And Joseph Lived… And Joseph Died – Parashat Vayechi 5780

L’chayim! To life!

The name of this morning’s Torah portion is Vayechi, which means “and he lived.”  It comes from the word Chai, as in l’chayim.  To life!

The major focus of the reading, however, is death.  It is not the first time.  This is similar to descriptions of earlier figures like Sarah and Abraham, whose deaths are also introduced by some form of the word chayim.

The opening words of Parashat Vayechi are Vayechi Ya’alov — “Jacob lived seventeen years in the land of Egypt, so that the span of Jacob’s life came to one hundred and forty-seven years.  And when the time approached for Israel to die…” and so on. Most of the parashah describes Jacob’s actions over the course of his final days.  

He says his goodbyes to his family members.  First he calls his son Joseph to his bedside, along with Joseph’s sons Efraim and Menashe.  Jacob offers a special blessing to them, effectively granting Joseph the double portion that typically went to the firstborn.

Then Jacob summons all of his sons to his side to offer his final words to each of them.  He instructs them to return his body to Canaan, the Promised Land.  They must bury him in the ancestral grave at the Cave of Machpelah.  

When he dies, Jacob’s body is embalmed over the course of forty days in preparation for its journey.  Then the Egyptians mourn him for seventy days.  There is a grand procession as Jacob’s sons accompany his body to the Promised Land.  When they finally bury him, they mourn for an additional seven days.  This is the most extensive funeral description in the entire Bible.

The last five verses of Vayechi are a miniaturized repetition of the earlier parts of the Torah portion. While the bulk of the parashah describes the final days of Jacob, the coda describes Joseph’s passing.  In doing so, it follows a nearly identical pattern.

When it comes time for Joseph to die, the Torah introduces the episode with the word Vayechi, just as it had with Jacob.  Vayechi Yosef me’ah v’eser shanim, “and Joseph lived one hundred and ten years.” We then read how Joseph spends his final days.

Like Jacob, Joseph lives to see his progeny, children of the third generation.  In other, words, he is a great grandfather.  Before his death, Joseph gathers his family together for a final blessing.  He also makes them swear to bring his bones up to the Promised Land. All of this is in emulation of Jacob.

Then we encounter a new word.  Vayamot — “And he died.” Earlier it said, Vayechi Yosef me’ah v’eser shanim.  Now, five verses later, it says, Vayamot Yosef ben-me’ah va’eser shanim — “And Joseph died at one hundred and ten years.”  Note that the Torah has repeated the length of Joseph’s life.  We will come back to that.

Joseph is embalmed, like Jacob.  Unlike his father, Joseph’s body is placed in a coffin and stored in Egypt.  The final burial is going to have to wait. This ends both the parashah, as well as the entire book of Genesis.

This unfulfilled promise to bring Joseph’s bones back to the Promised Land is an ominous ending.  Life in Egypt is to be temporary.  The children of Jacob should not get too comfortable in this foreign land.

We come back to the word vayechi.  And he lived.  Jacob, and Joseph, teach us an important lesson.  It is not the length of years that matter so much as how we live them. When it comes time to die, the Torah emphasizes how they lived.  Even in their infirmity, Jacob and Joseph both used their remaining time most effectively.  They gather their family together, despite a history of some very difficult relationships.  They offer final blessings, and instructions.  They let their children know how they wanted to be buried and remembered. We can say that they did not spend their dying days dying, but rather living.

Now we come back to the repetition of Joseph’s lifespan: one hundred and ten years.  Why is it repeated in the span of just five verses? 19th century Polish Rabbi Chayim Aryeh Leib suggests that it is to emphasize that Joseph died with a shem tov – a good name.  That is to say, when he died, his name was still Joseph.  Even though he had been the viceroy of Egypt for eighty years, even though Pharaoh had bestowed upon him the Egyptian name of Tzafnat Paneach, he still insisted on keeping his Hebrew name, Yosef.   For this reason, the Torah specifies that Joseph lived for 110 years, and when he died after 110 years, he was still Joseph.

Each generation learns from the previous.  A midrash explains that the Israelites, throughout their time enslaved in Egypt, kept their Hebrew names.  That was one of the reasons that they merited redemption. To this day, Jews may have secular names in the language of their country, but we also have our Jewish names, which we use in all of our religious activities.

Parashat Vayechi is about generations passing on lessons about what is important, not by speaking, but by living.  We learn that to live Jewishly is to live with intention. Jacob teaches his sons how to live out his final days, and Joseph clearly is paying attention. Joseph, the only one of the brothers who lived most of his life in Egypt, outside of the homeland, keeps his identity to the very end.  Future generations follow his example.  Centuries later, when God remembers the promise to the Patriarchs, the Israelites still have their names, and still have their identity as the children of Jacob.

Disappointment and Thanks – Vayetze 5780

I got the idea for this D’var Torah from “Can We Be Grateful and Disappointed at the Same Time?” in The Heart of Torah, by Rabbi Shai Held, pp. 60-63.

It is no exaggeration to point out that the Torah pays much more attention to its male characters rather than its females.  Even when women do play a role in the story, there tend to be  fewer details and less character development.  So it is especially important for us to pay attention to our biblical heroines.

Let’s talk about Leah.  When we think of Leah, what comes to mind?

She is the older sister of Rachel. She is unloved. She has weak eyes. She has lots of children. Does she have any positive traits?

She is one of the Matriarchs.  But even we demote her.  Listen to our egalitarian siddurElohei Sarah, Elohei Rivkah, Elohei Rachel, v’Elohei Leah.  She comes last, even though she is older than her sister Rachel.  It’s like we are mentioning her name out of a sense of obligation.

Let’s see if we can learn more about Leah, who after all is one of our Matriarchs.  What does she teach us?

As the story opens, we hear about Rachel, who is beautiful and shapely.  Presumably, she has many suitors.  After all, Jacob falls in love with her as soon as he sees her.  Jacob agrees to work for seven years to win her hand.

Throughout this time, we hear about Leah only once.  The Torah tells us that Lavan had two daughters.  Leah has “weak eyes,” in contrast to Rachel, who is “shapely and beautiful.”  This brief description of the sisters foreshadows the events to follow. The ambiguous description of Leah’s weak eyes is ironic, given that Leah is the one whom others fail to see. 

In a society in which a daughter is only married by her father’s arrangement, it is safe to assume that Leah has never had a suitor.  Nobody has come asking for her hand.  Without deception, her father seems to think, he will never marry her off.  On the night on which Jacob is supposed to marry Rachel, Laban substitutes Leah.  

Leah is so invisible that Jacob does not even notice until the next morning.  How does he react?  Does he have anything kind to say after spending the night with Leah?  He does not utter a single word to his new wife.  Instead, he lets his father in law have it. “What is this you have done to me?  I was in your service for Rachel!  Why did you deceive me?”  (Genesis 29:25) He is furious.  We can picture the froth spraying out of Jacob’s mouth.

But what of Leah?  Imagine her feelings as she sits there shamed and embarrassed.  Leah already knows how little her father thinks of her.  Her husband has just confirmed that he shares those feelings. How heartbreaking.

A week later, Jacob marries Rachel.  The Torah wastes no time informing us that “Jacob cohabited with Rachel also; indeed, he loved Rachel more than Leah.”  (Genesis 29:30)

Then we catch the first glimpse of compassion, although it does not come from any human source.  “The Lord saw that Leah was unloved and He opened her womb; but Rachel was barren.”  (Genesis 29:31) She may be invisible to her father, her husband, and presumably her sister, but God sees Leah.

She names her firstborn son Reuven, offering two explanations for her choice:  “Ki ra’ah Adonai b’onyi—”The Lord has seen my affliction”—and ki atah ye’ehavani ishi—”Now my husband will love me.”  While the Torah tends not to describe the inner feelings of its characters, Leah’s sadness, disappointment, and desperation are all too clear. She has another son, whom she names ShimonKi shama Adonai ki-senuah anokhi—”For the Lord has heard that I am unloved.” Leah names her third son Levi, explaining atah hapa’am yilaveh ishi—”This time my husband will become attached to me.”

Notice the verbs she employs for her first three sons:  ra’ah, shamah, yilaveh.  See me.  Hear me.  Become attached to me. Leah, unloved, feels unseen, unheard, and untouched.  She is desparate for recognition.

Then she has a fourth son, whom she names Judah, YehudahHapa’am odeh et Adonai—”This time I will praise the Lord.” Something has changed.  The name Leah chooses does not reflect her suffering and disappointment.  Her home life is still the same.  Jacob still ignores her.  But she seems to have made peace with it.  With Yehudah, Leah offers her thanks to God.  She is begins to carry gratitude along with her disappointment.

In the Talmud (BT Berakhot 7b), Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai declares: From the moment when the Holy Blessed One created the world, there was not a single person who gave thanks to God until Leah came and thanked him by declaring, “This time I will praise the Lord.” This is not precisely true.  There have been others who have given thanks to God, and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai surely knows this.  So what is he getting at?

Rabbi Shai Held suggests that earlier expressions of thanks in the Torah all come from a place in which everything is wonderful.  According to the Midrash, Adam offers a prayer of thanks when he notices how perfectly assembled the human body is. Noah makes a sacrifice to God after he safely exits the ark on to dry land with his family and all the animals.

Leah, in contrast, is not happy with her situation.  Life is far from wonderful for her.  But for the first time, she is able to express appreciation alongside her disappointment. Emphasizing the lesson, this child, Yehudah, the child of gratitude, is the one who will rise above his brothers.  Even though he is the fourth born, Yehudah will step forward to be the leader in the negotiations with Joseph in Egypt. Yehudah, the tribe will become the dominant tribe in the South.  King David will come form Yehudah, and when the monarchy divides, Yehudah will transition into the southern kingdom.  Eventually, of course, Yehudah becomes the adopted national identity of the people of Israel, and today we call ourselves Yehudim.

We do not often think about the origins of that name, how it emerges out of a condition of sadness and disappointment.  But does it not express a fundamental truth of human existence?  Life is not how I expected or hoped it would be.  But in that incompleteness, I still strive to see the good, and to express gratitude.

The name Yehudah offers a fitting complement to the other name of the Jewish people, Yisrael, which Jacob receives after wrestling with the angel.  “You have striven with beings divine and human and prevailed.”  Life is a struggle.  To be a part of the children of Israel is to stay engaged with it.

Yehudah is about being able to hold thanks and disappointment in the same hand.  If we look at the long history of our people, we see that it is a fitting name indeed.  Has there ever been a time without disappointment?  Through it all, we have struggled to retain a sense of optimism, and to give thanks whenever the opportunity arises.

We learn this lesson from Leah Imeinu, our Matriarch—Leah.

Noah the Quirky Biologist – Noah 5780

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

Haleakala Silversword

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

Haleakala Silversword after flowering

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

Isn’t nature amazing?  Good job God.

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

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

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

So Noah gets to work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Easy to Promise Something You Don’t Have, But Hard to Deliver It When You Do – Vayetze 5779

If there is one thing that I have learned about parenting, it is this: never promise your kids anything.  They will hold you to it.  So whenever I am asked, “Do you promise?” the answer is always, “No.”

At the beginning of this morning’s Torah portion, Vayetze, Jacob is fleeing from the land of his birth, Canaan, on his way to Haran.  He is trying to escape from his brother Esau, who in his anger at Jacob for stealing the blessing that should have been his, has vowed to kill him.

When he reaches the border, Jacob stops at an unnamed place to lay down for the night.  Taking a rock for a pillow, he goes to sleep by the side of the road.  He dreams of a ladder extending from the ground up to heaven.  Angels are ascending and descending, and God stands next to him.  In the dream, God blesses Jacob, promising offspring as numerous as the dust on the earth.  They will inherit the land and be a blessing to the world.  Furthermore, God will remain with Jacob, protecting him while he is abroad, and never leaving until this promise has been fulfilled.

That’s a great dream!  Not bad for a night’s sleep.

Jacob wakes up, knowing that something amazing has transpired.  “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.  “How awesome is this place!  This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.”

He takes his stone pillow, sets it up as a pillar, anoints it with oil, and names the site Beit El—the House of God.  Then Jacob makes a vow:

If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house—the Lord shall be my God.  And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God’s abode; and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You.  (Genesis 28:20-22)

Jacob has just promised three things: 1.  The Lord shall be My God.  2.  This pillar shall be God’s abode—Beit Elohim.  3.  I will set aside a tithe—that is to, ten percent of everything he owns.

How are we to understand this vow?  It seems kind of redundant.  God has just promised to protect Jacob and return him safely to the land of Canaan.  Why does Jacob need to repeat it?

The cynic would take offense at Jacob’s audacity.  It sounds like he is bargaining with God, or even extorting God to protect him.  “You want to be my God?  You want me to worship You? Then You had better deliver!”

But remember, at this point in his life, Jacob has absolutely nothing.  He is so poor that he has to use a rock for a pillow.  He has, quite literally, nothing to give.  

So he offers God a share in future earnings.  All that he can do is make a vow:  “I don’t have anything I can give You now, but when You do what You say You are going to do, and I have become rich beyond my wildest dream, then I will promise to give You one tenth of everything I own.”

That is quite a promise.  Will Jacob deliver?

By the end of this morning’s Torah portion, twenty years have passed.  Jacob has established a large family and amassed a tremendous fortune.  The time has come for him to leave Haran and return to the land of Canaan.  The parashah ends with Jacob setting off on the return journey with his entire household.

Next week’s portion begins the long anticipated and feared reunion with Esau.  The reunion goes better than expected and Jacob moves on to Shechem with his family.  After the rape of his daughter Dina and the subsequent massacre of the men of the town, Jacob picks up and moves again.  Finally, he arrives at Beit El, the same place at which he had his dream of angels rising and descending a ladder.  This is the same place where, without a penny to his name, Jacob vowed to present a tithe to the Lord in exchange for God’s protection and blessing.

God appears to Jacob once again, blesses him, changes his name from Jacob to Israel, and promises that his descendants will inherit the land.  

God has certainly delivered God’s part.  Now it is Jacob’s turn.

Remember, Jacob promised three things:  Commitment to God, a pillar, and a tithe.  Jacob sets up a pillar on the spot to mark the occasion, pours a libation over it, and anoints it with oil.  Is this the same pillar or a different one?  Not clear, but Jacob clearly has indicated his commitment to God.  Promise one—check.  Promise two—check.  Promise three—…silence.

Did Jacob renege on his promise?  Has he broken his vow?

The Torah does not say, but let’s see if we can unpack it.  When Jacob returns to the land of Canaan twenty years later, he brings with him a large family and a significant fortune.  Ten percent would amount to quite a sum – made up largely of livestock.

Who is to be the recipient of Jacob’s tithe?  Tithe giving was a well-known, widespread practice in the Ancient Near East.  A worshipper would typically bring the tithe to the priests officiating at a temple or to the King in his royal court.  The problem for Jacob is that all of the temples in his day are idolatrous, and there is certainly no royal personage deserving of his loyalty.  There is no obvious person to whom he can give ten percent of his wealth.

Perhaps he could offer it up directly to God as a burnt offering?  That is what the commentator Rashbam suggests, but he does not seem to be bothered by the extraordinary number of animals that would have been slaughtered and burned to ash.  

Rabbi David Kimchi, known by the acronym Radak, is a medieval Bible commentator from Provence, France.  Radak interprets Jacob’s promise to set aside a tithe as a promise to give tzedakah to people in need who fear and worship God.  Feeding the hungry, he says, is a gift to God.

Radak cites another possibility from a midrash (Genesis Rabbah 70:7).  Jacob tithes his children.  He sets aside one tenth of his sons.  Who is the lucky lad?  Levi, whose descendants will spend more time than their brother tribes in service to God.  The Priests and Levites, who officiate in the Temple, both come from the tribe of Levi.  Radak suggests that Jacob dedicated extra time imparting to Levi the esoteric wisdom and teachings of the Torah.

Radak’s two answers offer important insight that suggests two ways that we can express gratitude for the blessings that we receive.  In the first answer, the tithe is a gift of wealth.  In the second answer, the tithe is a gift of service.  Both are accepted by God.  

It is easy to promise to do something tomorrow that I do not have the capacity to do today.  When tomorrow arrives, what is the likelihood that I will actually follow through?

Our elected officials do this all the time.  

It is for this reason that the Rabbis do not approve of vows.  They know that we have a hard time standing by our word, so they discourage us from making the commitment unless we are fully prepared to follow through.

To this day, many Jews use the expression b’li neder—meaning “without a vow.”  It is a way of saying, I intend to do something, but I am not promising, because something might get in the way that is out of my control.

As a totally hypothetical example, a person might tell a spouse, “B’li neder, I’ll clean out the garage over the Thanksgiving weekend, when I have all of that free time.”  Meaning, “I know you want me to clean out the garage, and it would make me really happy if I were to do that for you when I have all of that free time next week, but there is a really good chance that something else is going to come up that I want to do more.”

Jacob wants to do the right thing.  His vow is sincere.  But without a penny to his name, he’ll promise anything.  He is desperate.  The real test is going to come later, when he is wealthy.  Will he remember his earlier promise?  When he has made his fortune, will he be willing to part from it?

I’ll speak for myself.  I have never been in Jacob’s shoes.  I have never found myself in a situation in which I had nothing, and did not have anyone to whom I could turn.  So I am in no position to judge Jacob for his vow.  

I grew up in an upper-middle class family that could provide for my needs, including paying the majority of my college expenses.  I hope to be able to do the same for my children.

While it might not seem this way in wealthy Silicon Valley, this is not the reality for the majority of Americans, and certainly for most of the inhabitants of the planet.

I read just this morning about 3,000 migrants from Central America who are currently in Tijuana, Mexicot.  Their numbers are expected to swell to ten thousand in the coming months.  As I read about them, I began to consider, “what would it take for a person to uproot his children, leave his native land, and travel over 1,000 miles by foot to an unknown country?  How bad would things have to be?”  I cannot even begin to imagine.

I imagine that many of those who have chosen to make that journey have made promises to God, offering promises in exchange for blessing and protection.  I bet Jacob’s desperate promise, made on his journey leaving the only home he has ever known, might seem familiar to some of these migrants.  

Maybe we should try to put ourselves in Jacob’s shoes.  Each of us has been the recipient of enormous blessings to get to where we are today.  What should we give back?

Who in our community needs help?  Who in the global community?  What of our wealth can we give, and what service can we offer that can begin to repay all of the incredible advantages and privileges that we enjoy?

Perhaps the Torah’s silence on whether Jacob fulfilled his vow suggests that for those who have experienced blessing, it is easy to forget about those who still struggle.

We owe it to God to not forget, and we serve God when we use the blessings we have received to be the blessing that lifts up another person.

When Will We Realize That The Guns Are The Problem? – Toldot 5779

Here we are again.  One week ago, we came to synagogue in shock and mourning over the massacre of eleven mostly elderly Jews who had come to synagogue to pray.  Today, we are still reeling from the murder of 12 young adults who had gathered to dance for college night at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks.  One of the victims had survived the Las Vegas shooting last October.

When I woke up to the news two days ago, I just felt nauseous.  My heart is sick from this senseless violence.  When will this end?  What is wrong with our society?

There are indications that the shooter had a history of mental illness, and possibly PTSD from his service in the Marines.  

What do these, and all of the other mass shootings have in common?  Guns.

Every time there is another tragedy, we start arguing about gun control again.

Does Judaism have anything to say about gun ownership?  As is typical, one can manipulate the sources to support any conclusion.  We have gun enthusiasts in our congregation.  My bias is definitely anti-gun.  I grew up in a home in which there were no toy guns.  We were not allowed to turn anything into a toy gun.  So it is pretty ingrained in me.  

I am not unique.  The common wisdom is that Jews don’t own guns.  In fact, there is data to support this.  According to a 2005 study, Jews had the lowest rate of gun ownership among all religious groups in the United States.  The Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements have repeatedly issued formal calls for increased gun control, turning to Jewish law and tradition to support their positions.  That is something on which we all agree.

Where does this Jewish antipathy towards guns come from?

Since ancient times Jewish law has not looked favorably upon weapons.  It is forbidden to sell weapons to idolaters, and to Jewish bandits.  In other words, to someone who might use those weapons inappropriately.

A Mishnah (Shabbat 6:4) discusses whether the weapons that a soldier might carry during peacetime should be considered as decorations or tools.  At the end of the discussion, the Sages declare that even though they must sometimes be used, weapons are inherently disgraceful.  As proof, the Mishnah quotes the famous passage from Isaiah, describing a messianic vision of a world at peace.  “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  Nation will not take up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”  (Isaiah 2:4)

Finally, because the laws of kashrut require animals to be slaughtered in a specific fashion, hunting has never been popular in Judaism, for practical reasons.  Plus, it is considered to be cruel to the animals.  This disapproval for hunting is evident in the Torah itself.  We find it in this morning’s parashah, Toldot.

Esau is one of two people whom the Torah describes as a hunter.  The other is Nimrod.  Neither of them are Israelites, and both are portrayed negatively.

In the beginning of the parashah, Rebecca gives birth to twin boys, Jacob and Esau, after a difficult pregnancy.  Shortly after introducing them, the Torah summarizes their personalities: “Esau was a man who knew the hunt, a man of the field, and Jacob was a simple man, a dweller of tents.”  (Gen. 25:27)

Reading the text straightforwardly, we see the classic juxtaposition of the hunter vs. the shepherd.  The commentators delve deeper into the contrast between the two brothers.

Rashi, citing the midrash, claims that Esau would hunt his father, Isaac, with his words, deceiving him into thinking that Esau was a kind, observant young man.  He hid his true nature.  Never mind that it is Jacob who is the one to do the actual deceiving.

Another commentator, Ibn Ezra, claims that hunting is by its nature a deceit-filled activity in which the hunter must trick his prey in order to catch it.

Esau, as depicted by the Rabbis, is a murderer, a brigand, and a rapist.  In contrast to the violent, weapon-loving Esau is Jacob, the mild-mannered brother who uses his head instead of his hands.  He is the one whom the Rabbis prefer, placing him in the Beit Midrash, the Academy, instead of the houses of idolatry.  

The Midrashic depiction of these brothers reveals the Rabbis’ preferences for which kinds of behaviors to emulate and which to avoid.  Their bias against physical violence and arms is abundantly clear.

On the other hand, the principle of pikuach nefesh directs us to do almost everything possible to save life.  There are ancient sources which emphasize the permission, or even obligations, to defend oneself or an innocent person who is under attack.  One might defend gun ownership for purposes of self-defense.

But there are clear limits.  Despite acknowledging the permissibility of using force in certain circumstances, the Rabbis are always concerned with going too far.  Someone who kills in self-defense, in a situation in which it would have been possible to only injure the assailant, is considered to liable under Jewish law.

It is fair to say that Judaism would support fairly rigorous gun regulations.

Over the last few years, the idea of “Common Sense Gun Laws” has been tossed around.  Even though they are so “common sense,” they still generate opposition from the NRA.  Practically, this means that nothing happens at the Federal level.

To be clear, there is no agreement on what “common sense” means.  Here are some of the regulations that are typically described as “Common Sense Gun Laws.”

• A ban on semi-automatic weapons, or assault-style weapons

• A limit on the capacity of bullet magazines

• Red flag laws, in which a relative or police officer who is concerned about a gun owner’s mental state can go to a court to determine whether that person’s gun rights can be suspended.

• And of course, closing the gun show loophole, which permits gun sales from private owners or at gun shows without background checks.

But this week’s killings would not have been prevented by any of these measures.  California already has the most restrictive gun laws in the country.  We have enacted most of the “common sense,” provisions on a statewide level.

The shooter had a license for the handgun that he used.  He also used a high capacity clip.  Although these have recently been made illegal in California, the ban is currently held up in court.  The shooter’s mother had reported her concerns over his mental health, and he had been evaluated earlier this year no decision was made to remove his weapons.

The shooter in Pittsburgh used three handguns and an AR-15 rifle, all purchased legally.  Perhaps more restrictive laws might have made a difference, but I am skeptical.

Most gun deaths do not occur in mass shootings, but it is the mass shootings that tend to generate the most emotional reactions in us.  Gun violence in America is an epidemic .  In 2013, there were 33,636 deaths by firearms.  Of those, 11,208 were homicides, and 21,175 were suicides.  

It’s not the regulations that make the difference.  It’s the guns.  States with higher rates of gun ownership experience higher rates of firearm homicides, while non-firearm murder rates remain at normal levels.

Federal law prohibits the Centers for Disease Control from spending any money to study the public health aspect of gun violence, including mass shootings.  This makes it very difficult to get usable data.

The National Firearms Act forbids “any system of registration of firearms, firearms owners, or firearms transactions or dispositions [to] be established.”  This means that the government does not know where the guns are, who owns them, or even how many exist.

When we compare the rate of gun-related deaths in the United States to that of other countries, the contrast is shocking.  According to the OECD, the U.S. has the 4th highest incidence of firearm homicides out of 34 developed nations, behind only Mexico, Turkey, and Estonia. 

Compared to other countries, the United States does very little to restrict gun ownership.  The result: there are a lot of guns.  That is why we have so many gun-related suicides, murders, and mass shootings.  If guns were not around, gun violence would not exist.  That is common sense.

Do not expect this to change anytime soon.  While it might only be a fraction of Americans who own guns, we have a national fascination.  Why does the Second Amendment guarantee “the right to bear arms,” and why do people feel so passionate about it?

In America, the idea of private gun ownership is built on suspicion.  Part of the American mythos is that we have a deep mistrust of the state.  We need to be able to own guns to protect ourselves from a government that might become corrupt, or from other people when the government is unable to protect us.

Is gun ownership a God-given right?  Of course not.  It is a human-bestowed right.  There are many countries in the world that come close to outlawing guns altogether.  Would we say that they are violating God’s will?

Private handgun ownership is essentially illegal in Great Britain.  Even the police do not typically carry guns.  In the 12 months that ended in March 2016, the highest number of firearm deaths in four years was recorded:  26.  This is consistent with other countries around the world.

But we in America like our guns.  So we have to ask: Is it possible to have a society in which there are a lot of guns without high murder rates?

Let’s do a thought experiment.

Imagine a society in which, to own a gun, a person had to undergo extensive background checks.  The government would look into criminal, physical and mental health history.  The person would need to demonstrate a bona fide reason for needing a gun, such as living in an area that is particularly dangerous, or working as a civilian security guard.  Anyone with a gun would need to take a training course on responsible gun ownership.

Because the disproportionate amount of gun deaths occur in young adults, a person would have to be at least 27 years old to be eligible for a license.  If he or she had undergone combat training as a combat soldier in the military, the age would be 21. 

The owner must demonstrate that there is a gun safe in the house. To maintain the gun license, a person would need to complete a refresher course every three years.  Since a person’s mental state changes over time, the gun owner would receive a psychological evaluation every six years.

Finally, since the purpose of the gun is for self-defense, an owner would be limited to owning one handgun, and would be restricted to owning 50 bullets at any given time.  

There could be some variations for those who use guns for sport or for hunting.

How does that sound?

I have just described the gun ownership laws of one country.  Can you guess which one?

Israel

There is no “right to bear arms” in Israel. The private gun ownership rate in Israel is 7.3 guns per 100 people.  In America, it is 88.8 guns per 100 people.

But wait, you are thinking.  I have been to Israel.  There are guns all over the place.  It seems like everyone has a gun.  Soldiers.  Police.  Guards outside of buildings.  The vast majority of firearms in Israel are issued by the military, and fall under military jurisdiction, which has extremely tight rules.  Anyone who violates those rules would have to face a military tribunal.  Only 4% of guns in Israel are not issued by the military.  So there are a lot of guns in Israel, but the regulations on those guns is extremely tight.

What is the result?

In 2009, the death rate in Israel from guns was 1.86 per 100,000 people.  In the U.S. in the same year, it was 10.3 — 6 times higher.

In America, protection from the state underlies the obsession with guns.  In Israel, the attitude is the opposite.  Guns are seen as tools for the protection of the state.

I don’t know what it will take to change the culture of suspicion that pervades our nation.  We need to do what we can to foster greater cooperation and trust among one another.  That is the only way that we will be able to bring about Isaiah’s vision.

“They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  Nation will not take up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” 

May that dream become a reality speedily, in our day.

Tzedakah or Selfishness – Vayera 5779

Justice, tzedakah, is one of the recurring themes in this morning’s Torah portion, Vayera.  As God contemplates the fate of the Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities in the Jordan River Valley, God decides to hire a consultant.  

Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do… for I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children… to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right…—tzedakah u’mishpat.

God tells Abraham about the plan to destroy the two cities because of the extreme wickedness of their inhabitants.  Abraham immediately challenges God:  Ha’af tispeh tzadik im rasha  

Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?  What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it?…  Far be it from You… to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty…

God is convinced, promising “If I find within the city of Sodom fifty innocent ones, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.”

This is just the opening salvo in the negotiation.  Abraham lowers the threshold to 45, then 40, 30, 20, and finally 10 innocent people to save the remainder of the population.  God agrees every time.  

It seems, based on God’s original assessment, that this was the plan all along.  After all, God has already identified Abraham as someone who will pass on the values of tzedakah and mishpat — justice and righteousness — to his children.

It turns out that there are not even 10 righteous individuals in the two cities, leaving God free to carry out the original sentence.  Perhaps if Abraham had gone still lower…  God would probably have agreed.

This story depicts Abraham at his best.  He puts everything on the line for the sake of his fellow human beings.  These particular human beings are the worst of the worst,  but Abraham cannot sit idly by, even for such a depraved population.

Soon afterwards, Abraham and Sarah find themselves the land of Gerar, which is near Gaza.  As in a prior encounter with Pharaoh in Egypt, Abraham passes off his wife, Sarah, as his sister.  So what happens?  The King, Avimelech, thinking that she is single, has Sarah brought into his household.  [She is 89 years old at the time, but never mind.]

Before anything happens, God speaks to Avimelech in a dream.  “You are to die because of the woman you have taken, for she is a married woman!”

Still in the dream, Avimelech defends himself.  “O Lord, will you slay people even though innocent? — ha’goy gam tzadik ta’harog?  Sound familiar?  Avimelech makes the argument with God on his own behalf as Abraham made earlier on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah.  God agrees, and instructs Avimelech to return Sarah to her husband.

The next day, Avimelech confronts Abraham.  “What did I ever do to you?  You’ve brought disaster upon us.  You have done things to me that ought not to be done!”

Abraham’s response is difficult to hear. “I thought,” he says, “surely there is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.”  (Gen. 20:11)  Then he offers some weak excuse explaining how Sarah is really his half-sister, and he did not technically lie.  Whether she is his sister or not is irrelevant.  What matters is his hiding the fact that she is a married woman.

Abraham, who had just recently behaved so nobly, now thinks only of himself.  He puts a lot of people in danger.  First of all, Sarah.  As soon as they arrive, she is taken to the palace, presumably to be made part of the harem.  Avimelech is endangered, as even a King is not allowed to be with a married woman.  And finally, because Abraham is, well Abraham, Avimelech’s entire household is stricken with temporary infertility, merely for bringing Sarah in to the palace.  If things had gone further, God’s wrath would have turned lethal.

Abraham assumes the worst of Avimelech and his people.  He condemns them before he even meets them.  But Abraham is wrong.  These are not wicked people.  As it turns out, Avimelech is a God-fearing man, with a sense of justice.  

This story has close parallels to the earlier story.  Only this time, it is Avimelech playing the role of the prophet standing in the breach, arguing for justice against a vengeful God.  In this case, like the previous, God wants to be convinced.  God wants tzedakah, justice, to reign.  God does not want the innocent to suffer the fate of the guilty.  As before, Abraham must personally intercede, praying to God for the health and well-being of Avimelech and his household.  But Abraham’s prayers come only after Avimelech bribes presents him with sheep, oxen, servants, land, and silver.

Abraham does not come out well in this story.  Is this the same person who put everything on the line to argue with God on behalf of people that he knew were wicked?  He is supposed to be the optimist, the one devoted to bringing justice into the world.  He should at least have given Avimelech the benefit of the doubt.

What are we to make of Abraham?  The Torah does not hold back in presenting its heroes as flawed individuals.  They make mistakes.  Sometimes, their opponents have qualities going for them as well.  The underlying theme of these two stories is tzedakah.  God wants justice.  God does not want the innocent to suffer punishments that should be reserved just for the wicked.  And in both stories, it seems that God is not capable of holding back the injustice without human intercession.

Abraham’s abrupt turn from being a justice-hero to behaving with selfishness and distrust teaches us something about the impact that fear can have, even on the best of us.  Abraham is afraid.  He says so himself.  His fear leads him to treat others unfairly, including his own wife.  He succumbs to stereotypes.

And Abraham, remember, is a good man.  He is the one whom God has selected to be a blessing to the world, and to teach his children about justice and righteousness.  If Abraham is susceptible to fear, how much the more so are we!

I don’t think I need to detail the many examples of how fear leads to injustice.  In this case, the victim was King Avimelech, a person in power.  But usually, the ones who are most harmed by fear and distrust are those without power.

The lesson from both stories is that God needs human intercessors to bring tzedakah into the world.  Any of us has the capacity to be such an intercessor, just as any of us has the capacity, through fear, to turn our backs on our brothers and sisters.

As Jews, we take this on as a special obligation, going all the way back to Abraham, whom God selected to “instruct his children… to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right.”

May we always strive to live up to that ideal.

A Natural Family with a Supernatural Mandate – Lekh L’kha 5779

The Silicon Valley Introduction to Judaism class began this past week.  It is a wonderful example of collaboration in our Jewish community.  I, along with Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist colleagues, teach this class every year.

Adult students have an opportunity to learn from Rabbis of different denominations.  Classes rotate, depending on who is teaching that night, between the Jewish Community Center, Congregation Sinai, Congregation Beth David, Congregation Shir Hadash, and Temple Emanu-El.

At the first Introduction to Judaism session, students are invited to introduce themselves and share their reasons for taking the class.  Every year, there are a variety of reasons given.

Some students are Jewish adults who either never received a Jewish education, or who feel that they want to learn about Judaism in a more sophisticated way, as compared to the child-focused education they received years ago.  Some are members of synagogues.  Some are not.

There are also non-Jewish students who are lifelong learners.  Their spiritual and intellectual journeys have led them to learn about different faiths and traditions.

Some class participants are interested in converting to Judaism.  This can include those who have a Jewish partner, as well as those who have decided to explore Judaism on their own.

Finally, some non-Jewish students do not intend to convert, but are committed to supporting their Jewish partners in building a Jewish home and raising Jewish children.

As students describe the journeys that led them to the Introduction to Judaism class, there are often incredible stories.

Some share strange, mysterious family traditions.  Often they involve lighting candles at particular times during the year, or avoiding certain kinds of foods. In some families, there are secrets that are known only to the older members from earlier generations, who hush up in seeming embarrassment whenever the topic arises.

Usually, these suspicions of a Jewish past point to a possible Sephardic family connection.  But not always.

With the growing popularity and availability of DNA testing, it is now possible to confirm long-held suspicions of Jewish ancestry.  That is increasingly serving as the impetus for people to explore Judaism as a way to regain a lost family heritage.

Also at the first session, we divide students into small groups and give them an assignment: Write a one sentence definition of Judaism that is grammatically and syntactically correct – no run-ons.  It is a very difficult assignment which students have a tough time completing.  That is kind of the point.

Judaism is not a religion in the way that we typically think of religion.  Simply by being born to a Jewish mother,  a person is Jewish regardless of what he or she believes.  Don’t learn from this, however, that Judaism does not have particular beliefs.  It does.

So does this make Judaism a race?  Not at all.  For if Judaism was a race, it would be impossible to convert.  And yet Judaism has always welcomed converts, as we will see shortly.

Professor Jon Levenson expresses the difficulty in defining Judaism succinctly in his book, Inheriting Abraham.

The people Israel is neither a nationality in the conventional sense nor a church-like body composed of like-minded believers or practitioners of a common set of norms.  Having something in common with both of these more familiar identities, it reduces to neither of them.

Levenson has stated the difficulty of coming up with a definition.  Then he offers us one:

Rather, as the call and commission of Abram already indicate, it is a natural family with a supernatural mandate.

“A natural family with a supernatural mandate.”  We are family, and we strive to rise above our base nature as human beings to embrace a set of divinely-given, shared practices and values.

This morning’s parashah, Lekh L’kha, opens with God instructing Abram to leave behind his home and his father’s household and travel to the land that God will show him.  Without asking any questions, Abram packs up his household and begins the journey.

וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָם אֶת־שָׂרַי אִשְׁתּוֹ וְאֶת־לוֹט בֶּן־אָחִיו וְאֶת־כָּל־רְכוּשָׁם אֲשֶׁר רָכָשׁוּ וְאֶת־הַנֶּפֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר־עָשׂוּ בְחָרָן וַיֵּצְאוּ לָלֶכֶת אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן וַיָּבֹאוּ אַרְצָה כְּנָעַן:

Then Avram took Sarai his wife and Lot his nephew and all of their property which they had acquired and the persons that they acquired in Haran, and they went towards Canaan and they came to the land of Canaan.  (Genesis 12:5)

A midrash focuses on a peculiar phrase in this sentence.  v’et ha’nefesh asher asu.  Many translations say “the persons that they acquired,” which refers to the many servants that had joined their household.  Abram had done quite well for himself in Haran, apparently. 

An often-cited midrash (Genesis Rabbah 39:14) understands it a bit more creatively.  Literally, I might translate v’et ha’nefesh asher asu as “the soul that they had made.”  Is it possible to create life?

Rabbi Eleazar ben Zimra explains that if all of the people of the world were gathered together, we could not even make a fly, much less a human being.  The Torah says that the soul that was made refers to all the people that Abram and Sarai converted.  We learn that whoever brings idolaters into the fold is considered to have created them.

In other words, Abraham and Sarah were busy in Haran.  They were teaching their neighbors about God, and leading them away from idolatry.

In Levenson’s terms, they were joining the family.  This family is comprised not of people who are related by blood, but by those who share beliefs and values.  That is who Abraham and Sarah brought with them to Canaan.

Rambam, the great 12th century Rabbi, physician, philosopher, and community leader was the leading authority in his day.  People would write to him from all over the world for advice and legal rulings.

A question was once asked of him by a man named Ovadiah, a convert to Judaism.  Ovadiah notes that the language in many of the prayers uses us or we, in reference to events that occurred to previous generations.

Eloheinu v’Elohei avoteinu — “Our God and God of our ancestors”

Asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav — “You who have sanctified us through Your commandments”

She’asah nissim la’avoteinu — “You who performed miracles for our ancestors”

Ovadiah asks Rambam if he, as a proselyte, whose ancestors were not part of the Jewish people, is allowed to recite all of these words.  We can only imagine what experiences Ovadiah might have had that led him to ask this question.

Rambam, in his answer, does not mince words.  He wants to make sure that Ovadiah, and anyone else who might think to raise a similar objection, gets the point.  His answer begins: “You must recite it all in its prescribed order and should not change it in the least.”

In his explanation, Rambam refers to Abraham, who taught people about God and urged them to reject idolatry.  Abraham instructed everyone in his household to follow God’s ways by engaging in righteousness and justice.

For this reason, anyone who converts to Judaism, throughout the ages, is considered to be a student of Abraham and a member of his household.  In other words, part of the family.

Not only that, Abraham is considered to be the father of all converts.  Jews-by-choice, when taking on a Jewish name, are considered to be the children of Abraham and Sarah, and are therefore referred to as ben or bat Avraham Avinu v’Sarah Imeinu—“the son/daughter of Abraham our Father and Sarah our Mother.”

Therefore, when a Jew by choice recites “our God and God of our ancestors,” it is a true statement.

While discovering Jewish roots in a DNA test may lead a person to explore their roots, it is not a determining factor, at least from a religious point of view.  Halakhah, Jewish law, does not tend to operate on the microscopic level.  

A few years ago, there was a young American woman from a Russian-speaking family who wanted to participate in a birthright trip.  She was asked to take a DNA test to prove that she was eligible.  She was ultimately denied.

This is unfortunate, and is certainly inconsistent with Jewish law.  I hope it is not a precedent.

Jewish identity is not in the blood.  It is in the family stories that are passed down from our grandparents.  It is in the moral lessons that parents impart to their children.  Jewish identity is also something that can be chosen by those who seek to be part of the Jewish family.

Does this mean that there will sometimes be questions and arguments about who is in and who is out?  Absolutely.  But we are a family, after all.  And families are messy.