The Kipah Belongs to Germany – Bechukoti 5779

I have worn a kippah for most of my teenage and adult life.  I started at the end of my sophomore year in public high school and, except for a few interludes, I have worn it ever since. Whenever I speak to non-Jewish groups about Judaism, someone inevitably asks about it.  I respond with a standard spiel.  It goes like this:

I stand five feet, five and a half inches tall.  Most of the time, however, I go about my daily business acting as if I am the center of the universe.  This is true for most of us.  We tend to be pretty self-centered. By wearing a kipah, I remind myself that my existence ends at exactly five feet, five and a half inches from the ground.  In fact, there is an entire universe above and around me, and a Creator of that universe Who places demands upon me.  A kipah should remind me to act accordingly, with humility.

In addition, wearing a kipah in public identifies me very clearly as a Jew.  That means that my actions in the world do not just reflect on me.  They reflect on the Jewish people, Judaism, the Torah, and God.  If I am paying proper attention, that awareness should affect my behavior. If I do something positive in public, it reflects positively on Judaism.  On the other hand, if I do something improper, it reflects negatively on the Jewish people.  Wearing a kipah raises the stakes on my actions and helps me to be a better person.

The word kipah means a “domed cover.”  A human head is roughly dome-shaped.  Anything that covers it, therefore, qualifies as a kipah.  The word yarmulke, by the way, is Yiddish.  The best explanation that I have heard about its meaning is that it is a contraction of the Armaic words Yirei Malka, which means “Those who fear the King.”

That is my spiel.

I have always felt safe wearing a kippah in San Jose.  Never once has anyone said anything inappropriate about it to me, which is reassuring.  

The kipah has been in the news this past week because of a recent comment by the Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Anti-Semitism, Dr. Felix Klein.  It is a new position, having been created by the Bundestag last year over concerns of growing anti-semitism in Germany. In an interview published last Friday, Dr. Klein, who is not Jewish, said, “I cannot advise Jews to wear the kippah everywhere all the time in Germany.”  He added that he had “changed his mind (on the subject) compared to previously.”  He went on to describe the need to educate police officers, teachers, and officials about the nature of antisemitism and its dangers.

What happened next is what seems to happen a lot these days.  Everybody went nuts and took his comment out of context. The Jerusalem Posts’s headline was German Antisemitism Officer: Don’t Wear Kippot in Public.

That’s not what he actually said.  He pointed out that there are some places in Germany where it is not safe to be visibly identifiable as Jewish.  We already know this.  When I was traveling in Europe a few years ago, I did not wear my kippah for the same reason.

The fact that Dr. Klein’s government position exists is proof that the German government recognizes the rise in anti-semitism in Europe, and specifically in Germany, and is trying to take it seriously.

Parashat Bechukotai features one of two great tokhehkhot, rebukes, in the Torah.  They are presented as blessings and curses which are conditional to our faithfulness to the God’s mitzvot.

But more than just a carrot and stick, these blessings and curses tell a story of rising, falling, and rising again.  We start with blessings.  All the good stuff an ancient Israelites would want.  Rain in the right amounts at the right time, strength, peace, abundance.  The curses are the inverse of the blessings, although they are presented in much more grisly detail.

The story continues.  The land itself kicks us out and we are sent into exile, where those of us who manage to survive continue to suffer persecution under the oppression of our enemies.  We look back with nostalgia and regret for what we have lost, and the mistakes we have made.

But God does not forget, and the covenant remains in effect.  There will come a time when God will remember and restore us.

Yet, even then, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or spurn them so as to destroy them, annulling My covenant with them: for I the Lord am their God. 

Leviticus 26:44

Already in the days of the Talmud, our Sages recognized the rising and falling cycle of Jewish history.  A baraitta interprets this verse as referring to God sending messengers to save the Jewish people from their under various oppressive regimes: Babylonia, Greece, Persia, and the Romans.

Our collective fate will continue to rise and fall.  But there is hope for the future.  Looking ahead, “I am the Lord your God,” predicts a time when no nation will be able to subjugate us.

We are a stubborn people.  For all of the mistakes and imperfections, we have remained faithful to our history and our covenant for thousands of years.  God is as stubborn as we are.  In the meantime, history continues in cyclical fashion.  We are now witnessing rising levels of antisemitism.  And it makes no sense.

Right wing antisemites attack Jews for being too liberal, allowing foreigners to infiltrate the country.  Left wing antisemites attack Jews for being racsists and declare Zionism to be white supremacy.  In Germany, the neo-Nazi party called The Right, endorses BDS, which is typically associated with the far left. The one thing that unites antisemites is that, whatever they think is wrong with the world, they all agree that it’s our (the Jews’) fault.

Reuven Rivlin, the President of Israel, issued this statement: “We acknowledge and appreciate the moral position of the German government, and its commitment to the Jewish community that lives there, but fears about the security of German Jews are a capitulation to anti-Semitism and an admission that, again, Jews are not safe on German soil.” 

Unfortunately, he is correct.  Anti-semitism is rising in Germany.  In 2018, there were 1,646 anti-Semitic crimes in Germany, which represented an increase of 10% over the previous year.  90% of those were classified as coming from neo-Nazi groups.  Anti-semitic crimes committed by Muslims in Germany are also rising.

Where will things go from here?  For better or worse, Dr. Klein’s provocative comment last week has created dialogue.  A few days later, he walked back his statement and issued this declaration:  “I call on all citizens in Berlin and everywhere in Germany to wear the kippa on Saturday, when people will agitate unbearably against Israel and against Jews on Al-Quds Day”

Al-Quds Day, was established by the Iranian government to coincide with the end of Ramadan.  Al-Quds is the Arabic word for Jerusalem.  It generally features parades with lots of Hezbollah flags and speakers demanding the destruction of Israel.  This year, German politicians are calling for large counter protests to oppose the hate-filled antisemitic demonstrations.

The Bild, Germany’s top-selling daily newspaper, put a make-your-own kippah on its front cover on Monday and published a front page commentary titled, The Kippah belongs to Germany.  Thanks to Miriam Leiseroff for translating the article from German, which I’d like to read in full.

Actually, we must be eternally grateful that Jewish life flourishes in Germany again.  We must resolutely defend what may be considered a historical miracle and gift to our country.

But the reality looks different and is expressed in the appalling (and unfortunately correct) warning of the Antisemitism Commissioner, who discouraged Jews from wearing a kippah all over the country.

Anyone who is a Jew still must hide this fact after seven decades since the Holocaust in order to be safe anywhere in Germany.

To this we have only one answer:  No, this cannot be!  If it is so and if it stays so, we fail before our own history.

Therefore the newspaper BILD is printing a kippah to cut out.  Assemble, dear reader, this Kippah.  Wear it so your friends and neighbors can see it.  Explain to your children what a Kippah is.  Post a photo with a Kippah on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.  Go out on to the street with your Kippah.

If only one person in our country cannot wear a Kippah without endangering himself, the answer can only be for all of us to wear a Kippah.

The Kippah belongs to Germany!  Die Kippa gehört zu Deutschland!

https://www.bild.de/politik/kolumnen/kolumne/kommentar-die-kippa-gehoert-zu-deutschland-62202206.bild.html

Actually, the kippah belongs to us.  But we can certainly appreciate the sentiment, and the support.  I cut out one of the kippot and made one for myself, which I am proud to wear.

We are blessed to live in safety, in a place where Judaism thrives openly.  May it continue to be so.  And may our brothers and sisters in Germany and around the world experience a day, soon, when it is possible to openly and proudly wear a kippah anywhere and everywhere.

Breaking the Downward Spiral – Behar 5779

We constantly hear about the tremendous disparities in wealth between the ultra rich and everyone else.  Just this morning, the front page article in the Mercury News reported that Elon Musk received $2.29 billion(!) in compensation in 2018.  

Parashat Behar presents an economic system that recognizes the inevitability of wealth disparities, but strives to prevent those disparities from becoming locked in across generations.  In the course of prescribing economic resets every fifty years, the Yovel system abolishes the enslavement of Israelites by their fellow Israelites.

Underlying the concept of the Yovel is God’s ownership of the land.  Humans are entitled to settle and work the land, but at no point are we to be considered its owners.  At the time of the Israelites’ settlement of Canaan, the land was apportioned among the tribes, and further subdivided according to clans and families.  This allotment is meant to be eternal.

A farmer who possesses a field owns the produce that the field yields, but not the field itself.  The Yovel, or Jubilee, occurs every fifty years.  The entire land remains fallow, like in a sabbatical year.  In addition, all land returns to the original owners or their descendants.

The Yovel system recognizes that some landholders will be successful, while others will fail.  In three stages, it describes the gradual descent into poverty of a farmer who is not so fortunate. (Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus: A Continental Commentary.)

In the first stage (25:25-28), a farmer has a bad year and does not have enough money to purchase seed to plant on his land.  He takes out a loan.  Then the crop fails, and he finds himself unable to pay his debt.  He sells part of his land for the estimated value of the number of harvests from now until the Yovel year.  In effect, he has leased the land. If his luck turns around, however, he retains the right to repurchase the land at any time.  Not only that, but his closest relative has an obligation, if he can afford it, to redeem the land so as to keep it in the family to which it was originally apportioned.

In stage two (25:35-38), the farmer has not been able to redeem it, and his crops have failed on his remaining land.  He takes out another loan to pay for seed, and he defaults again.  He now must turn over all of his remaining land to the creditor who owns his debt.  But, he gets to remain on the land as a tenant farmer.  The new owner lends him seed to work the land, and he pays off his debt using proceeds from the harvest.  The creditor is not allowed to charge any interest for the loan.  If the farmer succeeds in paying off the loan, he gets his land back.  If not, it reverts to him anyways in the fiftieth year.

In stage three (25:39-43), things are even worse for the farmer.  His crops have continued to fail and he can no longer feed himself and his family.  In this case, he enters the his creditor’s household as an employee.  He is no longer entitled to any of the profits from the land. But he is not a slave.  The creditor must pay him wages, which the farmer uses to repay his debts.  In the fiftieth year, he goes free and gets his land back.  The creditor is not allowed to treat the farmer like a slave, and is forbidden from mistreating him.

This story of a farmer’s financial decline is quite sophisticated.  It depicts a downward economic spiral in which his options gradually narrow due to increasing poverty and debt. This model of the economic downward spiral has not changed much over the past three thousand years, on both the personal, and macroeconomic level.  When an individual or a nation becomes impoverished, or as is often the case, starts out impoverished, it is almost impossible to rise.

What is unique in the Yovel system, however, is that the farmer retains inalienable rights throughout his decline.  He can repurchase the land at any time.  He does not pay interest on his loans.  He goes free in the fiftieth year.  The Yovel system recognizes that we cannot prevent a person from experiencing bad fortune, whether deserved or not.  But we can have a society and an economy that does everything possible to rehabilitate that person.

The Yovel was not a pipe dream utopia.  It was written to be implemented.  It should come as no surprise to learn that it was never successfully put into practice.  It is a timeless, universal principle that those who have wealth will always resist efforts by others to take it away from them.

That is why we find the prophets constantly complaining about the gross economic inequalities in Israelite society and the crushing burden of debt on those who are least able to handle it. The Book of Proverbs astutely observes that “The rich rule the poor, and a borrower is a slave to a lender.”  (Pr. 22:7)  It is as true now as it has always been.

But there are some positive developments taking place that are attempting to break the downward spiral. One of the ostensible purposes of the criminal justice system is the rehabilitation of those who have broken the law.  At all levels, we are terrible at it.  Recidivism rates, the likelihood that someone released from prison will return, are over 60%, which is unacceptably high.  There are many factors.

One important correlation is that prisoners who are able to gain employment after release are less likely to commit crimes in the future.  But of course, the stigma associated with being a former criminal makes it extremely difficult to get a job.  Thus, the downward spiral continues. with no Yovel to break the cycle.

The bipartisan First Step Act, which the President signed into law in December, aims to address this problem by creating more incentives for prisoners to undergo job training while in prison so that they will be better prepared to enter the work force right away.  Time will tell if it will make a difference.

Another increasing problem is the student debt crisis.  Americans owe more than $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, a number which has risen disproportionately over the past decade.

A person who is saddled by debt before even entering the work force is going to have a much harder time getting ahead than one who is not.  A young adult who graduates with debt delays achieving life milestones like getting married, having children, and purchasing a home.  The pressure of debt limits the choices and risks that a person can take.

Last week, billionaire investor Robert F. Smith made a surprise gift to the graduating class of Morehouse College, a historically black men’s liberal arts college in Atlanta.  “We’re going to put a little fuel in your bus,” he pledged as he announced that he would pay off the student loans of this year’s entire graduating class.

This is especially significant because African American college students graduate with greater amounts of student debt than any other group.  In addition, over the course of a career, an African American worker with a college degree can expect to earn close to a million dollars less than his or her white counterpart. 

In making his generous gift, Robert F. Smith is betting that these graduates will have an easier time getting started on their careers, and will, over the long run, achieve greater success and contribute more to the economy and their communities, and will be able to pass along more opportunities to their children in the next generation.

These two developments, which remove barriers to getting ahead, will make a difference in  thousands of lives.  One is a change in government policy that aims to break the cycle of crime.  The other is an inspired action by a private citizen to give a push forward to an entire class of new graduates. But there is so much more that could be done at every level to relieve the pressures that hold people back.

The Yovel‘s system of wealth redistribution would have significantly flattened the wealth disparities between the well off and the struggling, and would have ended multi-generational poverty.

It didn’t work.

But it does inspire us with a vision of how to treat each other with dignity, how to remove barriers that prevent people from succeeding, and how to break the downward spiral of debt and poverty.

Don’t Cut Off the Species (Human or Otherwise) – Emor 5779

In 1598, Dutch sailors landed on the Island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.  There, they discovered a creature that no human being had ever before seen.  They named the bird the Dodo.  Poor bird.  With such a name, you know it was doomed from the start.

The Dodo was not particularly fast, and it was incapable of flying.  Apparently, it was also rather tasty.  A hungry sailor, without much difficulty, could easily catch a Dodo and roast it up nice and juicy. Imported animals like pigs, dogs, and rats found that Dodo eggs made for a scrumptious snack, and were easy to steal out of the nest.

Within a few decades, the Dodo was no more.  It has since become the most famous extinct animal on the planet.  I suspect it might have something to do with the name.

It serves as a cautionary tale.  The Dodo’s range was limited to the small island of Mauritius, so it literally had nowhere else to go.  Human greed, lack of compassion, and absence of foresight led to the disappearance of this strange bird.

There are categories of Jewish law that address these character deficiencies.  The laws of Bal Tashchit prohibit us from using up resources wastefully.  Tza’ar ba’alei chayim, means the “suffering of living creatures,” and refers to commandments protecting animals from unnecessary suffering. These and other areas of Jewish law have their roots in the Torah.  One of the important sources of Jewish law regulating how we treat animals appears in this morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Emor.

Most of the parashah focuses on rules for the priests.  After describing special privileges as well as limitations on their behavior, God gives Moses instructions pertaining to animals that are brought by Israelites as sacrifices.  In the midst of these regulations, we read the following commandment:

וְשׁ֖וֹר אוֹ־שֶׂ֑ה אֹת֣וֹ וְאֶת־בְּנ֔וֹ לֹ֥א תִשְׁחֲט֖וּ בְּי֥וֹם אֶחָֽד׃

No animal from the herd or from the flock shall be slaughtered on the same day with its young.  (Lev. 22:28)

This verse seems fairly straightforward.  Most commentators connect this passage to another passage from the book of Deuteronomy.

If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young.  Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life.  (Deut: 22:6-7)

Both passages address the relationship between an animal and its offspring.  In this morning’s parashah, the focus is on herd and flock animals.  In Deuteronomy, the focus is on bird eggs or fledglings that one may find in a nest.  For both commandments, the Torah offers no explanation or rationale.

Maimonides, the great medieval Rabbi, physician, and community leader, sees in these commandments a lesson about compassion.  He focuses on the emotional pain of the mother.

“There is no difference in this case between the pain of man and the pain of other living beings,” he writes, “since the love and tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reasoning, but by imagination, and this faculty exists not only in man but in most living beings. If the Torah provides that such grief should not be caused to cattle or birds, how much more careful must we be to not cause grief to our fellow men.”  (Guide for the Perplexed III:48)

In other words, the Torah commands us to consider the emotional suffering of all living creatures.  Even though we are permitted to consume meat, we still must be concerned with the suffering of animals.  It is noteworthy that he does not hold that we should be merciful towards animals exclusively for their own sake.  Maimonides is ultimately concerned with the cultivation of character.  Compassion for animals is important because it conditions us to be compassionate towards our fellow human beings.

Nachmanides, living shortly after Maimonides, has great respect for his predecessor.  He quotes him often, although usually it is to disagree with his explanations. Nachmanides claims that both commandments are meant to discourage us from having a cruel and unforgiving heart.

Then he continues.  Even though we are permitted to eat meat, provided that we slaughter the animal correctly, the Torah does not permit us to be so destructive as to destroy the species.  When a person kills the mother and her offspring on the same day, or takes the eggs or fledglings without first sending away the mother bird, it is as if that person has cut off the entire species.  (Nachmanides on Deut. 22:7)

What a radical statement!  Slaughtering two generations of an animal on the same day, from a symbolic standpoint, is like eradicating the species.

I am pretty sure that the concept of species eradication was not on people’s minds in thirteenth century Spain.  For Nachmanides to bring it up is surprising.

Like Maimonides, Nachmanides is still mainly focused on the harmful effects that such a destructive action has on a person’s character.  If God was truly concerned with animals, why would we be allowed to eat them in the first place, and why would God have commanded that we offer them as sacrifices?  The Torah’s concern with animal suffering, or with species extinction, is ultimately about the harmful impact that such callous behavior has on the human soul. Nevertheless, Nachmanides seems to be aware that species extinction is a problem, and that human beings have an important role as caretakers of the earth which, after all, belongs to God.

Today, we are very much aware that species can become extinct through human carelessness and callousness – and not just symbolically.  Just look at the Dodo.

Two weeks ago, the United Nations issued a chilling report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.  It was the most comprehensive study of its kind.  Species are now going extinct at a rate between 10 and 100 times greater than the average over the past 10 million years, and the rate is increasing.  Out of the approximately 8 million species of plants and animals on earth, one million are at risk of extinction in the coming decades as a direct result of humanity’s impact on the planet.  

The report pointed to five primary ways that human activity has produced these deteriorations in ecosystems.  They are, starting with the greatest impact: (1) changes in land and sea use; (2) direct exploitation of organisms; (3) climate change; (4) pollution and (5) invasive alien species.

The Chair of the committee, Sir Robert Watson, warned: “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever.  We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

In other words, if we take a human-centered approach (like Maimonides and Nachmanides), the harm that we have caused to the global environment puts humanity at risk.

He goes on to say that all hope is not gone  “…it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global…  Through ‘transformative change’, nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably – this is also key to meeting most other global goals.  By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”

We have a lot of work to do.

Jewish law does not typically make broad, sweeping pronouncements upon entire industries.  It does not prescribe government regulations, nor does it make specific pronouncements about how to balance economic growth with sustainability.  

Jewish law tends to focus on the specific case before the individual.  It is concerned with the measurable impacts of a person’s behavior.  But Judaism does have something to say more generally about our relationship to the Earth, and our responsibility to the living things that call it home.

Nachmanides looked at the Torah’s prohibitions against slaughtering two generations of animals on the same day, and declared it to be the symbolic equivalent to species extinction.  

What would he say about the ways in which we consume the planet’s bounties today?  Or about the impact that human expansion has on waterways and forests?  Or how the pollution that is dumped into the air, water and ground when resources are extracted threatens the survival of indigenous plants and animals?

He might say that it comes down to how each of us consumes the resources of our planet.  We know that the impact of human progress extends way beyond what we see right in front of us.  We also know that the risk of species extinction is not merely symbolic.  We should not pretend otherwise.  We cannot bury our heads in the sand.

Psalms declares “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell within it.”  With the knowledge that we now have, can we say that our behavior, as a species, honors this sentiment?

What would it look like to live in a global society that honored the earth as belonging to God, and recognized that we are one of millions of species that depend on it to thrive?

Wouldn’t it be nice to know.

Acharei Mot 5779 – Dispel the Darkness

This morning’s Torah portion has kind of a dark title.  Acharei Mot means “after the death.”

“The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord.”

Following are detailed instructions of the ritual of atonement that Aaron and future High Priests are to perform on Yom Kippur.  The purpose of these rituals is to purify the Tabernacle, and later the Sanctuary, which becomes stained with ritual pollution during the preceding year.  

As the nexus between heaven and earth, the place where the Shechinah, God’s Presence, comes to dwell amidst the people, this is especially important.  The Shechinah is not able to remain in a polluted shrine.  The rituals we read about this morning serve to cleanse it of its impurities.

Why do these instructions that Aaron receives need to be preceded by a reference to the deaths of his sons, Nadav and Avihu?

Perhaps it is meant as a warning.  Entering the Holy of Holies, the most sacred precinct, is a potentially dangerous endeavor.  Only the High Priest is permitted to do it.  And he has to be extremely careful.  One mistake can result in death.

The mention of Nadav and Avihu is meant to serve as a warning that the risk is real.  The task of the High Priest is so great, that he needed to approach it with the utmost respect and care.

But that was then.  We take this warning figuratively today.  When we enter the synagogue, we bring our whole selves.  We come with respect and care, just like the High Priest.  Prayer in synagogue is a confrontation with our own mortality – symbolically, not literally.

A synagogue, just like a Church, a Mosque, or a Temple, is supposed to be a place of peace.  A place that is open to all, where worshippers are safe to enter.  Because it is only when we feel a sense of safety and security that we can really allow ourselves to be vulnerable.  To pour out our gratitude, our fears, our happiness, and our sadness before our Creator.

Last week, during Shabbat services, right before the Yizkor memorial service on the eighth day of Passover, the prayers of our brothers and sisters at the Chabad of Poway were interrupted with bullets.  

We mourn the death of Lori Gilbert-Kaye, may her memory be a blessing.  She was murdered as she used her body as a shield to protect Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, enabling him to evacuate children to safety.  Rabbi Goldstein was shot in the hand, losing a finger.  Almog Peretz was shot in the leg.  Noya Dahan, an eight year old girl, was injured by shrapnel.

This attack occurred six months to the day after thirteen worshippers were murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

It is sickening.  As Jews, an attack in a synagogue hits especially close to home, making us feel unsafe in our own house of worship.  But it is just as sickening as the murder of Muslim worshippers at a mosque in Christchurch and Christian worshippers at churches in Sri Lanka.

I resist the temptation to say “Where were you God?”  The evidence would suggest that it is not in God’s nature to prevent such things.  This hatred and violence is a human disease.

We observed Yom HaShoah this week, Holocaust Remembrance Day.  We know all too well about the evils humans are capable of.  Sadly, there have been other times in our history when our houses of worship were not places of refuge.

The part that is so frustrating is that the vast, vast majority of people are kind, generous, and compassionate (or at the very least: nonviolent).  We were all greeted this morning by friends from our interfaith community who came to express their love and support for us.  How moving it was to be reassured that, although we may have different rituals, we share the same values of peace and freedom.

It is such an exceedingly small number who are prepared to act out their hatred.  The nature of terror is that it seeks to create irrational fear that is disproportionate to the threat.

What do we do now?  Do we allow a few extremists paralyze us, to prevent us from living?  We cannot.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, who lived in far more precarious times, famously said: Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od.  V’ha’ikar lo lefached k’lal.  The whole world is a very narrow bridge.  And the main principle is not be afraid at all.

Here at Sinai, we take safety seriously.  We have taken many concrete actions over the years, and continue to do more, to make sure that this will continue to be a house of peace.  A place where we can be vulnerable spiritually and emotionally… not physically.

Our response must be to continue to live, to sing and dance, to be together.  We must not be afraid at all.  That is the true act of faith.

Minutes after being shot, Rabbi Goldstein stood up on a chair and addressed his congregation.  “Am Yisrael Chai!” he declared.  “The people of Israel live!”  He continued, “We are going to stand tall, we are going to stand proud of our heritage.  If a little light can dispel a lot of darkness, than many lights can truly illuminate the whole world.”

We have to be those lights, for each other, and for the world.  I am so proud of all of us who are here, overcoming fear, to dispel the darkness.

The Shemitah Ideal: Forego Profit and Renounce Ownership – Parashat Behar 5776

Parashat Behar presents the laws of shemitah, the sabbatical year.  The Israelites are allowed to plant and sow, prune and gather for six years.  Then, on the seventh year, the land is to be given a sabbath of complete rest.  No cultivation can take place, but people are allowed to consume whatever happens to grow on its own.  The Torah explains that when the laws of shemitah are followed, the sixth year will produce such abundant crops that there will be plenty of food to go around for the next two years.

Another aspect of shemitah required indentured servants to be set free during the seventh year.  There were elements of the shemitah system in effect during years one through six as well.  Landowners had to give ma’aser oni, 10% of their crops to the poor every 3rd and 6th year.  They had to allow the poor to come on to their fields to harvest the corners and gleanings every year.

Maimonides identifies two separate mitzvot, commandments, pertaining to shemitah (Hilchot Shemitah v’Yovel 1:1, 4:24).  1.  It is a positive commandment to suspend work on the land and cultivation of trees.  2.  It is a positive commandment to release all agricultural produce.  In other words, farmers are not allowed to put up barriers around their fields, vineyards, and orchards.  Their property must be open to the public.  Furthermore, Maimonides adds, farmers are not allowed to gather in excess produce into their homes.  Small quantities can be brought in.  But for the most part, everyone is supposed to have equal access to the produce that happens to grow during the shemitah year.

In his Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides suggests two reasons for the shemitah requirements.  The first is that these laws promote sympathy for our fellow human beings.  The second is that by letting the land lie fallow on the seventh year, it will result in greater overall production.

Regarding the second reason, Maimonides is wrong.  Farmers have practiced crop rotation since ancient times.  Without going into specifics, simply letting land remain uncultivated once every seven years is not crop rotation.  Many other commentators specifically repudiate Maimonides for suggesting this.

Most agree with Maimonides, however, regarding his first explanation.  Sixteenth century Italian Rabbi Abraham Porto writes, for example:

This law was given in order that we may show sympathy for our fellow men who have neither land nor vineyards, and that they may be happy in the Shemitah year, as the rich are happy every year.  (Minchah Belulah)

Another commentator explains that

the suspension of work in every seventh year causes us to realize that our mission on earth is not to be slaves to the soil but a much higher and nobler one.  Work should only serve the purpose of providing food and other needs, while our task is to attain to the supreme end…  (Akedat Yitzchak)

Think about what it would be like to be an Israelite landowner in a society that observes Shemitah.  I have to stop all work on the land.  I cannot even allow my non-Israelite workers to do anything.  I have to take down any fences or barriers around my fields.  As for produce that happens to grow naturally, I am not allowed to harvest it.  Instead, it remains in the ground, on the tree, or on the vine.

When I need food, I can go out to my field.  But I will be joining everyone else from my community when I do so.  The poor, the strangers, the property-less Levites.  All of us have equal access to the lands that I once thought of us as mine.

For one year, all social and economic differences are set aside.  The wealthy stand side by side with their servants, the poor, and the strangers among them.  Just think about the impact on social interactions if our society followed an institution like shemitah – to forego profit and renounce ownership.

Perhaps this is a utopian socialist ideal – but remember that it is only once every seven years.  The Torah recognizes the inherent competitive nature of humanity.  Rather than try to suppress it, it asks us instead to harness it.

We desperately need this ethic here in California, where we are living the opposite of the shemitah ideal.

There is an unprecedented housing crisis in our state.  The cause of this housing crisis is not a secret: income inequality.

This week, the Mercury News reported the following statistics:  Home ownership rates statewide are at the lowest level since the 1940’s.  The median price of a home in Santa Clara County is $1,070,000.  To qualify for a mortgage for such a home, a homebuyer would need an annual income of $219,870.  Assuming the homebuyer made a down payment of 20%, the resulting payment on a 30-year fixed rate loan would be $5,500 per month.

So many people struggle to meet even their basic housing needs; the idea of taking off a year to pursue more spiritual matters is a pipe dream.

Our society is structured in such a way that people of different economic levels are separated from one another.  There is not a whole lot of social interaction taking place between blue collar and white collar workers.

These kinds of inequalities are precisely what Shemitah addresses.  The walls between us, quite literally, come down.  The pursuit of wealth is put on hold.  Rich and poor, executives and janitors, stand shoulder to shoulder as they pick food for themselves and their families.  And everyone uses their time to pursue spiritual matters: the study of Torah, the development of relationships, the cultivation of compassion.

Rav Kook, the early religious Zionist in the early twentieth century, wrote a book about shemitah called Shabbat HaAretz. – the Sabbath of the Land.  You can hear the idealism in his beautiful words as he imagines Jews living in harmony in with each other and the land.

It is a year of equality and rest, in which the soul reaches out towards divine justice, towards God Who sustains the living creatures with loving kindness.  There is no private property and no punctilious privilege but the peace of God reigns over all in which there is the breath of life…  Sanctity is not profaned by the exercise of private acquisitiveness over all this year’s produce, and the covetousness of wealth stirred up by commerce is forgotten.

Bibliography

Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Vayikra, pp. 509-522

 

Reading – and Speaking – About Sexuality on Yom Kippur Afternoon – Parashat Acharei Mot/Kedoshim 5777

Our Mahzor Lev Shalem offers two possible readings for the afternoon of Yom Kippur.  The Traditional one from Leviticus, chapter 18, or an Alternate reading from Leviticus, chapter 19.

Leviticus 18 describes what are commonly referred to as the arayot – forbidden sexual relationships, mainly incest.  Also included  are adultery and the now infamous Leviticus 18:22, which describes male homosexuality as an “abomination.“

Leviticus 19 is known as “The Holiness Code.”  It opens with the instruction Kedoshim tih’yu ki kadosh Ani adonai Eloheikhem – “You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy.”  It then lists a variety of commandments that constitute a guide to a life of holiness.  The diverse subjects of these commandments include interpersonal relationships, business practices, ritual behavior, criminal law, and more.

Neither Leviticus 18 nor Leviticus 19 contain a single reference to Yom Kippur or any of its themes.

This morning,  as luck would have it, we read the double portion of Acharei Mot and Kedoshim.  In years when these parashiyot are combined, it creates a juxtaposition of the 18th and 19th chapters of Leviticus, the Traditional and Alternate Torah readings that appear in our High Holiday Mahzor.  In fact, parts of both chapters are even read in the same aliyah.

When they chose to add a second possible reading to Mahzor Lev Shalem, the Editors forced communities to ask themselves a question that they might otherwise never have considered: which portion should we read?  This year, our congregation has been addressing this question.

As the Rabbi of Congregation Sinai, I am the Mara D’Atra, Aramaic for “Master of the Place.”  This means that I am entrusted with the responsibility for making halakhic decisions for the community.

As you may recall, I wrote an article about it in the January Voice.  That month, there was an open meeting of the Ritual Committee to learn about the issues and hear from each other.  Personally, I have spent countless hours researching and consulting with members, colleagues, and teachers.

I am enormously uncomfortable being the decider.  When a decision is made to abandon or change a practice, there usually is no going back.  As a Rabbi, I think about that a lot.  Who am I to change thousands of years of tradition?  Sometimes, of course, change is necessary.  But when does the need for change outweigh the demands of history?  I don’t take that dilemma lightly.

For some people, this is a serious, emotional issue.  Whatever the outcome is, someone is going to be upset.  I lose sleep knowing this.  Please understand that I have attempted to reach a conclusion in good faith.  I take the sacred role that you have entrusted with me seriously.  I am strengthened by knowing that, whatever the outcome, you have my back.

Before I share my decision, let me clarify a few things.  We read the entire Torah every year.  We do not skip over any troubling passages because we do not like them.  And there is plenty in the Torah that is troubling.  This is not a question about eliminating a Torah reading.  We will continue to chant Torah on the afternoon of Yom Kippur.

Let’s be honest about Minchah on Yom Kippur.  When the service begins, around 5:00 in the afternoon, there are typically about 75 people in the room.  At that point in the day, they are weak from the fast, and a bit spacey.  Of those 75 people, how many of them are paying close attention to the Torah reading, and really pondering its message for their lives?  Our sanctuary is not exactly filled with kavanah – religious intension.  From that perspective, it does not matter which of the two readings we select.

I hope that by addressing this question, we can transform a relatively lazy part of Yom Kippur into a meaningful, kavannah-infused moment.

So why would a congregation choose to read the Traditional or the Alternate portions?  Mahzor Lev Shalem includes meaningful commentaries and explanations for both readings.  It does not, however, explain why the Alternate reading was included, nor does it suggest any reasons for why a community might choose to replace the Traditional reading.

I consulted with Rabbi Elliot Dorff, the Chair of the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards, which issues halakhic rulings for the Conservative Movement.  He responded to my inquiry that the particular selection of readings for the holidays is custom rather than law.  Rabbi Dorff explained that “the authors of Mahzor Lev Shalem were concerned with bringing up the prohibition of homosexual relations in Leviticus 18, given what we have done with that halakhically.”  He was referring to the CJLS’s decision in 2006 to overturn Judaism’s traditional ban on homosexuality.  He added that “Leviticus 19 is much more uplifting and much more connected to the theme of Yom Kippur than Leviticus 18 is.”

In other words, the Alternative reading was added because a lot of Conservative Jews are troubled by Leviticus 18:22, which states “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination.”

The question comes down to: do we change a long-established custom because we are offended by a particular verse?

Where did the Yom Kippur afternoon Torah reading come from? Even though it makes no mention of Yom Kippur and does not deal with any of the basic themes of the holiday, at some point, a person or community thought it would be a good idea to read about forbidden sexual relationships on the afternoon of Yom Kippur.

The earliest mention of it occurs in the Talmud, in Tractate Megillah (30b-31a).  A second century text from the land of Israel states “At minhah [on Yom Kippur] we read the section of forbidden sexual relationships (that is to say, Leviticus 18) and for haftarah the book of Jonah.”

The Talmud records numerous variant practices for which portions are read at the various holidays.  There were significant discrepancies between Israel and Babylonia.  But with regard to the Yom Kippur minchah reading, there are no differences.  We can say with a high degree of certainty that Jews have been reading Leviticus 18 on Yom Kippur afternoon since at least the second century, making it a 1,900 year old custom.

But why this reading?  The Talmud offers no answers.  In his commentary, Adin Steinsaltz writes:  “Given the solemnity and holiness of the day, this choice of Torah portion is quite surprising.  Various suggestions for the choice have been offered…”

One possible reason is suggested a Mishnah in Tractate Ta’anit that describes a custom that took place during Second Temple times.

There were never happier days for the Jews like the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur, for on those days the daughters of Jerusalem would go out wearing borrowed white clothing so that they should not embarrass those who did not own such… The daughters of Jerusalem would go and dance in the vineyards and say, ‘young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose. Do not look for beauty, look for family…’

With all of this matchmaking taking place on Yom Kippur afternoon, it would have been especially important to remind all of the single people who is and is not eligible to them.  This might explain why Leviticus 18 was chosen.  It should be noted, however, that the Talmud itself does not make this connection.

Rashi, in the eleventh century, points out that sins having to do with sexual relationships are ever-present, and a person’s desires and inclinations can be overwhelming.  They also tend to be secret.  And so, on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, reading about prohibited sexual relationships is meant to awaken a person to teshuvah about something which is so difficult to resist.

Tosafot, in Rashi’s grandchildren’s generation, adds that women are often dressed up fancy on Yom Kippur.  The Torah reading, therefore, serves as a reminder to worshippers not to stumble.

Turei Zahav, a seventeenth century commentator on the Shulchan Arukh by Rabbi David ha-Levy Segal captures it succinctly:

In my opinion, since a person’s soul thirsts for forbidden sexual relationships more than all [other] sins, we are warned about it on Yom Kippur, which is an awe-some day that is inscribed upon the human heart more than all the other days of the year.

Human nature has not changed much over the centuries in that regard.  Would anyone suggest that we, in our “enlightened” twenty first century, do a better job of controlling our sexual urges than in previous generations?

I think not.

Leviticus 18 certainly has something to tell us today.  It might not be quite as uplifting as Leviticus 19’s “You shall be holy…,” but it is a message we need to hear.

Judith Plaskow wrote an influential article in 1997 called “Sexuality and Teshuvah: Leviticus 18.”  In it, she writes:

As someone who has long been disturbed by the content of Leviticus 18, I had always applauded the substitution of an alternative Torah reading—until a particular incident made me reconsider the link between sex and Yom Kippur. After a lecture I delivered in the spring of 1995 on rethinking Jewish attitudes toward sexuality, a woman approached me very distressed. She belonged to a Conservative synagogue that had abandoned the practice of reading Leviticus 18 on Yom Kippur, and as a victim of childhood sexual abuse by her grandfather, she felt betrayed by that decision.  While she was not necessarily committed to the understanding of sexual holiness contained in Leviticus, she felt that in quietly changing the reading without communal discussion, her congregation had avoided issues of sexual responsibility altogether.

Our failure in the past has not been that we have continued to read a passage that is offensive to gay men.  Our failure has been that we have not openly addressed issues of sexual abuse and impropriety.  To cease reading the traditional Torah portion would be just as problematic as if we kept on reading the words while ignoring their meaning.

We cannot expand understanding, tolerance, and acceptance of GLBTQ individuals if we refuse to acknowledge that there is an issue.

If, instead, we maintain the traditional reading and address the issues that it raises, our kavanah will improve.

This is why I have decided, as Sinai’s Rabbi, that we will continue the traditional practice of reading Leviticus 18 during the afternoon of Yom Kippur – with an addition.  There will be a D’var Torah delivered by a Sinai member to introduce the Torah reading.  The purpose will be to reflect on themes raised by the portion so as to draw us into the reading, and provoke us to respond to it in some way.  Torah is not supposed to make us feel good.  It is supposed to challenge us.  If Torah makes us feel good, it is not doing its job.

Reading and speaking about Leviticus 18, on the holiest day of the year, will give us an opportunity to reflect on the most intimate aspects of our lives, rather than pretend they do not exist.  It will also allow us to recognize the pain and exclusion that our GLBTQ friends and relatives have faced over the millennia because of Judaism’s, and society’s, past intolerance.

In this ruling for our community, both aspects are equally important.  Our members will be called upon to consider how Leviticus 18 speaks to us today.  I hope you will consider giving a D’var Torah on Yom Kippur afternoon.  Of course, I am here to help.

It is important to recognize that this approach – dealing with a difficult text by speaking about it – has been embraced by numerous communities in every denomination: Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Orthodox.  This solution puts Sinai in good company.

One of the sidebar commentaries in our Mahzor is by Judith Plaskow.  She writes: “Leviticus 18 seeks to implement [its] ideas in its own time and place.  But we need to find ways to express those insights in the context of an ethic of sexual holiness appropriate for the 21st century.”

May Torah inspire us to holiness in all aspects of our lives.

 

Bibliography

Rabbi Jeffrey Brown, “Preaching Against the Text: An Argument in Favor of restoring Leviticus 18 to Yom Kippur Afternoon” – This is an important article by a Reform rabbi that argues why it is important for communities to continue reading Leviticus 18.

Keshet is a national organization that works for full LGBTQ equality and inclusion in Jewish life.  Its website contains a wealth of information, including numerous sermons and kavanot  on Levitucs 18.

Living With Hope – Haftarah for Parashat Behar 5776

Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar me’od.

V’ha-ikar lo lefached k’lal.

The whole world is a very narrow bridge, a very narrow bridge, a very narrow bridge…

But the main thing to recall, is to have no, have no fear at all.

This is possibly the most famous teaching of the great Hassidic Rebbe, Nachman of Bratslov.  It is so famous that Baruch Chait turned it into a song which any Jewish child who goes to summer camp or youth group learns by heart.

To be honest, until this week I never really thought about what it means.  “The whole world is a very narrow bridge.”  Ok.  I get that.  It is a metaphor for the precariousness of life.  It is difficult to know what the best path is, and we are constantly forced to choose between options that could plunge us over the side, not necessarily to literal destruction, but perhaps to spiritual oblivion.  A bit dramatic, but I can accept that.

“But the main thing to recall is to have no fear at all.”  Stop.  That is ridiculous.  Despite the constant danger we face, we are supposed to banish all fear?  Is that really what Rebbe Nachman is saying?  Not only is it a virtually impossible ideal for most human beings, fear is a good thing.  Fear saves lives.  Come on, any ten year old who saw Inside Out knows that.

What is Rebbe Nachman talking about?

The problem is that the person who translated the song into English wanted to make sure that it would rhyme – “the main thing to recall is to have no hear at all.”

Conveniently, it also rhymes with the Hebrew.  Lo l’fached k’lal.  What does k’lal mean?  To be fair, it can mean “at all.”  But I don’t think that is what it means here.

The Hebrew of the verse is quite clever.  The word is repeated three times.  Listen carefully:  Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar me’od.  V’ha-ikar lo lefached k’lalKol, Kulo, and K’lal are all from the same root.

Let me suggest a more accurate translation: “The whole world in its entirety is a very narrow bridge.  And the main principle is not to be afraid…”

It could have ended right here.  But then we add the final word.  K’lal.

What is a k’lal?  A k’lal is an all-inclusive principal.  It is a synonym for ikar.  Here, I think it means “And the main principle is not to be afraid entirely.”  We should not be overwhelmed by fear.  Because fear can overwhelm us.

Fear can prevent us from taking action.  It can cloud our vision and prevent us from seeing things as they truly are.  Fear, if we are “entirely” afraid, destroys hope.

But fear also leads us to take risks.  It causes us to reach out to each other.  It inspires religious yearning.  Many of us respond to fear by turning to God.

This morning’s Haftarah, from the Book of Jeremiah, takes place during an extremely fearful time.  Jeremiah is a Prophet who lives during the final years of the Kingdom of Judah, through the reigns of its last four monarchs.  He witnesses the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple and ultimately flees to Egypt with some of the other refugees.  He prophesizes a seventy year period of exile, followed by a return to the Holy Land and a restoration of Israel.

Throughout his career, Jeremiah is a reluctant Prophet.  The people hate him for his pronouncements of doom and destruction and his critique of their behavior, but they are never able to witness the deep love and compassion he feels for them.  The other Prophets ridicule Jeremiah, and the King cannot not stand him.  Along with his external challenges, Jeremiah lives with constant internal struggles.  He argues with God continually, lamenting his plight.  His is a truly tormented soul, but he is unable to prevent the Prophetic message from bursting forth.

As the reading begins, Jeremiah is languishing in prison in Jerusalem.  He is there for speaking truth to power.  Unlike the other court prophets, who are all “yes men,” telling King Zedekiah exactly what he wants to hear, Jeremiah speaks the word of God.

At the time, Jerusalem is under siege by the Babylonians.  Jeremiah issues a pronouncement that God intends to deliver the city into the enemy’s hands.  King Zedekiah himself will be taken captive and sent to Babylon, where King Nebuchadnezzar will triumph over him in person.

Needless to say, the Judean King does not like the message.  He expresses his displeasure by “shooting the messenger,” so to speak.  Jeremiah is thrown into prison.

Jeremiah’s cousin Hanamel comes to visit him in prison, as Jeremiah has prophetically foreseen.  Hanamel, it seems, has fallen upon hard times and is no longer able to keep possession of the land that has been his ancestors’ since ancient times.

As we read about in the Torah portion, in ancient Israel, land is supposed to remain in the family.  If property must be sold off temporarily, it will be restored every half century during the Jubilee year.  Until the Jubilee year, however, other members of the family have the right to redeem the land themselves.  In fact, if they have the means to do so, it is an obligation to buy it back.  That is what Hanamel is asking Jeremiah, his heir, to do.  Hanamel cannot keep the land, so he asks his goel, his redeemer, to buy it from him.

It is not really a good time for Jeremiah.

First of all, he is in jail.  His future is uncertain.  Second, the property in question is in Anatot, which is a few kilometers north of Jerusalem.  By this point, the entire country has been ravaged by the Babylonians.  Many Israelites have already been sent into exile, and Jerusalem is under siege.  Finally, Jeremiah knows that he is going to personally go into exile.

Generally speaking, these are not good conditions for real estate speculation.

Nevertheless, Jeremiah purchases the land for seventeen shekels of silver.  He weighs out the money, writes up a contract, and has it witnessed and signed.  Next, he deposits the contract with his personal secretary, Barukh ben Neriah in front of his cousin and the witnesses.  He instructs Barukh to place the document in an earthen vessel so that it will remain safe and unharmed for many years.

Is Jeremiah crazy?  Or is he just a terrible businessman?

Perhaps his statement at the conclusion of the business transaction explains what is going through Jeremiah’s mind.  He declares, “For thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: ‘Houses, fields, and vineyards shall again be purchased in this land.'”  (Jer. 32:15)

What could possibly explain Jeremiah’s decision?  In a single word: hope.  Tikvah.

Jeremiah knows, better than anyone, the direness of the situation.  He knows that God has chosen the Babylonians as a Divine instrument to punish Israel for its sinfulness.  He knows that he and many of his brothers and sisters will be forced to leave their land.  He also knows that they will remain in exile for generations – seventy years in all.  But in those seventy years, the Babylonian Empire will fall.  The descendants of the exiles, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, will be restored.

Jeremiah’s hopeful realism contrasts with the foolishness of the rest of the nation.  The people, the prophets, and the King do not want to hear Jeremiah’s truth.  Instead, they would rather hear false assurances that things are about to turn around.  The Babylonians will fall and Israel will be made great again.  This is not hope, but wishful thinking.  This is fear blinding the masses from the reality of their situation.

In the second half of the Haftarah, Jeremiah offers a prayer to God.  He recounts God’s power as the Creator of the world, extols God’s compassion, and recalls how God freed the Israelites from slavery and brought them to the Land of Milk and Honey.  Then Jeremiah acknowledges that the people have persisted in not following God’s instructions, leading to the current  crisis.  Jeremiah ends his prayer with a statement that is either a question or a challenge.  “Yet you, Lord God, said to me: Buy the land for money and call in witnesses-when the city is at the mercy of the Chaldeans!”

God’s response:  “Behold I am the Lord, the God of all flesh.  Is anything too wondrous for Me?”  The Haftarah ends here, but God’s response to Jeremiah continues, explaining how the people will eventually return and the land will flourish once again.

While the present situation is bleak, Jeremiah has not given up hope.  He redeems his family’s property now, knowing that he will never personally set foot on it.  But he has hope that his descendants will, one day, make their return.

We are a people that has lived with hope for thousands of years.  Israel’s national anthem Hatikvah, “The Hope,” expresses it beautifully.

Od lo avda tikvateinu, Hatikvah bat sh’not alfayim.  “Our hope is still not lost, the hope of two thousand years.”  Through thousands of years of exile, during some very bleak times, the Jewish people has always had hope.

This is what Rebbe Nachman, living in his difficult times, might have been thinking about.  Despite the darkness, despite the narrowness, the seeming lack of options, we must not be overwhelmed by fear.  We must keep hope.

This is a powerful message for us not only as a nation, but as individual human beings.

We each face a lot of difficulties over the course of our lives.  Sickness, mental illness, abuse, broken relationships, deaths of loved ones.  Some of us have lived through war and persecution.  We have faced financial struggles.  The difficulties we experience sometimes persist for many years.  And some people seem to face more than their share.

Do we have the ability, like Jeremiah, to redeem land in the face of despair.  Can we maintain our hope during dark times?

Can we heed the encouragement of Rebbe Nachman?  Even though the world is a narrow bridge, sometimes vanishingly narrow, can we avoid being consumed by fear?

 

Make Each Day “Complete” – Emor 5776

This morning’s Torah portion includes one of the Torah’s sacred calendars.  After introducing Shabbat, it then describes the biblical holidays beginning with Passover.  In the process, it describes the period of time in which we currently find ourselves, the omer.

An omer is a sheaf of grain.  Imagine a field full of stalks of grain.  To get an omer, one would tie a bunch of them together and then chop the stalks off at the base.

The Torah commands Israelite farmers to bring the first omer of the new harvest to the Priest in the Temple so that he can make a special wave offering to God.  After that, Israelite farmers are allowed to consume grain from the new crop.  The omer offering took place on the second night of Passover.

After describing this ritual, the Torah then tells us to start counting.

You will count for yourselves on the day after the sabbath – from the day on which you bring the omer for waving – seven sabbaths, complete they shall be.  Until the day after the seventh sabbath you shall count fifty days…  (Lev. 23:15-16)

The Torah’s language is somewhat unusual: Sheva shabatot t’mimot ti-h’yenah – “seven sabbaths, complete they shall be.”  What does the Torah mean by saying t’mimot – “complete?”

The medieval commentator Rashi emphasizes the numerical aspect of “complete,” and cites the halakhic, or Jewish legal, interpretation.  “The counting must begin in the evening, for otherwise the weeks would not be complete.”  (Rashi on Lev. 23:15)  The Torah is very precise.  If it tells us to count seven complete weeks, then we have got to make sure to acknowledge every single day.

In Judaism, the day begins at night.  Therefore, the mitzvah of counting the omer is at nighttime, that is to say, as early as possible once the new day begins.

The ritual begins with a b’rakhah, a blessing acknowledging that the action we are about to perform is a mitzvah, a commandment.  Then, we count the new day, using the particular “omer counting formula.”

What happens if I forget to count at night?  Jewish law is very precise.  If I remember the next day, I should count during the day day without reciting the b’rakhah, since I missed the opportunity to do it at the proper time.  Then, that night, I can resume by reciting the b’rakhah and continuing the count.

If I forget entirely for a full 24 hour period, I can no longer count the omer with the b’rakhah, even at night.  Since the Torah says to count “seven complete sabbaths,” the opportunity has been lost.  There are no do-overs.  I am out of the omer game.

Every year, it is a challenge to stay in the omer game.  It is surprisingly difficult to remember every single day.  And the stakes are high, because if I miss even once, I’m out.  So far this year, thank God, I’m still in.

So, it is daytime – not the time to count with a b’rakhah.  This will be a repetition for those who remembered to count last night.  Please repeat after me:

Hayom shmonah v’esrim yom, she’hem arba’ah shavuot la-omer.

Today is the eight and twentieth day, being four weeks of the omer.

Is the omer just a game of memory and persistence?  If it is a game, there must be a prize.  It’s a good one.  At the end of seven complete weeks, we celebrate the holiday of Shavuot when we re-enact the revelation at Mount Sinai and receive the Torah.

With such a holy and ancient prize, we would expect there to be a little more to the omer game than simply trying not to get kicked out of it.

A midrash notes something peculiar about the way that the Torah describes the requirement to count the omer.  It does not use the typical Hebrew word for “complete.”  Normally, if I wanted to say seven whole weeks, I would say sheva shabatot sheleimot.  The word shalem means “whole” or “complete.”  It is related to the word shalom for “peace.”

The word in our verse is t’mimot, or tamim in the singular.  This word adds an additional dimension.

In an ancient midrash, “Rabbi Hiyya taught: seven sabbaths, complete they shall be – when are they complete?” he asks.  “When Israel fulfills God’s will.”  (Leviticus Rabbah 28:3)

The word tamim has two typical uses in the Torah.  One is to describe animals without blemishes which are brought as sacrifices to God in the Temple.  The other is to describe people, who themselves have no moral defects.  They are blameless, or complete in their character.

The Torah says about Noah: tamim hayah b’dorotav – “Blameless he was in his generation.”  (Gen. 5:9)  God instructs Abraham: hit’halekh l’fanai ve’h’yeh tamim – “walk before Me and be blameless.”  (Gen. 17:1)

Thus, tamim implies complete in quality rather than in quantity.  Given this additional aspect, what does it mean to count seven “complete” weeks – or rather, seven “blameless” weeks?

One commentator suggests that the period of the omer, that is to say, the period between our freedom from Egypt and our receiving the Torah, offers us a unique spiritual opportunity.

“And you shall count for yourselves” implies introspection and stock-taking in order to choose the true good… just as one carefully examines the amount and integrity of the money he receives so as to avoid deficient or counterfeit coins, thus also when counting the seven weeks he must make sure to complete the number, and preserve the quality of each day, that they may not detract from spiritual integrity… Hence the expression t’mimut which refers to spiritual integrity.  (HaKtav VeHaKabbalah, citing Rabbi Shelomo Pappenheim)

I had a low quality day this week, a day on which I felt completely unproductive.  I just couldn’t get focused, couldn’t accomplish anything.  It was not a day on which I felt that I had fulfilled God’s will – despite the fact that I had recited the blessing and counted the omer the night before.

I imagine we all have days like this from time to time.  The period of the omer, as we prepare ourselves spiritually to receive the Torah, offers us a special opportunity and a challenge to, as Rabbi Hiyya puts it, fulfill God’s will.

How does one count each day?  By making each day count.

Today is the twenty eighth day of the omer.  For the remaining days – I’ll let you do the math to figure out how many there are – let’s commit to making each day count.  Every day, let’s commit ourselves to perform one quality action that will be a fulfillment of God’s will.

Give to tzedakha.  Study the Torah portion for the upcoming Shabbat.  Invite someone to Shabbat dinner.  Reach out to a person whom you know is going through a difficult time.  Volunteer.

Each day offers us a new opportunity to be tamim, to be complete.

 

Bibliography: Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Vaykira, Vol. 2

Judaism, Meat, and the Environment – Acharei Mot 5776

This morning’s Torah portion contains some of the central principles of kashrut, our Jewish dietary practices.  While other sections of the Torah describe the kinds of animals that may or may not be eaten, Parashat Acharei Mot tells us how they are to be eaten.

It seems to be describing an early stage of ancient Israelite society, when there were lots of local shrines with altars throughout the land of Israel.

God tells Moses to instruct the Israelites that when they get a hunkering for meat, they may not just slaughter animals from their herds wherever they want.  It must be done in the sanctuary.  The blood must be poured out, and certain internal fats must be burned on the altar as a pleasing offering to God.  This requirement essentially transforms all meat consumption into a sacrifice, and elevates our eating into a sacred act.

The purpose of this requirement, God tells Moses, is to stop the people from making their offerings to the se’irim.  The se’irim seem to have been some sort of goat-demon that resided in the wilderness, and ancient Canaanites would apparently make offerings to them out in the wild.

The Torah goes on to state that whenever an animal is slaughtered outside of this sacred context, that person is considered to be cut off from the rest of the people.

The next restriction has to do with hunted game.  There were certain undomesticated animals that were kosher, and could be hunted.  Elsewhere the bible mentions deer, gazelles, roebuck, and several other unidentified species.  Most likely, these were only available to the elite.  But the Torah has to account for these as well.  So it specifies that when someone hunts an animal, it’s blood must be poured out on the ground and covered in order to be eaten.

You might be thinking right about now, “but Jews don’t hunt.”  And you would be correct.  These rules about eating meat have not reflected Jewish practice for thousands of years.  They describe an earlier time, before worship was centralized in the Temple in Jerusalem.  It was possible to bring an animal to the local shrine so that it could be slaughtered in a sacred context.

Later, as described in the book of Deuteronomy, the local shrines are abolished and worship is consolidated to the Temple in Jerusalem.  Along with this change, Israelites are given permission to slaughter animals on their own, outside of a sacrificial context.

Our great commentator Rashi notices something about the Torah’s regulations regarding meat – and specifically the hunting clause.  The word “hunt” appears twice.  asher yatzud tzeid-chayyah.  …anyone who “hunts down any hunted wild animal…”  Seemingly superfluous words are typically interpreted to have additional meanings.  Rashi cites the Talmudic teaching that a person should never eat meat as a casual thing.  (BT Chullin 84a)  Any time we eat meat, we should consider it as if we had gone through the extensive trouble of actually hunting it down.  In its context, the Talmud seems to be concerned with what in those days was the exorbitant cost of meat.  It advises that a person should not impoverish himself or neglect his family’s needs to satisfy his cravings.  It reports that a given quantity of meat costs 50 times the same quantity of vegetables.  And so, the Talmud recommends that, except for the very wealthy, a person should only have a little bit of meat once a week, on Shabbat.

Rashi cites the Talmud’s initial conclusion that eating meat should not be casual to us, but he does not cite the economic reasons.  Rather, meat consumption itself should be uncommon and special.

This would seem to reflect the early practice of our ancient Israelite ancestors, for whom meat could only be eaten in a sacred context.  By taking life to nourish ourselves, we commit an inherently violent act.  That is why it can only be done in a sacred context, recognizing that it is only God who has the right to determine matters of life and death.

How far we have descended from that lofty ideal.  Now, most of us never meet the animals we eat.  We buy them off the refrigerated shelf in the grocery store, wrapped in styrofoam and plastic.  Kosher meat is no different.  Are those of us who do eat meat living up to Rashi’s ideal of meat consumption not being casual?

The most famous Jew to argue for vegetarianism from a religious standpoint was Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel.  Rav Kook was a Chassidic Rebbe, a mystic, an early Zionist, and a prolific thinker and writer.  He believed that religious and non-religious Jews needed to work together, and that Judaism needed to be an active and involved force for change in the world.

Rav Kook notes that God’s original plan for creation is for humans to be vegetarians.  When Adam and Eve are placed in the Garden of Eden, they are given the plants and the fruit bearing trees for consumption, but not the animals.  Only after humanity has corrupted its ways on Earth, prompting God to wipe out all creation with the flood and start over, does God introduce the idea of eating meat.

It is a concession, argues Rav Kook, to humanity’s inability to reign in its appetites.  While God’s compassion is equal for all creatures, God recognizes that humans need to be given an elevated view of themselves vis a vis other animals in order to get them to concentrate on improving their relations with each other.

And so, God authorizes Noah and his descendants to have dominion over the animals, including eating them – but with certain restrictions.

To the Jewish people, God gives even more restrictions.  The menu of available animals is severely limited to us.  We are forbidden from consuming the blood.  We cannot mix meat and milk.  And there are additional restrictions as well.  Each of these restrictions, according to Rav Kook, is intended to elevate our moral consciousness and instill in us a profound reverence for life, even while we are eating animals.  We should never take eating meat for granted.  As Rashi says, it should not be a casual thing for us.

For example, Rav Kook explains that pouring out and covering the blood of the hunted animal is an act of “shame” on our part for committing such a “morally base” act of killing a living creature which had once known freedom.  There are similar moral and spiritual dimensions to each of the other mitzvot that regulate our eating of animals.

If we are paying close attention, we will as individuals come closer and closer to the ideal.  We will live in greater balance with the world around us.  We will treat God’s other creations better, reduce suffering, and be altogether more peaceful in our lives.  As a people, and collectively, as humanity, our heightened consciousness will produce greater unity and harmony in the world.

Rav Kook’s vegetarianism was an integral part of his Messianism.  The permission to eat meat is only temporary, he says.  It is a “transitional tax” until we arrive at a “brighter era” when we will all return to vegetarianism.  When that day arrives, human beings themselves will detest the idea of eating meat with “moral loathing.”  We will all become vegetarians, and balance between the species will be restored.  The sacrifices which will be offered in the rebuilt Temple will be exclusively plant-based.

In his personal life, Rav Kook would eat a small amount of chicken each Shabbat in acknowledgment that the day had not yet arrived.  Rav Kook was incredibly optimistic.  He lived at a time when Jews were building a life in the land of Israel.  He saw humanity as moving forward, closer and closer to perfection.  Rav Kook died in 1935, and so he did not witness the cataclysm of the Holocaust which surely would have affected his positive view of human moral progress.  But he has much to teach us.

In recent weeks, we have received reports of collapsing populations of coral in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and across the globe off the coast of Florida – the results of rising ocean temperatures and acid levels.  I am scared about what that portends for ocean ecosystems upon which we are more dependent than we know.

As a global species, we have done a terrible job of managing our consumption of this planet’s resources.  The Jewish laws of kashrut, in placing limitations on our consumption of meat, offer us a model for how we might relate to our consumption of the other resources of our world.

While Rav Kook’s vegetarianism does not reflect mainstream Jewish attitudes, he gives us something important to consider.  He suggests that there are spiritual and ethical dimensions of consumption, along with the environmental.  God created our world with the intention that its creatures live on it in balance.  As humans, our purpose across generations is to gradually approach that ideal of perfection.

Our Jewish tradition offers us thoughtful limits on our behavior when it comes to diet, and most other aspects of our lives.  If we are paying attention, living by the Torah will refine our character and help us to become our ideal selves.

In the contemporary world, with our scientific abilities to study the global environment and understand our lifestyles’ impacts on the global ecosystem, we would do well to consider what limits we ought to impose on ourselves, not only on our consumption of meat, but of are use of all the resources of this wonderful world that God has created for us.

Rav Kook, by personally eating a little bit of chicken each week, models for us that it does not have to be all or nothing.  Let’s pay a bit closer attention to what we consume.  Let’s try to distinguish between what we need to survive, and what we want.  What is necessary for us to live, and what, if we are really honest with ourselves, can we live without?

 

Bibliography: Rav Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace, Edited by Rabbi David Cohen

 

Bechukotai 5774 – Climate Change, DNA, and God’s Challenge to Us

On Monday of this week, two scientific papers were released by two separate teams that studied melting patters on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.  The groups conducted their studies independently, and used different methods to conduct their studies.  They did, however, come to the same conclusion.

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet sits on a bowl shaped depression of earth, with the base of the ice below sea level.  Ice on the edge of that bowl has been melting as it comes into contact with warming ocean water.  As that ice melts, it destabilizes the rest of the ice sheet, starting a chain reaction that will cause it to slide off the continent into the ocean.  The studies found that the melting has passed the point of no return.  Even if the water temperature goes back down, the progress of the glaciers cannot be stopped.  In fact, they will continue to accelerate into the ocean.

The cause is not clear.  Scientists think it has something to do with stronger winds stirring up the ocean and raising water temperatures.  Some think the stronger winds are caused by increased temperatures in other parts of the world due to global warming.  Others think that the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica has added energy to the winds.  Natural variability may also be a factor.

The result, according to the studies, will be an additional rise of global sea levels of up to twelve feet over the next few centuries.  That is on top of other predictions, which do not take the melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet into account.  The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has already warned that sea levels could rise up to three feet by the end of the century without significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.  With the new discovery, that estimate will have to be raised.

We are not going to go into whether global warming is caused by humans or not.  People’s emotions tend to overwhelm their brains in such discussions.

Let me state one undeniable fact: climate change, whatever the cause, exists.

What will the impact of rising sea levels be?  In America, a rise of up to four feet would inundate the homes of 3.7 million Americans.  Cities like Miami, New Orleans, Boston, and New York would all be vulnerable.

It is already happening.  The question is: what are we doing to prepare for it?  The collective decisions that we make over the coming decades will determine what kind of toll climate change will take on human lives.

The first half of this morning’s Torah portion, Bechukotai, records a series of blessings and curses which will befall the Israelites depending on their adherence to the covenant with God.  Im bechukotai telechu… it begins.  “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit…”

The blessings are everything that ancient people could want: abundant rain, successful crops, peace in the land, strength to defeat their enemies, and a constant awareness of God’s Presence and love in their midst.

The curses are the opposite.  The sky will turn to iron, the land will not produce food, disease will spread, famine will ensue, enemies will terrorize the land, and eventually the nation will be exiled.

Whether the blessings or the curses befall the Israelites is entirely up to them.  The national fate will be determined by whether the people follow the mitzvot, that is, the commandments outlined in the Torah that are the Jewish people’s covenental obligations to God.

As moderns, the idea of the weather or the conduct of enemy nations being determined by our actions is a troubling theology.

What these blessings and curses are describing is not so much theology, however, but human nature.  The extent to which a community embraces shared values determines to a large extent whether a crisis will result in blessing or curse.

When the oceans rise, the impact on human lives will be determined by how we have prepared for that event, and how our society cares for the people that are affected.  Developed countries will fare better than poor countries.  We know this, because that is what always happens in natural disasters.  But human societies, whether in local communities, in nations, or globally, have it in their hands to do something about it.  The question is: will we?

Unfortunately, the answer is probably: not very likely.

Every living creature has a biological imperative to perpetutate its own existence.  Human beings are no different.  It is built into our DNA.  But that imperative operates at the individual level rather than the collective.  Individuals tend to do things which enhance their own abilities to survive, thrive, and repopulate.  It seems that there is no collective biological imperative for the perpetuation of humanity’s existence.

We form groups for the benefits they bring to our own ability to survive.  We make choices about what we think will further our own well-being, but are far less inclined to make decisions that will benefit humanity, especially when it will involve some sort of self-sacrifice.

This is not a moral point.  It is a matter of biology and genetics.

So many human civilizations over the millenia have ignored the warning signs and gone down paths that led to their collapse.  The biological imperative is for individual survival, not for collective survival.  That perhaps explains why so many societies today engage in wasteful and self-destructive behaviors.  We are not naturally inclined to do what is best for humanity as a whole.

So we pollute our environment, we use up too much of our fresh water, and we drive other species into extinction.  Why?  Because there is nothing in our DNA to stop us.

The Torah challenges us to overcome our biology.  The mitzvot, the commandments, are a comprehensive system of laws that govern all aspects of our lives: how we treat ourselves, how we function within our families and our communities, and how we are to treat the strangers among us.

Our tradition also tells us how to function within the context of a larger society that is not Jewish.

And of course, Jewish life is full of rituals that bind us through the observance of sacred practices and the marking of sacred time to Jewish people of the past, present and future.  Ritual also enables us to express our yearnings to God.

In asking us to live by the mitzvot, God challenges us to rise above our genetics.

To follow halakhah, the Jewish system of commandments, is to impose an unnatural code of ethics on our human interactions, and to instill a deep sense of humility into our relationship with Creation.

Ki li kol ha-aretz  “For the entire Earth is Mine,” God declares at Mount Sinai before giving us the Ten Commandments.  As Jews in a covenantal relationship with God, we are asked to remember this at all times, and not treat the earth as something that exists only for our exploitation.  As God’s possession, the earth must be treated with reverence.

In the kedushah we recite the words kadosh kadosh kadosh, Adonai tzeva-ot, m’lo kol ha-aretz kevodo.  “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord of hosts, the fullness of the the entire earth is God’s glory.”  How might human treatment of our planet differ if we saw every element in the natural world as a manifestation of God’s glory?  Think about the impact on things like pollution, deforestation, and carbon emissions.  Consider how our own behavior might change with regard to the kinds of plants we put in our gardens, the length of our showers, and the things we choose to purchase, if we were conscious of utilizing resources that belonged to God.

The Torah is speaking to a particular community: the Jewish people.  The Torah’s way is the Jewish recipe for overcoming our basic human instincts.  But the underlying principle is universal.  It applies to all peoples separately, and to humanity as a whole.  God asks all of us to be more than our DNA.  To work for the flourishing of all people, and to treat the earth with humility.

As evidenced by our behavior, it seems that humanity does not have an especially humble posture with regard to the earth.

A detail in the presentation of curses reveals an insightful point about human behavior.  The curses do not all happen at once.  They come in waves.  After each wave, we are offered a chance to return to God.  If we do not take advantage of that opportunity, then the next wave will strike.  One gets a sense that God really wants Israel to redeem itself, to prevent further curses.  But the Torah describes it as almost inevitable that the community will not be able to reverse course.  Curses will follow more curses, with people never recognizing that their fate is the result of having gone off course from the path of blessing.

The cycle ends with the land desolate and the people in exile.  Only then will a small remnant realize their mistakes and the mistakes of their ancestors and return to the covenant.  When that happens, God will be waiting, eager to take them back.

Weird weather, rising ocean temperatures and acidity, melting glaciers, more powerful hurricanes, shrinking fresh water reserves – as we see sign after sign pointing to increasingly severe consequences of climate change, what are we going to do?

When will we start to take real action?  The kind of action that calls on us to make lifestyle changes, to transform how and where we live, and what we eat.  Action that will shift how our economy is structured and how success is measured?

Humanity’s track record is not great.  We tend to not be good about making investments in preventative strategies for catastrophes that are not yet upon us.

Whether the challenge is man-made or not, our responses are always in our own hands.  The way that we come together as a community will determine whether this challenge will become a curse or not.