Castrametation – Ki Teitzei 5777

I came across a new word just this past Thursday in a novel I am reading.  It was used as the title of one of the chapters.  “Castrametation.”  Does anyone know what it means?

Castrametation: the making or laying out of a military camp

Imagine my surprise the next day when I realized that castrametation is one of the themes in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki Teitzei.

And you shall have a marker outside the camp and shall go there outside.  And you shall have a spike (tent peg) together with your battle gear, and it shall be, when you sit outside. you shall dig with it and go back and cover your excrement.  For the Lord your God walks about in the midst of your camp to rescue you and to give your enemies before you, and your camp shall be holy, that He should not see among you anything shamefully exposed and turn back from you.  (Deuteronomy 23:13-15)

On a p’shat – plain sense – level, the Torah is describing castrametation – how the military camp should be organized.  Of course, there is the obvious element of sanitation and hygiene, which are at least as significant to the end results of a war as the actual fighting itself

The Torah frames it not as an issue of health, but as an issue of Sanctity.  When Israel goes to war, God is with them.  Their victory depends on God fighting on their behalf.  For God to remain, the latrines must be dug – and used – outside of the camp.  It is not about germs.  It is about holiness.

As we might expect, Jewish tradition digs through the p’shat to find broader messages for our lives.  Several Talmudic midrashim see the various elements of this law metaphorically.

The first midrash (BT Yoma 75b)understands this message not as an instruction about how to set up a military camp, but rather an allusion to the condition of the Israelites’ digestive tracks during their time in the wilderness.  The midrash begins by quoting Psalm 78 (vss. 24-25) which, referring to the manna, states “Man did eat the bread of the mighty (abirim)”  The Gemara asks what abirim are.  Eventually, it suggests that  the word abirim should actually be read as eivarim, which means “limbs.”  The manna was completely absorbed into the Israelites bodies.  There was no waste whatsoever.  How convenient!

If that is the case, the Talmud asks, why do we have to be told to dig a latrine and bury our excrement?  After tossing a few ideas around, the answer is given:

After they sinned, [the manna was not as effective.] The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: I [initially] said [that] they would be like ministering angels [who do not produce waste]; now I will trouble them to walk three parasangs [to leave the camp in order to relieve themselves].

So this is really a story about Israel’s sinfulness.  At first, there is no need to build a latrine, and God can walk about the Israelite camp without a problem.  But when Israel sins – by complaining about the manna, says Rashi – their intestines become less efficient.  Now the Israelites have to periodically leave camp to do their business so that they can maintain it as a place in which God can continue to reside.

Midrash number two, from Tractate Sotah (BT Sotah 3b) also tells a story of sin in the wilderness.  But this time, the focus is not on the entire camp, but on individual homes.  At first, Rav Hisda teaches, the Shechinah – God’s Presence – would reside within each and every Israelite home.  After they sin, however, God turns away from them so that God does not see any unseemly matter.

The commentator Rashi explains that the types of sin in question are those pertaining to sexual immorality.  That is why the focus is on God’s Presence within the individual homes of the Israelites.

The final midrash (BT Ketubot 5a) shifts the focus to the everyday situations in which each of us finds ourselves.  Like the first one, this midrash relies upon a pun in the Hebrew.

Bar Kappara asks what the Torah means when it says “And you shall have a spike (tent peg) together with your battle gear.”  “Battle gear” in Hebrew is azeinekha.  Don’t read it as azeinekha, Bar Kappara says, but rather as oznekha, which means, “your ears.”  This means that if a person hears something unseemly, an inappropriate thing, he should place his spike, that is to say, his finger, into his years.

We are exposed to situations that we know are not good for us on a daily basis.  I’ll give just one example: gossip – the most pervasive, and potentially harmful, sin in the Torah.  Even if I am not the person spreading the gossip, even hearing it can have terrible effects.

Gossip certainly harms the person being gossiped about.  The spreader of gossip is committing a sin which Jewish tradition compares to murder.  And when I hear it, it produces negative feelings about the other person, and even harms my own sense of self.

According to this midrash, whenever I find myself in the company of people who are gossiping, I should shove my fingers in my ears – figuratively by walking away, or perhaps even literally.

These three midrashim shift the focus from castrametation to our ability to maintain a community and home in which we are grateful for the blessings around us, respectful of each other’s boundaries, and cognizant of the kinds of people and situations we should place ourselves.  God’s Presence in our midst depends on our ability to maintain proper boundaries.

A 19th century Chassidic Rabbi named Jacob Kattina wrote a book called Korban He’ani.  In it, he directs our attention to an acronym hidden in the text.

כִּי֩ יְ-הֹוָ֨ה אֱ-לֹהֶ֜יךָ מִתְהַלֵּ֣ךְ | בְּקֶ֣רֶב מַחֲנֶ֗ךָ לְהַצִּילְךָ֙ וְלָתֵ֤ת אֹיְבֶ֨יךָ֙ לְפָנֶ֔יךָ

For the Lord your God walks about in the midst of your camp to rescue you and to give your enemies before you.

The last four words of this phrase – לְהַצִּילְךָ֙ וְלָתֵ֤ת אֹיְבֶ֨יךָ֙ לְפָנֶ֔יךָ “to give your enemies before you” – begin with the letters ל ,א ,ו ,ל – which are the letters in Elul – אלול, the Hebrew month in which we currently find ourselves.

Elul is the month before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we are supposed to be engaged in cheshbon hanefesh, taking stock of our lives.  What sins are we carrying from the past year?  Where are the broken places in our relationships with each other?  What is keeping us from experiencing God’s Presence in our lives?

Rabbi Kattina sees in this verse a “hint that in this month, the Holy One can be found among the Jewish people.  He then cites the Rabbis’ teaching about the verse from Isaiah: “Seek the Lord while He can be found, call to Him while He is near.”  (Isaiah 55:6) The gates of repentance are open, therefore let there not be seen in you anything unseemly and let your encampment be holy.

Let us use these next few weeks take an honest look at ourselves, our homes, and our community.  God wants to walk among us, in our homes, and in our communities.  But it is up to us to make our communities, our homes, and our selves worthy of God’s Presence.

Shabbat Shalom.

Response to Charlottesville – Re’eh 5777

Like many of you, I am astonished over what has been taking place over the past week.  I went to the University of Virginia for my undergraduate degree and lived in Charlottesville for three years.  I never expected it to be all over the news for a reason like this.

As I am sure you know, last week’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, has brought anger and fear to the surface.  People are anxious and not sure what to do.

The rally was organized by numerous self-identified Alt-Right groups, including, neo-Nazis, skinheads, white supremacists, and the Ku Klux Klan.  They were protesting the removal of a statue of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a city park.

Over the course of the two day rally, the protesters marched through the University of Virginia campus with torches, as well as through the streets of Charlottesville.  They shouted slogans and waived signs attacking Jews, Muslims, immigrants, the media, and others.

Usually, I avoid comparing contemporary situations to Nazis, Hitler, or the Holocaust.  As soon as anyone makes that kind of comparison, emotions flare and constructive conversation usually ends.

But these people were explicitly embracing Nazi slogans and actions.  They shouted the Nazi slogan “blood and soil,” they gave the Nazi salute.  Nazi flags waved.  Signs read “Goyim know,” and “Jews are satan’s children.”  Every time the Charlottesville mayor got up to speak, they shouted “Jew, Jew!”

There were large numbers of counter-protesters as well, and numerous fights broke out.  In a horrible tragedy, two State Troopers died when their helicopter crashed.  And a twenty year old man who had previously expressed Nazi sympathies drove a car into crowds on the pedestrian mall, murdering Charlottesville resident Heather Heyer and injuring 19 people.

It is hard to believe that something like this is happening in twenty first century America.  Until now, I have avoided making any public statements about President Trump.  But I cannot remain silent on this.

Many of the Unite the Right protestors were waving “Trump/Pence” signs and wearing “Make America Great Again” hats.  In their own words, they draw strength from his election.

The President spoke about Charlottesville publicly for the first time on Saturday.  He stated “we condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.”  He did not label the attack terrorism.  He did not reject the Alt-Right’s embrace of him or condemn any of the groups by name.  And by saying “many sides,” he implied that the protestors and counter-protestors were equally to blame.

Under enormous pressure from all directions, President Trump made a second statement two days later, in which he said:

To anyone who acted criminally in this weekend’s racist violence, you will be held fully accountable. Justice will be delivered. […] Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.

He said the words, but it was not an especially forceful condemnation.  Alt-Right leader Richard Spencer responded by declaring that the statement was “hollow” and that Trump had not denounced the Alt-Right movement or white nationalism.  Spencer said, “his statement today was more kumbaya nonsense… Only a dumb person would take those lines seriously.”

And then the next day, in an unscripted press conference, the President returned to his original sentiments, declaring that there was “blame on both sides.”  He claimed that “not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me.  Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch.”  And he went on to say that there were “very fine people on both sides,” and he criticized what he called the “very, very violent… alt-left.”

To declare moral equivalency between Nazi flag-waving white supremacists and the people who gather to oppose them simply boggles the mind.

There is no moral equivalency.  There is a moral obligation to oppose hate and intolerance.  We have a duty to fight racism, bigotry, antisemitism, and sexism.  Doesn’t everybody know this?

How many times have we heard, or ourselves said, something to the effect of “there are no innocent bystanders?”  When evil appears in our midst, we have a moral obligation to act.

I am reassured by the outpouring of anger by vast numbers of Americans – conservative and liberal – who are simply appalled by President Trump’s failure to provide any moral leadership.  His words and actions have fanned the flames of hate and emboldened people who until recently have only acted on the fringes of society.

I do not believe that what we are witnessing today remotely resembles Germany in the 1930’s.  We are seeing disparate fringe elements coming together and making a lot of noise.  And that noise is strengthening individuals and groups that are working towards greater  peace, acceptance, and understanding.

But we need more from the leader of our country.  Can you imagine a US President of the past fifty years, of either Party, who would not have found the right words to forcefully repudiate neo-Nazis marching in the streets of America?

The Torah is not ambivalent about right and wrong.  At the beginning of Parashat Re’eh.  Moses places a challenge before the Israelites:

See this day I place before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced.”  (Deuteronomy 11:26-28)

There is a right way and a wrong way.  Choosing the path of blessing, the path of God, has been our challenge as a people since we stood at Sinai.  What is that path?  What does it mean to choose life, to choose blessing?  The Torah often speaks in lofty language about our obligation to care for the least powerful members of society, to welcome the stranger into our midst, and to apply laws equally to citizen and foreigner.  It is the most widespread theme in the Torah, and can be found in this morning’s reading.

Parashat Re’eh also expands on what, to modern readers, is one of the most disturbing themes in the Torah.  Moses instructs the Israelites to utterly wipe out idolatry from the land of Israel.  Those who practice it must be killed relentlessly, and the cities in which it thrives must be razed to the ground.

This extreme xenophobia has always troubled Jews.  In ancient times, the Rabbis wrestled with how to live peacefully and constructively in a multicultural society.  Jews in ancient times often had good relations – both business and social – with their non-Jewish, often pagan, neighbors.  The Rabbis knew that to reconcile the Torah’s black and white message with the multi-hued society around them, it would take creativity.  They developed the understanding that the seven Canaanite nations had ceased to exist many centuries earlier.  The Torah, thus, speaks only of an ancient time that has no bearing on the present.

But the Rabbis’ solution sidesteps the issue.  With thousands of years of history behind us, we know, or at least we ought to know, the evil of racism and xenophobia.  We as a people have too often been victimized by those who have argued, “my religion is truer,” “my culture is better,” “my blood is purer.”  Yet the Torah seems to advocate that same attitude viz a viz idolatry.

I squirm in my seat when I read verses telling us to annihilate an entire people.  Justifying these words by claiming that the Torah is referring to something that happened a long time ago does not solve the moral horror.  How can the same book promote boundless generosity and acceptance on the one hand, and violence and intolerance on the other?

What does the Torah mean when it talks about idolatry?  From the Torah’s perspective, there is something pervasively and irredeemably immoral about it. The great twentieth century Rabbi and Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel was an important religious leader in the Civil Rights Movement.  In 1963, he attended a conference of religious leaders entitled “Religion and Race.”  He wrote an essay of the same name which offers us a way to understand idolatry.

Perhaps this Conference should have been called ‘Religion or Race.’  You cannot worship God and at the same time look at a man as if he were a horse…

What is an idol?  Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol.

Faith in God is not simply an afterlife-insurance policy.  Racial or religious bigotry must be recognized for what it is: satanism, blasphemy.

In the 1960’s, Heschel was speaking about a society which was racist to its core.  To raise the living conditions of African Americans, he writes, normal everyday people had to shed their complacency and get involved.

Heschel’s definition of idolatry suggests that whenever we forget that all human beings are created in God’s image, we commit idolatry.

Heschel notes that when the Bible describes God’s creation of the universe, it specifies that “God created different kinds of plants, different kinds of animals (Genesis 1:11-12, 21-25)  In striking contrast, it does not say, God created different kinds of man, men of different colors and races; it proclaims, God created one single man.  From one single man all men are descended.”

The idolatry that Parashat Re’eh would have us eradicate is the belief that not all humans are reflections of God.

If I take seriously the prohibition of “sitting idly by,” what should I be doing?  I have been struggling with how to respond.

Well, I do happen to be a Rabbi, and I have a pulpit.  That is why I am speaking about this now.  One can certainly get involved in protests and counter-protests, writing letters to politicians and newspapers.  These are admirable actions to take.  But they are not for everyone.

We combat hate with love.  Let’s make an extra effort to learn about someone who is different.  Have an open conversation with a person who does not share your opinion or way of life.  Invite them over for dinner.  Share your own stories.  When we can increase the human connections between ourselves and others, peace is sure to follow.

Thomas Jefferson, the founder of the University of Virginia (“Mr. Jefferson’s University,” as we call it), wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

We do not have to tremble for our country.  I have faith in the American people to recognize right from wrong, and to move, albeit in fits and starts, towards the direction of justice and peace.

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.