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.

No Rest for the Righteous – Vayigash 5777

The final verse of this morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayigash, points back to the beginning of Parashat Vayeshev, which we read several weeks ago.

The earlier portion introduced a section of Genesis that scholars like to call “The Joseph Novella.”  It tells a story of family conflict, exile, and reconciliation.

While the Book of Genesis will not officially end until next week’s portion, it could have concluded with this morning’s reading.

In fact, there is a nice literary inclusio formed by the verses at the beginning of Vayeshev in chapter 37 and the ending of Vayigash in chapter 47.  Listen closely, as the language is almost identical.  The tale begins:

Vayeshev Ya’akov b’eretz m’gurei aviv b’eretz Canaan.

And Jacob dwelled in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan.  (Genesis 37:1)

This morning’s portion ends with the words:

Vayeshev Yisrael b’eretz Mitzrayim b’eretz Goshen vaye’achazu vah, vayifru vayirbu me’od.

And Israel dwelled in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen, and they took holdings in it, and were fruitful and multiplied greatly.  (Genesis 47:27)

The story begins with dwelling, and it ends with dwelling.  Only some of the details have changed.  In the beginning, it is Ya’akov, or Jacob, who is doing the dwelling.  At the end, it is Yisrael, Israel, which is both Jacob’s other name, as well as the name of the Israelite nation.  The double-entendre is intentional.

The second difference, of course, is the location where this dwelling is taking place.  At first, Jacob settles in the land of Canaan.  By the end of the story, he is living in Egypt with his entire extended family.

The final difference is the extra clause at the end of the story.  They took holdings in [the land] and were fruitful and multiplied greatly.  This is the spot that would make a really nice, upbeat ending to the story.  They all lived happily ever after in Egypt.

One of the Sages of the Talmud, Rabbi Yohanan, notices that “wherever [the Torah] uses the word vayeshev (“and he dwelled”), it always means [that] trouble [is soon to follow].  (BT Sanhedrin 106a)

Rabbi Yohanan includes several examples, including both of our verses.  Immediately after we read about Jacob dwelling in the land of Canaan, we find Joseph tattling on his brothers and taunting them with his dreams.

Immediately after Israel has settled in Egypt, we hear about Jacob on his deathbed.  It adds a sour note to the success that Israel has achieved in its new home.

On closer inspection, we do not even need news of Jacob’s illness to identify the ominous tone.  God’s blessing to the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has been that they will have numerous descendants who will inherit and thrive on the land of Canaan.

By the end of Parashat Vayigash, the blessing finally appears to be on its way to reality.

Jacob has been transformed into Israel, the person has become a nation.  They have now acquired land holdings, and they are multiplying like rabbits.

The problem is that it is happening in the wrong location.  They are not supposed to be in Egypt, but rather in the land of Canaan.

At the beginning of the story, they are in the right place, but the time is not right to thrive.  At the end, they may be thriving, but “they are digging in the wrong place.”

Expanding on Rabbi Yohanan’s point, Rabbi Baruch Epstein in Torah Temimah cites a midrash to explain why things go so wrong for Jacob.  Whenever a tzadik, a righteous person, tries to settle down and live in peace and quiet, the Satan comes to make his life difficult.  (Genesis Rabbah 37:3)

The reason is because a tzadik is not meant to have a life of peace and quiet.  A tzadik is here to fix the world and fill its holes.  So when Jacob tries to live a quiet life, fate says “no way,” and the tragedy with Joseph ensues.

That also explains why the Book of Genesis does not end after this morning’s Torah portion.  By continuing immediately with Jacob on his deathbed, the Torah hints that something is not right with the Israelites’ good life in Egypt.  To underscore this point, next week’s Torah portion does not even begin with a new paragraph.  It flows continuously from where we stopped this morning.

The righteous never get a break.  To be Jewish is to never be complacent.  There are always holes to fill.  We all can fill the gaps in our knowledge by learning more Torah.  We can all do more to alleviate the suffering of others, whether by giving extra tzedakah, or performing additional acts of gemilut chasadim.  For all of us, there are mitzvot that we have not yet embraced.

The ironic lesson is, a righteous person is never at peace unless he or she is moving.

Jacoob’s Parting Message – Vayechi 5777

Two men had a dispute over a particular burial plot.   Each one claimed the piece of land for himself.   The men presented their arguments to the rabbi, and left the final decision up to him.

After a while, the rabbi said to them, “It is a very difficult case.    Each one of you has very good arguments.   Thus, I decree that whoever dies first will have the right to this burial place”.

From then on, they stopped fighting …

As we get older, it is fairly common to think about our final resting places.  As a Rabbi, I am often advising people about making arrangements.  Funeral directors call it “preplanning” – although that expression seems kind of redundant, doesn’t it?

Some folks are concerned that their specific wishes be carried out by their next of kin.  Others want to save their children the stress of having to make the arrangements at what will surely be an emotional time.  And some people want to lock in prices now before they go up.

This is not a new concern.  Cemeteries have been central institutions for Jewish communities for thousands of years.  The very first Jewish institution in San Jose, in fact, before there were any synagogues, was the Home of Peace Cemetery in Oak Hill Memorial Gardens.

But in addition to making the logistical arrangements, perhaps we also ought to be thinking about how to convey our values to those whom we leave behind.

The desire to arrange our funerals goes all the way back to the Bible.  When Sarah dies, Abraham enters into lengthy negotiations to purchase the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron to serve as a family burial plot.

In this morning’s Torah portion, Vayechi, Jacob, our Patriarch, does his preplanning.

He has spent the final seventeen years of his life living in Egypt, under the invitation and protection of his son Joseph, who is the second most powerful man in the Empire, second only to Pharaoh.  The entire family has left the land of Canaan to settle in the land of Goshen, located just to the East of the Nile Delta.

When he feels the end of his life approaching, Jacob calls Joseph to his bedside for a special request.  He wants to be buried in the land of Canaan, in the Cave of Machpelah.

… please do not bury me in Egypt.  When I lie down with my fathers, take me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial-place.  (Gen. 47:29-30)

Jacob is insistent.  He does not merely tell his son what he wants.  Jacob makes Joseph swear it.  Joseph initially resists committing himself by oath.  “I will do as you have spoken,” he agrees.

But Jacob will not back down.  “Swear to me,” he demands; and Joseph complies.

This is no small request.  It is a journey of approximately 400 km, most of it desert.  And this is in the Middle East, so it is hot.  We can only imagine the smell.

Plus, it is politically dangerous.  Joseph is the second in command to Pharaoh.  What is Pharaoh going to think when Joseph asks for permission to return to his ancestral homeland?  Can Pharaoh trust that Joseph will come back?

And furthermore, what will the Canaanites think when a large delegation arrives from Egypt?  Might they see it as a threat and muster for war?

On a personal note, Jacob’s request is totally audacious.  He acknowledges that when Rachel, Joseph’s mother died many years earlier, Jacob buried her on the side of the road.  She died in a place called Paddan-Aram, which was only a half day’s journey from the family tomb in the Cave of Machpelah.

Jacob could not be bothered to take even a small detour to bury Joseph’s mother.  Now he is requesting something that is almost impossible.  Kind of hypocritical, no?

A look beneath the surface of this request reveals Jacob’s wisdom.  In fact, his instructions contain a final lesson to his sons, the tribes of Israel, and future generations.

Why does Jacob insist that Joseph swear that he will fulfill his father’s dying request?  The clue emerges when Joseph asks Pharaoh for permission to leave.  Listen to what he says:

My father made me swear, saying ‘I am about to die.  Be sure to bury me in the grave which I made ready for myself in the land of Canaan.’  Now therefore let me go up and bury my father; then I shall return.  (Gen. 50:5)

Let’s pay attention to a few details.  First, notice that Joseph leads with the oath.  That gets Pharaoh’s attention.  He knows that an oath is no small thing.  Jacob insists so that Joseph will be able to fully convey the earnestness of the request.

Keep in mind also that the Egyptians were cultishly obsessed with death.  Notables would spend considerable resources – during their lifetimes – to arrange their burial chambers.  Just think of the pyramids.

When Joseph makes his request to Pharaoh, he does not mention his father’s wish to be buried with his fathers.  Rather, he tells a little white lie, claiming that Jacob had arranged the burial location for himself.  After all, that is something an Egyptian would do.  Joseph is also careful to say that he intends to come back.

Pharaoh is so impressed by Joseph’s request that he agrees immediately.

The delegation is significant.  Not only do Joseph and all of his brothers accompany the body on its final journey, all of the senior members of Pharaoh’s court, along with chariots and horsemen go as well.  The children and flocks are left behind.  Perhaps they are too young to make the journey.  Or, perhaps they are hostages to ensure that Joseph will return to Egypt.

But we still have not determined why, specifically, Jacob want to be buried in the family plot?

At the time of his death, Jacob’s family is thriving in Egypt.  They are the official shepherds for Pharaoh’s flocks.  They have land.  And their population has been growing.  Moreover, Joseph has achieved the second highest rank in the Empire.

According to the midrash, Jacob is worried that if his body remains in Egypt, his descendants will come to see Egypt as their home, rather than just a temporary residence.  Furthermore, he worries that the idolatrous Egyptians will begin to worship his remains, as the father of their beloved Joseph.

His desire to have his body returned to the Cave of Machpelah, therefore, is intended to remind his children that there are more important things than material success, and to underscore their connection to the Promised Land.

The final mystery has to do with Rachel’s burial location.  Why didn’t Jacob bury Rachel in the Cave of Machpelah, and why does he bring it up with Joseph now?

According to the commentator Rashi, Jacob is acknowledging Joseph’s anger.  It would not have been difficult to bury Rachel in the family tomb.  Joseph feels that his mother has been dishonored.  And now Jacob wants Joseph to bend over backwards to bury him.  So on one level, Jacob is feeling guilty, and knows that his request sounds hypocritical.

But Rashi also cites a midrash.  At the moment of Rachel’s death, God reveals to Jacob the future fate of his descendants.  One day, perhaps a thousand years later, they will be exiled from the land of Israel by the Babylonians.  Their tragic path out of Jerusalem will take them South, on the road to Beith Lechem.  They will pass by Rachel’s tomb, and her spirit will join them, weeping in exile.

She will pray to God on behalf of her children, asking for compassion, and God will grant it.  Thus, Jacob buries Rachel on the side of the road as a symbol of comfort and hope to his future descendants.

Looking at both of these midrashim, we find Jacob concerned about his children in the future.  In death, he seeks to leave a lasting legacy.

He does not want them to become so seduced with wealth and success in Egypt that they forget the nation they are supposed to become.  And, he knows that there will be times of devastation in the future, and he wants to leave them a legacy of hope and compassion.

Rather than an expression of selfishness and hypocrisy, we find that Jacob’s final instructions to have his body returned to the Land of Israel is a positive parting message to his children, and to us.

Returning the Blessing – Vayishlach 5777

Most, but not all, of the midrashim and commentaries describing the interactions of Jacob and Esau apologize for the former and castigate the latter.  They find ways to excuse and justify Jacob’s theft of the blessing that was meant for Esau.

Jacob is portrayed as the pious, righteous, innocent Torah observer, while Esau is described as the personification of all that is evil.

There is some, limited, support in the text for this reading.  By creating a polarized, black and white account of these fractious twins’ relationship, however, the commentaries miss the rich psychological depth in the text.  This is a multi-layered story that offers a window into human emotions and relationships.  Like Jacob, we only become complete when we learn to face ourselves with honesty.  This may not result in a tranquil life, but it will result in a life of meaning and purpose.

As Parashat Vayishlach opens, Jacob is preparing to return to the land of Canaan after more than twenty years in Haran.  Vayishlach means, “then he sent,” referring to the messengers that Jacob sends ahead to his brother Esau, announcing his return as the head of a wealthy household.

To be clear, Esau does not live in the land of Canaan.  He has settled in Seir, located southeast of the Jordan River.  Jacob does not have to announce his return.  He could simply continue on to Canaan and avoid Esau completely.  But Jacob is aware that he will need to make contact before he can go back home.  Jacob knows that he will not be complete until he faces his brother again.

It is like how Luke Skywalker’s training is not complete until he faces Darth Vader one final time in Return of the Jedi.

Jacob’s messengers return with the news that Esau has gathered four hundred men with whom he is marching to meet his brother.

What does the text tell us about Jacob’s reaction?  “And Jacob was greatly afraid, and he was distressed…” (32:8)  Four hundred men is not a force to be trifled with.  It looks like Esau is coming for war, and Jacob understands this well.

He employs several strategies to deal with the coming crisis.  First, Jacob divides his household and his flocks into two separate camps, figuring “should Esau come to the one camp and strike it, the remaining camp will escape.”  (32:9)

Second, Jacob prays.  Some details of his prayer are notable.  He recalls the promise that God has made to his predecessors Abraham and Isaac, and then declares himself unworthy of all the kindness that God has bestowed upon him.  katonti mi-kol hachasadim u-mikol ha-emet asher asita et avdekha…  Literally, “too small am I for all the faithfulness and trust that you have shown your servant…”  (32:11, Fox)  His prayer concludes with a panicked plea.  Jacob begs God to save him from Esau.  He fears that his brother is going to murder him, his wives, and all of his children.

Third, he sends a gift – a rather significant one, to be precise.  200 she-goats and 20 he-goats, 200 ewes and 20 rams, and so on.  He sends the gifts in waves, with each servant instructed to present them to Esau as a gift from “your servant Jacob.”  He is repeatedly humbling himself before his brother.  Jacob figures that if he can butter up his brother in advance, Esau might react to him more favorably.

These are the preparations of someone who is terrified of what could happen, but not immobilized by his fear.  He has done everything possible to ensure his survival through the impending encounter.

That night, something unexpected transpires.  Jacob is isolated on the banks of the Jabbok River.  There, he is confronted by a mysterious stranger who wrestles with him all night long.  We do not have time this morning to delve into the many possible meanings of this evocative episode except to say that Jacob’s encounter is that of someone whose mind is not at ease.

It is the night before the biggest day of Jacob’s life.  His soul is in turmoil.  He does not sleep.  His entire past, with all of its’ sins and mistakes, comes crashing into him.  Esau reminds Jacob of the worst parts of himself: Jacob knows that he has committed a serious sin against his brother.

He emerges from the experience with a new name, courtesy of his assailant, now revealed to be an angel: Yisrael – “for you have striven with beings Divine and human and prevailed.”  But has anything really changed?  After all, Jacob still has to meet his brother.

Let’s try to imagine what that meeting must have been like for Jacob.  Off in the distance, he sees Esau and his four hundred men approaching.  Jacob gathers his household together.

The picture in my mind is like what we see in those period war movies, where the two opposing armies are lined up across the battlefield from each other.  Before the fighting starts, each side sends an emissary to the middle for a parlay.

Jacob sends the maidservants and their sons first.  The second contingent is Leah and her sons.  Next, he sends Rachel and Joseph.  Finally, he himself sets off.  He is limping from his struggle with the angel.  He has not slept.  He pauses in his approach seven times, bowing down to the ground.

Suddenly, Esau starts running towards him.  He is big, hairy, and full of muscles.  Jacob is no match for him in a fight, and he knows it.  What is Jacob thinking and feeling in this moment?

Terror.  He is about to pay the debt on his past mistakes.  Perhaps he even welcomes the anticipated violence to balance his guilt.

Then Esau hugs Jacob, buries his head in his neck, and kisses him.  Not what Jacob is expecting.

There is a wonderful midrash that teaches that it is not a kiss – a neshikah – but rather a bite – a neshikhah.  The nineteenth century Chassidic Rebbe, the Sefat Emet, understands this midrash metaphorically.  In reality, it is a legitimate kiss.  But what Esau intends to be a kiss is experienced by Jacob as a bite; and it is the bite that is most threatening.

Jacob is expecting a beating.  He wants Esau to just get it over with.  It will make him feel better.  It will even the score between the brothers.

But when Esau responds with graciousness and love, Jacob is “bitten” to his core.  He cannot run away from his sin any longer.

The text says that “they cry,” in the plural.  They are crying for different reasons: Esau is crying out of genuine happiness to be reunited with his brother; Jacob is crying out of guilt.

Then Jacob offers Esau all of the gifts, and Esau declines them.  Jacob will not be able to pay off his guilt.  He begs Esau to accept his offering, “for to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”  He confesses to the wrong that he has committed.

Kakh-na et birkhati, he then says – “Please accept my blessing which has been brought to you.”  (33:11)

Jacob refers to the gift as his berakhah, his blessing.  This is not just any gift.  Jacob is giving back the blessing which he stole twenty two years earlier.   At last, Esau agrees.

Now, at last, Jacob can be free of his brother.

What was this blessing that Jacob gave back, the one that he had stolen?  It was a blessing of material wealth and physical power.  “May God give you of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, abundance of grain and wine.  Let peoples serve you, and nations bow to you…” (27:28-29)

This is precisely what Jacob has returned to Esau.  He has given him his wealth, and has humbled himself before his more powerful brother.  Jacob realizes that he should have never taken this blessing.  It was not meant for him, and it was not fitting for who he is.

There was a second blessing that Jacob received from his father before he left many years earlier.  That blessing was given out in the open.  Isaac called upon God to bless Jacob with progeny.  “May [God] grant the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which God assigned to Abraham.”  (28:4)

That is the blessing that had been meant for Jacob all along.  It just took many years, and much travail, to recognize it.

But perhaps the journey is necessary.  As we grow older, we (hopefully) become more wise.  The rashness and impulsivity of youth is gradually replaced by thoughtfulness and patience.  How often have we thought to ourselves, “If I only knew then what I know now…”

The story ends vayavo Ya’akov shalem.  “Then Jacob arrived complete.”  (33:18)

It is not to say that Jacob’s life will be hunky dory from now on.  Far from it.  God never promises Jacob a life of tranquility.  In fact, his new name, Yisrael, is fitting.  You have striven with beings Divine and human and prevailed.  That is Jacob’s fate.  That is who he is.

That is also the fate of his children, b’nei Yisrael.  The children of Israel.  That is our fate.