Noah the Quirky Biologist – Noah 5780

I was blessed to be able to go on a short vacation this week to Hawaii.  We stayed on the island of Maui. The most memorable activity was hiking in the crater on top of Mount Haleakala, which stands at just over 10,000 feet above sea level.  Its extreme isolation, combined with its height, results in a unique ecosystem.  The terrain looks like Mars, and is almost as barren, except for one remarkable plant that grows only on Mount Haleakala.  It is called argyroxiphium sandwicense subsp. macrocephalum, otherwise known as the Haleakala Silversword.

Haleakala Silversword

The Haleakala Silversword grows only above 6,900 feet.  The plant is spherical.  It is comprised of spiny greenish, silvery leaves that are specially adapted to collect moisture and reflect sunlight to its base.  It grows in volcanic rock, and tolerates the freezing temperatures and high winds that buffet it.  

Haleakala Silversword after flowering

Here is the remarkable thing.  The Silversword grows very slowly, taking up to 50 years to reach its full size of 1.6 feet in diameter.  Then, in a period of just a few weeks, it sends a stalk of  hundreds of flowers shooting up to as high as 6.6 feet.  The flowers are pollinated by insects between June and September.  Then, having achieved its reproductive purpose, the plant withers and dies.

Isn’t nature amazing?  Good job God.

But then humans came along.  Climbers used to pick the plants so that they could bring down proof of having climbed to the summit.  Goats and cows, introduced to Hawaii by humans, were also eating up the slow-growing plant.  By the 1920’s, the Haleakala Silversword was nearly extinct.  

It was then that the National Park Service took over.  They fenced out the goats and cows and prohibited digging up the plants.  Through careful stewardship, Haleakala Silversword populations rebounded.  The Silversword can now be seen in abundance on the one place on earth that offers the perfect growing conditions.

In this morning’s Torah portion, God assigns a similar task to Noah. God tells Noah, “Noah, I’ve got a job for you.  Humanity has lost its way.  I wish I had never made them.  But what are you gonna do?  I’m sending a flood to destroy all life and give it a second shot.  I need you to build an ark.  Make it 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits high.  Give it three decks.  Put in a skylight.  Then, I want you, your wife, and your sons and their wives to gather a male and female of every species of animal that lives on land or in the air and bring them on board.  Don’t forget to pack food.  “

So Noah gets to work.

A cubit is about a foot and a half.  That means there was approximately 101,250 square feet of living space, which is just over 2.3 acres.  Eight people had to live there with all of those animals for a full 12 months. It must have really stunk.

Although the Torah does not describe it, imagine what life on the ark must have been like.  The Rabbis did. Numerous midrashim emphasize how attentive Noah was to the needs of all the animals.  He knew exactly what food each species required, and exactly when and how it needed to be fed.

He is like a quirky biologist who feels more at peace among the four legged, the furry, the scaled and the feathered than he does among his own kind.  Noah “gets” animals.  It is people with whom he cannot relate.  

One Rabbi claims that Noah, in addition to preserving animals, brings seed samples and saplings to ensure the survival of plant species.

Perhaps this is what the Torah means when it describes Noah as being righteous in his generation, and walking with God.  He, alone among humanity, has compassion for other creatures.

This is the kind of person that God needs right now.  God, who cares for all creatures, requires a servant who emulates this quality.  Noah is a kind of naturalist-conservationist.  He is the perfect man for the job.

One Talmudic Sage imagines a conversation between Abraham’s servant, Eliezer, and Shem, Noah’s eldest son.  (BT Sanhedrin 108b)  Eliezer asks Shem, “What was it like for you on the ark?”

“Oy, so much trouble we had.  Some animals like to eat in the daytime, so we had to feed them in the daytime.  Some animals eat at night, so we had to feed them at night.  And there was one animal, the chameleon—dad didn’t even know what it ate.  One day, he is sitting and cutting up a pomegranate.  Suddenly, a worm wriggles out.  The chameleon’s tongue shoots out of its mouth and the worm is gone.  Chameleons eat worms.  Who knew?  After that day, we would mash up bran and leave it out on the counter.  When it became wormy, the chameleons feasted…”

In another midrash (Tanhuma Noah 9), Noah and his family are so busy taking care of all the animals that they do not get a wink of sleep for the entire twelve month cruise.  One time, Noah is late bringing food to the lions.  (A mistake he made exactly once) One of the lions is not too happy about having to wait for lunch, so it bites him in the leg, leaving Noah with a limp.

These legends show Noah and his family neglecting their own needs, foregoing their own comfort, even risking their lives, to take care of the animals with which they have been entrusted.  It is the task for which they are chosen, for without them, the creatures on the ark will not survive.

The parallels to our current situation should be obvious.  Habitat destruction, climate change, trash in the oceans, pollution in the air.  

From Noah, we learn that compassion for other living creatures will require us to sacrifice comfort, forego luxuries, and take risks.  If our efforts to consume less don’t result in a material change to our standard of living, it probably means that our efforts are superficial and we are not doing enough.

As I say this, I am cognizant of my own complicity.  I opened this d’rash describing my trip to Hawaii, which included a round trip flight for which the carbon footprint equalled more than half a metric ton.

Noah stood out from his generation in some way.  Maybe it was this: he was the one willing to put his money where his mouth is.

If the seventh day arrives and there is nobody there to observe it, is it holy? – Rosh Hashanah 5780

What is today’s date?

{The second of Tishrei.}

What happened on this day that we are commemorating?

{The world was created.}

It is actually a bit more nuanced than this.  For creation was not a one day event.  It took seven: six days for God to bring into existence everything that is, and a seventh day for God to cease working and rest.

As the chronology goes, this week-long creation began on the 25th day of Elul—last month.  This means that the first day of Rosh Hashanah, which we observed yesterday, corresponded to the 6th day, the day on which God created humanity. Today, then, the second day of Rosh Hashanah, is the seventh and final day of Creation, when God rested.

But is this true?

Let me get something out of the way.  The world is not 5,780 years old.  Do not look to the Torah for either a scientific or historical account of how the universe came into being.  That is not the Torah’s purpose.  Classic commentators tell us: The Torah is written in language that human beings can comprehend.  Do not think that we can understand anything about how God created the world.

In our Mahzor, we declare Hayom harat olam.  “Today the world is conceived.”  But, nowhere in the Bible is there a direct indication that today is the birthday of the world.

As late as the Talmud (BT Rosh Hashanah 10b-11a), rabbis were arguing about when the world was created.  Go figure.  Rabbi Eliezer says it was in Tishrei.  But Rabbi Yehoshua says that it was in Nisan, in the Spring.  Each of them bring biblical verses to try to prove their points, and the Talmud raises objections to both. Our observance today clearly follows the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer.  

But how can either of them know when the world was created, or when the new year should begin?  For that matter, why does the week have seven days?  Is there something inherently special about the number 7?

The ancient Romans had an 8 day week.  The Aztecs and Mayans used a 13 day week.  During the French Revolution, there was an attempt to change over to a ten day week, which was seen as more modern and scientific.  It failed after nine and a half years.

Is there something inherently special about Tishrei vs. Nisan, or about a week that lasts 7 days, as opposed to 8, 10, or 13? Are these numbers independently meaningful, or are they significant because we decided to make them so?  If the seventh day arrives and there is nobody there to observe it, is it holy?

This is the theological equivalent of asking, “If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around, does it make a sound?”

Our sages have answers to these questions.  They draw a distinction between the counting of the days of the week and the determination of when the months and the years are supposed to begin. The responsibility and authority for setting the calendar is granted to human beings.  In ancient times, the Sanhedrin accepted testimony from witnesses who had claimed to see the new moon.

When the Sanhedrin was satisfied, they would declare: M’kudash M’kudash.  Sanctified!  Sanctified  That day was declared to be Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month.  The correct observance of holidays depended on the decision that the Sanhedrin made. They knew exactly when the moon was supposed to appear.  They understood the astronomy quite well, probably better than most of us in the room.

But, if it happened to be a cloudy night, or if the there was a problem with the witnesses, too bad.  The declaration would have to be put off until the next day.  This meant that the month sometimes began on the “wrong day.”  

When the Sanhedrin stopped meeting, the rabbis implemented the fixed calendar which we still use today.  They decided that Rosh Hashanah should never occur on a Sunday, Wednesday, or Friday.  Why?  To prevent Yom Kippur from falling on a Friday or a Sunday,  or Hoshanah Rabah falling on Shabbat, which would be really inconvenient.

Whenever the new moon appears on one of those days, Rosh Hashanah has to be delayed.  On particular occasions, it has to be pushed off by up to two days.

This goes against what the Torah says very plainly in today’s maftir:  “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion.” (Numbers 29:1)  According to the Torah, our holiday should begin when the moon first appears.  Period.

This year, the new moon made its first appearance Sunday morning, at 5:50 am.  But, we cannot observe Rosh Hashanah on a Sunday, so we artificially pushed it off until the following day.

Does it seem strange that human beings would manipulate the calendar so brazenly?  What gave our ancestors the right, and why do we keep listening to them?

According to ancient teachings, in fact, permission and responsibility to set the calendar is granted to people. That is why, when we recite the kiddush for Rosh Hashanah, we say m’kadesh yisrael v’yom hazikaron.  Praised are You God, who sanctifies the people Israel and the Day of Remembrance.

Israel is mentioned first.  Why?  Because we are the ones who determine the day on which the holiday is going to be observed.  Don’t worry, everyone.  It’s all kosher.  We’ve got permission.

When it comes to Shabbat, however, there is absolutely no astronomical significance to a seven day week.  The blessing for kiddush is simply m’kadesh haShabbat.  Praise are you God, who sanctifies the Shabbat.  Human beings have no say in the matter.

How do we know that the day we think is Shabbat actually is Shabbat?  How confident are we that human beings have been counting to 7 consistently for the past 5,780 years? Is there anything special about the seventh day, or is it completely arbitrary?

An ancient midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 11:5; Pesikta Rabbati 23) poses that exact question in a conversation between Rabbi Akiva and the Roman Governor of Judea, Quintus Tineius Rufus.  The midrash names him Turnusrufus HaRasha.  Tyranus Rufus the Wicked.  He governed Judah during the 120’s and early 130’s, CE, during the beginning of the Bar Kochba revolt.

A number of legends describe the confrontations between these two figures.  Usually, Akiva comes out on top after the Roman tries to lay a rhetorical trap for him. It was Tineius Rufus who ordered the execution of Rabbi Akiva, when he refused to obey the decree banning the teaching of Torah.  But in a reversal from one particularly dramatic tale, (BT Avodah Zarah 20a) Rufus’ wife divorces him, converts to Judaism, and then marries Akiva.

In this story (Genesis Rabbah 11:5), the wicked Turnus Rufus asks Rabbi Akiva: “Why does this day differ from all other days?”  [Sound familiar?]

Akiva has a quick comeback, “Why does this man differ from all other men?”

Tinneus Rufus is already confused.  “What did I ask you and what did you answer me?’  He does not understand his own question, much less Akiva’s response.

So Akiva breaks it down for him.  “You asked me, ‘why is the Sabbath different from all other days?’ and I answered you, ‘Why is Rufus different from all other men?'”

“That’s easy,” laughs the Roman proudly.  “The emperor wanted to honor him.”

Akiva responds.  “It’s the same with Shabbat.  The Holy One wished to honor it.”

Rufus is not going to be swayed so easily.  “Prove it!” he tells Akiva.  In other words, he is asking if there is anything at all that is different about the seventh day; in the physical or even in the metaphysical world.  It’s a good question.  The rabbis often put good questions which might border on being heretical in the mouths of Romans.

“Let the River Sambatyon prove it!” Akiva declares.  The Sambatyon is a mythical river, the location of which is unknown.  He continues, “The Sambatyon flows along, carrying stones in its current for the whole week, but on the Sabbath, it stops flowing, allowing the stones to rest.”  

Rufus will have none of that.  “You are avoiding the question.”

“Fine,” Akiva says.  “Then let this necromancer prove it.  For every day, he summons the dead to rise up from Gehenna, but not on the Sabbath.  Go check it out with your father.”

So Rufus goes to test Akiva’s theory.  He has his own father summoned from the grave.  Every single day, his father comes up, but when the Sabbath arrives, he is a no-show.  Just to be sure, Rufus summons his father again on the following day, Sunday.  His father’s spirit is there, right on time.

So Rufus asks him, “Father!  Are you suddenly shomer shabbos?! Did you become Jewish after you died?  Did you convert?  Why did you come every day of the week but not on the Sabbath?” 

The father explains.  “Those who do not rest on the sabbath of their own free will while they are alive are forced to observe it here, against their will.”

“But what work is there from which you need to rest?” his son asks.

“Every day we are subjected to judgment and punishment,” Rufus’ father responds.  “But on Shabbat we get a break.”

So Rufus returns to Akiva.  “If it is as you say, that the Holy One observes the Sabbath, then then let Him not cause the winds to blow on that day, or cause the rains to fall, or make the plants grow?” 

This, of course, is the real question.  The earth keeps spinning, the plants keep growing, paying no heed to the Sabbath.  If everything happens according to God’s will, why is there no evidence of the sabbath whatsoever in the natural world?  We are asked to rest on the seventh day, just as God rested on the seventh day.  So how come nature doesn’t get a break?

Here, Akiva gets frustrated, “Let this man’s breath depart from him,” he mutters.  Then he answers with a particularly legalistic explanation.

First, let me explain.  On the Sabbath, there is a prohibition against carrying things outside of one’s private domain.  You may have heard of an eruv.  It is a technical way of combining lots of individual private domains into one giant, shared private space.  This enables observant Jews to carry things outside of their homes on the sabbath.  

So Akiva says to Rufus, “The entire world is God’s private domain, therefore it is permissible for God to cause all of these things to continue on the sabbath.”

And that is the end of the midrash.

With no disrespect to Rabbi Akiva, this is not a particularly convincing answer.  Certainly not one that Rufus would accept, or even understand.  God moving the winds and making the rain fall is the equivalent of a person carrying an object around the yard?!  Come on.  To come up with this answer, Akiva has to utilize a loophole developed by the rabbis, a legal invention that is nowhere in the Torah.

What matters to Tineius Rufus?  The power that he wields over Akiva and other men.  The honor given to him by the King.  He is a nihilist.  There is nothing more than the power and honor that a person can grab in their lifetime.

Akiva struggles to explain that there is something deeper, something that can only be appreciated by acknowledging the power of something that cannot be seen.

If the seventh day arrives and there is nobody there to observe it, is it holy?

We ask the same question about all sorts of things, not just Shabbat.  Is there any inherent meaning to the particular rituals and practices of Judaism?

All of this is really about the sacredness of time.  I would argue that there is, in fact, no inherent holiness from one moment to the next.  It takes people to make time sacred.

This requires from us a leap of faith.  To treat time as sacred is to stand in awe of Creation; to be aware simultaneously of how small and insignificant we are are and of how special and blessed we are.

We embrace a day as holy, knowing full well that the selection of this particular day is arbitrary, that the concept of holiness itself has no physical reality whatsoever.  By embracing the holiness of the day anyways, we relinquish the power to make time sacred to something greater than us.

This is the paradox inherent in ritual.  Ritual is just a series of symbolic actions.  But those rituals have the capacity to free us and make our lives infinitely meaningful.  But only if we take a leap.

What are the rituals of Rosh Hashanah?  What are the stories that we tell about this day that express its holiness and give it meaning?

Hayom.  On this day, we celebrate God’s creation of the world.  Earth is one year older.  It is a party.  A time for joy.

On this day, we sound the shofar.  It rings like a trumpet, announcing the King’s enthronement.  The blast recalls God’s mercy in accepting a ram for sacrifice instead of Isaac.  It wakens us to teshuvah.  The cry of the shofar evokes our own cries as we realize our mistakes.

On this day, God, the King, stands in Judgment.  Our deeds from the past year are weighed, and our destiny for the year ahead is determined.  But we have within us the ability to avert the severity of the decree through our actions: repentance, prayer, and tzedakah.

From this day until Yom Kippur, we can appeal the verdict.  We hope to push God up from the seat of judgment to the seat of mercy.  We know that we are imperfect, but we try our best, and we believe that we can be better, that personal transformation can and does happen.

So to all of us, on this second day of Rosh Hashanah, the day on which God rested after six days of work, the 5,780th birthday of the world, may this year be filled with blessings.  May our lives be enriched by the love of our family, friends, and community.  May this be a year of personal growth as we engage in learning and in working on our midot, our characters.  May God grant us peace: here at home, in Israel, and around the world.  May we and our loved ones be blessed with health, and with strength to face the challenges that will inevitably come.  

L’Shanah Tovah Tikateivu v’Techatemu.  May we all be written and sealed for a good year.

The Head & Not The Tail, The Top & Not The Bottom – Ki Tavo 5779

Rosh Hashanah is coming, and with it, an entire menu of culinary treats.  Apples and honey.  Those are obvious.  The challah is round—to symbolize a crown; and filled with raisins—for a sweet new year.

But there is more.  The Talmud recommends a number of foods to eat on Rosh Hashanah, such as beans, leeks, beets, and dates.  The Aramaic names for each of these foods form puns.

For example, rubia—”beans,”sounds like yirbu—”increase”, as in “May our merits increase.”

Karti—”leeks”—sounds like yikartu—”cut off”.  Silkei—”beets”—sounds like yistalku—”removed”.  Tamrei—”dates”—sounds like yitamu—”finished”.  All three of these can be eaten as if to say, “May our enemies be cut off, removed, or finished.”  Take your pick.  Or eat all three.

Other foods have been added to the list.  Rimon—”pomegranate”—”May our mitzvot be as numerous as the seeds in the pomegranate.”  It also happens to be symbolic of fertility, so interpret that as you will.

But the best food to eat on Rosh Hashanah—actually, this is debatable—is the head of a sheep or fish.  Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg would eat the head of a ram, to symbolize the ram that was sacrificed instead of Isaac, which we read about on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.

Does anybody here follow this custom?  In my house, we buy gummy fish, cut them in half, and eat just the head.

What do we say when we eat the fish head?  Nih’yeh l’rosh, v’lo l’zanav.  “May we be like the head, and not like the tail.”

It is a strange expression, and it comes from this morning’s Torah portion.

In Parashat Ki Tavo, Moses describes a covenant ceremony that the Israelites will perform as soon as they cross over into the Promised Land, which they be doing without him.  As an entire nation, they renew their commitment to God.  During the ceremony, they recite a litany of blessings and curses which will befall the nation as a consequence of whether the people follow God’s commandments.

The blessings are what we might expect: Abundant rain in the right season.  Successful harvests.  Prosperity.  Victory against enemies.  The other nations of the earth will stand in awe of Israel.

Then, after these tangible blessings have been pronounced, there is one additional blessing that seems less specific.  Un’tanekha Adonai l’rosh v’lo l’zanav; v’hayita rak l’ma’alah v’lo tih’yeh l’mata.  “The Lord will make you the head, not the tail; you will always be at the top and never at the bottom…”  (Deut. 28:13)

The curses, beginning a few verses later, are the inverse of the blessings, and then some.  Included among the curses is the declaration that the stranger “…shall be the head and you shall be the tail.”  (28:44)

This is clearly where the Rosh Hashanah practice of eating the sheep or fish head comes from.  But what does it mean?

On its face, it seems fairly straightforward.  It is a metaphor for the economic and political success that Israel will experience if it behaves righteously.  Even today, we use the term “head” to refer to a leader, or the person at the top.  The “tail” is the follower. There is internal evidence in the Torah that the term refers specifically to being a creditor nation, rather than a debtor nation.

Mystical interpretations, however, identify hidden, spiritual meanings in the words of the Torah.  The Chassidic Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, author of the Torah commentary Kedushat Levi, suggests a deeper meaning.

He begins his commentary by asking why the Torah bothers to include the “tail” or the “bottom.”  Shouldn’t it have been enough to have said Un’tanekha Adonai l’rosh; v’hayita rak l’ma’alah—”The Lord will make you the head and you shall always be at the top”?  Adding “and not the tail,” and “never at the bottom” is superfluous.  And the Torah never wastes ink. Here is the hidden meaning.  Please bear with me.  This is kind of esoteric.

Reality, for human beings, is made up of three domains:  1.  The domain of abstract thought; 2.  The domain of speech; and 3.  The domain of action.  

Although Levi Yitzchak does not describe it this way, think about human consciousness.  Our experience of reality is no more than electrical signals passing between neurons in different parts of our brains.  For those electrical signals to be translated into awareness, what we might describe as thoughts or feelings, we need to perform an act of translation. My mind compares these patterns of electrical signals with my previous experiences of electrical signals.  At its most basic level, that is what language is.

I see a creature moving.  It has four legs, fur, and pointy ears.  It makes a noise.  My mind tells me, “this is a dog.”

Why doesn’t my mind say “cat?”  Not because I have seen this particular animal before, but because I have previous experiences with other creatures which have been defined as dogs. Language is the act of defining abstract experiences by comparing them with previous experiences.  Language also enables me to communicate my memory of those experiences to someone else.

After I have translated my abstract thoughts into language, I can then act.  I can manipulate the physical world around me.

We operate in all three domains at all times.  

The mystic sees the first domain, that of abstract thought, as the highest.  The essence of God lies somewhere beyond, but it is the closest a human being can become to God’s domain.  In Kabbalah, God’s essence is described as the Ein Sof, which literally means, “there is no end.”  Or, it cannot be defined.  God is completely abstract.  No word will capture God’s essence. The ultimate goal of the mystic is to attach oneself to God.  This can only be accomplished through the first domain, that of abstract thought.

Now we come back to the head and the tail, the top and the bottom.  Each of the three domains has a head and a tail.  A person who ascends to the head of a lower domain touches upon the tail of the next higher domain.  This is how Levi Yitzchak understands the Torah’s language of head and tail, top and bottom. When the Jewish people is at its best, it approaches the head of the highest domain, abstract thought, and is closest to God.

Let’s bring this back down to earth.  Through our actions, our speech, and our thought, each of us has the capacity to be better.  Actions, speech and thought are related.  As we improve one, we begin to improve the next.  

I work on my physical actions with the world around me: How I treat people, how I earn and spend my money, how I express compassion.  When I achieve success with my actions, it then leads to my speech.

My spiritual health is also about the words that come out of my mouth.  Controlling speech can be even more difficult than controlling behavior.  How hard is it to not gossip: to use language that builds people up rather than puts people down; to only read words online that make me grow?

When I purify my speech, that is when I can begin to purify my thoughts.

Moses describes the ultimate spiritual blessing:  “The Lord will make you the head, not the tail; you will always be at the top and never at the bottom…”  When the Israelites fulfill their covenantal obligations, they will achieve the closest possible relationship with God. Rabbi Levi says that this is not only a lesson for the nation, but for each of us.

As we approach the new year, we are taking stock.  It might be helpful to understand ourselves as being comprised of these three domains of thought, speech, and action.  The religious goal, indeed the human goal, is to improve on all three.

At the Rosh Hashanah meal, whether we eat a sheep’s head, a ram’s head, a salmon head, or a Swedish Fish head, may it symbolize for us that the year to come will be one in which we are the head, not the tail, and always at the top, never the bottom.”

Ki Teitzei 5779 – Don’t Promise Presents, Be In The Present

There is a common Hebrew expression: Bli neder, which means “without a vow.”  Bli Neder, I’ll pick you up tonight at 7.  Bli neder, I’ll bring the money that I owe you this Thursday.  Bli neder, I’ll have my High Holiday sermons done on time.

One of the laws in Parashat Ki Teitzei deals with nedarim, or vows.  A vow works likes this.  I’ve got something big coming up, and I feel like I am going to want God’s help.  Examples could include: the birth of a healthy child, victory in war, a successful business deal.

So I make a vow, promising to bring a specific gift to God.  It could be a sacrifice, or a donation of money, livestock, or grain to the Temple.  I might even vow to refrain from a particular activity, such as drinking wine or getting a haircut.

The Torah deals with the laws of vows in Parashat Ki Teitzei here in Deuteronomy as well as in an entire chapter at the end of the book of Numbers.  A number of Psalms express vows as well.

This morning’s parashah dedicates three verses to the topic.  The first verse warns that anyone who makes a vow had better fulfill it as quickly as possible.  No procrastinating, or else that person will incur guilt. The third verse emphasizes that any vow that crosses a person’s lips must be fulfilled.  The Torah provides no mechanism for nullifying a vow.

In between these two statements, the Torah provides a hint: “you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing.”  Wink. Wink. Note the double negative—no guilt if you don’t vow.  If we read into it a little deeper, the Torah is saying that since there is no obligation whatsoever for a person to make a vow, why would anyone put such a burden upon themselves?

Vows were apparently quite common in ancient times. There are several famous vows in the Bible.  The Judge Samson and the Prophet Samuel are both dedicated to a lifetime of service to God in fulfillment of vows made by their respective mothers. Thanks mom.

The Patriarch Jacob makes a vow in the book of Genesis when he is about to the leave the land of Canaan with nothing but the shirt on his back.  He declares that if God is with him, protecting him and eventually returning him home, then Jacob will be faithful to God and dedicate ten percent of his future earnings.

The most notorious vow in the Bible occurs in the book of Judges.  The Chieftain Yiftach, about to lead the Israelites in battle against the Ammonites, makes the following declaration to God:

“If You deliver the Ammonites into my hands, then whatever comes out the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s and shall be offered by me as a burnt offering.”

Yiftach, it can be assumed, is thinking it will be a goat or chicken.

God is with Yiftach, and he defeats his enemies.  When the warrior returns home, who should run out of the house, dancing with a timbrel in her hands to celebrate her father’s great victory but Yiftach’s daughter, his only child.  Yiftach is crushed, but his daughter understands the seriousness of the vow, and insists that her father fulfill it.

The Rabbis are aware of vows as well—and they don’t like them.  Drawing on our portion, the Rabbis invent ways to nullify vows.  They dedicate an entire Tractate of Talmud to the subject.

At one point, the Talmudic Sage Rav Dimi takes it a step further, declaring that anyone who makes a vow is a sinner, even if that person fulfills it. He proves it from Ki Teitzei.  The Torah states “you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing.”  The Torah implies, therefore, that ‘you do incur guilt if you don’t refrain from vowing.’

Oy.  So many double negatives.

What’s the big problem with a vow?  The medieval commentator, Nachmanides, does not mince words.  God takes no pleasure in fools who make lots of vows.  The problem, he explains, is that unexpected things get in the way of us fulfilling so many of our commitments.  When it comes to something as serious as a vow, saying “I meant to do it, but circumstances made it impossible…” is not good enough.  There are no excuses.

Building on this this, the nineteenth century commentator, Samson Raphael Hirsch, says that we have enough trouble with our actions in the present.  A vow adds extra obligations for some future time, when we have no idea what unexpected events may get in our way.  “We should rest content with directing [our] actions every moment of [our] present existence, living it as it should be lived.  Whatever we will be called upon to do in the future constitutes our duty then, without undertaking it in the form of a vow.”

In just under four weeks, we will gather together for Yom Kippur.  At the very beginning, before the holiday actually begins, we will chant Kol Nidrei.  In fact, we name the entire service Kol NidreiKol Nidrei means “All vows.” It is not a prayer, but rather a legal statement.  We declare that all vows, oaths, pledges, and so on that we make from this Yom Kippur and next Yom Kippur are officially annulled.  Nidrana la nidrei.  “Our vows are not vows.”

When Kol Nidrei first appeared in the 9th century, the Rabbis didn’t like it.  But it was too popular with people.

The idea behind Kol Nidrei is that words matter.  Life is unpredictable.  I can never know for certain that I am going to be able to fulfill in the future the commitment that I make today.  But I want to be able to start the new year with a clean slate.  Kol Nidrei enables me to do that, to not be held back by all of my failures.  

Better, as Hirsch, advises, to live my life in the present as it should be lived.  With integrity and honesty.

Shoftim 5779 – One Hand Has Not Spilled This Blood

Parashat Shoftim begins with justice.  It sets up the ideal of wise uncorruptible judges whose decisions are respected.  A society that does this, promises the opening of our parashah, will thrive on its land.

At the end of Parashat Shoftim, we are presented with a case about this limits of justice. The case is called the eglah arufah, “The Broken-Necked Heifer.”  Here is the scenario: a murdered body is found in the open, outside of city limits, and the killer cannot be identified.  Instead of filing it away as an unsolved mystery, respected elders from the area go out and measure the distance from the body to the surrounding towns.  Whichever settlement is nearest to where the body was found must then perform a ritual. The elders of the town take a heifer that has never been worked or carried a yoke.  They bring it outside the town to a nahal eitan, a wadi that flows year-round, on land that is not cultivated.  There, they break the neck of the heifer. Then, in front of priests from the tribe of Levi who have gathered especially for the occcasion, the elders of the town wash their hands in the water of the stream, and make a declaration:

Yadeinu lo shaf’khu et hadam hazeh, v’einayim lo ra’u—”Our hands did not spill this blood, nor did our eyes see it done.  Absolve, O Lord, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel.”

In so doing, they remove the bloodguilt.  In Hebrew, the expression is v’nikaper lahem hadam  That should sound familiar.  nikaper is from the same root as kaparah, which is the same as Yom Kippur.  It means atonement, and it refers to the washing away of sin that is attached to our souls.

This would seem to suggest that the inhabitants of the nearby town bear a certain degree of guilt.  Otherwise, what need would they have for atonement?

The Jerusalem Talmud offers two explanations, one from the Rabbis of the land of Israel, and the other from the Rabbis of Babylon.  In Israel, the Rabbis understand the ritual to be a reference to the murderer.  The elders declare: “the murderer never came through our town.  We never saw him.  He was not in our jail and we did not let him go free.”

The Rabbis of Babylonia suggest that the ritual refers to the victim.  “The victim never came through our town.  Otherwise, we would have surely taken care of him.  We would never have failed to offer him food, or ensure his safe passage.”

Both explanations involve the elders claiming that their communities are the kinds of communities that take responsibility for what happens in their town.  They do not allow criminals to walk the streets, and they do not neglect their obligations to take care of those who live on the margins.

In other words, they are saying, “we are fine, upstanding people.  People in our town do not do things like this.  We don’t let anyone slip through the cracks.  We didn’t do anything.  We didn’t see anything.”

This still does not solve the problem.  If they did everything they were supposed to do, why do they need atonement?

Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Bunim offers a creative explanation, suggesting that they may not be as innocent as they seem to claim. He points out a grammatical problem with one word in the declaration by the elders.  “Our hands did not spill this blood.”  yadeinu lo shaf’khu et hadam hazeh.

The problem is with the word shaf’khu, which is a verb meaning “spill.”  The Torah uses what the commentator Ibn Ezra describes as a really ancient spelling.  Instead of ending with a ו, it ends with a ה.  

שפכה

The vowels, according to the Masoretic text, are שָׁפְכֻה,
rendering the pronunciation shaf’khu.

If we read it like it is written in later Hebrew, it would say shaf’khah, which is singular, as in “our hand has not spilled this blood.”  Just one hand.  Not two. Why does this matter?

It is impossible for the elders to say, “everything we did, we did with both of our hands.”  Rather, they say, “What we did, we did with just one hand, because there will always remains some degree of guilt that we did not do enough.”

It’s such a clever insight on so many levels.  As human beings, we are self interested creatures.  We don’t like to admit guilt.  

A parent walks into the room and sees red crayon marks all over the walls.  She turns to her three year old, who is holding a red crayon, and asks, “Why are there red crayon marks on the wall?”

What does the three year old say?

“I didn’t do it.”

Our gut reaction is always to say “I didn’t do it.”

In the case of the eglah arufah, the crime has been committed nearby.  Suspicion naturally falls on those who are closest.  What is the declaration that they make? It’s the same as the three year old with a crayon.  “We didn’t do it.” But that does not mean that we don’t bear some responsibility.  We might not have been the ones who committed the murder, but can we really say that we were paying close enough attention to what was happening around us?

Did we take responsibility for our community—both by making sure it was safe, and by taking care of the people who needed help?  Did we open our eyes and take notice of the very individuals who tend to not get noticed? When tragedies occur, are those who claim to be innocent bystanders really innocent?

I was listening yesterday to a radio show on which people were calling in with reactions to the split verdict in the Ghost Ship fire.  People were rightfully angry about how such an unsafe situation could be allowed.  There was plenty of discussion about who should be held responsible, beyond just the two people who were put on trial. But of course, this is all after the fact—after 36 people died in a fire that should never have broken out.  But that is the way it goes with tragedies.  It is easy to cast blame after the fact.  

But maybe we should admit, as a society, that we never do everything we could have to build the kind of caring community that the Torah sets up as an ideal.

The Rabbis themselves acknowledge this.  In the second century, the Mishnah (Sotah 9:9) declares:  “When the murderers increased, the rite of the eglah arufah was abolished.”  The ritual itself became meaningless. Communities could not honestly claim that they had done everything that they could, or should have.

Parashat Shoftim begins with the ideal of justice.  It ends with a recognition of human imperfection.

Perhaps we should be honest enough to say, instead of “I didn’t do anything.  I didn’t see anything”  that “Maybe I looked the other way.  Perhaps I could have done more.”

That would be a great step for a society that strives to move towards justice.

Falling Into Prayer – Ekev 5779

At the end of Parashat Ekev, as Moses is exhorting the Israelites to remain faithful to God and the covenant, he makes a speech that may sound familiar:

וְהָיָ֗ה אִם־שָׁמֹ֤עַ תִשְׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־מִצְוֹתַ֔י אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י מְצַוֶּ֥ה אֶתְכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם לְאַהֲבָ֞ה אֶת־י-ְהוָֹ֤ה אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם֙ וּלְעָבְד֔וֹ בְּכָל־לְבַבְכֶ֖ם וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁכֶם:

“Now it shall be, if you listen to my commandments which I command to you today, to love the Lord your God, and to serve Him with all of your hearts and with all of your souls…”  (Deut. 11:13)

We know this passage as the second paragraph of the shema.  It is the one that we usually recite silently.  Notice that it is not the language of prayer at all.  It is Moses telling the Israelites to listen to and serve God.  If they do, they will be rewarded with abundance.

So how did it come to be included, not just in our prayers, but in the Shema, which serves as the central biblical passage of Jewish worship, the anchor of our service?

The answer is found in the Talmud (BT Ta’anit 2a).  The word avodah, meaning service, usually refers to the Temple rituals: Priests and Levites offering daily animal sacrifices. But here, Moses modifies the usual expression when he speaks to the Israelites: וּלְעָבְד֔וֹ בְּכָל־לְבַבְכֶ֖ם — “to serve Him with all of your hearts.”  He is not talking about Temple rituals and animal sacrifices.  The Talmud cites this phrase and then asks: Eizo hi avodah she-hi ba-lev?  What kind of service is performed in the heart? Hevei omer: zo tefilah.  You must say that this is referring to tefilah — prayer.

Maimonides summarizes the matter succinctly, as usual.  He declares that “It is a positive commandment to pray every day, as it says: and you shall serve the Lord your God”  (Ex. 23:25).  He then cites this passage in the Talmud to explain that the service in question is the service of the heart; that is to say, tefilah.

The Torah is silent regarding the specific content of our prayers.  Nowhere does it say that we need to recite these particular words that appear in the prayer book.  Our siddur is the product of human beings striving to express themselves to God.

So what is tefilah?  What is prayer?

There are a few examples of prayers in the Torah.  As it so happens, one of them appears earlier in this morning’s Torah portion.

As Moses continues his recounting of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness over the previous forty years, he comes to the episode of the Golden Calf. As you may recall, the Israelites encountered God at Mount Sinai.  That is when they received the Ten Commandments.  We read them in last week’s parashah.  The first two commandments are:  I am the Lord your God.  You shall have no other gods before Me.  And, Don’t worship idols.

Forty days later, there is a bit of confusion about when—or whether—Moses is coming back.  So what do the Israelites do?  The obvious thing: build a statue of a golden calf and start worshipping it.

For those keeping track, they have just broken commandment numbers one and two.  Not a good start.  It sure didn’t take them long, did it?

Now, Moses has to intercede on the people’s behalf to prevent God from annihilating them.  He describes what happened in his own words:  וָאֶתְנַפַּל֩ לִפְנֵ֨י יְהֹוָ֜ה — “I threw myself down before the Lord like the first time; forty days and forty nights, bread I did not eat, and wine I did not drink, on account of all your sins that you committed…”  

The Torah likes to the play with language.  It is full of puns and patterns.  Hebrew is built on three letter root words.  Most verbs, nouns, and adjectives are constructed by manipulating those three letters in various ways.  In this case, the root for אֶתְנַפַּל is נפל, which in english means “fall.”  אֶתְנַפַּל makes it reflexive and forceful – I threw myself down.  

While נפל is a pretty common root word in the Bible, אֶתְנַפַּל is not.  Moses did not just fall to the ground.  He threw himself to the ground.  But there is more.  God was also furious with Aaron for his role in constructing the Golden Calf.  Moses again describes his courageous actions: וָאֶתְפַּלֵּ֛ל גַּם־בְּעַ֥ד אַהֲרֹ֖ן  — “Then I prayed on behalf of Aaron…”

Here, the word is אֶתְפַּלֵּל.  Sounds a lot like אֶתְנַפַּל.  But with one letter different.  Instead of נפל, the root is פלל, which in English means “intercede” or “pray.”

A few verses later, Moses recites the actual prayer that he had used to intercede for the Israelites and for Aaron.  Again, he pairs the words אֶתְנַפַּל and אֶתְפַּלֵּל.  “When I threw myself before the Lord… because the Lord was determined to destroy you, I interceded to the Lord and said…” and so on.

The Torah, very deliberately, juxtaposes these two nearly identical words to tell us that there is a connection between praying and throwing oneself on the ground.

It is clear, from this and other passages, that tefilah involves directing one’s words to God.   Looking at the various prayers that appear in the Bible, they tend to involve consistent themes.  The worshipper praises God, reflecting on God’s power and might.  Usually God is addressed as compassionate and forgiving.  Those are the qualities the worshipper is hoping to awaken.  After praise comes request.  The worshipper asks for something: a child, healing, mercy, victory.

In this passage, Moses asks God to have mercy on the Israelites and Aaron and forego the plan to destroy them.  But with the added element that he physically throws himself on the ground.

What does throwing oneself on the ground mean?  It is the most extreme form of bowing: full prostration, which nowadays we only perform during the High Holidays. It is a physical expression of humility: to lower oneself as close to the ground as possible.  It would certainly convey that message to the recipient of the prayer.

Think also about the effect that it would have on the worshipper.  How is the meaning of Moses’ words enhanced by him saying them with his face in the dirt, as opposed to if he had been standing tall?

To really pray, we have to first become aware that we are, in fact, powerless before our Creator.  The true act of service of the heart, real prayer, can only come from a position of losing oneself, of putting everything on the line, honestly and openly.  

Moses’ throwing himself on the ground is his way of praying with his whole self.  Literally, his entire body.  His physical posture contributes to his emotional state.  Ironic that, in order to most fully serve God with his heart, he has to also use his body.

Just Beginning to See – Va-Etchanan 5779

In my high school Humanities class, I remember being very impressed when I learned about the Socratic Paradox: “To know what you do not know, that is true knowledge.”  In fact, I discovered recently, Socrates never said such a thing.

The idea may come from a passage in Plato’s Apology.  Socrates gets into a discussion with a man who is reputed to be wise.  He walks away from the encounter disappointed.

“I am wiser than this man,” he muses, “for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.”

In Greek philosophy, the the hero of wisdom is Socrates.  He is so wise, because he knows that he does not know anything.

The Jewish equivalent is, of course, Moses.

At the very beginning of this morning’s parashah, Va’etchanan, Moses describes to the assembled Israelites how he tried to convince God to change the verdict against him.  He pleads to be allowed to enter the Promised Land.

Moses’s formal request begins with praise.

אֲדֹנָי יֱ-הֹוִה אַתָּה הַחִלּוֹתָ לְהַרְאוֹת אֶת־עַבְדְּךָ אֶת־גָּדְלְךָ וְאֶת־יָדְךָ הַחֲזָקָה

“My Master, Adonai, You Yourself have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand”

Why does Moses include the word, hachilota—”you have begun.”  He could have just said. “You have shown Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand.”  Since no word in the Torah is superfluous, it must add something important.

To understand the p’shat, the plain sense meaning of the expression, we have to look at this passage in its context.  Earlier in Sefer Devarim, the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses has recounted the Israelites’ travels through the wilderness over the previous forty years.  He has already used variations of the word hatchalah, meaning “beginning.”

The Israelites’ conquest has begun on the Eastern side of the Jordan River.  They have been victorious over King Sihon and the Amorites, as well as King Og and the Bashanites, capturing their lands. Two and a half Israelite tribes step forward, requesting permission to settle in the newly acquired lands:  Reuven, Gad, and half of Menashe.  This territory will become part of the new nation.  God instructs Moses.  Re’eh hachiloti—”See, I begin by placing Sihon and his land at your disposal.”  Hachel rash!—”Begin the occupation; take possession of his land!”

As Etchanan opens, the conquest has already begun.  The Israelites, with God’s blessing, are on a roll.  So Moses is thinking, “The Lord must be in a pretty good mood.  Now would be a good time to ask for my punishment to be lifted.” He signals this hope in the language of his prayer:

My Master, Adonai, You Yourself have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand, for what god is there in the heavens and on earth who could do like Your deeds and like Your might?  Let me, pray, cross over that I may see the goodly land which is across the Jordan, this goodly high country and the Lebanon!  (Deut. 3:24-25)

Moses sounds really hopeful.  He is not asking for much; just to look at the land, to see how good it is.  He is not going to touch anything.  Promise.

Even this is too much.  “But the Lord was wrathful with me because of you,” he tells the Israelites, “and he did not listen to me.  And the Lord said to me, Rav L’kha—Enough for you!  Do not speak more to Me of this matter.  Go up to the top of the Pisgah, and raise your eyes to the west and to the north and to the south and to the east and see iwth your own eyes, for you shall not cross this Jordan”  (Deut. 3:26-27)

Such a disappointing answer for Moses.

Reading this passage out of its context, the Baal Shem Tov, the eighteenth century founder of Chasidism, teaches a deeper lesson about Moses’ request.  

“You Yourself have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand.”

Moshe Rabeinu was the greatest of all prophets.  Not only does he receive the Written Torah at Mount Sinai, he also receives knowledge of every single innovation that future scholars are destined to discover.  As it says in the Talmud, “There is nobody greater in good deeds than Moshe Rabeinu.”  (BT Berachot 32).  Despite all of this, Moses still stands at the very beginning.  So he says to God:  “You Yourself have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand.”

Moses is not referring to the conquest of the land.  He is referencing something much greater: the mysteries of creation, the wonders of the universe, the nature of good and evil, the purpose of human existence.  Moses, the greatest of all prophets, has only caught a glimpse.  Nearly 120 years old, he still stands at the beginning.  Adayin hu omed bahat’chala.

Here is Moses, at the end of his life, acknowledging to God, “I have only just started learning these mysteries.  I want to know more.”

God responds, perhaps not with so much anger: rav l’kha—”it is enough for you.  There is a limit to what the human mind, even yours, can comprehend.  Ascend the highest peak, and look in every direction.  You will see everything that you are capable of seeing.  But you cannot cross over.”  In other words, you cannot increase your wisdom.

Moses is the paradigm for the ideal human beings.  He lives for 120 years, which the Torah identifies as the upper limit of human life.  He achieves the greatest wisdom of which human beings are capable, and he demonstrates the highest imaginable levels of virtue.  

His struggles, as creatively interpreted through Jewish tradition, are universal human struggles.  Here, at the end of his life, he realizes that he is just starting.  There is so much that he does not yet know.

This humility about the limits of knowledge is so important.  It is what drives scientists to uncover how our universe works.  It is what drives curiosity and growth.  Someone who thinks he or she has all the answers, ironically, has none.