Inclusivity and Pesach Sheni: Be-Ha’alotekha 5773

Judaism is a religion of memory. All of our holidays, including Shabbat, have a central component that orients us back to some past event – whether the Creation of the World, the Exodus from Egypt, the wandering in the wilderness, the saving of our people in ancient Persia, the victory of the Maccabees and subsequent rededication of the Temple, the destruction of the Temples… and the list goes on. When we observe these holidays, we don’t just remember what happened once, a long time ago. It is always a reenactment. We continually re-experience the formative events of our predecessors. The ancient stories of our people become renewed through us.

This has two complimentary effects. The first effect is a (lower case “c”) conservative one. Our observance of Jewish holidays roots us in the history of our people. We perform the same traditions that our forebears have performed since ancient times. This establishes and strengthens our connection not just to the actual people who were redeemed from slavery in Egypt, but to every generation since that has remembered and re-enacted the Exodus since.

Alongside the conservatism implicit in an ancient tradition, we also innovate. In every generation, every single year, in fact, we have to be creative to make ancient traditions relevant to our lives today. That is why our holidays have layers of observance and meaning that have expanded over the centuries, and continue to expand today.

We see this conservatism and innovation expressed in the Torah from the very beginning. This morning’s parshah is set in the second year after the Israelites have left Egypt. On the fourteenth day of the first month, what we call the month of Nisan, the Israelites observe Passover. And what is remarkable is that only one year after the Exodus itself, they are already performing the ritual of remembrance. They are already making the transition into a people of memory.

But there are some folks, even then, who are left out of that first Passover after the Exodus. They had been in a state of ritual impurity, and the Torah says that in order to offer the Passover sacrifice, a person must be in a pure state. When everyone else is eating roast lamb with matzah and bitter herbs, they have to just watch.

This group of people is eager to celebrate Passover, and they are not content to sit on the sidelines. So they turn to Moses: “Yeah we’re impure, but why do we have to be left out?”

Moses does not have an answer for them, so he tells them: “Stand by, I’m going to ask God,” which he promptly does.

And God issues the ruling: “Anybody who can’t present the Passover offering because he is ritually impure or on a long journey should offer it exactly one month later, on the fourteenth day of the second month. But don’t think this is a free pass. A person who could have offered it at the right time but didn’t… is guilty.”

This has come to be known as Pesach Sheni – “Second Passover.” It is a rather unusual law in the Torah. Most of the Torah’s mitzvot are just given. This is one of only a handful of laws that comes as the result of a particular case.

One other example in particular, shares some similarities. Towards the end of the Book of Numbers, the five daughters of the deceased Zelophehad come to Moses. As in this morning’s case, the existing law leaves them out. The sisters point out that because only sons can inherit, their father’s land will be lost to their family. So they make the case that their father’s land should pass to them.

Again, Moses does not have an answer, so he turns to God. God affirms the sisters’ claim, and the law changes to allow daughters to inherit from their father when there is no male descendent.

Both stories, Pesach Sheni, and the daughters of Zelophehad, feature groups of people who are left out of the normative social structures. In the first, it’s a group of impure people who really want to celebrate Passover. In the second, it is women, who are ignored by the law.

They both make their case to the leader, Moses, who doesn’t know what to do. He understands what the law says, but he also knows that there are human beings in front of him. He turns to God. In both cases, God recognizes that the point is valid. These groups have been marginalized, left out, and so God changes the law to be more inclusive.

That these cases are codified in sacred scripture should tell us something. The Torah could have just presented the ruling. But it didn’t. It wanted us to know about the real, human situations behind the law. It wanted us to be aware that the rules of society in those particular times was excluding people.

It illustrates the tension between conservatism and innovation. Moses was lucky. He could just say: “Hold on a minute. Let me go ask God.” It’s not so easy for us. We are the ones who must negotiate often competing values. With an ancient tradition that is rooted in sacred scripture, but that also values inclusivity, how do we account for change?

This has been a constant tension in Judaism. To what extent do we preserve Jewish law and tradition as we have received it, on the one hand? And on the other hand, how much can we innovate to respond to new situations, new technologies, and new understandings of human experience.

This tension, between conservatism and innovation, is an identifying feature of Conservative Judaism: a movement that affirms halakhah, our commitment as individuals and communities to Jewish law; and a movement that also embraces the best of what modernity has to offer.

As for issues around inclusivity, this has meant that the Conservative movement has moved slower than some elements in the Jewish world, and faster than others.

Over the last century, the Conservative movement has embraced women’s equal involvement in religious life, it actively embraces Jews by choice, it has recently made greater efforts to reach out to intermarried families, and over the last decade has created new laws and traditions to welcome gay and lesbian Jews into mainstream Jewish life.

As in any established movement, the pace of change is slower than some would like, and faster than others would prefer.

But the overall direction in which we are moving is clear. We have made great strides in making our communities more welcoming to people who have been historically marginalized, whether due to gender, sexual orientation, wealth, ethnicity, etc. aBut we still have a long way to go to remove the walls that keep out those who would find a home in Jewish community.

I have learned that in many cases it is not enough to just say: “We are a friendly community. Everyone is welcome.”

At Sinai, we pride ourselves in being a fairly traditional, friendly, and heymish community – and that is by and large true for anyone who is courageous enough to walk through our doors. But with limited resources, we don’t do a whole lot to reach out beyond the walls of our synagogue.

It is one thing to say, “anyone who wants to join us is welcome.” It is something else to go out of our way to personally extend the invitation.

Our Torah, and our Jewish tradition, points us in the direction of inclusion. What can each of us do to make our community even more inclusive than it already is?

Starting with Leviticus – Vayikra 5773

I just saw the documentary from a few years ago, Waiting for Superman. It notes that American students’ rankings have been falling precipitously in math and science over the past few decades. It also notes that every President since Eisenhower has claimed to be the Education President. As our nation struggles to get back on track, education is once again brought out as a key concern. Universal access to quality education has been an important principle since our nation’s founding. Nowadays, everyone recognizes that a failing educational system will have economic and social impacts down the road, but we can’t come together on the best way to fix our broken system.

The emphasis on education is an aspect of Jewish culture in which we take great pride. From our people’s beginnings, education has been considered to be of utmost importance. Our tradition does not entrust the transmission of knowledge to an intellectual or religious elite. Since the days of the Torah itself, the importance of passing on knowledge to one’s child has been a primary religious obligation.

It is not only an individual responsibility. We can even identify in our sources an obligation to entire communities to provide universal education. With one caveat: as anyone who has seen Yentl knows, until modern times, the focus was on educating boys, and girls were often an afterthought.

The Shulchan Arukh, the great sixteenth century law code, lays out specific instructions about public education. While it is true that parents have to teach Torah to their own children, the community as a whole also bears responsibility. The Shulchan Arukh*1* teaches that a community is obligated to hire a melamed, a teacher, for its children. The men in any community that does not have a melamed are to be excommunicated until they hire someone.

Children are supposed to start learning the aleph bet when they are 3, and then start school at 5 or 6 years old, beginning with the study of Torah.

An ancient midrash reports the custom of beginning a child’s education with the Book of Leviticus. Then it asks the question: Why do children begin their learning with the Book of Leviticus rather than the Book of Genesis?

After all, for a young child, the laws of sacrifices seem like a strange place to begin. If I was designing a curriculum for Torah study, I might choose to start somewhere different. Perhaps Genesis, as the midrash asks about. After all, it is the beginning. It describes the creation of the world. It is full of stories about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Noah and the Flood, the Patriarchs and Matriarchs…

Or, maybe we might choose to begin with the Book of Exodus. It describes the beginnings of the Jewish people, the Exodus from Egypt, and the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

But no. The tradition was to begin with Leviticus. To teach children about different categories of sin, and the respective types of offerings that had to be brought for each one. To memorize the techniques of slaughtering animals and sprinkling blood on the altar. To learn how to distinguish between the various offerings that were brought at different times of the year. And all of these details about a way of worshipping God that had ceased entirely when the Temple was destroyed in the year 70 C.E. Why, the midrash asks, would we start children’s education here?

The answer, as taught by Rabbi Asi, has to do with a certain similiarity between children and sacrifices. All of the sacrifices written in Leviticus have to do with purity. Children are pure, and have not yet experienced sin. Therefore, the Holy One said, ‘let the pure ones come and engage with matters of purity, and I will consider it as if you were standing before Me and offering sacrifices.’ It is children continuing to learn the laws of sacrifices that enables the world to continue to stand.*2*

Rabbi Shabbatai ben Meir HaKohen, a mid-seventeenth century Ashkenazi Rabbi reports that the custom of starting a child’s education with the Book of Leviticus was still being practiced in his day.*3*

I don’t know of any Jewish schools that continue this tradition, although I bet there is at least one yeshivah in Brooklyn that does. I am not endorsing a change in our curriculum that would have us teaching the laws of sacrifices to 5 year olds.

But I like the idea expressed in the midrash that God considers children learning to be the equivalent of worship in the Holy Temple. And that the world itself is sustained on the merit of children learning.

Those have certainly been core values in Judaism.

But let’s look at where things stand now. In California, between 1981 and 2011, higher education spending has decreased by 13% in inflation-adjusted dollars. In the same time period, spending on prisons has increased by 436%.*4* The state Legislative Analysts Office reported that in 2011-2012, the state spent $179,000 per incarcerated youth. For every child in Kindergarten through 12th grade, the state spent $7,500 per year.*5*

Nationally, as an overall percentage of all federal spending, children account for about 10%. Over the next ten years, that is expected to fall to 8%, with the biggest drops expected to be in education.*6*

If the world stands on the learning of children, we need to do something radically different with regard to our priorities.

 

*1* Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 245:7,8

*2* Leviticus Rabbah 7:3, Midrash Tanhuma Tzav 14

*3* Siftei Kohen on Yoreh Deah 245:8

*4* http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/06/california-prisons-colleges_n_1863101.html

*5* http://www.cjcj.org/post/juvenile/justice/misplaced/priorities/california/s/spending/prisons/vs/higher/education

*6* http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/02/15/feds-spend-7-on-elderly-for-every-1-on-kids/

 

Osher va’Osher – Behar-Bechukotai 5772

There is a cute greeting in Hebrew.  You might say mazal tov!  osher va’osher!  Congratulations.  May you have happiness and wealth.
The word osher, depending on how it is spelled, can mean two different things.  With an aleph, osher means “happiness.”  With an ayin, osher means “wealth,” as in material wealth.
It is a fascinating homophone.
You’ve probably heard the English expression, “Money can’t buy happiness.”  The world is not quite so simplistic.  Because money can certainly pay for a whole bunch of things that make life not only possible, but easier, and more enjoyable.  Without enough money to satisfy our needs, a life of happiness and fulfillment becomes quite a challenge.
Nevertheless, the unrelenting pursuit of osher with an ayin, money, can indeed keep us from a life of osher with an aleph, happiness.
Isaac Arama was a fifteenth century Spanish Rabbi who published weekly sermons in a book called Aqaydat Yitzchaq.  He goes so far as to  say that “material possessions are a handicap to one’s efforts to determine true values.”  Money gets in the way of a meaningful life.
But Arama is a realist.  He acknowledges the importance of material possessions.  Human beings have physical needs, and it is through labor that we acquire those things that we need to survive and to thrive.  He cites the mishnah in Pirkei Avot: im ein kemach ein torah, im ein torah, ein kemach.  “If there is no flour, there can be no Torah.”  Material wealth is necessary to enable a person to study Torah.  A person who is constantly struggling to put food on the table, to pay for health care, rent, and electricity, doesn’t have much time, or even peace of mind, to luxuriate on the development of his soul.  Having enough material possessions makes it possible for us to acquire spiritual values.  On the other hand, where there is no Torah, there is no flour.  Without Torah, without the proper use of our material possessions, true living is not possible.  Spiritual fulfillment cannot be achieved.
Maybe that is why we wish each other both osher va’osher.  True happiness, true fulfillment, with the material blessings that make it possible.
But most human societies today do not offer a healthy balance of material and spiritual opportunities.  Today, we face so much pressure to be always available for our jobs, to measure our success in life by how much stuff we have, and to never give ourselves a real break.  We are constantly in pursuit of osher with an ayin, wealth.  But do we do what we ought to truly cultivate osher with an aleph?
But this is not a dilemma only for the fast-paced twenty first century.  Go back three thousand years and find that human beings were also struggling to find that balance.
Parashat Behar, the first of this morning’s double portion, begins with the laws of the Shemittah, the sabbatical year.  Every seven years, the Israelite farmers are prohibited from working the land.  Whatever it produces on its own will sustain them.  Indeed, as long as the Israelites follow the rules, God promises to bless the land with so much abundance in the sixth year that there will be plenty of food throughout the seventh.
Interestingly, the beginning of God’s instructions are only partially directed towards the Israelites.  “When you (Israelites) enter the land that I assign to you,”
וְשָׁבְתָה הָאָרֶץ שַׁבָּת לַה’
“the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord.”  (Lev. 25:2)
Notice, the instruction is not given to the Israelites to let the land rest.  The subject of the verb “observe a sabbath” is “the land.”  We learn that the land also gets to rest.  The land is personified.
What does it mean for the land to rest?  There are a few details.  First, there is to no agricultural work performed on the land or on trees.  Second, anything the land produces on its own, all produce, is ownerless.  Anybody can come and pick it.  Jewish law forbids a farmer from putting up fences or gates around his fields, or stockpiling produce during the seventh year.  Anyone is supposed to be able to come on to his property and pick whatever they want.  Later on, in the book of Deuteronomy, a third rule is mentioned which refers to the cancellation of debts in the seventh year.
What is the reason for the shemitah.  Why does the land get to rest?
One might say that it makes good economic sense to require a sabbatical year.  After all, letting land lie fallow and rotating crops is good for farming.  It enables the earth to regain nutrients, and ultimately to be more productive.  There is certainly a connection between good agricultural practices and the laws of shemitah.  But farmers should not need to be commanded to rotate their crops.  They do it because it is good practice to do so.  In fact, simply letting your fields lie fallow once every seven years would not be particularly effective.  According to one scholar, ancient Israelites probably let their land lie fallow biennially, even though the Torah does not mention this.  There must be something else to the Torah’s idea of shemitah.
Many scholars notice the similarities between the commandment to let the land rest every seven years, and for people to rest every seven days.  Throughout the Torah, the only two things that are described as shabbat ladonai – a sabbath unto God – are the seventh day, and the seventh year.  None of the holidays, not even Yom Kippur, is described as such.  There is a close link between Shabbat and Shemitah.
The symbolic meaning of Shabbat is as a reminder of the Creation of the universe.  Just as God rested on the seventh day after six days of creation, we rest on the seventh day.
To be clear, this is not meant to teach us the scientific origin of the world.  It is meant to teach us about our relationship to the world.  That the world belongs to God, and that we are ultimately dependent on God.  Shabbat instills a sense of humility in human beings.  By regularly spending a day not dominating our world, we are reminded that there is something greater than us.  The shemitah, with its many similarities to Shabbat, embodies this lesson as well.
With regard to Shabbat, we are told that every living thing among us is entitled to rest: our son and our daughter, our male and female slaves, our animals, and the strangers living among us.  During the shemitah year as well, the Torah lists everyone who is entitled to freely eat from anything the land produces: you, your male and female slaves, the hired and bound laborers who live with you, your cattle, and the beasts of the field.  Ownership of land is basically put on hold for that year.
Focusing on this ceasing of economic activity, one commentator sees the shemitah as promoting union and peace.  All strife comes from the attitude of “what’s mine is mine.”  The shemitah year says, effectively, nothing really belongs to any of us.  Every human being is equal.
Isaac Arama, who I mentioned earlier, points to an additional lesson.  He says 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 the supreme end; the purpose of giving this land to this people was not to be brought into the land in order to be enslaved by it, and addicted to tilling it and gather in the crops and enrich themselves…  Their purpose is to accomplish themselves and seek perfection, according to the will of their Creator, while satisfying the needs of their sustenance.”
In other words, properly observing the shemitah will enable us to reach a healthy balance between our pursuit of osher with an ayin and osher with an aleph, between wealth and happiness.
But the laws of shemitah have very little practical significance to us today.  First of all, they do not apply to land outside of Israel.  Second, Jewish communities throughout the millenia were always trying to find ways to circumvent the restrictions of shemitah.  If it is to pay taxes to the Romans, it is ok to cultivate some crops.  If you sell the land to a non-Jew, that person can work the land and sell the produce back to you.  And many other creative ways to not have to stop economic activity for a year.  The human drive to get more stuff is just too powerful.
That does not mean, however, that we should ignore what the laws of shemitah would ask of us.
Isaac Arama would have us ask ourselves, “Is my mission on earth to be a slave acquiring more material wealth, or is my mission a higher and nobler one?  Am I working to provide just enough for myself and loved ones to survive and thrive, or have I gone beyond that”  “How am I living a fulfilled life?”  “Will the direction in which my life is going  lead to true happiness?”
Shabbat and Shemitah tell us that, to get at what truly matters, we have to take a break from material pursuits.  Let’s ask ourselves: Am I taking breaks?  Am I turning off my cell phone?  Am I finding time to study Torah?  Am I giving extended amounts of uninterrupted attention to the people I love?
In short, am I pursuing a life that places equal value on both osher and osher?
*1*Hopkins 1985: 201
*2*Kli Yakar, Deut. 31:12

Income Inequality – Behar 5771

As you know, economists have officially declared the recession over.  That may be true on paper, but there are still millions who have lost their jobs, and their homes, and are struggling to get by.  Despite the immensity of the recession, it has not impacted everyone the same. Some have come through just fine, and even prospered.  One of the recent critiques we have heard is that the national unemployment rate is still well over 8 percent while some of the largest American corporations are making record profits and sitting on billions of dollars.  There are vast differences between the economic experiences of Americans.  I don’t think there is much disagreement that there is something broken in the socio-economics of this country.  There is a lot of disagreement about what is broken and how to fix it.

As a Diaspora people, Jews have lived in many different societies.  But wherever we have lived, we have taken our Torah, and our teachings with us, and we have applied their lessons to the situations we face.  This morning’s Torah portion has a lot to say to us about the relationship between the rich and the poor in society.

Most of Parshat Behar, is a presentation of the laws of land ownership in ancient Israel.  It describes an economic system that is vastly different from what we have today.  It is agriculturally based.  There is no money.  And land is apportioned to tribes, clans, and families.  As in some other societies in the Ancient World, land could not really be sold.  Great value was placed on keeping ancestral land within the family.  The Torah adds an innovative, and powerful moral concept with far-reaching implications.  God instructs the people, “But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.”  (Lev. 25:23)

The Israelites get this reminder every seven years, when they observe shemitah, and let the land lie fallow.  Every fifty years, they observe the yovel, the Jubilee.  In that year, all land reverts back to its original owner.  Any Israelite who had to indenture himself into servitude regains his freedom, and his land.  All debts are cancelled.

This economic model, if fully implemented, would have some pretty significant effects.  Families would not fall into multi-generational poverty, since there would effectively be an economic reset every fifty years.

Also, it would be impossible for anyone to accumulate huge amounts of property, since any land or debt that a successful business person acquired would revert on the Jubilee year.  There is not even such a thing as selling land, just leasing it for a period of time up until the fiftieth year.

The result would be a flattening of economic disparities.  You can imagine that the gap between the richest and the poorest in society would never get that huge if everything reset itself every half century.

What I especially appreciate about the system that the Torah dscribes is that it is not a pie in the sky utopia.  It does not say that everyone will be equal.  This is not “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”  This system understands that some people are going to be wealthier, better educated, shrewder, and luckier, than others.

Remember, the underlying moral value is that the land ultimately is owned by God, and not us.  While prosperity is important, there are values that are more important to pursue than the accumulation of wealth.

In his commentary on the Book of Leviticus, Jacob Milgrom describes these laws as trying to stop the loss of land by debtors to the rich, as well as reduce “the ever widening gap between the rich and the poor.”  The Biblical Prophets condemned the mistreatment of the poor in their particular prophetic style.  They harangued a society for ignoring the light of the poor, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan.  Here in the Book of Leviticus, Israel’s priests are trying to fix the immorality of economic inequality, not through moral pronouncements, but through law.

Nevertheless, the historical evidence suggests that the Jubilee year as presented in the Torah was never actually practiced.  What are we to make of its appearance here?  It is a presentation of values.  An ancient reader would see in this theoretical economic system a critique of what was probably a less just society in which those with less money, and less power, did not have many opportunities.  A society in which bankruptcy risked dooming a family to poverty for generations.

We seem to have some of the same issues today.

As you no doubt are aware, the last several decades have seen a significant rise in income inequality around the world.

Of all developed countries, the income gap between the rich and the poor is greatest in the United States.  In 2008, the top earning 20 percent of Americans, who earn at least $100,000 per year, received 49.4 percent of all income generated in the country  The bottom 20 percent received  just 3.4 percent of all income.  The relative gap is the widest that it has been since the U.S. Census Bureau started collecting data in 1968.

We are not going to get into what causes income disparities, or how to reduce them.  But I do want to talk about the effects.

There has been a lot of study over the last few decades about the impact that large gaps between the rich and the poor has on society.

Robert Putnam, the professor of political science at Harvard University, conducted a study on the relationship between social capital, or the connections between members of a society, and economic inequality.  He found that throughout the twentieth century, social connectedness and civic engagement moved “in tandem” with economic equality.  The flatter the gap between the rich and the poor, the more society was interconnected.  The high point in social capital, according to Putnam, occurred during the 1950’s and 1960’s, which was also the most economically egalitarian period in the twentieth century.  “Conversely,” he writes, “the last third of the twentieth century was a time of growing inequality and eroding social capital… The timing of the two trends is striking: somewhere around 1965-70 America reversed course and started becoming both less just economically and less well connected socially and politically.”

In other words, when the rich-poor gap is smaller, society functions better.  There are more interactions between people.  Communities are tighter-knit.  Individuals are more engaged politically, meaning that they are more involved in shaping the course of society.

There are many other social factors that have been also statistically correlated to income inequality.  To the extant that the income gap is reduced, societies in the developed world experience lower homicide rates, fewer mental health problems and less teen-age pregnancy.  But the gap is expanding.

It was not always like this.  In 1831, in his book Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville talked about how wonderful the economic equality was that he witnessed.  He writes:

Among the new objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, none struck me with greater force than the equality of conditions.  I easily perceived the enormous influence that this primary fact exercises on the workings of society.  It gives a particular direction to the public mind, a particular turn to the laws, new maxims to those who govern, and particular habits to the governed…  It creates opinions, gives rise to sentiments, inspires customs, and modifies everything it does not produce…  I kept finding that fact before me again and again as a central point to which all of my observations were leading.

De Tocqueville was describing an engaged, inspired population.  I don’t think de Tocqueville would be able to make those comment today.

Today, with the widest gap between the wealthy and the poor this country has seen since the 1920’s, it seems that there is a tremendous  despair among individuals about our ability to affect society.  With corporations now defined as people, and large PACs with unknown sources of funding able to influence politics with huge amounts of money, that despair seems justified.

The point I want to make this morning is that our Jewish tradition has always understood large gaps between the rich and the poor to be highly problematic.  Such disparities are harmful to a cohesive society, and are antithetical to the Jewish notion of justice.  To be clear, our tradition encourages us to be involved in the material world around us.  We pray for God to bless us with prosperity.  Wealth and prosperity are things to pursue.  But not as ends in and of themselves.  Only as means to do the more important work of serving God by creating a just world.

It is said that you can always cherry pick a text that will support your position.  I don’t think that can be said about this issue.  I have never heard or read any Jewish thinker, speaking from within the tradition, defend the idea that the rich should be free to acquire as much as they can without regard to the consequences on the rest of society.  As Jews, we have a moral and a legal obligation to create opportunities for the people at the bottom to succeed.  We can argue about strategy – raise taxes, lower taxes, expand social services, cut medicaid – but from a Jewish perspective, something has to be done about income inequality.

The Sin of “Reply to All” – Kedoshim 5771

I want to share with you the most dangerous word in the world today.  A word that can bring down governments.  A word that can destroy reputations.  A word that can kill.  The word is―
Forward
You know what I am talking about.  An email conversation with sensitive information gets forwarded on to someone new, with the entire history of previous conversations included at the bottom.  Perhaps you have received one of those emails.
Maybe you have even forwarded along a conversation, accidentally I am sure, that spread embarrassing or harmful details about another person.
I have, and the feeling is terrible.  Because once we hit send, there is no taking it back.  Forever.  It is in the cloud, possibly to resurface at any time.
The ability to share information is a double edged sword.  As we speak, it is being used to enable people to rise up to demand freedom from authoritarian rulers.  The release of the Wikileaks documents are another example.  Both made possible by “Forward.”
But the sharing of information has an impact on a personal level as well.  Sometimes with deadly results.
We saw this recently with the tragic death of Rutgers freshman student Tyler Clementi, who took his life after being the victim of cyberbullying.
While the technology that enabled all of these events is cutting edge, the danger that the digital cloud poses is ancient.
It is a danger that is the most neglected mitzvah in all of Judaism.  We read about it in this morning’s parshah.
לֹא־תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ
Do not deal basely with your countrymen…  (Lev. 19:16)
Although this is a difficult verse to understand, our tradition has interpreted “do not deal basely with your countrymen” to be a reference to gossip.  Although I can’t give you statistics to back this up, I would argue that the prohibition against lashon hara, literally “an evil tongue,” is the most frequently broken commandment in all of Judaism, even before the days of the internet.
While the Torah’s reference to gossip is somewhat unclear, our tradition has filled in the gaps extensively.
One ancient teaching states that a gossiper can stand in Rome and cause a death in Syria.*1*  The tragedy of Tyler Clementi is a case in point.
Gossip is also compared to an arrow.  In fact, I’d like to share several arrow metaphors.
Why is gossip like an arrow, as opposed to other weapons?  Because other weapons can only slay those who are near them, whereas an arrow can kill from a distance.*2*
Another arrow metaphor:  If a man takes a sword in hand to slay his fellow, who then pleads with him and begs for mercy, the would-be slayer can change his mind and return the sword to its sheath.  But once the would-be slayer has shot an arrow, it cannot be brought back even if he wants to.*3*
Metaphor number three.  The thirteenth century Rabbi Jonah Gerondi said:  “One who draws the bow often sends his arrow into a person without the latter’s knowing who hit him.”*4*
These three metaphors reveal three problems with gossip.
1.  It can harm from great distances.
2.  It cannot be retracted.
3.  It is often anonymous, making it impossible for the victim to confront its source.
So much has been written about gossip over the millenia, I cannot begin to cover the subject this morning.  I would like to discuss a new aspect of lashon hara that the Sages of our tradition could never have imagined.  A development that has taken this occasionally deadly scourge and exponentially multiplied its frequency and its potential to harm.
I am talking about lashon hara in the digital age.
The metaphor that the Torah uses for gossip, לֹא־תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ, literally means, “do not act as a merchant for your own kinsmen.”  It imagines that the marketplace is where gossip is passed along, the merchant being the one who is most privy to secret dealings and gossip.  And so, the traditional understanding of where gossip happens places it in the center of town, or in people’s kitchens, or perhaps even in shul, at the kiddush lunch after services, God forbid.
When the Talmud warns that gossip uttered in Rome can kill in Syria, it imagines transmission by caravan, over a period of months or years.
Now, the transmission of gossip can be measured in fractions of seconds.
Our lives are increasingly played out not in one another’s physical presence, but digitally.  First email, now Facebook and Twitter.  For many, social interaction takes place somewhere in the cloud.
The three arrow metaphors about gossip that I mentioned earlier are so true of the internet as well.
We are connected over great distances.  Once an email is sent, or a tweet posted, or a status updated, it cannot be taken back.  And finally, the internet makes it so easy to spread information anonymously.
But there is another aspect of the digital lashon hara that makes it even harder for us to resist.  When we are having a face to face conversation with a real person, we hear voice inflections and see facial and body expressions that make it a full communication.  The presence of the other person forces us to watch what we say, at least a little bit.  We serve as checks on one another’s behavior.  How is what I say or do going to be received by the person right in front of me?
But when we are sitting in front of a screen, or texting below the table in class or at a meeting – not that anyone here does that – our physical interaction is with a two dimensional piece of glass.  The human connection is gone.
That is why people will write things in emails that they would never say in person.  One can be much less inhibited online.  There are, of course, positive aspects to this.  The internet opens up possibilities of expression for people who might not otherwise have a voice.  But basic rules of decent behavior are so much easier to ignore when there is no physical person in front of us.  Nevertheless, we must not ignore them.
We are currently in the period of the omer.  The seven weeks of counting that begins on the second day of Passover and lasts until the day before Shavuot.  Today is the eleventh day.  I have taken it upon myself this year to try to reduce the amout of lashon hara that I engage in.  I have not managed to eradicate all gossip from my life.  Cold turkey is always tough.  But I think I have been controlling my tongue a bit better.  I am at least more aware of the numerous moments of gossip that I encounter every day, both as speaker, listener, and reader.
May I suggest that we all spend the remaining thirty eight days of the Omer focusing on just this one aspect of digital lashon hara.
Here is a way that I think may help.  One of the Sages of the Talmud, Rabbi Yossi taught:  “I never made a statement for which I would have to turn around and check whether the person about whom I was speaking was present.”*5*
Let’s bring Rabbi Yossi into the age of Facebook and Twitter.  Before sending an email, Tweet, or status update that mentions someone who is not among the recipients, ask the following question:  How would I feel if that person read this message in my presence?  Forget about wondering how the other person would feel.  How would I feel?
If you think you might feel at all uncomfortable if the other person read it, that is a pretty good indication that the message is within the realm of lashon hara.
By the way, this is also a good rule to follow if the person about whom you are writing is among the recipients.  If you would not want the other person to read the message with you in the same room, it might be better to keep it to yourself, or pick up the phone instead.
At the end of the Amidah, a prayer which is traditionally recited at least three times a day, there is a meditation that originates in the Talmud.  It begins
אֱלֹהַי, נְצוֹר לְשׁוֹנִי מֵרָע. וּשְׂפָתַי מִדַּבֵּר מִרְמָה.
“My Lord, prevent my tongue from evil.  And my lips from speaking deceit.”
It is a prayer that acknowledges that we all struggle with gossip, and that we need God’s help to stop it.
I think it may be time to modify the prayer.  “Prevent my tongue from evil” doesn’t quite capture what is needed in the era of digital lashon hara.  Perhaps we ought to say the following instead:
אֱלֹהַי, נְצוֹר אֶצְבְּעוֹתַי מֵרָע, וְאַגוֹדְלַי מְהַקְלִיד מִרְמָה.
“My Lord, prevent my fingers from evil, and my thumbs from typing deceit.”
*1*PT Peah 1:1
*2*ibid.
*3*Midrash Tehillim 120:4
*4*Gates of Repentance, part 3, paragraph 207
*5*BT Arachin 15b