The Prozbul – Hillel’s Financial Creativity – Behar 5781

Trying to claim that the Torah supports this or that contemporary economic system or policy is like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole.

Jews have lived in many places and times and dealt with many different economic and political systems.  In all of those systems, there was economic struggle and human suffering, along with thriving and flourishing. We survived as a people due to cultural and religious adaptability.

Rather than try to awkwardly shoehorn the Torah into our modern theories, why don’t we instead look at what the Torah actually describes?

Parashat Behar, the first of this morning’s double parashah, presents a priestly vision of economic justice in ancient Israel. It offers details about land ownership, debt, poverty, and wealth. It describes indentured servitude and slavery.

By looking closely, perhaps we might learn something about the economic system that actually existed at the time.

First and foremost: there is no land ownership. It all belongs to God, who apportions the land to whom God sees fit. “The land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.”  (25:23)  This is a core concept that we must understand. Nobody owns property.

The parashah begins with a description of the shemitah, the sabbatical year. Just as every seven days ends with Shabbat, every seven years ends with Shemitah.

The Israelites are permitted to work the land and collect the harvests for six years. The seventh year is a Shabbat Ladonai – A Sabbath unto the Lord. Every seventh year, the land must be allowed to rest. There can be no harvesting or planting. Everyone is entitled to eat what the land produces on it. The Torah specifies “you” – the Israelites, along with their slaves, employees, indentured servants, and animals.

Every seven shemitah years ends with the Yovel, the Jubilee year. On Yom Kippur of the Jubilee year, the shofar is sounded throughout the land. All harvesting and planting is forbidden, as in the Shemittah year. In addition, all property returns to the person whose holding it originally was, or his heirs.  All indentured servants are automatically redeemed as well, going free and returning to their ancestral lands.

The Torah then describes the cycle of misfortunes that lead a farmer into servitude. When things first start going downhill, the farmer can take out an interest free loan to buy seed. If that does not work, the farmer sells part of his land for more seed. But not the land, actually. It is the annual productive capacity of the land, multiplied by the number of years remaining until the Jubilee. This makes sense, since the farmer gets the land back on the 50th year. If he manages to do well, he can repurchase the land at any time before then, redeeming it. It is his perogative.

If that does not work out, he can sell the productive capacity of his remaining property. He then remains on the land and becomes a sharecropper.  The purchaser of the land has to supply the tenant farmer with seed, and the farmer tries to pay off his debt with the proceeds from the harvest.

If this does not work, the farmer sells himself and becomes an indentured servant. The purchaser now takes on full responsibility for his well-being, including paying him wages. If he makes enough to pay off his debt, he goes free. Otherwise, he must wait until the Jubilee year.

All of this applies to Israelites dealing with other Israelites. The Torah specifies different treatment for non-Israelites. Non-Israelite slaves are owned in perpetuity. They cannot redeem themselves and do not go free in the Jubilee year.

So what can we say about this economy? There is no land ownership. While a successful farmer can increase his holdings for a time, it gets reset every 50 years, so there cannot be any accumulation of wealth. There does not seem to be any money in this system. Everything is based on agricultural commodities. Since all land ultimately remains under the control of the original family, there is little flexibility. Newcomers cannot break in to this system. A person who does not want to be a farmer does not have many options, since wealth is concentrated in the productive capacity of the land. 

At the same time, there is a strong concern for justice, and for preventing people from falling through the cracks when things turn poorly for them. Israelites are responsible for their neighbors. Even when someone becomes impoverished, they retain their rights and must be supported by those who are better off. Plus, the ability to redeem the land is totally in their hands.  The purchaser is not allowed to refuse to sell it back.

Was this economic system ever put into practice? During the first Temple era, we do not know for sure. But the Prophet Jeremiah makes a point of redeeming his ancestral land before he goes into exile when the First Temple is destroyed. In the Book of Ruth, Boaz redeems the land owned by Ruth’s deceased husband.

Biblical scholars argue about the extent to which these laws were observed. But the fact that the Torah can construct such an elaborate system of wealth redistribution implies that it is reacting to some situation on the ground. Behar represents the priestly vision for a just redistribution of wealth.

During the Second Temple era, however, the shemittah and Yovel laws were definitely being observed. Nehemiah makes reference to it in the fifth century. Philo and Josephus, in their histories, describe its practice during the late Second Temple period.

But the economic situation that Jews are living under is nothing like what existed centuries earlier. Let’s fast forward to the late Second Temple period, after the biblical era has ended. The Romans are in charge. The economy has changed drastically. Property ownership exists.

There is now money, which allows for a much more complex, growth-oriented economy. Think about what money is for a moment. The Emperor issues an order to make coins. The coins have limited intrinsic value, based on what kind of metal they are made of. But the government sets a value for those coins, a value that holds to the extent that people are willing to use it.

To expand the economy, the government encourages the issuing of credit, either by banks or by wealthy individuals. They make interest-bearing loans, which increases the money supply, allows businesses to grow, and allows trade to take place over vast distances.

A wealthy class emerges. Rich people need somewhere to park their money, so they do the obvious thing. They invest in real estate. Gradually, smaller farmers become squeezed out and are forced to sell their lands to wealthy absentee landowners, who typically dwell in the cities.

Jews, of course, are living under Roman rule, and they have to adjust to this system. Those Jews living in the land of Israel are also bound by the Torah’s agricultural laws, including those of the Shemittah and Yovel.

According to Deuteronomy, debts are cancelled every seven years, during the Shemittah. That is a problem. Why would anyone make a loan, especially an interest-free loan, if it is subject to cancellation at the end of each seven year cycle?

The result are as expected: credit dries up for those who are most in need. The poor remain poor, and the wealthy refuse to step in.

This situation led Hillel HaZaken, Hillel the Elder, to take action. Mishnah Tractate Shevii details the laws of the Shemittah year. The tenth chapter introduces an economic innovation that Hillel introduced. It is called a prozbul. The word most likely comes from the Greek pros boule, which means “before the council.”

The prozbul was a contract in which a creditor appears before a Beit Din, a Jewish court, and declares, “I turn over to you, so-and-so, judges of such and such a place, that any debt that I may have outstanding, I shall collect it whenever I desire.”  (Mishnah Sheviit 10:4) In other words, the debt, which by law should be cancelled, is transferred over to the court. The court is not a person, and therefore has no obligation to cancel the debt. After the Shemittah year is over, the creditor reclaims the debt from the Beit Din.

Why did Hillel issue this decree, which so clearly goes against the spirit, if not the letter, of the Torah? The Mishnah answers that question.

When he observed people refraining from lending to one another, and thus transgressing what is written in the Torah, “Beware, lest you harbor the base thought, [‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching,’ so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing].” Hillel enacted the prozbul.

Mishnah Sheviit 10:3

According to the Mishnah, those with means behaved exactly as we would have expected them to. They stopped making loans. That is why Hillel made this dramatic change. To put it into modern terms, “he eased up on banking regulations in order to get the economy moving again.”

The prozbul is one early example of how Judaism evolved to deal with a new economic reality. Over the past two thousand years, there have been many more developments. The best ones recognized, as Hillel the Elder did, the Torah’s underlying concern. “Beware, lest you harbor the base thought so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing.”

Whatever the economic system, whether it be barter, feudalism, mercantilism, capitalism, socialism, whatever’ism, we are supposed to take care of each other. There will always be some who do well while others struggle. We have seen this very clearly during the pandemic.

Food Banks around the country have distributed food in record numbers. We have been warned lately that the numbers of homeless Americans will rise dramatically when national and state eviction moratoriums end in the near future. I am not going to suggest that there is an obvious or simple solution to these problems. We live in a vastly complex global economy that defies simple solutions. 

But we would do well to remember the values expressed by the Torah laws: to be compassionate and generous with our neighbors, to not encumber them with unpayable debt, to support them when they stumble, and to give them opportunities to redeem themselves.

While We Sleep – Emor 5781

I have been working on my garden this week.  I have planted tomoatoes and peppers.  I laid down my drip irrigation system.  I went to the hardware store and bought enriched garden soil. While it may seem like a lot of work, compared to ancient times it was really quite easy.

What is the nature of humanity’s relationship to the earth?

While very much in touch with the land, and full of practical knowledge—probably much more so than most of us today—ancient humans did not have a scientific understanding of the world around them. Whether it rained or not, whether the wind blew or was still, was due to active oversight by God.  And so, I imagine that there was a certain amount of awe and humility that accompanied gardening in ancient times.

We see evidence of this attitude, this awareness of our frailty vis a vis the natural world, throughout the Torah. Parashat Emor includes one of the Torah’s sacred calendars. Appearing next to instructions for priests about maintaining their pure status, it focuses understandably on the sacrifices that the priests must offer in the Temple.

One of those offerings pertains to the season in which we find ourselves right now. God instructs Moses to inform the Israelites:

Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving to you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the priest.

Levitucs 23:10

Notice that this is the very first offering that the Israelites in the wilderness will bring after they enter the Promised Land. They are supposed to bring this sheaf offering, the omer, on the second day of Passover. The priest will take this offering and elevate it. The Torah continues:

Until that very day, until you have brought the offering of your God, you shall eat no bread or parched grain or fresh ears; it is a law for all time throughout the ages in all your settlements.

Leviticus 23:14

Until this omer is brought, the Israelites are not permitted to consume any of the grain from the new crop. 

What is an omer? A sheaf.  What’s a sheaf? You’ve surely seen pictures. Think of long stalks of grain, bundled together. A sheaf is the quantity of stalks that a person could carry under one arm.  One sheaf’s-worth of stalks contained about 4 dry pints of grain. 

So what is the Torah asking the Israelite farmer to do?

Let’s talk about pre-modern agriculture. It was extremely time consuming and labor intensive. It is not for nothing that Adam’s curse upon eating of the fruit includes the line, “by the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat.”

The first step is preparation of the field by ploughing; then sowing it with seed; then hoeing; then removingl thorns and weeds; then harvesting the stalks of grain, then bundling them into sheaves.  After that comes the most labor intensive step of the entire process: threshing. This is when the farmer separates the grain kernels from the straw by beating the stalks of wheat. To thresh one bushel of wheat—about 8 dry gallons—by hand, would typically take about an hour. Finally comes winnowing, which is when the grain kernels are separated by tossing it up into the air and letting the wind carry off the chaff. At this point, the farmer has grain that can be stored in silos. Until the last few centuries, this has been the normal procedure for producing grain.  It was incredibly hard work and not particularly efficient.

The Omer offering adds some additional steps for the ancient Israelite. Removing an omer’s worth of grain from the silo, the farmer would bring the offering in a basket to the Temple in Jerusalem. The Rabbis of the Mishnah describe what happened next. The farmer would

place [the grain] into a hollow, perforated [metal] vessel and then roast it over the fire. They would then spread the roasted kernels out on the ground of the Temple courtyard to be cooled by the wind. Next it would be ground in a mill.  Finally it would be sifted 13 times. This would result in a tenth of an ephah’s worth of the finest quality flour (about one quart).

Menachot 10:4

What an enormous amount of work for such a small offering. What is its purpose? A midrash suggests an answer.

Rabbi Levi said: Even assuming that you have ploughed, sown, hoed, removed the thorns, reaped, made sheaves, threshed and laid up corn in the granaries, if the Holy Blessed One did not produce a little bit of wind for you to winnow, what would you live from? Thus, you must only give Me wages for the wind.

Leviticus Rabbah 28:2

In other words, it is a symbolic gift to the Lord for the gentle breeze that enables the farmer to conduct the step of winnowing, which depends on a breeze to blow the lightweight chaff away from the denser grain.

Of course, there are countless other ways in which the farmer depends on God’s directing the natural world to enable human beings to conduct our livelihood.  Rain in the right quantities at the right times. Peaceful borders. No blight or insect infestation, and so on. Most farmers lived a subsistence lifestyle, powerless to affect so many of the conditions upon which livelihood depended.

An adjacent midrash makes a similar point.

Rabbi Yannai said: Normally, when a person buys a pound of meat in the marketplace, he has to go through so much trouble and anxiety. [Remember, meat was super expensive in those days, and there was no refrigeration.] But though people sleep in their beds, the Holy Blessed One causes the wind to blow, and raises up clouds, and causes plants to grow, and fruits to be plump, and all we have to give Him [in return] is the payment of the omer. Thus is it written: “You shall bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the priest.” (Leviticvus 23:10)

Leviticus Rabbah 28:1

In this midrash, Rabbi Yannai describes a number of other ways in which we depend upon the orderly functioning of the natural world: He mentions God laboring to bring wind and rain, cause plants to grow, and fruit to form. And we take most of those phenomena for granted, most of the time. We literally sleep through the cycle of nature.

That is the purpose of the omer offering: to get us to acknowledge how dependant we truly are on God, the director of the natural cycle.

It is a fitting reponse to experiencing the wonder and awe that we feel when we contemplate the miraculous interdependence inherent in the world around us.

What ought we to do as a symbolic offer of the Omer?

Something that would acknowledge our dependence on God, and instill a sense of humility in our relationship with the world around us.

Because I can have a successful garden regardless of whether it rains or not. All I have to do is turn on the tap and add the fertilizer. The reminders of our dependance are less obvious.

But there are so many indications that our relationship with the earth is out of balance: microplastics everywhere – in our water, our soil, our air, and our mountains; increasingly destructive fires, decreasing sources of groundwater.

The world will continue spinning, and the laws of nature will continue to perform as intended by God. Human behavior is the variable in the equation.

Will we stay asleep in our beds while nature moves forward?

Do Not Hate Your Kinsman, Love Your Fellow – Acharei Mot/Kedoshim 5781

Parashat Kedoshim is close to the physical center of the Torah. It begins with the instruction: You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.

At close to the center of the law code which follows, we find the iconic words: V’ahavta L’re’acha Kamocha. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. This is the Torah’s formulation of the Golden Rule, the core principle that lies at the heart of most religions and ethical systems.

But this apparently simple expression is deceptively complex. To understand it, I invite us to look at it in context. 

V’ahavta L’re’acha Kamocha appears in Leviticus chapter 19:18.  It is only part of the verse, and it follows 19:17, which provides additional context and helps us understand what it is that God is asking of us.

So let’s look at those two verses in their entirety:

You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your fellow openly so that you will not bear punishment because of him. You shall not take revenge or bear a grudge against members of your people. You shall love your fellow as yourself: I am the LORD.

Leviticus 19:17-18


Several details jump out right away. The first verse speaks of hate while the second speaks of love. Ramban notes that these verses are set up in a chiastic format. ABBA

“Don’t hate your kinsfolk in your heart” vs. “Love your fellow as yourself.”

“Reprove your fellow openly” vs. “You shall not take revenge or bear a grudge against members of your people.”

Plus, the “Thou Shalt” and the “Thou Shalt Not” are reversed. Verse 17 says don’t hate but do reprove while verse 18 reverses it, don’t take revenge, but do love.

In each case, the emotional instruction adds something to the more practical part of the commandment. But don’t think that hate and love are mere emotions. In the Torah, they are actions. When the Shema tells us to love the Lord your God, it is telling us to express our covenental obligations of love through actions. Inversely, hatred in the hatred implies a sense of active plotting against another person. We need to keep this important detail in mind as we explore further.

Let’s start with verse 17. Reprove your fellow openly so that you will not bear punishment because of him. That sounds like a dangerous proposition. I see my fellow commiting a sin and the Torah tells me that I must rebuke him. I have to try to stop whatever sinful activities that are being committed.

This commandment suggests that we have responsibilities towards the other members of our community. Like it or not, the impacts of many of my decisions and actions will reverberate to the people around me. The Torah is saying that my neighbors do not have to sit idly by and watch me bring disaster on to the community. In fact, they are not allowed to sit idly by. This positive commandment instructs other people to intervene on my behavior.

Of course, the potential for abuse is obvious. I try to always keep in mind the advice that my late father-in-law, Gary Romalis, may he rest in peace, used to offer, “Unsolicited advice is never appreciated.”

But if I trust my friends and neighbors, and know that they want what is best for me, I might be open to being reprimanded when I am behaving like a selfish jerk. I might appreciate the correction.

I think the Torah might be aware of this as well, as it offers a qualifier. “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart.”

Jacob Milgrom explains that the emphatic doubling of the verb, hokheach tokhiach, implies that reproof must be done openly. This reading helps us understand the commandment to “not hate your kinsfolk in your heart.” Hatred stored up in the heart has the tendency to fester. It is better to get it out in the open.

This is a theme that appears many times in the Bible. “Open reproof is better than concealed love,” states Proverbs (27:5). Proverbs also recognizes that it takes wisdom to receive rebuke. “Do not reprove a scoffer, for he will hate you, reprove a wise man and he will love you.” (9:8)

Taken together, we find themes of love and hate bound up with the notion of commenting on the behavior of friends, family members, and neighbors. Reproof must be motivated by love, and never hatred. And it can only be heard by someone who is open to receiving it.

The community that lived in Qumran, as reflected in the Dead Sea Scrolls, was an extremely tight-knit brotherhood. Strict rules governed daily life. Members of the community were required to reprove one another openly. Listen to what one of their documents states:

…if he kept silent about him from day to day, and accused him of a capital offense (only) when he was angry with him, [the accused’s] punishment is upon [the accuser], since he did not fulfill the commandment of God who said to him, “reprove your fellow openly so that you will not bear punishment because of him.”

Damascus Covenant Scroll 9: 2-8

A brother had to bring everything out into the open. Keeping things bottled up would allow hatred to grow. Another Qumran document provides guidance for how to offer rebuke:

To reprove each his fellow in truth, humility, and lovingkindness to a man: Let him not speak to him in anger or complaint or stub[bornly or in passion] (caused) by an evil disposition. Let him not hate him intrac[tab]ly, for on that very day shall he reprove him so that he will not bear punishment because of him.

1QS 5:25-6:1

Rebuke must be loving and humble.

The next verse in the Torah continues the theme. 

You shall not take revenge or bear a grudge against members of your people.

It is so easy to judge other people’s actions. We jump to conclusions all the time, and before we know it, we are consumed. The Torah warns us against it. The Talmud (BT Yoma 23a) offers a simple example that illustrates the difference between taking revenge and bearing a grudge. I am paraphrasing.

Let’s say I ask my neighbor to borrow a hammer. My neighbor says, “No way, it’s mine.” The next day, my neighbor comes knocking on my door, “Hey Josh, can I borrow a shovel.” 

“Are you kidding me?!  You wouldn’t lend me your hammer yesterday, and now you want my shovel.  Get lost!” 

That, says the Talmud, is revenge.

Let’s say, after my neighbor refuses to lend me the hammer and then has the audacity to ask for my shovel, I instead say, “Here. Take it. You see, unlike you, I am not selfish and greedy. I am the kind of person who lends out his tools.”

That is what it means to bear a grudge.

Both of these examples are the kind of typical reactions that, I imagine, most of us would have. That is why the Torah instructs us to “love your fellow as yourself.”

Even though my neighbor wouldn’t lend me the hammer, I cannot let myself succumb to hate. What does it feel like to need a shovel when you don’t have one? It does not matter that my neighbor was greedy yesterday. When someone needs a shovel, my job is to lend it to them. Because I know what it is like to need a tool.

The Talmud’s example, of course, is a bit trite. There are much more serious offenses that impose barriers between people. It is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to imagine that we should not feel hatred in our hearts against someone who has really wronged us. 

It is perhaps easier to imagine such common trust and acceptance in a small village in which everyone knows everyone, or a tight-new Qumranic brotherhood in the desert. A complex, diverse, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and highly interconnected world simply does not foster the level of trust and acceptance of one another that the Torah imagines.

How often do we pass judgment on other people’s actions, allow hate to fester, hold grudges, bear resentment?

Yet, this is the central command of the Torah, the ethical principle upon which all of Judaism is based, the underpinnings of holiness. 

We are not to be passive to wrongdoing, hokheach tokiach, You shall openly rebuke. But our rebuke must never be driven by hatred, must always be motivated by love for one another. How do we do this?

The Baal Shem Tov inspringly brings it together.

Just as we love ourselves despite the faults we know we have, so should we love our fellows despite the faults we see in them

Telushkin 1997: 466

May we have the honesty and acceptance to do so.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Jacob Milgrom, The Anchor Bible: Leviticus 17-22, pp. 1646-1656

Death and life are in the power of the tongue – Tazria-Metzora 5781

Underneath the surface, this week’s double Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora, is about the power of words.

On its surface, we cover a variety of topics relating to purity and impurity. Childbirth, scaly skin disease, plagues that erupt on clothing or houses, bodily discharges. All of these conditions have the potential to bear impurity.

Tzara’at is often, and misleadingly, translated as leprosy. Jacob Milgrom uses the term “scale disease, ” so that is how I will refer to it.

What are we dealing with? I have sometimes been guilty of referring to this as the Torah’s version of “public health.” There are many different forms that that tzaraat takes. It can appear on a person’s skin or scalp. It can be on clothing, fabric, or leather. Or, it can emerge on the walls of a building. The Torah describes the course of progression. There is a tremendous amount of detail.

But tzara’at does not resemble any skin affliction known to dermatology. What we are dealing with here is a spiritual condition, not a medical condition.

In chapters 13 and 14, the word tahor — pure — appears 36 times; tamei — impure — appears 30 times.  The word for healing, nirpa, appears just 4 times. 

Who performs the diagnosis – a wise person, a medicine man or woman, a prophet? No. It is the priests who are assigned this duty, the ones who are charged with maintaining separation between purity and impurity.

What is the remedy? The metzora must rend their clothes, bare their head, cover their upper lip, and call out “impure! impure!” as a warning to others to keep away. But we are not concerned with contagiousness of disease. We are worried about the contagiousness of impurity, which can be conveyed through touch or through being under the same roof.

Because the metzora has this status of impurity, they must dwell outside the community.

When the priest determines that the scale disease has run its course, he performs a ritual of purification on behalf of the Israelite who then must wait a week and bring sacrifices for expiation.

Tzara’at has little to do with medicine. The Torah’s treatment of it is ritual, not medical.

In the ancient world, death goes with impurity, life with purity.

In the Book of Numbers, Aaron and Miriam complain about their brother Moses on account of the Cushite woman that he has married. In response, God afflicts Miriam with “snow-white scales.” She become s a metzora’at.

Aaron turns to Moses. Pay close attention to how he describes what has happened. “O my Lord, account not to us the sin which we committed in our folly. Let her not be as one dead, who emerges from his mother’s womb with half his flesh eaten away.”

What have we learned about tzara’at?

1.  It is the result of sin.

2.  It makes Miriam look like a corpse, a stillbirth.

Moses intercedes with a prayer, but she still must remain outside of the camp for seven days during her period of ritual purification. There is nothing medical going on here. It is all about purity and impurity.

Our tradition must find religious meaning for these categories in a world in which there is no functioning priesthood. The Rabbis do not disappoint.

Already in the Torah, we found that tzara’at is associated with sin, impurity, and death.

The Rabbis run with that.

Noting that the word for a person afflicted with scale disease is called a metzora, they make a pun.  Metzora is an acronym for the expression motzi shem ra, which means literally “bring out a bad name.” It is the Hebrew expression for gossip in all of its forms.

The case of Miriam and Aaron proves the point. What sin did they commit to merit Miriam’s punishment? They were speaking ill of Moses, specifically concerning the ethnicity of his wife.

So it is not such a stretch for the Rabbis to make the connection between gossip and tzara’at.

A Talmudic Sage asks why the metzora is required to dwell outside the camp.  Why must they be ostracized from the community? The answer is that, through words, the metzora created separation between husband and wife, between neighbor and neighbor. And so, the punishment is to themselves be separated from the community. 

The Rabbis have transformed what in the Bible was a spiritual matter into a moral lesson. The person who destroys community through their words is themself removed from the community.  This could be seen as a punishment, or we might also see it as the natural consequence of speaking destructively.

The Torah begins with words. God speaks the universe into existence. From one day to the next, God declares, “Let there be light.” “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water…” “Let the water below the sky be gathered into one area, that the dry land may appear…” 

And then comes life. “Let the earth sprout vegetation…” “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures…” “Let the earth bring forth every kinds of living creature…” And finally, “Let us make humanity in our image…” Day after day, God creates through words.

What other kinds of words does God use in that opening week?  “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and master it…”

The universe begins with words. Words bring life and blessing. This is the side of purity and good. The opposite, of course, is death and curse, the side of impurity and evil. This too can be the result of words. 

The lesson of Tazria-Metzora is that our words have tremendous power. We can emulate God’s act of creation, using our words for good, for building one another up. For making the world better. For making life flourish. Or, when we use our words improperly, we destroy, we bring death. We separate ourselves from one another like the metzora banished to the edge of the camp.

The Rabbis point out that every act of lashon hara harms three people: the one who is spoken about, the one who is spoken to, and the one who does the speaking. The expulsion of the metzora from the camp is an appropriate metaphor for the potential of our words to destroy community. 

Proverbs gets it exactly right when it states “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”  (Proverbs 18:21)

The corrosiveness of words is so evident and widespread in our world. I often feel powerless to avoid it. But if we remember the potential harm that words cause everyone involved, including ourselves, perhaps there is something we can do.

Before speaking, let’s ask, “Are the words that I am about to say more likely to build or to destroy? Will my speech promote peace or further division?” When listening, it is ok to say, “Can we discuss something else,” or “I prefer not to talk about someone who is not around.” Finally, and this is the hardest of all, take a break from the news, and stop checking the feed. It is not making the world any better, it is not bringing people together, and it certainly is not making your life any better.

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”  Let’s make it life.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Rabbi Shai Held, The Heart of Torah, Volume 2, pp. 47-51

Jacob Milgrom, The Anchor Bible: Leviticus 1-16, pp. 816-824

Between the Sacred and the Profane – Shemini 5781

Parshat Shemini describes the inauguration of the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle that the Israelites built to bring the Divine presence into their midst.

Aaron, as the newly consecrated High Priest, leads the final ceremony, which reaches its climax when a heavenly fire shoots out of the Tent of Meeting to consume the sacrifices that he has prepared on the altar.  The people respond by falling to their faces, shouting.

Meanwhile, Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons, have taken their fire pans and offered incense.  The same conflagration that consumes their father’s offerings engulfs them along with it.  

Moses jumps into action, ordering the removal of the bodies and warns Aaron and his remaining sons, Elazar and Itamar, against interrupting the inauguration ceremony by going into mourning. The Israelites will mourn on their behalf.

Then, suddenly, the story breaks.

God speaks, addressing Aaron directly.

וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר יְהוָ֔ה אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֖ן לֵאמֹֽר׃

And the LORD spoke to Aaron, saying: 

Leviticus 10:8

This is unusual. On only two other occasions in the Torah does God speak directly to Aaron, both in Numbers, chapter 18.  Usually, God speaks to Aaron through Moses. And this is highly significant. Almost all of the rules pertaining to the priesthood are delivered to the Israelites collectively. There is no secret manual of sacrifices to which only the priests are privy. This contrasts with other ancient rites in which that esoteric material is kept secret from the general public.

So if God is speaking directly to Aaron, there must be something special about what comes next.

We might expect God to say something about the tragedy that has just befallen Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. Maybe offer comfort. Or provide an explanation for what just happened

But no, instead God delivers instructions against drinking alchohol while performing priestly duties.

יַ֣יִן וְשֵׁכָ֞ר אַל־תֵּ֣שְׁתְּ ׀ אַתָּ֣ה ׀ וּבָנֶ֣יךָ אִתָּ֗ךְ בְּבֹאֲכֶ֛ם אֶל־אֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵ֖ד וְלֹ֣א תָמֻ֑תוּ חֻקַּ֥ת עוֹלָ֖ם לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶֽם׃ 

Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die. This is a law for all time throughout the ages,

Leviticus 10:9

Midrashim and commentaries try to find connections between this prohibition and the tragedy of Nadav and Avihu. One solution claims that Nadav and Avihu’s mistake is that they were drunk when they made their incense offerings. But there is no indication that the esh zarah, the strange fire, that they brought had anything to do with drunkenness.

Another commentator suggests that it is a warning to Aaron and his surviving children not to drown their sorrows in drink. But again, nothing in the text suggests that this is a temptation under consideration.

God’s instructions to Aaron continues, although the syntax is strange. The sentence begins with an infinitive. It makes the Hebrew feel like a continuation from a different speech.

וּֽלֲהַבְדִּ֔יל בֵּ֥ין הַקֹּ֖דֶשׁ וּבֵ֣ין הַחֹ֑ל וּבֵ֥ין הַטָּמֵ֖א וּבֵ֥ין הַטָּהֽוֹר׃ וּלְהוֹרֹ֖ת אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אֵ֚ת כָּל־הַ֣חֻקִּ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּ֧ר יְהוָ֛ה אֲלֵיהֶ֖ם בְּיַד־מֹשֶֽׁה׃

And to distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean; and to teach the Israelites all the laws which the LORD has imparted to them through Moses.

Leviticus 10:10-11

Rashi, somewhat awkwardly, connects this passage to the prohibition against serving while intoxicated. In other words, you have to stay sober so that you will be able to properly distinguish between “the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean.” 

Or perhaps it should be read as an empahtic, and not directly connected to the preceding verse. וּֽלֲהַבְדִּ֔יל The essential duty of the priesthood is “to distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean and to teach the Israelites” all of God’s laws.

We see here an inner and an outer focus.  The priests have jobs themselves to do. They are tasked with maintaining separation within the sanctuary on behalf of the community.  While everyone knows the rules, only the priests have to concern themselves with fulfilling them. Of the Torah’s 613 commandments, somewhere between 201 and 293 of them only apply when the Temple is standing.

But the priests also have an outward-facing role. They are teachers. According to Deuteronomy (17:7-9), the priests serve as judges, deciding legal disputes and interpreting God’s laws when questions arise.

In the midst of their inauguration, just after tragedy strikes, God speaks to Aaron directly to summarize the essential role of the priesthood.

You may remember a passage from Exodus, when the Israelites recieved the Torah at Mount Sinai. They are instructed to be a “kingdom of priests, a holy people.” And so we see that the role of Aaron and his offspring may be seen as a means to that ultimate end. 

You may have recognized the language in what God tells Aaron. וּֽלֲהַבְדִּ֔יל בֵּ֥ין הַקֹּ֖דֶשׁ וּבֵ֣ין הַחֹ֑ל ul’havdil bein hakodesh uvein hachol — “and to distinguish between the sacred and the profane.”

We use these words in the blessing for Havdallah. As Shabbat ends, we quote God’s directions to Aaron. But instead of the priests having a set of narrow responsibilities for keeping sacred apart from profane, pure from impure, the words undergo a cosmic reformulation. 

It is now God who makes this distinction:

Praised are You, Adonai our God, sovereign of the universe, who distinguishes between the sacred and the profane, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations, between the seventh day and the six days of creation. Praised are You, Adonai, who distinguishes between sacred and profane. 

All of creation: time, space, people, point toward these distinctions.

If that is the ultimate goal, perhaps that explains why God interrupts the disastrous inauguration ceremony to remind Aaron, and us, what it is all about. Right now, everything is a mess. 

Leviticus 1-16 (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries) Hardcover – December 1, 1998

Pure and impure, sacred and profane — all are mixed up. That is why we need the priesthood: to perform the job in the sacred Temple, and to teach the people how to live in a world in which the proper balance is maintained. 

But eventually we will become worthy of the title, a “kingdom of priests, a holy nation.” We remind ourselves of that every week, when we mark the transition from sacred to profane. The Sabbath we have just experienced, a taste of the world to come, is our sample for what a world in balance could be like.

Bibliography

Leviticus 1-16 (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries) by Jacob Milgrom

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