also Jewish. For a few months, Ukraine was the only country in the world other than Israel with a Jewish President and Prime Minister.

I encourage you to watch President Zelensky’s passionate appeal for peace to the people of Russia right before the invasion. I also encourage you to watch the forty second selfie video that he took with other members of his government on the streets of Kyiv Friday night as the city was preparing for being attacked. He insisted that they are not going anywhere. If you have not seen them, I encourage you to do so. And keep in mind the long history of Jews in Ukraine. To see the Jewish President of Ukraine speaking so courageously on behalf of all Ukrainians is astounding. It gave me chills to watch it. After over a thousand years, with all of its ups and downs, to see this, someone courageously standing up in the face of brutality and such danger is incredible.

If you have the capacity to do so, there are organizations that are trying to support people in Ukraine who are fleeing, and there will certainly be a tremendous need to support refugees in the months ahead.

I made a donation yesterday to Masorti Olami. The immediate cause they were trying to support was a group of one hundred fifty children who had fled to Lviv, in Western Ukraine.

I would like to close with a prayer for peace that was delivered at a service hosted by the Masorti movement on Thursday night. 

An Eye for an Eye and Our Shared Humanity – Mishpatim 5782

For the past few months, I have participated in an interfaith Bible study group, with several other Rabbis, Pastors, Priests and Teachers.

Our learning is based on a book called The Bible with and without Jesus, by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler. The basic premise is that both Judaism and Christianity rely upon the same sacred Hebrew Scriptures, but interpret and implement them very differently.

These differing interpretations have led to deep misunderstandings over the centuries and have served as the basis for many of the classic antisemitic tropes of the past millenia.

As luck would have it, it was my turn to co-facilitate our discussion this past week, with the chapter in the book that we discussed coming from this morning’s Torah portion.

Before I get to that, I’d like to share a conversation I had with my daughter Noa a few days ago.  We were discussing the term the “Judeo-Christian Tradition” and trying to understand what it actually meant. From her perspective, whenever she heard the term, it did not really reflect her own experience and understanding of Judaism; and I have to say that I agreed with her.

What does it mean? It implies that there is a core set of shared values introduced by Judaism and then extended by Christianity. These values serve as the foundation of Western ethics.

But I had no clue where the expression comes from.

Enter Rabbi Wikipedia.

The first ever reference appeared in an 1821 letter and referred to Jews who had converted to Christianity. An 1829 reference used it to descrive a Church that had deliberately embraced some Jewish rituals so that it would better appeal to Jews. That’s not very good for us.

The earliest reference in something like the way we understand it today seems to have been in 1939. George Orwell referred to “the Judaeo-Christian scheme of morals.” This followed a lot of work that had taken place in the 1930’s to emphasize common ground between Christians and Jews so as to combat antisemitism and anti-Catholicism in the United States. 

The term gradually morphed into political use during the Cold War to contrast the ethics-based system of Western democracies with Communism. 

In 1952, President Eisenhower, one month before his inauguration, became the first President to invoke the term when he said, extemporaneously,

[The Founding Fathers said] ‘we hold that all men are endowed by their Creator … ‘ In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion with all men created equal.

One of my problems with the term is that it tends to over-emphasize shared values without recognizing that, in fact, there are some pretty profound differences. For example, it might focus on shared central texts like the Ten Commandments without acknowledging how differently each of our traditions might consider them.

In our group, we are learning how our respective traditions understand the same texts through completely different lenses.  Often, the Christian interpretation and the Rabbinic interpretations of central passages in the Hebrew Bible are in direct contradiction of one another.

Learning together, and openly addressing some of the passages that have historically been kind of thorny, has been a great way to increase mutual understanding as well as learn more about our own tradition.

Now we turn to this week’s Torah portion.  Among the many laws presented in Parashat Mishpatim, we encounter this one. Don’t get distracted by the first part.

When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

Exodus 21:22-26

This is a strange combination of legal principles. We start with a discussion of an accidentally, but violently, induced miscarriage. Then, we are suddenly talking about “life for life, eye for eye,” and so on.

There are two other occasions in the Torah in which the “eye for an eye” principle appears.  Once in Leviticus, and again in Deuteronomy. Both of them appear in different contexts. This leads us to assume that, when it came to personal injury cases, this was a governing legal principle in ancient Israel.

This legal principle is referred to in Latin as Lex Talionis, which means “law of retaliation.” talionis – retaliation

At first glance, to modern readers, this might seem bloodthirsty and vengeful. Indeed, it has been used as justification for antisemitism for millenia. Jews are overly focused on law rather than mercy. Think of the character of Shylock in the Merchant of Venice demanding his pound of flesh. 

But the truth is quite the opposite.

To gain some understanding of what this principle meant, we need to consider the society in which it came to be, and also consider how Jewish tradition has understood and applied it.

The oldest human record we have dates back to the 18th century BCE Babylonian Code of Hammurabi.  Hammurabi establishes an underlying principle of proportionality, the purpose of which was to ensure, first of all, that retaliation did not get out of hand, and secondly, that a higher class perpetrator did not get off scot-free. The innovation here is that the state took upon itself the authority to regulate and standardize payments for injuries.

In a world in which the blood feud is so tempting—think the Montagues vs. the Capulets—an “eye for an eye” limits retaliation to only an “eye for an eye.”

Here are a few examples from the Code of Hammurabi:

If an awilu, an upper-class free person should blind the eye of another awilu, they shall blind his eye.

If he should break the bone of another awilu, they shall break his bone.

If he should blind the eye of a commoner or break the bone of a commoner, he shall weigh an deliver one-half of his value (in silver).

The Torah takes this a step further.  It does not draw any distinction between the poor and the wealthy.  In Leviticus, it is clear that it applies to Israelite citizens and resident aliens alike. The law of proportionality applies equally to all. This is consistent with the Torah’s general concern with the dignity of the human being, made in God’s image.

Think of the numerous times in which the Torah forbids favoring one side over the other in a court case, or warnings against judges taking bribes, or having a single law that is administered fairly to everyone.

An eye for an eye was an incredibly egalitarian innovation—we could say improvement—over the Code of Hammurabi.

What we do not know is how an “eye for an eye” was actually practiced in ancient Israel. Was it taken literally, as in if I poked your eye out than you would poke my eye out; or was it figurative, as in if I poked your eye out, I had to pay you the value of your eye in compensation?

We just do not have any evidence, and the Bible does not include any examples of it being implemented in practice. For a religion that put such a high value on human dignity, emphasizing that every human being was created in God’s image, it does seem hard to believe that the legal system would intentionally cause the defacement of the human form.

The Rabbis of the Talmud, however, tell us exactly how they understand an “eye for an eye”: it means monetary payment. 

The Talmud goes to great lengths to demonstrate that the Torah itself, when it requires an eye for an eye, means the value of an eye rather than the actual eye itself.

It goes through many creative midrashic attempts to prove it, but then finds cause to reject each of them in turn.  In the end, there is no conclusive proof, but of course that does not prevent the Rabbis of the Talmud from interpreting it in this way.

In the course of their discussions, they raise numerous practical and ethical problems with a literal interpretation. For example, they imagine a case in which someone who is blind causes another person to become blind. Or someone missing a limb causes another person to lose a limb. How could we then fulfill the Torah’s literal principle of “an eye for an eye?”

Furthermore, what good does it do the injured party to have their attacker lose and eye or a limb?  It does not help the victim’s situation at all other than possibly satisfying some urge for vengeance.

The Mishnah establishes, again based on close, creative textual reading, that a person who injures another is liable for five categories of damages:

  1. the injury itself
  2. pain and suffering
  3. medical costs
  4. loss of income
  5. the indignity or embarrassment that the injury caused

Because the injury cannot be taken back, monetary compensation is the best that can be done. For better or for worse, it is how human beings assign value. 

Rather than being an overly legalistic, merciless application of justice, “an eye for an eye” was a major step forward, in practice, of upholding the equal dignity of every human being.

The Rabbis’ wisdom was in understanding that every person’s situation is different, and we must do the best we can to pursue justice at every opportunity, recognizing that we are imperfect, but faithful in the belief that, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, whose birthday we celebrated a couple of weeks ago, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Being able to speak with each other honestly about where our differences in interpretation are might lead us to find, not necessarily common ground in how we understand these texts, but common ground in our shared humanity.

Iron in the Shul (After Colleyville) – Yitro 5782

I had the opportunity to learn, earlier this week, from other Conservative Rabbis, which helped me process last week’s hostage taking at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. Some of what I am going to say this morning was inspired by what I learned from my colleagues.

One thing that I want to say from the outset is that there are a lot of really smart and insightful people who have a lot to say about these specific attack, as well as larger trends in antisemitism here in the United States and around the world. I am sure that you have read and heard a lot that you have found to be educational and meaningful.

I cannot hope to match the expertise of others in our Jewish community who specialize in these areas, nor is that my goal. All I can do is speak from my one particular vantage point as the Rabbi of Congregation Sinai.

A hostage crisis during Shabbat services is just about the scariest thing that I can imagine. It is a horrible scenario that has occupied my mind on many occasions over the years. To hear about it happening last weekend, especially with the prominent, courageous role played by Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, really hit home for me.

It makes me sad, scared, and angry that we have to deal with such things. I don’t think there are any faith groups in the United States that have had to institute such stringent security measures at their houses of worship. It is not something that we should have to do. Simply put, it is not fair, and the need to do so directly contradicts the purpose of a synagogue.

At the end of Parashat Yitro, God delivers a few more commandments to the Israelites through Moses. One stands out. Here is the translation from our Etz Hayim Chumash:

If you make for me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones;

כִּי חַרְבְּךָ הֵנַפְתָּ עָלֶיהָ וַתְּחַלְלֶהָ

for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned them.

Exodus 20:22

The actual Hebrew word that has been translated “tool” is charb’kha, which actually means “your sword.”

The Mekhilta, an ancient midrash collection, quotes Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar.

The altar was created to lengthen a person’s years, but iron to shorten them. [Iron is the material of weaponry and killing.] It is not appropriate for that which shortens life to be wielded upon that which lengthens life!

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai then draws a connection between the altar and peace.   In a passage parallel to our verse, Deuteronomy instructs

אֲבָנִ֤ים שְׁלֵמוֹת֙ תִּבְנֶ֔ה אֶת־מִזְבַּ֖ח ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶ֑יךָ

With whole stones shall you build the altar of the Lord your God.

Deuteronomy 27:6

Noting the word sheleimot – “whole,” Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai states that these stones of the altar produce shalom – “peace.”  Then he takes it a step further. 

If these stones of the altar, which neither see, nor hear, nor speak, can create peace between the Jewish people and the Holy Blessed One, what about a person who fosters peace between a husband and wife, between one city and the next, between one nation and another, between one government and another government, between one family and another family – how much the more so will such a person not suffer adversity.

Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 20:22:1-2

It was during Yohanan ben Zakai’s lifetime that the synagogue replaced the altar as the central location for Jewish worship. But it retained the same essential function. The subject of all our prayers, at a fundamental level, is shalom – “peace,” or “wholeness.” It is what we gather in synagogue for, and it is what we should strive for in our personal lives.

The midrash recognizes that there is something symbolically perverse about mixing stone and iron. The altar, and its replacement, the synagogue, should not require the sword to perform its primary function of fostering peace.

But ideals meat reality. We have a security guard at the gate every Shabbat. Our synagogue courtyard is surrounded by black iron bars. We have a sophisticated CCTV system, panic buttons all over our campus, and fancy bulletproof films covering the windows. We hold an Emergency Preparedness Shabbat just about every year during which we actually evacuate the synagogue in the middle of services under the supervision of the San Jose Police Department.

Our synagogue, this house of peace, is not just figuratively hewn from iron, it is covered in it. To protect our sanctuary, we must profane it.

What a sad and unfortunate reality. This is not a subject in which I expected to gain expertise when I decided to become a Rabbi, nor is it one in which I received any training. But it is one which, by necessity, I —we all — have had to reluctantly embrace.  What a steep price we pay.  

Yes, there are financial costs, but the more significant price is spiritual. Nobody should have to fear for their physical safety when they come to shul to pray. Parents should not have to think twice about sending their children to Religious School.  

For years, when I come into this room, I think about escape routes. I look around and try to identify what I could use as a weapon. In a synagogue!

I am done with my harangue.

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker did two really important things last Shabbat: he served tea, and he threw a chair.

You have probably heard the story by now. A man, apparently homeless, showed up on Shabbat morning a few minutes before the start of services. It was cold outside, and he seemed to be seeking a place to warm up. The Rabbi welcomed him warmly, made him a cup of tea, and introduced him to the President of the congregation. At the time, there was no evidence that he posed a threat.

As soon as services began, however, the stranger pulled out a gun, and thus began an eleven hour hostage ordeal.

Towards the end, as he became increasingly agitated, Rabbi Cytron-Walker saw an opportunity.  He indicated to the two other congregants who were being held that they should be ready to attempt an escape. At a moment when the hostage taker seemed distracted, he threw a chair at him and the three of them quickly escaped.

An act of compassion and kindness, and an act of courage and, frankly, violence. Both acts should inspire us. We can look to two biblical women, both non-Israelites, whose stories model similar behaviors.

In the Book of Ruth, after her husband, brother-in-law, and father-in-law all die, Ruth binds herself and her fate to Naomi, her mother-in-law.  They return from Moab to Bethlehem, arriving destitute at the beginning of the barley harvest.

As chapter two opens, Ruth informs Naomi, “I would like to go to the fields and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone who may show me kindness.”  (Ruth 2:2)

What does this simple statement reveal? That Ruth, a Moabitess, knows that this place, where she has never set foot, is one in which a poor, foreign woman can go harvest for herself on a field belonging to another. The Book of Ruth does not mention the Torah’s obligation to leave the corners of the fields unharvested, among other mitzvot pertaining to tzedakah.

The details of the laws are beside the point. What matters is reputation. These people of Bethlehem are known to practice kindness, so when Ruth declares her intention, Naomi responds “Yes, daughter, go.”

Being compassionate, opening up our doors to let the stranger in, makes us vulnerable. Letting a stranger into our shul is a risk. That is why behaving with compassion is an act of faith, but would we prefer a Judaism which did not welcome the stranger? What would we be if we put up barriers that kept everyone else out?

Of course, evil exists. We cannot be so naive as to think that there are not those who hate us simply for being Jews.  Last weekend was the third violent attack in a synagogue on Shabbat in America in just over three years.  There have been six deadly antisemitic attacks in the United States since 2016.

According to FBI statistics, over the last several years Jews have been the targets of around 12% of all hate crimes.  Nearly two thirds of religion-based hate crimes have targeted Jews.  And we are less than two percent of the overall population.

Antisemitism is real and growing. It is not confined to a particular political ideology. Those who hate us for being Jewish do not care whether we are Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox, Democrats or Republicans. Our preparation and readiness are not misplaced.

This brings us to our second non-Israelite heroine.

Last Shabbat, while our fellow Jews were being held hostage, we read in the Haftarah about Yael. The Canaanite King Jabin had subjugated the Israelites for the past twenty years, with Sisera serving as the commander of his troops. Under the spiritual guidance and encouragement of the Chieftain Deborah, Barak leads the Israelites into victorious battle against Sisera with his nine hundred iron chariots. 

The Canaanite General flees, seeking refuge in the tent of Yael, wife of Heber the Kenite.  She offers him hospitality, feeds him, gives him milk to drink, and covers him with blankets so that he can fall asleep. Then she takes a tent peg and drives it with a hammer through his skull into the ground. In her victory song, Deborah praises this heroine.

Most blessed of women be Jael,
Wife of Heber the Kenite,
Most blessed of women in tents.

He asked for water, she offered milk;
In a princely bowl she brought him curds.

Her [left] hand reached for the tent pin,
Her right for the workmen’s hammer.
She struck Sisera, crushed his head,
Smashed and pierced his temple.

At her feet he sank, lay outstretched,
At her feet he sank, lay still;
Where he sank, there he lay—destroyed.

Judges 5:24:27

Ours is not a tradition that would have us be passive when threatened or attacked. Judaism recognizes that evil exists, and that we have a duty to fight it, that there are those who hate us, and that we must defend ourselves. Sometimes that means we must use force.

This is the uncomfortable place in which we find ourselves. How do we embrace a message of hope and peace, of compassion and openness, while also protecting ourselves from the very real threats that exist?

We cannot afford to simplistically think that there is a satisfying answer out there, if only we can find it.  The Jewish people knows that the world is messy, that human beings are imperfect and often unreliable. That our loftiest ideals have a tendency to slam into disappointing reality.

I come back to our name as a people, the name given to Jacob after he wrestles with the unnamed angel.  Yisrael – for you have striven with beings Divine and human and stayed in the game. That is who we are, and who we must continue to be.

We pray for a time when we can tear down all of the walls, remove the panic buttons and cancel the evacuation drills. In the meantime, we are Yisrael – the people who struggle. We remain committed to each other, to acting with compassion and kindness, to keeping each other safe, and to pursuing shalom in our prayers and our deeds.

Think for a moment: what are the last two words that we recite at the end of every Shabbat morning service?

At the end of Adon Olam, which we typically invite our children to lead, the final words are v’lo ira, words are aspirational and declarative: “I will not be afraid.”

Why is Pharaoh’s Court Happy? – Vayigash 5782

Parashat Vayigash continues the story of Joseph and his brothers. While Joseph recognizes his brothers when they first appear in his court in Egypt, he only reveals himself to them after he is reassured by the sincerity of their teshuvah. It is Judah’s passionate appeal for Benjamin’s life that pushes Joseph over the edge.

In a bewildering scene, he cries out to his Egyptian advisors, “Clear the room!” Then he begins sobbing so loudly that the Egyptians, now outside his chambers, can hear him.  Word even reaches Pharaoh.

It is only then that Joseph speaks, “I am Joseph your brother. Is my father still alive.”  They are shocked into speechlessness, sSo Joseph continues talking, informing his brothers that he is not going to punish them. Instead, he invites them to move with the entire family down to Egypt, where he will take care of them. He then embraces Benjamin and the others. It is a moving, emotional scene.

But suddenlty, the scan shifts, and the turns to what is going on outside the chamber. “The news reached Pharaoh’s palace: ‘Joseph’s brothers have come.’ Pharaoh and his courtiers were pleased.” 

Why? Why should they be so thrilled about this family reunion? Could it be that they really love Joseph, and they are just so happy for him?

I don’t think so. The Egyptian court is full of intrigue and duplicity. Remember Joseph’s first encounter was with the court wine steward and baker, who after doing something to displease Pharaoh are sent to prison. This is a place of scheming and backstabbing.

In fact, even though we hear numerous times that Joseph is second in Egypt only to Pharaoh, he is himself in a particularly precarious position. Think back to the moment when Joseph first gains his position.  He has just interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams as foretelling seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. He suggests appointing someone to stockpile the excess produce so that their will be enough to last through the years of scarcity.

Pharaoh and his court immediately recognize both the accuracy of Joseph’s dream interpretation and the wisdom of his plan. Rather than appointing Joseph on the spot, however, Pharaoh turns to the rest of the court and asks, “Could we find another like him?”

Why should Pharaoh have to even ask? He is Pharaoh, after all.

Because Joseph is a foreigner and a slave. Pharaoh astutely realizes that for Joseph to have any authority, the rest of the Egyptian court must be involved in his appointment. So he arranges a pro forma confirmation hearing.

Then Pharaoh tries to raise Joseph’s status. He gives him his royal robes and his signet ring. He places him in charge of the entire court and the entire land. He changes Joseph’s name to an Egyptian one, Tzafenat Paneach, and he gives him a high born wife, Asenat, the daughter of an Egyptian priest.

But it seems that the Egyptians never forget who Joseph is and where he comes from.

This brings us back to our question. Why are Pharaoh and the court so pleased when they learn of Joseph’s reunion with his brothers?

Nachmanides, the thirteenth century Spanish Rabbi, suggests that this news answers the question about Joseph’s station. From the perspective of the Egyptian court, Joseph rose to his exalted position from the lowest rungs of Egyptian society. He was literally an imprisoned slave. It can’t get much worse than that. 

How can such a low class person even step foot in the courtroom, much less rule?

With the arrival of the brothers, however, they discover Joseph’s pedigree. He comes from an honorable, respected family. Such an aristocrat is surely fit to appear in the royal court. “We can take orders from this guy,” they must have been thinking.

Pharaoh is overjoyed because it helps solidify Joseph’s position.

Sforno, a sixteenth century Italian rabbi, sees a different kind of bigotry informing the Egyptians’ response.  Until this moment, Joseph is suspected of not being fully loyal. As a foreigner, he cannot be trusted to always have Egypt’s best interests at heart.

Now that he has been reunited with his brothers and has inititated plans to move the entire family down to Egypt, Pharaoh and his court see Joseph as a citizen whose first loyalty is to the nation. They can trust his motives now that he is establishing roots.

According to both interpretations, the appearance of Joseph’s brothers resolves lingering questions in the Egyptian court as to Joseph’s bona fides, whether his low social status or his foreign origins.

As the story develops, however, the bigotry reemerges. When a new Pharaoh arises several generations later. The Israelites are still perceived as “other,” having grown so numerous that they now fill the land.

This Pharaoh resurrects the charge of disloyalty. “In the event of war,” he tells the court, “they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.” (Ex. 1:10) This provides the pretext by which to enslave the Israelites, or I suppose we could say, re-enslave them. 

Charges that Jews have dual loyalty or are of subhuman status are among the classic antisemitic tropes that persist to this day. As we see in the story of Joseph, they are nothing new. But even if the Egyptians never get to a point where they fully trust and accept the Israelites living among them, the Israelites themselves manage to stay united. This is the first generation in which the family stays together.

Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau – they went their separate ways. But the twelve sons of Jacob stick together. I would suggest that it was Judah’s courage, and Joseph’s willingness to forgive that made it happen. For both of them, it came from a deep, sincere belief that change was possible and that things could be better.

We have inherited that sincere belief. That is why we are still here, thousands of years later. It is the Jewish people’s belief that things can get better, that we can improve, that relationships can be fixed, that the world can become worthy of being saved. We are a fundamentally hopeful people, despite the many challenges that we have and continue to face.