Shimon Peres, z”l: Did I bring more good to the world today, or bad? – Nitzavim 5776

The entire world this week mourns the passing of Shimon Peres, alav hashalom, who died Wednesday at 93 years of age.  Many obituaries have been written in the past few days about him, which I encourage all of us to read.

Peres was involved in the creation, building and flourishing of the State of Israel more than any other person.  As a young man, Peres was active in the Haganah and became a close advisor and protege to David Ben Gurion.  He was responsible for breaking the siege and acquiring military equipment in the War of Independence.  Peres built up the military during the early years of the state.  He led behind the scenes diplomacy with France leading up to the 1956 Suez war.  Then, he was in charge of creating Israel’s nuclear program in the 1960’s.

In the years after the Six Day War, Peres encouraged Jewish settlement in the West Bank, although he eventually came to see it as an obstacle to peace.  He, along with Yitzchak Rabin, was an architect of the Oslo Accords, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.

Peres was an early and constant promoter of technology.  He saw economic growth and cooperation as the path towards closer relations and eventual peace with other nations, including Israel’s enemies.

Shimon Peres served in the Knesset for nearly five decades, and held every major position in government, including Prime Minister and President.

In his last public interview, conducted on August 31, Peres spoke about the exercise of power.

You have to decide either to be a giver or a taker. The biggest mistake is if you’ll use the power to take. The greatest wisdom is if you give.

That, he explains, has been the secret to America’s great success.  And it is has driven his approach to building stronger connections between Israel and other nations.  Peres shared a story in which he was recently meeting with Vladimir Putin, whom he described as a very good friend.  Peres rebuked him for being a taker rather than a giver.

“You behave like a czar,” [he] said…

“What did the czars do? They developed two cities, St. Petersburg and Moscow, as a showcase. Whatever you want, you will find there. The rest of Russia is like Nigeria covered with snow. Your people are dying. You don’t give them life. You think they’ll forgive you?”

“Why is America great?” I asked him. “Because they were givers. Why is Europe in trouble? Because they are takers. America is giving; people think it’s because they are generous. I think it’s because they are wise. If you give, you create friends. The most beneficial investment is making friends.”

“America had the guts to take the Marshall Plan, a huge piece of their GNP that they gave to this dying Europe. And in this way, they have shown that this is the best investment in the world.”

A cultural Zionist, Shimon Peres nevertheless believed strongly that Zionism had to be rooted in timeless Jewish values, and felt that the current generation had gone off track from that ideal.

But Peres was always an optimist.  Respected by everyone across the political spectrum, he has been Israel’s chief visionary for peace for the last two decades.  It was a hope that he never gave up.

Peres recently reached out to meet with Micah Goodman, a philosopher and teacher at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.  Goodman is the most prominent writer on Jewish philosophy in Israel today.  A few years ago, he wrote a best-seller entitled The Secrets of the Guide for the Perplexed about Moses Maimonides.  (Only in Israel would a book like that be a best seller.)  It was recently translated into English as Maimonides and the Book that Changed Judaism.

Peres wanted to meet with Goodman, whom he described as his teacher, to discuss Maimonides.

“I find myself in his apartment in Tel Aviv,” Mr. Goodman recalled. “He is wearing his jeans. He wants to understand Maimonides.

“He told me that before he goes to sleep he thinks to himself, ‘Did I bring more good to the world today, or bad?’ He kept a balance sheet. He was like a 16-year-old idealist. At 93.”

That question, “Did I bring more good to the world today, or bad?” summarizes the entire theme of the High Holidays.  For a 93 year old man to retain that sense of mission and responsibility is incredible.  Shimon Peres’ entire life is evidence that this question has always driven him, from earlier times when he was building up Israel’s capacity to survive and thrive, to more recent times when it had achieved power and found itself in a position from which it could strive for peace.

I suspect that the teaching by Maimonides to which Peres is referring is from the Mishneh Torah, in his section on Teshuvah.  (Hilchot Teshuvah 2:1,3-4) Maimonides writes:

Each and every person has merits and sins. A person whose merits exceed his sins is [termed] righteous. A person whose sins exceed his merits is [termed] wicked. If [his sins and merits] are equal, he is termed a Beinoni.

The same applies to an entire country. If the merits of all its inhabitants exceed their sins, it is [termed] righteous. If their sins are greater, it is [termed] wicked. The same applies to the entire world.

Just as a person’s merits and sins are weighed at the time of his death, so, too, the sins of every inhabitant of the world together with his merits are weighed on the festival of Rosh HaShanah. If one is found righteous, his [verdict] is sealed for life. If one is found wicked, his [verdict] is sealed for death. A Beinoni’s verdict remains tentative until Yom Kippur. If he repents, his [verdict] is sealed for life. If not, his [verdict] is sealed for death…

And this is the teaching which I believe Peres found so inspirational:

…Accordingly, throughout the entire year, a person should always look at himself as equally balanced between merit and sin and the world as equally balanced between merit and sin. If he performs one sin, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of guilt and brings destruction upon himself.

And so Peres, to his dying day, asked himself, “Did I bring more good to the world today, or bad?”

Is this a question that each of us can ask ourselves?  Maybe it is only a question for great individuals.  The rest of us can be free to go about our lives day by day, just trying to get by.

This morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Nitzavim, would suggest otherwise.  It opens with Moses leading the Israelites through a covenant ceremony.  He begins:

Atem nitzavim hayom kulkhem lifnei Adonai Eloheikhem.  You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord you God

It is important to note that Moses begins with the general – “all of you.”

He then specifies the leaders: “your tribal heads, your elders and your officials.”

But then, to underscore the point that this message is not reserved for the elites in society, Moses continues: “all the men of Israel, your children, your wives.”

Finally, even those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder are included: “even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer.”  (29:9-11)

Moses goes on to specify that it is not just the generation about to enter the Promised Land that stands there.  Rather, all of their descendants, up to and including us, are present to affirm the Jewish people’s covenant with God.

Parashat Nitzavim is always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah.  It is no accident.  We are meant to hear this opening line.  The word that stands out is hayom.  Today.  Moses’ instruction is delivered in the second person, in the present tense.  He is addressing us, in this moment.

He then tells a story of sin, punishment, exile, and then return, invoking the word teshuvah seven times.  The parashah ends with Moses’ exhortation to us: “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse.  Choose life…”  (30:19)

The question that guided Shimon Peres’ life, “Did I bring more good to the world today, or bad?” can be traced back to Maimonides, and even further back to Moses in the Torah itself.  It is a question not just for the great among us.  But truly, it is a question that each of us must ask ourselves.

And not only as we approach the new year.  It is a question for hayom.  Today.

I wonder if we might take this lesson from the great Shimon Peres and make this a regular question that each one of us reflects on at the end of every day.  “Did I bring more good to the world today, or bad?”  Did I tip the scales of my own life towards merit, and thus save the world?  When presented with the choice, did I choose life?

Shanah Tovah.

You May Not Hide Yourself – Ki Teitzei 5776

Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa was known as a very pious man – so pious indeed that miracles were performed on his behalf.  He was also quite poor.

One day, his wife, let’s call her Mrs. Ben Dosa, found a a sack of chickens outside the front door of their house.  Someone had clearly bought them in the marketplace, and then misplaced them on the way home.

Looking around and seeing that there was nobody nearby, she brought the sackful of chickens inside the house and released them into the yard.  The birds started clucking away and pecking at the dirt, as chickens do.

When Rabbi Hanina found out, he instructed his wife, “don’t eat any of the chickens, they do not belong to us.  We have to wait for the owner to come back for them.”  But the owner did not come.

After a few days, the hens began laying eggs.  Mrs. Ben Dosa was overjoyed.  They could really use the extra food.  But Hanina insisted, “The eggs do not belong to us.  We must wait for the owner to return for them.”

Since the Ben Dosa’s could not eat them, the eggs eventually hatched.  Time passed, and the chicks grew into hens and roosters.  Pretty soon, the Ben Dosa home had become overrun with poultry.

Mrs. Ben Dosa was getting fed up, so she turned to her pious husband and demanded, “My darling husband, I was fine when you told me we couldn’t use the eggs.  But this is getting ridiculous.  You must do something about all of these chickens!”

So Rabbi Hanina took all of the fowl to the the marketplace, where he sold them.  With the proceeds, he bought two baby goats, which he brought back to his house.

The goats grew.  The goats begat more goats.  Eventually, the Ben Dosa house became even more crowded, smelly, and loud than ever before.  But Hanina insisted that they could not slaughter any of the goats, or drink any of the milk.

When she could not take it any more, Mrs. Ben Dosa stamped her foot and ordered her husband to do something about the goats.

So Hanina gathered up all of the animals and led them to the marketplace.  He sold them, and with the proceeds, he bought a calf.  The calf grew and grew until it had become a cow.

Some time later, there was a knock on the door.  A man asked, “Hi.  Some time back, I was coming home from the market with a sack of chickens.  I set it down somewhere, but I forgot where.  As I was passing by your home, it seemed familiar to me.  I’m curious.  Do you perhaps know what happened to the sack of chickens?”

Rabbi Hanina asked the man to describe the sack, which he did.  “Wait here one second,” Rabbi Hanina told the man, and then went inside the house.  “Here is your chicken,” Hanina declared, leading a healthy, full grown milk cow, “we tried to take care of it for you.”

“But, this is a cow!” the man declared.

Rabbi Hanina explained what happened, how the chickens became goats, which became a cow.

Overjoyed, the man exclaimed, “Rabbi Hanina, you are so kind.  I have never met someone so careful about returning lost things.  Thank you.”

When the man left, Hanina ducked his head back inside the house and shouted to his wife, “Honey, the guy came back for his chickens!”

“Thank God,” she declared, “but did he recognize them?”  (from BT Taanit 25a and The Family Book of Midrash, by Barbara Diamond Goldin)

This is a story from the Talmud about how far a person might go to fulfill the mitzvah of hashevat aveidah, returning lost objects.  The origin of this mitzvah appears in this morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki Teitzei.

If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow.  If your fellow does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him.  You shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent.  (Deut. 22:1-3)

Jewish law has a lot to say about this mitzvah.  If we find a lost object, our tradition teaches us that we are supposed to care for it, that we may not profit from  it, and that we owe any earnings that accrue to the owner once it is restored.

As we might imagine, the tradition unpacks the issue, taking into account where an object is found, what constitutes an identifying mark, the reimbursement due to the finder for expenses incurred caring for the lost item, how long the item must be cared for before the finder can claim it, and so on.

On its surface, this mitzvah is about property.  But the final phrase that the Torah uses suggests that there is something more at stake.  Lo tukhal l’hit’alem.  “You may not remain indifferent.”  Or perhaps a better translation would be, “You may not hide yourself.”

Why does the Torah, which never uses superfluous language, add this extra phrase?

Bahya ibn Paquda, a medieval Spanish philosopher, suggests that the mitzvah of returning lost objects is related to the principle v’ahavta l’re’ekha kamokha – “love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Lev. 19:18)  Property is an extension of the person.  So to care for another person’s lost possession is to care for that person.

There is a similar passage in Sefer Shemot, the Book of Exodus, but with a notable difference.  Instead of instructing us to return our “fellow’s” lost item, we are told we must return even our “enemy’s” lost item.

Perhaps this might help us understand the significant of “You may not hide yourself.”  It is so easy, when seeing another person experiencing hardship, to avert our eyes.  To not step in to help.  Getting involved takes time and effort.  It distracts us from our own interests, and keeps us away from taking care of our own needs.

For many people, the natural instinct is to turn away.  So the Torah tells us that when we find something that is lost, we can’t ignore it.  Even if it belongs to our enemy.  Keep in mind that if it is lost, the owner is not around.  It is so easy to hide ourselves, or to simply claim the item as our own.  Finders Keepers.  After all, no one will know.  But God will know.  And we, ourselves, will know.

Rabbi Aharon of Barcelona, the author of Sefer HaChinuch, says that the mitzvah of returning lost objects benefits everyone in society, and indeed the social order itself.  After all, we all lose things from time to time.  Goats, donkeys, chickens, car keys, cell phones.

Wouldn’t it be great to live in a society in which we knew that our fellows, even those whom we don’t get along so well with, took care of one another’s things, and one another, as an expression of love?

Egypt the Bogeyman – Ekev 5776

The entire Book of Deuteronomy is a series of speeches by Moses to the Israelites on the Eastern banks of the Jordan River.  Moses knows he is going to die, and that he will not be able to lead them into the Promised Land.  This is his final opportunity to set his people on a course that will ensure their survival for generations to come.  Moses uses every trick at his disposal to direct the children of Israel to the  path of God and Torah.

In Parashat Ekev, he goes back and forth in his language, alternately praising and then criticizing the Israelites.  ‘God desired you, and chose you amongst all the nations to give you the Promised Land.  God will make you prosper.  The nations of the world will bless themselves by you.’

And then he tells them, ‘don’t think that you are getting all of this because you are so great.  In fact, you have been a pain in the neck for forty years.  You have been ungrateful and have repeatedly lost faith.’

Moses’ desperation jumps out of the text.  He is pulling out all the stops because he knows that the Israelites are going to have to continue on without him.  He is profoundly aware that his message is going to have to carry across the generations.

One of the rhetorical tools that Moses utilizes in this parashah is a contrasting of the anticipated life in Israel to the remembered life in Egypt.  The Israelites can look forward to a place which is fundamentally different from everything they have known, he emphasizes repeatedly.

This is ironic.  Keep in mind that whenever the Israelites complained during their forty years of wandering in the wilderness, they asked to go back to Egypt, where there was plenty of food and water.  Now, Moses is telling them that a return to Egypt, both spiritually and physically, is the last thing thing they should hope for.

For his first comparison, Moses states “[The Lord] will not bring upon you any of the dreadful diseases of Egypt, about which you know, but will inflict them upon all your enemies.”  (7:15)

What are these dreadful Egyptian maladies?  It could be a reference to some of the plagues that God sent against the Egyptians, and which spared the Israelites.

Alternatively, there were certain illnesses in the ancient world that were especially associated with Egypt, such as elephantiases, ophthalmia, and dysentery.  The Roman historian Pliny referred to Egypt as the mother of skin diseases and referred to elephantiasis as “the particular Egyptian disease.” (Tigay, JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy, p. 89)

In any event, the implication is that Israel will be a healthy place to live.

Next, Moses offers a pep talk to the Israelites, telling them that they do not need to be afraid of the larger, more powerful nations that they are coming up against.  All they have to do is remember what God did to Pharaoh and the Egyptians when they came out of slavery.  There were wondrous acts, plagues, miracles, and splitting seas.  The Israelites just need to remember that God is amongst them, fighting for them.  (7:18)

Once again, Moses invokes the Israelites’ memory of leaving Egypt to reassure them that they will be able to overcome the larger numbers and more powerful armies of the Canaanite nations that they are about to face.  If God could defeat the Egyptian forces and lead the Israelites out of slavery, then no threat is impossible as long as the Israelites keep faith.

The third reference to Egypt is one that has appeared many times in the Torah.  “You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”  (10:19)

It is not just the land of Egypt that they have left behind.  The Israelites have also left behind the experience of being strangers.  It is an experience that any normal person would probably want to forget.

But Moses does not want them to forget it.  Here, as in numerous places in the Torah, we are instructed to remember the feelings of strangeness – of being dislocated and foreign.  That memory is supposed to lead to compassion.

The Israelites are to look around them, and specifically notice the strangers among them.  Then they are to care for them, to show compassion, fairness, and justice.

The implication, of course, is that the Egyptians did not show them any compassion, fairness, and justice.  Moses’ contrast here is a moral one.  Egyptian society was bigoted, selfish, and elitist.  They must learn from that bad experience and create a morally worthy society.

Moses’ final contrast with Egypt has to do with water and agriculture.

For the land that you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come. There the grain you sowed had to be watered by your own labors, like a vegetable garden; but the land you are about to cross into and possess, a land of hills and valleys, soaks up its water from the rains of heaven. It is a land which the Lord your God looks after, on which the Lord your God always keeps His eye, from year’s beginning to year’s end.  (11:10-12)

Is this a good thing?  Not clear.  Let’s see if we can understand this.  Egypt does not receive much rain.  Instead, life there is dependent on the annual flooding of the Nile River.  In order to farm, human beings must physically transport water from the river to their fields and gardens.  They did this through the construction of canals and reservoirs, so that they would be able to continue to water the fields after the Nile receded.  But the regular flooding of the Nile was a given.  It was a sure thing that could be relied upon.

In the Promised Land, however, such a system would not work.  It is a land of mountains, hills, and valleys, rather than flat fields.  People’s livelihood depends on receiving rain in the proper time.  And for that, they are dependent on God.  As Rashi describes, this is so that God will be able “to see what it needs, and to keep issuing decrees with regard to it – sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse.”

So which is better?

One might think that Egypt is better.  After all, there is less uncertainty.  The flooding of the Nile can be counted upon, while rain is more fickle, as we can certainly attest here in California.

In the theology of Deuteronomy, as long as the people stick to the covenant – living by the Torah and constructing a society built on kindness and compassion towards one another and faith in God – nothing will stop them.  They will be healthy.  They will not have to fear other nations.  They will have a prosperous land.

And when the Israelites have all of that, there is no question about whether it is better to live in Egypt or Israel.  Moses’ overall message is that a life with God’s blessing in the land of Israel is better than any lingering rosy memories of Egypt.

Moses rhetorically paints Egypt as the mythic bad place that we came from and to which we never want to return.  It is a place of disease, brutal military might, inhospitability to foreigners, and ironically, reliable water sources.  It is kind of a bogeyman.  Ironically, it was, at the time, also the most prosperous and powerful Empire in the world.

But better than that is the Land of Israel, which for the Jewish people is a place of tremendous potential for living in covenantal harmony with God.  But only if Israel does its part.

We are surrounded by potential.  We have access to unprecedented wealth, science, medicine, and physical delights that no previous generation enjoyed.  Will this bounty be a blessing for us?  Moses’ message still rings true.  By following the path of Torah, compassion for those around us, and faith in God, the future is wide open.

Saying Kaddish Reluctantly – Ha’azinu 5776

One of the most uncomfortable things that I do as a Rabbi is to lead the Kaddish Yatom, the Mourner’s Kaddish, during services.

The Mourner’s Kaddish is one of several variations on this ancient prayer.  There is also the Chatzi Kaddish – the Half Kaddish, the Kaddish Shalem – The Full Kaddish, the Kaddish D’Rabbanan – Rabbis’ Kaddish, and the less familiar Kaddish D’Itchadeta – Kaddish of the Unification of the Divine Name, which is recited at funerals and at a siyyum marking the completion of study of a Tractate of Talmud.

While these variations developed over many hundreds of years, the core section of the Kaddish is one of the most ancient non-biblical prayers in our liturgy.  It has its origins in the Second Temple, before the prayer service as we know it took shape.

In numerous places, the Talmud heaps praises on the person or community that responds appropriately and with kavanah – spiritual intention – with the words: Amen.  Y’hei sh’mei raba m’vorakh l’alam ul’almeh al’mayah – “Amen.  May [God’s] great name be praised for ever and ever and ever.”  It does not specify the words that prompt this response, but it most likely resembles what we know today as the Chatzi Kaddish.

The central line is quite simple.  It proclaims the sanctity of the Divine name for all Eternity.  It is a simple statement of faith.

It is not clear in which contexts Jews would recite the Kaddish.  Most likely, it was recited after Torah lessons.  The teacher would proclaim God’s holiness, and the assembled would respond appropriately.  Thus, the Kaddish was a kind of prayer of dismissal.

The Kaddish is in Aramaic, which was the language that Jews spoke in their daily interactions.  This means that whoever instituted this prayer wanted to be sure that people understood what they were saying.

A midrash collection on Deuteoronomy called Sifrei Devarim connects this congregational response to a verse in this morning’s Torah portion, Ha’azinu.  (Sifrei Devarim 306)  In his poem to the Israelites, Moshe exclaims: Ki shem Adonai ekra,” – For the name of the Lord do I call.  Havu godel l’eloheinu – “Hail greatness for our God.”  (Deuteronomy 32:3)  When we hear someone extolling the Divine Name, we must affirm it with the appropriate response, according to the midrash.

The Talmud considers it extremely meritorious for us to do so.  One Rabbi declares that a person who responds with the words: y’hei sh’mei raba…  is assured of a place in the World to Come.  Another Rabbi claims that the evil decree against such a person is canceled.  A third Rabbi says that one should interrupt whatever one is doing in order to respond Y’hei sh’mei… – even if one is in the middle of praying the silent Amidah.  A story in the Talmud describes how pleased and honored God feels whenever the words of a congregation reciting Y’hei sh;mei raba… the Heavenly court.

But nowhere in the Talmud or in other writings of the era is there a single reference to the Kaddish as a mourners’ prayer.

The earliest oblique mention appears in a story from a text called Masekhet Kallah, “Tractate Bride.”  It is part of what are known as the Minor Tractates of the Talmud, which were actually composed several centuries afterwards but eventually came to be published together.  Masekhet Kallah, from the seventh or eighth century in Babylonia, deals with rules for brides and for conjugal relations.  It contains the earliest known version of the following story:

Rabbi Akiva was once in a cemetery where he came upon a “man” (actually, a ghost) who was carrying a heavy burden on his shoulders and was having difficulty walking.  He was crying and sighing.  [Akiva] said to him: “What did you do?”

He said to him: “There was not a single prohibition that I did not violate in this world.  Now there are guards set upon me who do not leave me alone for a single sigh.”

Rabbi Akiva asked him:  “Did you leave behind a son?”

He said to him: “Don’t ask me.  I am afraid of the angels who are whipping me with lashes of fire and demanding me ‘Why don’t you walk faster?’  Don’t tell me ‘you should rest!'”

[But Rabbi Akiva insisted, so] he said to him: “I left behind a pregnant wife.”

Rabbi Akiva went to that land.  He asked [the locals], “Where is the son of so-and-so?”

They said to him: “May the memory be uprooted of that one who deserves for his bones to be ground up!”

He said to them: “Why?”

They said to him:  “That robber stole from people and caused many to suffer, and furthermore, he had relations with a girl who was betrothed to another on Yom Kippur.”

[Rabbi Akiva] went to [the man’s] home and found his pregnant wife.  He stayed with her until she gave birth.  Then he circumcised [the baby boy].  When [the lad] grew up, [Akiva] brought him to the synagogue to recite the blessing before the congregation.

After some time, Rabbi Akiva went back to [the cemetery].  He saw [the spirit of the wicked man] which said [to Akiva]: “May your mind be at ease for you have set my mind at ease.”  (Masekhet Kallah 2:9)

The story reveals several important beliefs and practices: first, the concept that the soul of a sinner is doomed to punishment; second, that the son of a sinner can do something to earn merit for his deceased father’s soul, thereby saving him from such punishments; and third, that those merits can be earned by leading a community in prayer.

Later versions in subsequent centuries expand the story and specify that the son recited bar’khu and y’hei sh’mei raba m’vorakh l’alam ul’almeh al’mayah.  

It seems that, over time, the recitation of the Kaddish came to be associated with mourning.  At first, it was recited at the end of the seven days of shiva that was observed for a Torah scholar.  On the seventh day, a learned discourse would take place in the home of the deceased.  This learning would culminate with a recitation of the Kaddish.

Apparently, some people felt left out.  Maybe there was someone whose family thought he was more of a Torah scholar than he actually was.  Maybe there was an outcry from the non-scholars who wanted equal treatment.  It is hard to tell, but the practice gradually expanded to include all deceased.

Similarly, a practice developed for sons who were mourning the loss of a parent to lead evening services on Saturday night after the conclusion of Shabbat.  I can only imagine the disputes that arose: opposing mourners fight over the right to lead, those who do not have the skill to lead but still want the opportunity to earn merits for their parents’ souls.  The need arose to provide more opportunities.

These various beliefs and practices eventually came together.  Instead of leading the entire service, a mourner could just recite the Kaddish at the end of the service, and it would be “as if” he had led the entire thing.  Plus, multiple mourners could have the opportunity to recite the Kaddish.  Finally, the practice spread from just the Saturday night service to every service.

In many traditional synagogues today, mourners do not all recite the Kaddish in unison.  Rather, each individual mourner stands up and says the words independently from his or her seat.  Other congregants respond with Y’hei sh’mei rabah… to the person who is closest to them.  The result is a cacophony of voices reciting these ancient words at different volumes and speeds.

The standard Jewish belief about what happens when we die goes like this:

The soul of a person who lived a totally righteous life goes straight to the Garden of Eden/the World to Come/God.  The soul of a person who lived a totally wicked life goes to hell/Sheol/non-existence.  For the in-between souls – which is pretty much all of us – our souls go to Gei Hinnom, or Gehenna.  This is what Christians refer to as Purgatory or Limbo.  It is assumed that our souls will have the residue of at least some sins still clinging to them.  This residue is removed while in Gehenna over the course of up to a year, and the soul is cleansed.  Then, it can move on to wherever it is that souls go.

Mourners recite the Kaddish as a way to earn merits on behalf of the soul of the deceased, shortening its period of purification before it returns to its Source.  That was the initial motivation for reciting Kaddish on behalf of one’s parent.  There are other things that we do to help our loved ones’ souls move on.  People learn Torah, give tzedakah, and perform other mitzvot with this specific intention.  It is a way of saying that our loved ones’ positive attributes are still alive and making an impact in this world.

The Kaddish has gained added significance as a way to ritually mark a person’s period of mourning, to offer the mourner something to do in the supportive presence of the community, and to identify the mourner to the community so that it can come to offer comfort.  People who recite Kaddish for a loved one often find it to be a deeply cathartic activity which helps them move through the stages of grieving at a time when their loss is still raw.

According to Jewish law, children recite Kaddish for a parent for eleven months.  Why eleven, and not twelve?  It is a mark of respect, a way of saying, “even though it can take up to a full year to purify a person’s soul, my parent only needed eleven months.”  Someone who has lost a spouse, sibling, or child recites Kaddish for thirty days.

Kaddish is then recited on the yahrzeit (anniversary) of the death of an immediate family member.  Those who are not in their periods of mourning or observing yarzheit, generally speaking, should not recite the Mourners’ Kaddish.

I am blessed to have both of my parents living and in good health.  Many of you have met them, as they visit our community several times a year.  They were just here for Rosh Hashanah.

While it is pretty standard in Conservative synagogues for the Rabbi to lead the Mourners’ Kaddish, every time I do, I feel a powerful dissonance between the words I am saying and the reality that it is not the time for me personally to be saying them.

As a Rabbi, I have justified saying the Kaddish for two reasons.  1. It is important for someone to provide leadership so that numerous mourners in the congregation can recite the words together at the same pace.  2. Some people find it difficult to recite the words of the Kaddish.  The Aramaic can be very difficult.  It is much easier when there is a leader reciting them loudly and at a steady pace.

I feel that the time has come for an adjustment to the way that we recite the Mourners’ Kaddish at Congregation Sinai so that I no longer have to say it.  Some communities invite all mourners to assemble at the front of the sanctuary to recite the Kaddish together.  If someone prefers to remain at his/her seat, it is, of course, perfectly acceptable for them to do so.  Other communities invite an individual mourner to step up to the podium to set the pace for all those who are in mourning or observing a yahrzeit.  These are both possibilities for us.  I will be engaging the Ritual Committee to identify a solution that works for Congregation Sinai and helps me to feel more comfortable.

This adjustment might feel awkward at first, but I believe it will ultimately strengthen the bonds between those who are in mourning and the rest of our community.  I appreciate that Sinai is a community that is open to change.  It means a lot to me to be the Rabbi of a community whose members are always supporting each other’s efforts to increase in our knowledge of Torah and our commitment to Judaism.

Memory, Gratitude, and the Promised Land – Ki Tavo 5775

Imagine, for a moment, that you are an Israelite.  Your parents, along with their ancestors, were slaves in Egypt.  Nearly forty years ago, God freed them and brought them out into the wilderness.  You were born in that wilderness, and have spent your entire life living a precarious existence: in-between, dependent on God for food, water, and protection; no longer enslaved, but not truly in control of your destiny.

Finally, you are within striking distance of the final destination, the Land of Israel.  The Jordan River flows in front of you, and on the other side you can see hills rising up into the distance

Your leader, Moses, old and weathered, called the entire nation together to hear a series of final speeches, which you have been listening to for the past several days.  He reviewed the history of the previous forty years, taught about God, and listed commandment after commandment.

At this point, it’s enough already.  You’re exhausted.  You’re bored of eating manna for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  You’re sick of living a nomadic existence.  You want to settle down.  You’ve bean hearing about the Promised Land your entire life.  It’s time that someone made good on that promise.

This morning, you roll out of your tent to hear yet another speech.  But today, Moses shifts gears.  He leads you through a mental time travel journey.

‘Right now,’ he begins, ‘you are about to enter the land that God has promised you.  You will settle it, and you will begin to build your lives.  You will construct homes, and you will plant seeds.  When the first harvest comes in, you need to do something.  Gather samples of the first fruits from everything you plant and bring them in a basket to the Priest.  And then, recite the following speech:

My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us . . . and the LORD heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The LORD freed us from Egypt . . . He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. (Deut. 26: 5–10)

It looks like it’s finally about to happen.

Notice there are three distinct time periods in this narrative: the present, in which Moses is speaking to the assembled Israelite nation; the not-too-distant future, after the Israelites have settled the land and gathered their first harvest; and the distant past, beginning with the first Israelites who made their way down to Egypt and were enslaved.

Present, future, and past – all existing in a single moment.

In the current reality, the Israelites can imagine themselves in the Promised Land.  They can see it, just ahead – across a river and over the hills.

But Moses, who will not be joining them there, is not content to let them simply arrive.  In fact, he knows that if they just show up, the Promised Land will slip through their fingers.  Two more things are needed – memory and gratitude.

The Israelites will not be able to appreciate the full extent of what they have achieved unless they keep the memory of where they have come from alive.  They need to express that memory with gratitude.  Only then can the achievement of the Promised Land be real for them.  So Moses prescribes a thanksgiving offering of first fruits to be accompanied by the performance of a historical narrative.

And here we are, thousands of years later, in yet a fourth time period.

Let’s think about this in personal terms.  Our lives are comprised of a series of journeys with numerous destinations.  We have had struggles on our way.  Successes, failures, disappointments, and surprises.  But hopefully, we have managed to articulate goals for ourselves.  Some of them we achieve.  Others remain elusive.

There are the big life goals: Have close friends.  Fall in love.  Get married.  Have kids.  Have grandkids.  Get a degree.  Build a career.  And so on.

And there are character goals – Be a kind person.  Be a supportive friend.  Be generous.  Contribute positively to the world.  Develop expertise in something.

Often, when we finally get what we want, we find that it is not the same as what we have built up in our minds.  The hype overshadows the reality.  Or, we don’t give ourselves enough credit for our successes.  We are disappointed.

We are asked us to put ourselves into the sandals of our ancient Israelite ancestors.  Partially-redeemed, able to imagine a Promised Land that is full of blessing, but required to recall the past with gratitude before we can fully experience that future in a sustainable way.

Rosh Hashanah is just over a week away.  It is a time when we consider the journeys that we are on.  Where are we headed?  Do we need to perform a course-correction?

Let’s also consider where we have come from.  Who do we have to be thankful to?  What blessings that we had nothing to do with have made our lives and the lives of those who have come before us better.  What can we offer as an expression of gratitude?

Only by taking the time to remember where we have come from, and how truly blessed we are, can we fully appreciate what we have to gain in the future.

Say Something Nice, Even If You Don’t Want To – Ki Tetzei 5775

Like the last several Torah portions, Ki Tetzei is comprised entirely of mitzvot, commandments.  Most of these mitzvot are bein adam l’adam.  They address our relationships with each other: relations between husbands and wives, children and parents, brothers and sisters, neighbors, customers, proprietors, friends in our communities, and those whom we don’t so much care for, the poor among us, citizens, as well as resident aliens.  Several mitzvot address compassionate treatment of animals.

We live interconnected lives, supporting and depending on vast networks of people on a daily basis.  The Torah teaches us that how we conduct these relationships is of ultimate importance.

Being Jewish is not limited to a set of cultural practices and rituals.  Just as important is our system of mitzvot, which is undergirded by an ethical system that treasures the inherit worth and equality of every human being, as well as the accountability that each of us bear for our decisions and actions.

It is just over two weeks until Rosh Hashanah.  We are halfway through the month of Elul, which means that we should be taking stock of our lives, conducting a cheshbon nefesh, a self-examination.  A big part of that self-examination should focus on our relationships with each other.

The mitzvot in the Torah portion deal primarily with specific events that occur between people, including dealing with misbehaving children, divorce, using honest weights in business dealings, fulfilling vows, and so on.  When we take a step back, we see that each individual interaction that we have with one another is a manifestation of our overall relationship.

According to family systems theory, as described in the book Generation to Generation by Edwin Friedman, relationships exist under a condition of homeostasis.  There is a balance between us, with each of us playing a set role.  It might not be a healthy balance, by the way.

Homeostatic relationship systems don’t like to change, but they are dynamic.  If one person in the relationship draws near, the other is likely to pull away, often unconsciously, in order to maintain the balance of the relationship system.

This is the time of year, however, when we have the opportunity to take a good, and hopefully honest look at ourselves and ask how we can be better.  We examine our relationships with the people in our lives: husbands, wives, partners, children and parents, siblings, friends, and coworkers.

But because our fundamental relationships are homeostatic, it is really hard to make a difference.

Let’s think about the following single aspect of our relationship with one person who we care about.  Consider how we speak to that person – specifically, how often we say something positive compared to how often we say something negative.

What is the ratio?  Let’s be honest.  One to one?  One compliment for every criticism.  Three to one?  Ten to one?  Or maybe it’s something like one positive statement for every three negative statements.

It might be difficult to estimate for ourselves, but we have got two weeks before Rosh Hashanah to gather some data.  That should be enough time.

A 2004 study looked at a group of sixty leadership teams at a large information-processing company.  It was trying to determine which factor made the biggest impact between the most and least successful teams.  The conclusion was that the ratio of positive comments to negative comments within members of the team was the greatest determining factor in their success.  They divided the teams into three groups.  The average ratio of the highest performing teams was 5.6 – that is, nearly six positive comments for every negative comment.  The ratio of the middle group was 1.9 – about two to one.  And the ratio of the lowest performing teams was 0.36.  In other words, team members criticized each other almost three times as often as they praised one another.

This should not be surprising to us.  Most people tend to dwell on the negative rather than the positive.  Receive a performance review with ten positive statements and one critique, and the only one we pay any attention to is the negative comment.

This is not only true in the workplace.  The number one determinant in predicting the likelihood of a married couple getting divorced is the ratio of positive to negative comments that the partners make to one another.  The ideal ratio?  Five to one.  For marriages that end in divorce, the ratio is .77 to one – about three positive comments to every four negative ones.

I suspect that the language we use with one another is more likely an indication of the state of a relationship rather than its cause.  But, I also believe that conscious adjustments to how we speak with one another can have a beneficial impact on the underlying health of a family, a marriage, or a friendship.

Make the effort to be more positive, even when it does not feel natural, or does not come easy to us.  In the moment, it will certainly make a difference for the other person, and probably also for ourselves.  Over time, it can also change the relationship itself.

Let me offer a few examples.  It does not have to be complicated:  Start with household chores:

• Thanks for setting the table, doing the dishes, taking out the trash, and so on.

• Thanks so much for working hard to provide for our family.  It must be stressful to carry that burden.

• Wow.  The house was so clean when I came home today.  It was nice to walk in the door to that.

• You really kept your cool when our daughter had her shouting tantrum.  I could not have remained so level-headed.  I’m glad you were there.

• Good job for going to the gym today.

• This morning, you worked hard to get everything done so that you could be out the door on time.  It helped make things really calm in the house, and helped me start off my day on a good note.

Even the superficial things matter.

• I like your shirt.

• Those pants look nice on you.

This might seem obvious, but I wonder if we take advantage of every opportunity to say something nice to the people in our lives.

After all, there is a lot that holds us back.  Anger, for one.  When we are mad at someone, the last thing we want to do is compliment them for doing something nice.  We want to punish them.

We also take each other for granted.  We do not always recognize the stress that another person is experiencing.  We often fail to notice the effort our family member has made to vacuum the house, make dinner, or take the kids to school.

But it is those small statements we make that communicate “I care about you.  I am happy that you are in my life.”  It feels good to receive them, and it feels good to make them.

That is my challenge to us for the next two weeks.  Pick one person in your life.  Count the number of positive statements you say to that person and compare it to the number of negative comments.  Calculate the ratio.  And then find more opportunities to give that ratio a bump upwards.

Pursuing Righteousness at Hanaton – Shoftim 5775

It is not possible for me to cover everything that I would like to share about the past five months in the next few minutes.  Expect it to come out in dribs and drabs over the course of the coming year.

This morning, I would like to describe a bit about the community in which my family and I lived for the majority of our time on sabbatical.

When trying to figure out where we would live, we initially thought of Jerusalem.  It soon became apparent that finding a school that would accept our children for only three months would pose a challenge.  So we started to think of alternatives.  In the course of asking around for suggestions, several people said, “Why don’t you check out Kibbutz Hanaton?”

Hanaton is located on a hill in the Lower Gallilee, about 30 minutes East of Haifa, a few kilometers from the Movil interchange.  It overlooks the Eshkol Reservoir, the major water reservoir serving the North.  It lies between the Bedouin village of Bir al-Mahsur and the Arab town of K’far Manda.

Dana and I had heard about Hanaton.  We knew that it was a Masorti kibbutz in the North.  Masorti is the name of the Conservative Movement in Israel.  It has a guest house that some USY Pilgrimage groups used to stay at for a few days, although neither of us had been there.  But we did not know anything beyond that.

So we started to inquire, including sending an email to a friend who had a friend who lived  part-time on Hanaton.  That friend of a friend sent an email to the Hanaton listserve, and before we knew it, people that we had never met were reaching out to us, offering to answer questions about life on Hanaton, school options, and living opportunities.

We lucked out in finding a basement apartment for rent, and then we started making our plans.

But let’s back up.  Eight years ago, Kibbutz Hanaton, which was founded in 1983 by a group of Olim from North America, was down to about three members, and had hundreds of thousands of shekels worth of debt.  It was on the verge of collapse.

Rabbi Yoav Ende was a recently ordained Masorti Rabbi who had a vision of building an inclusive, open, pluralistic religious community.  He recruited a small cohort of young families who were ready to take a risk and try something new.  In 2008, they moved to Hanaton and transformed it into a kibbutz mitchadesh – a revitalized kibbutz.

Hanaton is not what you are thinking of when you hear the word “kibbutz.”  Kids live with their parents.  Each family lives in its own home, owns its own belongings, and has its own car.  There is no community dining hall.

Collectively, the kibbutz owns a few businesses, the largest being a refet, or dairy farm, which is wisely located at the top of the hill, upwind from the housing area.  This ensures that kibbutz members have a constant olfactory reminder of the shared enterprise which is the kibbutz’s most profitable endeavor.  I like to call that reminder eau de refet.

There is a fantastic boutique winery called Jezreel Valley Winery, a hydroponic lettuce farm called Yarok al HaYam, a ceramics studio, and a horse therapy center.  Most kibbutz members work outside of the kibbutz in just about any profession you could imagine.  There are several nursery schools, and a group is actively trying to establish a grade school on Hanaton.

So in what way is Hanaton actually a kibbutz?  It’s collective in the sense that the people who live there have joined together to build a community founded on shared values of Judaism, pluralism, democracy, and egalitarianism.  Members come from diverse backgrounds: Masorti, Reform, Secular, and Orthodox.  They come from diverse political persuasions.  There are all sorts of family configurations living at Hanaton, including single parents and same sex families.

On Shabbat, the central streets of the kibbutz are closed to automobiles, although not every kibbutz member keeps Shabbat or kashrut.  If someone wants to use their car, they just park it outside the gate.  Friends who identify as secular explained to us that they want their children to grow up with a deep knowledge, learned from lived experience, of what it means to be a Jew.  Friends who identify as religious talk about wanting to raise their children in a pluralistic community.  There are nine Rabbis living on Hanaton, hailing from every single major movement in Judaism.

There is no Mara D’atra, or person who is in charge of making religious decision on behalf of the community.  Questions are dealt with somewhat collectively.

Tefilah on Shabbat feels a lot like here at Sinai – informal, participatory, child friendly, and non-judgmental.  Each week, a different family or group takes responsibility for Shabbat services, assigning services leaders and Torah readers, preparing the D’var Torah, and sponsoring the kiddush.

Now at 70 families and growing, Hanaton recently closed its debt and is continuing to attract members, construct new homes, and build new community facilities.  Because just about everyone there has moved in within the last seven years, the community is comprised mostly of young families, meaning there are kids everywhere.  They are free to roam unsupervised.  That took a little bit of adjustment for our family.  We knew our kids would be safe, because we knew that there would be an entire kibbutz of adults looking out for them.  Needless to say, it was great for them.

The Hanaton Educational Center, led by Rabbi Ende, is also doing fantastic things.  It just graduated its third Mechinah cohort.  Mechinah is kind of like a gap year for Israeli high school graduates before they begin their army or national service.  The Mechinistim come from all over the country.  Like the members of the kibbutz, they arrive from diverse backgrounds.  They take classes in which they discuss Judaism, philosophy, Israel, and Zionism.  They volunteer in the surrounding area.  They build connections with neighboring Arab communities.  And they are adopted by families from the kibbutz.  It is really touching to see how past graduates came back to be with their kibbutz families for Shavuot.

This year, the Educational Center is starting a gap year program for North American students as well.  Having lived there, and knowing Rabbi Ende and the other people who are running the program, I can tell you that it will be an incredible experience.  Let me know if you are interested.

And they have more plans for expansion as well.

Rabbi Ende explained to me that his motivation for rebuilding Hanaton and its Educational Center is Zionistic.  He wants to make a positive contribution to Israeli society, and he knows that the best way he can do this is by focusing not on national or international policy, but rather, on his own community.  He is trying to build a kibbutz that embraces values of Judaism, pluralism, and democracy, and that teaches those values to young Israelis before they begin their army service.  That way, they will bring their increased understanding with them when they defend their country.  The Educational Center also tries to pursue those values in the wider community through programming with neighboring villages, especially some of the nearby Arab communities.

Of course, as everywhere, Hanaton struggles over some decisions, and as a young community, is still figuring out how best to talk about controversial topics without dividing people.

So let me tell you about our first days in Israel, back in March.  We arrive at Ben Gurion Airport, spend our first couple of nights with Motti, Sinai’s High Holiday Cantor, and his family, and then drive up to the kibbutz.  We cannot get into our apartment, so we drop our bags off on the porch of someone who until now we have only met by email.  Then, we do what everyone around the world does when they move into a new home – we go to IKEA.

Wandering around IKEA, our phones start ringing and buzzing with calls and texts.  Apparently, there is a gaggle of third graders outside of our locked apartment, eager to meet the new boy and show him around the kibbutz.  What a welcome!  And that pretty much characterizes our experience for the next three and a half months.

Congregation Sinai is a really friendly community.  When someone new shows up in services, our members go out of their way to welcome them and help them settle in.  We found Hanaton to be very familiar in this regard.

This was not our experience at other synagogues we visited in Israel.  When we entered other communities, people did not generally come up to introduce themselves and find out who we were.  But the members of Hanaton went above and beyond.  People offered us furniture and cooking supplies.  Our kids were welcomed into after school chugim, activities.  We were invited to Shabbat meals.

Dana and I tried to help out wherever we could.  When they found out I played guitar, I was recruited to help out with tefilah in “Shishi Yehudi,” a supplementary religious school program that takes place on Friday mornings.  Dana helped prepare food for the Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration and chaperoned several class trips as the medic.  We helped out with Shabbat services.  It was great for us to be able to participate in community life.  It was also kind of nice, I have to admit, to arrive a little bit late to shul, and fall asleep in the back row.

At the end of our time, the same friend on whose porch we left our luggage hosted a goodbye party for us.  We are so grateful to the members of Kibbutz Hanaton for opening up their hearts to us when they knew that we were only going to be there for a limited time.

In Parashat Shoftim, Moshe presents detailed instructions about how the Israelites are to form functioning, thriving communities once they have entered the Promised Land.  As the opening words suggest, shoftim v’shotrim titen l’kha b’khol she’arekha.  “Judges and officers you shall appoint in all of your gates” – the overall emphasis is on justice, or righteousness.  Indeed, a few verses later, we read the famous words, tzedek, tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice shall you pursue.  From the appointment of judges, officials, and leaders, to the conduct of court cases, to rooting out immorality, to waging war against enemies, Parashat Shoftim  recognizes justice as a goal that must constantly pursued, even as absolute justice remains perpetually out of reach.  It also emphasizes that justice can only emerge when members of a society work together to make these ideals a reality in the messy real world.

This is what we found at Hanaton – a group of people who have moved their entire families into a community in order to pursue this vision of tzedek.  I often found myself thinking that Hanaton is what Sinai would be like if we all lived together in a small community.  It is a nice thought.  We are a community made of members who have come together to pursue righteousness.

Sinai has always been lay led, but it is not easy for a synagogue to function without its rabbi for five months.  From everything I have heard and seen, the Sinai community has thrived.  I am not surprised.  We have an incredible community of knowledgeable, talented, and dedicated members.  There was someone to deliver a d’rash, lead services, and chant Torah every week.  Education programs continued while I was gone.  A group of musicians worked together to lead Kabbalat Shabbat services.  Mourners received the care and comfort that they needed.

I am not going to list the names of the many volunteers and staff members who stepped up these past five months, but I do want to let you know how much my sabbatical enriched me.  It deepened my connection to Israel, and my Jewish identity.  And it was a great experience for my family.  Thank you for making it possible.

Todah Rabah.