The Head & Not The Tail, The Top & Not The Bottom – Ki Tavo 5779

Rosh Hashanah is coming, and with it, an entire menu of culinary treats.  Apples and honey.  Those are obvious.  The challah is round—to symbolize a crown; and filled with raisins—for a sweet new year.

But there is more.  The Talmud recommends a number of foods to eat on Rosh Hashanah, such as beans, leeks, beets, and dates.  The Aramaic names for each of these foods form puns.

For example, rubia—”beans,”sounds like yirbu—”increase”, as in “May our merits increase.”

Karti—”leeks”—sounds like yikartu—”cut off”.  Silkei—”beets”—sounds like yistalku—”removed”.  Tamrei—”dates”—sounds like yitamu—”finished”.  All three of these can be eaten as if to say, “May our enemies be cut off, removed, or finished.”  Take your pick.  Or eat all three.

Other foods have been added to the list.  Rimon—”pomegranate”—”May our mitzvot be as numerous as the seeds in the pomegranate.”  It also happens to be symbolic of fertility, so interpret that as you will.

But the best food to eat on Rosh Hashanah—actually, this is debatable—is the head of a sheep or fish.  Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg would eat the head of a ram, to symbolize the ram that was sacrificed instead of Isaac, which we read about on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.

Does anybody here follow this custom?  In my house, we buy gummy fish, cut them in half, and eat just the head.

What do we say when we eat the fish head?  Nih’yeh l’rosh, v’lo l’zanav.  “May we be like the head, and not like the tail.”

It is a strange expression, and it comes from this morning’s Torah portion.

In Parashat Ki Tavo, Moses describes a covenant ceremony that the Israelites will perform as soon as they cross over into the Promised Land, which they be doing without him.  As an entire nation, they renew their commitment to God.  During the ceremony, they recite a litany of blessings and curses which will befall the nation as a consequence of whether the people follow God’s commandments.

The blessings are what we might expect: Abundant rain in the right season.  Successful harvests.  Prosperity.  Victory against enemies.  The other nations of the earth will stand in awe of Israel.

Then, after these tangible blessings have been pronounced, there is one additional blessing that seems less specific.  Un’tanekha Adonai l’rosh v’lo l’zanav; v’hayita rak l’ma’alah v’lo tih’yeh l’mata.  “The Lord will make you the head, not the tail; you will always be at the top and never at the bottom…”  (Deut. 28:13)

The curses, beginning a few verses later, are the inverse of the blessings, and then some.  Included among the curses is the declaration that the stranger “…shall be the head and you shall be the tail.”  (28:44)

This is clearly where the Rosh Hashanah practice of eating the sheep or fish head comes from.  But what does it mean?

On its face, it seems fairly straightforward.  It is a metaphor for the economic and political success that Israel will experience if it behaves righteously.  Even today, we use the term “head” to refer to a leader, or the person at the top.  The “tail” is the follower. There is internal evidence in the Torah that the term refers specifically to being a creditor nation, rather than a debtor nation.

Mystical interpretations, however, identify hidden, spiritual meanings in the words of the Torah.  The Chassidic Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, author of the Torah commentary Kedushat Levi, suggests a deeper meaning.

He begins his commentary by asking why the Torah bothers to include the “tail” or the “bottom.”  Shouldn’t it have been enough to have said Un’tanekha Adonai l’rosh; v’hayita rak l’ma’alah—”The Lord will make you the head and you shall always be at the top”?  Adding “and not the tail,” and “never at the bottom” is superfluous.  And the Torah never wastes ink. Here is the hidden meaning.  Please bear with me.  This is kind of esoteric.

Reality, for human beings, is made up of three domains:  1.  The domain of abstract thought; 2.  The domain of speech; and 3.  The domain of action.  

Although Levi Yitzchak does not describe it this way, think about human consciousness.  Our experience of reality is no more than electrical signals passing between neurons in different parts of our brains.  For those electrical signals to be translated into awareness, what we might describe as thoughts or feelings, we need to perform an act of translation. My mind compares these patterns of electrical signals with my previous experiences of electrical signals.  At its most basic level, that is what language is.

I see a creature moving.  It has four legs, fur, and pointy ears.  It makes a noise.  My mind tells me, “this is a dog.”

Why doesn’t my mind say “cat?”  Not because I have seen this particular animal before, but because I have previous experiences with other creatures which have been defined as dogs. Language is the act of defining abstract experiences by comparing them with previous experiences.  Language also enables me to communicate my memory of those experiences to someone else.

After I have translated my abstract thoughts into language, I can then act.  I can manipulate the physical world around me.

We operate in all three domains at all times.  

The mystic sees the first domain, that of abstract thought, as the highest.  The essence of God lies somewhere beyond, but it is the closest a human being can become to God’s domain.  In Kabbalah, God’s essence is described as the Ein Sof, which literally means, “there is no end.”  Or, it cannot be defined.  God is completely abstract.  No word will capture God’s essence. The ultimate goal of the mystic is to attach oneself to God.  This can only be accomplished through the first domain, that of abstract thought.

Now we come back to the head and the tail, the top and the bottom.  Each of the three domains has a head and a tail.  A person who ascends to the head of a lower domain touches upon the tail of the next higher domain.  This is how Levi Yitzchak understands the Torah’s language of head and tail, top and bottom. When the Jewish people is at its best, it approaches the head of the highest domain, abstract thought, and is closest to God.

Let’s bring this back down to earth.  Through our actions, our speech, and our thought, each of us has the capacity to be better.  Actions, speech and thought are related.  As we improve one, we begin to improve the next.  

I work on my physical actions with the world around me: How I treat people, how I earn and spend my money, how I express compassion.  When I achieve success with my actions, it then leads to my speech.

My spiritual health is also about the words that come out of my mouth.  Controlling speech can be even more difficult than controlling behavior.  How hard is it to not gossip: to use language that builds people up rather than puts people down; to only read words online that make me grow?

When I purify my speech, that is when I can begin to purify my thoughts.

Moses describes the ultimate spiritual blessing:  “The Lord will make you the head, not the tail; you will always be at the top and never at the bottom…”  When the Israelites fulfill their covenantal obligations, they will achieve the closest possible relationship with God. Rabbi Levi says that this is not only a lesson for the nation, but for each of us.

As we approach the new year, we are taking stock.  It might be helpful to understand ourselves as being comprised of these three domains of thought, speech, and action.  The religious goal, indeed the human goal, is to improve on all three.

At the Rosh Hashanah meal, whether we eat a sheep’s head, a ram’s head, a salmon head, or a Swedish Fish head, may it symbolize for us that the year to come will be one in which we are the head, not the tail, and always at the top, never the bottom.”

Ki Teitzei 5779 – Don’t Promise Presents, Be In The Present

There is a common Hebrew expression: Bli neder, which means “without a vow.”  Bli Neder, I’ll pick you up tonight at 7.  Bli neder, I’ll bring the money that I owe you this Thursday.  Bli neder, I’ll have my High Holiday sermons done on time.

One of the laws in Parashat Ki Teitzei deals with nedarim, or vows.  A vow works likes this.  I’ve got something big coming up, and I feel like I am going to want God’s help.  Examples could include: the birth of a healthy child, victory in war, a successful business deal.

So I make a vow, promising to bring a specific gift to God.  It could be a sacrifice, or a donation of money, livestock, or grain to the Temple.  I might even vow to refrain from a particular activity, such as drinking wine or getting a haircut.

The Torah deals with the laws of vows in Parashat Ki Teitzei here in Deuteronomy as well as in an entire chapter at the end of the book of Numbers.  A number of Psalms express vows as well.

This morning’s parashah dedicates three verses to the topic.  The first verse warns that anyone who makes a vow had better fulfill it as quickly as possible.  No procrastinating, or else that person will incur guilt. The third verse emphasizes that any vow that crosses a person’s lips must be fulfilled.  The Torah provides no mechanism for nullifying a vow.

In between these two statements, the Torah provides a hint: “you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing.”  Wink. Wink. Note the double negative—no guilt if you don’t vow.  If we read into it a little deeper, the Torah is saying that since there is no obligation whatsoever for a person to make a vow, why would anyone put such a burden upon themselves?

Vows were apparently quite common in ancient times. There are several famous vows in the Bible.  The Judge Samson and the Prophet Samuel are both dedicated to a lifetime of service to God in fulfillment of vows made by their respective mothers. Thanks mom.

The Patriarch Jacob makes a vow in the book of Genesis when he is about to the leave the land of Canaan with nothing but the shirt on his back.  He declares that if God is with him, protecting him and eventually returning him home, then Jacob will be faithful to God and dedicate ten percent of his future earnings.

The most notorious vow in the Bible occurs in the book of Judges.  The Chieftain Yiftach, about to lead the Israelites in battle against the Ammonites, makes the following declaration to God:

“If You deliver the Ammonites into my hands, then whatever comes out the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s and shall be offered by me as a burnt offering.”

Yiftach, it can be assumed, is thinking it will be a goat or chicken.

God is with Yiftach, and he defeats his enemies.  When the warrior returns home, who should run out of the house, dancing with a timbrel in her hands to celebrate her father’s great victory but Yiftach’s daughter, his only child.  Yiftach is crushed, but his daughter understands the seriousness of the vow, and insists that her father fulfill it.

The Rabbis are aware of vows as well—and they don’t like them.  Drawing on our portion, the Rabbis invent ways to nullify vows.  They dedicate an entire Tractate of Talmud to the subject.

At one point, the Talmudic Sage Rav Dimi takes it a step further, declaring that anyone who makes a vow is a sinner, even if that person fulfills it. He proves it from Ki Teitzei.  The Torah states “you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing.”  The Torah implies, therefore, that ‘you do incur guilt if you don’t refrain from vowing.’

Oy.  So many double negatives.

What’s the big problem with a vow?  The medieval commentator, Nachmanides, does not mince words.  God takes no pleasure in fools who make lots of vows.  The problem, he explains, is that unexpected things get in the way of us fulfilling so many of our commitments.  When it comes to something as serious as a vow, saying “I meant to do it, but circumstances made it impossible…” is not good enough.  There are no excuses.

Building on this this, the nineteenth century commentator, Samson Raphael Hirsch, says that we have enough trouble with our actions in the present.  A vow adds extra obligations for some future time, when we have no idea what unexpected events may get in our way.  “We should rest content with directing [our] actions every moment of [our] present existence, living it as it should be lived.  Whatever we will be called upon to do in the future constitutes our duty then, without undertaking it in the form of a vow.”

In just under four weeks, we will gather together for Yom Kippur.  At the very beginning, before the holiday actually begins, we will chant Kol Nidrei.  In fact, we name the entire service Kol NidreiKol Nidrei means “All vows.” It is not a prayer, but rather a legal statement.  We declare that all vows, oaths, pledges, and so on that we make from this Yom Kippur and next Yom Kippur are officially annulled.  Nidrana la nidrei.  “Our vows are not vows.”

When Kol Nidrei first appeared in the 9th century, the Rabbis didn’t like it.  But it was too popular with people.

The idea behind Kol Nidrei is that words matter.  Life is unpredictable.  I can never know for certain that I am going to be able to fulfill in the future the commitment that I make today.  But I want to be able to start the new year with a clean slate.  Kol Nidrei enables me to do that, to not be held back by all of my failures.  

Better, as Hirsch, advises, to live my life in the present as it should be lived.  With integrity and honesty.

Shoftim 5779 – One Hand Has Not Spilled This Blood

Parashat Shoftim begins with justice.  It sets up the ideal of wise uncorruptible judges whose decisions are respected.  A society that does this, promises the opening of our parashah, will thrive on its land.

At the end of Parashat Shoftim, we are presented with a case about this limits of justice. The case is called the eglah arufah, “The Broken-Necked Heifer.”  Here is the scenario: a murdered body is found in the open, outside of city limits, and the killer cannot be identified.  Instead of filing it away as an unsolved mystery, respected elders from the area go out and measure the distance from the body to the surrounding towns.  Whichever settlement is nearest to where the body was found must then perform a ritual. The elders of the town take a heifer that has never been worked or carried a yoke.  They bring it outside the town to a nahal eitan, a wadi that flows year-round, on land that is not cultivated.  There, they break the neck of the heifer. Then, in front of priests from the tribe of Levi who have gathered especially for the occcasion, the elders of the town wash their hands in the water of the stream, and make a declaration:

Yadeinu lo shaf’khu et hadam hazeh, v’einayim lo ra’u—”Our hands did not spill this blood, nor did our eyes see it done.  Absolve, O Lord, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel.”

In so doing, they remove the bloodguilt.  In Hebrew, the expression is v’nikaper lahem hadam  That should sound familiar.  nikaper is from the same root as kaparah, which is the same as Yom Kippur.  It means atonement, and it refers to the washing away of sin that is attached to our souls.

This would seem to suggest that the inhabitants of the nearby town bear a certain degree of guilt.  Otherwise, what need would they have for atonement?

The Jerusalem Talmud offers two explanations, one from the Rabbis of the land of Israel, and the other from the Rabbis of Babylon.  In Israel, the Rabbis understand the ritual to be a reference to the murderer.  The elders declare: “the murderer never came through our town.  We never saw him.  He was not in our jail and we did not let him go free.”

The Rabbis of Babylonia suggest that the ritual refers to the victim.  “The victim never came through our town.  Otherwise, we would have surely taken care of him.  We would never have failed to offer him food, or ensure his safe passage.”

Both explanations involve the elders claiming that their communities are the kinds of communities that take responsibility for what happens in their town.  They do not allow criminals to walk the streets, and they do not neglect their obligations to take care of those who live on the margins.

In other words, they are saying, “we are fine, upstanding people.  People in our town do not do things like this.  We don’t let anyone slip through the cracks.  We didn’t do anything.  We didn’t see anything.”

This still does not solve the problem.  If they did everything they were supposed to do, why do they need atonement?

Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Bunim offers a creative explanation, suggesting that they may not be as innocent as they seem to claim. He points out a grammatical problem with one word in the declaration by the elders.  “Our hands did not spill this blood.”  yadeinu lo shaf’khu et hadam hazeh.

The problem is with the word shaf’khu, which is a verb meaning “spill.”  The Torah uses what the commentator Ibn Ezra describes as a really ancient spelling.  Instead of ending with a ו, it ends with a ה.  

שפכה

The vowels, according to the Masoretic text, are שָׁפְכֻה,
rendering the pronunciation shaf’khu.

If we read it like it is written in later Hebrew, it would say shaf’khah, which is singular, as in “our hand has not spilled this blood.”  Just one hand.  Not two. Why does this matter?

It is impossible for the elders to say, “everything we did, we did with both of our hands.”  Rather, they say, “What we did, we did with just one hand, because there will always remains some degree of guilt that we did not do enough.”

It’s such a clever insight on so many levels.  As human beings, we are self interested creatures.  We don’t like to admit guilt.  

A parent walks into the room and sees red crayon marks all over the walls.  She turns to her three year old, who is holding a red crayon, and asks, “Why are there red crayon marks on the wall?”

What does the three year old say?

“I didn’t do it.”

Our gut reaction is always to say “I didn’t do it.”

In the case of the eglah arufah, the crime has been committed nearby.  Suspicion naturally falls on those who are closest.  What is the declaration that they make? It’s the same as the three year old with a crayon.  “We didn’t do it.” But that does not mean that we don’t bear some responsibility.  We might not have been the ones who committed the murder, but can we really say that we were paying close enough attention to what was happening around us?

Did we take responsibility for our community—both by making sure it was safe, and by taking care of the people who needed help?  Did we open our eyes and take notice of the very individuals who tend to not get noticed? When tragedies occur, are those who claim to be innocent bystanders really innocent?

I was listening yesterday to a radio show on which people were calling in with reactions to the split verdict in the Ghost Ship fire.  People were rightfully angry about how such an unsafe situation could be allowed.  There was plenty of discussion about who should be held responsible, beyond just the two people who were put on trial. But of course, this is all after the fact—after 36 people died in a fire that should never have broken out.  But that is the way it goes with tragedies.  It is easy to cast blame after the fact.  

But maybe we should admit, as a society, that we never do everything we could have to build the kind of caring community that the Torah sets up as an ideal.

The Rabbis themselves acknowledge this.  In the second century, the Mishnah (Sotah 9:9) declares:  “When the murderers increased, the rite of the eglah arufah was abolished.”  The ritual itself became meaningless. Communities could not honestly claim that they had done everything that they could, or should have.

Parashat Shoftim begins with the ideal of justice.  It ends with a recognition of human imperfection.

Perhaps we should be honest enough to say, instead of “I didn’t do anything.  I didn’t see anything”  that “Maybe I looked the other way.  Perhaps I could have done more.”

That would be a great step for a society that strives to move towards justice.

Falling Into Prayer – Ekev 5779

At the end of Parashat Ekev, as Moses is exhorting the Israelites to remain faithful to God and the covenant, he makes a speech that may sound familiar:

וְהָיָ֗ה אִם־שָׁמֹ֤עַ תִשְׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־מִצְוֹתַ֔י אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י מְצַוֶּ֥ה אֶתְכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם לְאַהֲבָ֞ה אֶת־י-ְהוָֹ֤ה אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם֙ וּלְעָבְד֔וֹ בְּכָל־לְבַבְכֶ֖ם וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁכֶם:

“Now it shall be, if you listen to my commandments which I command to you today, to love the Lord your God, and to serve Him with all of your hearts and with all of your souls…”  (Deut. 11:13)

We know this passage as the second paragraph of the shema.  It is the one that we usually recite silently.  Notice that it is not the language of prayer at all.  It is Moses telling the Israelites to listen to and serve God.  If they do, they will be rewarded with abundance.

So how did it come to be included, not just in our prayers, but in the Shema, which serves as the central biblical passage of Jewish worship, the anchor of our service?

The answer is found in the Talmud (BT Ta’anit 2a).  The word avodah, meaning service, usually refers to the Temple rituals: Priests and Levites offering daily animal sacrifices. But here, Moses modifies the usual expression when he speaks to the Israelites: וּלְעָבְד֔וֹ בְּכָל־לְבַבְכֶ֖ם — “to serve Him with all of your hearts.”  He is not talking about Temple rituals and animal sacrifices.  The Talmud cites this phrase and then asks: Eizo hi avodah she-hi ba-lev?  What kind of service is performed in the heart? Hevei omer: zo tefilah.  You must say that this is referring to tefilah — prayer.

Maimonides summarizes the matter succinctly, as usual.  He declares that “It is a positive commandment to pray every day, as it says: and you shall serve the Lord your God”  (Ex. 23:25).  He then cites this passage in the Talmud to explain that the service in question is the service of the heart; that is to say, tefilah.

The Torah is silent regarding the specific content of our prayers.  Nowhere does it say that we need to recite these particular words that appear in the prayer book.  Our siddur is the product of human beings striving to express themselves to God.

So what is tefilah?  What is prayer?

There are a few examples of prayers in the Torah.  As it so happens, one of them appears earlier in this morning’s Torah portion.

As Moses continues his recounting of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness over the previous forty years, he comes to the episode of the Golden Calf. As you may recall, the Israelites encountered God at Mount Sinai.  That is when they received the Ten Commandments.  We read them in last week’s parashah.  The first two commandments are:  I am the Lord your God.  You shall have no other gods before Me.  And, Don’t worship idols.

Forty days later, there is a bit of confusion about when—or whether—Moses is coming back.  So what do the Israelites do?  The obvious thing: build a statue of a golden calf and start worshipping it.

For those keeping track, they have just broken commandment numbers one and two.  Not a good start.  It sure didn’t take them long, did it?

Now, Moses has to intercede on the people’s behalf to prevent God from annihilating them.  He describes what happened in his own words:  וָאֶתְנַפַּל֩ לִפְנֵ֨י יְהֹוָ֜ה — “I threw myself down before the Lord like the first time; forty days and forty nights, bread I did not eat, and wine I did not drink, on account of all your sins that you committed…”  

The Torah likes to the play with language.  It is full of puns and patterns.  Hebrew is built on three letter root words.  Most verbs, nouns, and adjectives are constructed by manipulating those three letters in various ways.  In this case, the root for אֶתְנַפַּל is נפל, which in english means “fall.”  אֶתְנַפַּל makes it reflexive and forceful – I threw myself down.  

While נפל is a pretty common root word in the Bible, אֶתְנַפַּל is not.  Moses did not just fall to the ground.  He threw himself to the ground.  But there is more.  God was also furious with Aaron for his role in constructing the Golden Calf.  Moses again describes his courageous actions: וָאֶתְפַּלֵּ֛ל גַּם־בְּעַ֥ד אַהֲרֹ֖ן  — “Then I prayed on behalf of Aaron…”

Here, the word is אֶתְפַּלֵּל.  Sounds a lot like אֶתְנַפַּל.  But with one letter different.  Instead of נפל, the root is פלל, which in English means “intercede” or “pray.”

A few verses later, Moses recites the actual prayer that he had used to intercede for the Israelites and for Aaron.  Again, he pairs the words אֶתְנַפַּל and אֶתְפַּלֵּל.  “When I threw myself before the Lord… because the Lord was determined to destroy you, I interceded to the Lord and said…” and so on.

The Torah, very deliberately, juxtaposes these two nearly identical words to tell us that there is a connection between praying and throwing oneself on the ground.

It is clear, from this and other passages, that tefilah involves directing one’s words to God.   Looking at the various prayers that appear in the Bible, they tend to involve consistent themes.  The worshipper praises God, reflecting on God’s power and might.  Usually God is addressed as compassionate and forgiving.  Those are the qualities the worshipper is hoping to awaken.  After praise comes request.  The worshipper asks for something: a child, healing, mercy, victory.

In this passage, Moses asks God to have mercy on the Israelites and Aaron and forego the plan to destroy them.  But with the added element that he physically throws himself on the ground.

What does throwing oneself on the ground mean?  It is the most extreme form of bowing: full prostration, which nowadays we only perform during the High Holidays. It is a physical expression of humility: to lower oneself as close to the ground as possible.  It would certainly convey that message to the recipient of the prayer.

Think also about the effect that it would have on the worshipper.  How is the meaning of Moses’ words enhanced by him saying them with his face in the dirt, as opposed to if he had been standing tall?

To really pray, we have to first become aware that we are, in fact, powerless before our Creator.  The true act of service of the heart, real prayer, can only come from a position of losing oneself, of putting everything on the line, honestly and openly.  

Moses’ throwing himself on the ground is his way of praying with his whole self.  Literally, his entire body.  His physical posture contributes to his emotional state.  Ironic that, in order to most fully serve God with his heart, he has to also use his body.

Just Beginning to See – Va-Etchanan 5779

In my high school Humanities class, I remember being very impressed when I learned about the Socratic Paradox: “To know what you do not know, that is true knowledge.”  In fact, I discovered recently, Socrates never said such a thing.

The idea may come from a passage in Plato’s Apology.  Socrates gets into a discussion with a man who is reputed to be wise.  He walks away from the encounter disappointed.

“I am wiser than this man,” he muses, “for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.”

In Greek philosophy, the the hero of wisdom is Socrates.  He is so wise, because he knows that he does not know anything.

The Jewish equivalent is, of course, Moses.

At the very beginning of this morning’s parashah, Va’etchanan, Moses describes to the assembled Israelites how he tried to convince God to change the verdict against him.  He pleads to be allowed to enter the Promised Land.

Moses’s formal request begins with praise.

אֲדֹנָי יֱ-הֹוִה אַתָּה הַחִלּוֹתָ לְהַרְאוֹת אֶת־עַבְדְּךָ אֶת־גָּדְלְךָ וְאֶת־יָדְךָ הַחֲזָקָה

“My Master, Adonai, You Yourself have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand”

Why does Moses include the word, hachilota—”you have begun.”  He could have just said. “You have shown Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand.”  Since no word in the Torah is superfluous, it must add something important.

To understand the p’shat, the plain sense meaning of the expression, we have to look at this passage in its context.  Earlier in Sefer Devarim, the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses has recounted the Israelites’ travels through the wilderness over the previous forty years.  He has already used variations of the word hatchalah, meaning “beginning.”

The Israelites’ conquest has begun on the Eastern side of the Jordan River.  They have been victorious over King Sihon and the Amorites, as well as King Og and the Bashanites, capturing their lands. Two and a half Israelite tribes step forward, requesting permission to settle in the newly acquired lands:  Reuven, Gad, and half of Menashe.  This territory will become part of the new nation.  God instructs Moses.  Re’eh hachiloti—”See, I begin by placing Sihon and his land at your disposal.”  Hachel rash!—”Begin the occupation; take possession of his land!”

As Etchanan opens, the conquest has already begun.  The Israelites, with God’s blessing, are on a roll.  So Moses is thinking, “The Lord must be in a pretty good mood.  Now would be a good time to ask for my punishment to be lifted.” He signals this hope in the language of his prayer:

My Master, Adonai, You Yourself have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand, for what god is there in the heavens and on earth who could do like Your deeds and like Your might?  Let me, pray, cross over that I may see the goodly land which is across the Jordan, this goodly high country and the Lebanon!  (Deut. 3:24-25)

Moses sounds really hopeful.  He is not asking for much; just to look at the land, to see how good it is.  He is not going to touch anything.  Promise.

Even this is too much.  “But the Lord was wrathful with me because of you,” he tells the Israelites, “and he did not listen to me.  And the Lord said to me, Rav L’kha—Enough for you!  Do not speak more to Me of this matter.  Go up to the top of the Pisgah, and raise your eyes to the west and to the north and to the south and to the east and see iwth your own eyes, for you shall not cross this Jordan”  (Deut. 3:26-27)

Such a disappointing answer for Moses.

Reading this passage out of its context, the Baal Shem Tov, the eighteenth century founder of Chasidism, teaches a deeper lesson about Moses’ request.  

“You Yourself have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand.”

Moshe Rabeinu was the greatest of all prophets.  Not only does he receive the Written Torah at Mount Sinai, he also receives knowledge of every single innovation that future scholars are destined to discover.  As it says in the Talmud, “There is nobody greater in good deeds than Moshe Rabeinu.”  (BT Berachot 32).  Despite all of this, Moses still stands at the very beginning.  So he says to God:  “You Yourself have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand.”

Moses is not referring to the conquest of the land.  He is referencing something much greater: the mysteries of creation, the wonders of the universe, the nature of good and evil, the purpose of human existence.  Moses, the greatest of all prophets, has only caught a glimpse.  Nearly 120 years old, he still stands at the beginning.  Adayin hu omed bahat’chala.

Here is Moses, at the end of his life, acknowledging to God, “I have only just started learning these mysteries.  I want to know more.”

God responds, perhaps not with so much anger: rav l’kha—”it is enough for you.  There is a limit to what the human mind, even yours, can comprehend.  Ascend the highest peak, and look in every direction.  You will see everything that you are capable of seeing.  But you cannot cross over.”  In other words, you cannot increase your wisdom.

Moses is the paradigm for the ideal human beings.  He lives for 120 years, which the Torah identifies as the upper limit of human life.  He achieves the greatest wisdom of which human beings are capable, and he demonstrates the highest imaginable levels of virtue.  

His struggles, as creatively interpreted through Jewish tradition, are universal human struggles.  Here, at the end of his life, he realizes that he is just starting.  There is so much that he does not yet know.

This humility about the limits of knowledge is so important.  It is what drives scientists to uncover how our universe works.  It is what drives curiosity and growth.  Someone who thinks he or she has all the answers, ironically, has none.

Moses: A Man Of Words – Devarim 5779

Today, we begin reading the last of the five books of the Torah.  Sefer Devarim, the Book of Words.  It is a fitting title.  Unlike the previous books, there is not much narrative that takes place.  The Israelites do not travel.  Nobody challenges Moses’ authority, or defies God’s instructions.  No idolatrous nation attacks the Israelites.  Devarim is just a book of words, speeches.  Speeches by Moses, in fact.

This is the only book in which the narrator is Moses himself, speaking in the first person.  The other four books are written from the perspective of an unnamed, anonymous third person speaker.

Devarim takes place on the Eastern banks of the Jordan River, in sight of the land of Canaan.  Moses is nearly 120 years old.  He knows the end is near.  This is his final opportunity to prepare the Israelites for what will come next.  Sefer Devarim is Moses’ swan song, his “valedictory,” as described by Jeffrey Tigay.  But there is mysterious contradiction in the opening of this book.

What do we know about Moses as a person?  The Torah describes him as the greatest prophet to ever live.  He is the ideal human.  Practically perfect in every way.

The Torah specifies just a single flaw in Moses.  He identifies it himself, at the very beginning of his career.  At the burning bush, when God first appears to Moses and gives him his commission, Moses tries to get out of the job.  This is how the Torah describes it:

Moses said to the Lord.  Please my Lord, I am not a man of words, neither yesterday nor the day before that, nor ever since Your speaking to Your servant, for heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue am I.  (Exodus 4:10)

Lo ish devarim anokhi, “I am not a man of devarim, words.” Now listen to the opening verse of Sefer Devarim, the Book of Words:

These are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel on the other side of the Jordan, in the wilderness, in the Aravah between Suf and between Paran, and between Tofel and Lavan and Chatzerot and Di Zahav.

Eleh ha-devarim asher diber Moshe, “These are the devarim, the words, that Moses spoke.” Moses, who is not a man of words, has now become one—an incredible feat for someone who is heavy of mouth and tongue. How does he make such a transformation?

A Midrash explains that “when [Moses] became worthy of Torah, his tongue was healed and he began to speak devarim.” The mouth that said “I am not a man of words” at the burning bush is the same one that now fills a book with words. If that is the case, why have we not heard about it until this moment?  After all, Moses received the Torah on Mount Sinai nearly forty years earlier.  He should have already become a man of words.

In fact, says the fourteenth (1320-1376) century commentator, Nissim ben Reuven of Girona, known as the Ran, Moses was not healed until this moment. The Ran teaches that, until now, Moses had not been an eloquent speaker.  This was deliberate, to ensure that everyone knew that whenever he spoke, he was not using his rhetorical skills, his “glib tongue,” to trick them.  It could only be that the Shechinah was speaking through him.  The content of his words came directly from God.  His disability proves his authenticity.

But Sefer Devarim is different.  God barely speaks in this book.  It is all Moses.  For this, rhetoric matters.  He needs to speak with eloquence if he is going to convey a message to the children of those who left Egypt.  These are people who did not experience first hand the miracles of the plagues, the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, and the revelation at Mount Sinai.

For this task, Moses’ speaking difficulties will be a detriment.  That is why God waits until now, the end, to heal him.  We might even say that Moses did not become fully worthy of the Torah until this moment.

Verse 5 recapitulates the opening line of the book, “On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, “Moses expounded upon this Torah.” He begins with history.  He describes what has happened for the previous forty years, since the Revelation at Sinai.  Moses reminds us of the mistakes we made, and encourages us to remain faithful to God.  He lists the commandments that we are to follow as covenantal obligations.  All with devarim.

This is an important step.  The previous books describe God’s revelations to Israel through Moses, as they are happening.  Now, Moses must translate those previous revelations for a new generation, in language that they can understand and in terms to which they can relate.

That is the meaning of DevarimDevarim are not merely words.  Words, or language, is merely a tool that we use to transmit ideas to one another.  For this, a successful communicator or teacher must always take into consideration the particular needs of the listeners.

This is the transformation that Moses undergoes on the Eastern banks of the Jordan.  He expounds upon the Torah to future generations of Israel.  Perhaps this is the moment when he earns the title Moshe Rabeinu, Moses our teacher.  

Ever since, we have been a people of devarim.  What I am delivering right now is called a D’var Torah.  A “word of Torah.”  It is not merely reading from our sacred text, as the term “word of Torah” might literally imply.  The purpose of a D’var Torah is to translate God’s revelation into words that speak to us today, in this moment. That is why, when we publish our chumashim, we typically include commentaries along with the sacred text itself.  The text of revelation must be interpreted.  

We always read Parashat Devarim on the Shabbat before the fast of Tisha B’Av.  This year, today is itself Tisha B’Av, so we push its observance forward by one day. It is a day of memory and mourning.  We recall the destructions of the first and second temples, the expulsion from Spain, the fall of the Warsaw Ghetto, and many other tragic events of our people through the millenia.

We remember these events through devarim.  The primary devarim that we use is the Book of Eichah, LamentationsThese evocative words were written by Jeremiah to describe the horrible devastation and suffering of our ancestors during the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Babylonians in 586 bce.  But the words are crafted so artfully that they could just as easily be describing any of the later tragedies of our people.

It is through devarim that we remember.  Each year, we read the same devarim, but they mean something a little different.

Tonight, as we chant Jeremiah’s devarim, we think not only about the tragedies of the past, but also of the present.  This year, we have mourned brothers and sisters of the Jewish people who were murdered in Pittsburgh and Poway al kiddush hashem, in sanctification of God’s name.  And dozens of other senseless victims taken in the last week in Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton.

We know how important it is to remember.  Memory enables us to make meaning of our lives, and to be better. It is a lesson that we learned from Moshe Rabeinu, who taught us, before we entered the promised land, the importance of remembering the tragedies along with the blessings.  Tonight and tomorrow, we will remember the tragedies.  May we also remember the blessings.

One Prince Per Day, One Prince Per Day – Naso 5779

Frans de Waal, the famous primatologist, conducted an experiment which, if you have not seen footage of, you should.

Two Capuchin monkeys are placed in cages, side by side.  They are trained to perform a task in order to receive food.  A monkey gets a small pebble, gives it to the researcher through a hole in the cage, and in return, gets a piece of cucumber.  The two monkeys quickly learn the deal, and quite happily trade pebbles for cucumbers.

Then, a change is introduced.  One of the monkeys, instead of being given a piece of cucumber, receives a grape.  Grapes are way better than cucumbers, I am sure you will agree.

So monkey A gives the researcher a pebble, and gets a cucumber.  Monkey B gives the researcher a pebble, and gets a grape.  Monkey A is intrigued.  “They are giving out grapes now,” she thinks to herself “I want a grape.” So she quickly grabs another pebble and gives it to the researcher—who gives her a cucumber.  She starts to put it in her mouth. Monkey B, meanwhile, gives another pebble—and gets a grape.

At this point, Monkey A takes the cucumber out of her mouth and throws it at the researcher.

Monkey B gives another pebble—and gets another grape.  Monkey A tries again, frantically—and gets a cucumber, which she immediately throws at the researcher.  She then grabs the bars of the cage and starts shaking them in rage, screaming.

At the beginning of the experiment, Monkey A was perfectly happy with cucumbers.  But as soon as she realizes that her neighbor is getting something better, what was once fine becomes unacceptable.  Her happiness is not based on any internal measure.  It depends solely on how much she has relative to Monkey B.

Are human beings any different?  Do we measure happiness on our own, internal barometer, or does our happiness depend on comparing how much we have to how much we think other people have?  We’ll leave that as an open question.

The Torah repeatedly expresses its concern for extreme economic imbalances in society.  We see this in many of the Torah’s laws pertaining to agriculture and tzedakah. A related theme is the inherently competitive nature of human beings.  We see this as far back as the story of Cain and Abel, in which jealousy between siblings leads to the first murder.

We can only experience true happiness when we eliminate the temptations to be jealous of those with more or to dominate those with less.  This is a subtle message in this morning’s Torah portion.

The end of parashat Naso describes the offerings that are brought by chieftains from each of the twelve tribes.  The Mishkan, or Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary that the Israelites have just completed building, is ready.  Moses has anointed and sanctified it.  There is one final step to be taken before it can be used.  Chieftains from each of the 12 tribes must bring offerings for the Tabernacle’s dedication.  Chanukat HaMizbeach, as it is called.

First, the Chieftains collaborate on a gift of 6 carts with 12 oxen to pull them.  The give them to two of the three Levite clans whose job is to disassemble and carry the Tabernacle through the wilderness. As for their offerings, which are all identical, the chieftains collectively bring: 12 silver bowls weighing 130 shekels each, 12 silver basins weighing 70 shekels each, and 12 gold ladles weighing 10 shekels each, filled with incense. Altogether, that comes to about 63 pounds of silver, worth just over $15,000 at current prices.  The gold would be worth over $68,000. As for livestock, the Chieftains bring the following animals for sacrifices: 36 bulls, 36 rams, 60 he-goats, and 72 yearling lambs.  I’m not sure what those would be worth at a cattle auction—but it is safe to assume that it would be more than the gold and silver.  

In other words, this is a substantial gift.

All of this occurs in the longest chapter in the Torah: 89 verses.  And it is super repetitive.  Our text does not just give us the executive summary.  It details the individual gifts of each chieftain, 12 times in a row. This is not sloppy editing.  The detail and the repetition is quite deliberate.

When the Chieftains bring forward their offerings, it seems that Moses is confused about how he is to accept them.  So God tells him.

וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה נָשִׂיא אֶחָד לַיּוֹם נָשִׂיא אֶחָד לַיּוֹם יַקְרִיבוּ אֶת־קָרְבָּנָם לַחֲנֻכַּת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ׃

The Lord said to Moses: One prince per day, one prince per day—they shall offer their offerings for the dedication of the altar.

Numbers 7:11

נָשִׂיא אֶחָד לַיּוֹם – “One prince per day.”  God repeats this expression to Moses.  We must assume that it is an important detail.  Important enough to turn chapter 7 into the longest in the Torah, and Naso into the longest Parashah of the year.

The 12th century French commentary, Bechor Shor, explains that the Torah could have easily listed one day’s gift, and then summarized the rest by saying something along the lines of “and each of the other princes brought the same gift for the following eleven days.”  The purpose of repeating the detail is to accord honor to each of the princes, equally.  None of the gifts is any more special than the others.

Other commentaries are concerned that, despite getting equal ink time, the Princes will still compete with one another over position and power.  Specifically, what to do about the guy who goes first? That lucky guy is Nachshon, from the tribe of Judah.  This is no coincidence.  Judah will become the dominant tribe in Israel.  King David will one day be born into the tribe of Judah. (Numbers Rabbah 13:8)

Nachshon, destined for greatness, might decide to lord it over the others, saying, “I’m more special than you, since I get to go first.”  After his special day, he might decide to crash the days for the other Princes. So God emphasizes through repetition, Nasi echad layom, nasi echad layom.  One prince per day.  One prince per day.  “No Nachshon.  Stay in your lane.”  (Chizkuni)

That is why, of the 12 times that the offerings are repeated, there is a subtle distinction made for Nachshon.  For all of the other gifts, the text says korbano, “his gift.”  For Nachshon, it adds a single letter, v’korbano.  “And his gift.”

Usually, when we use the word “and,” it is because we want to add something to a list that we have already started.  “Grapes and cucumbers.” So it is strange that the Torah uses “and” for the first offering, and leaves it out for all of the others.  That is like saying “and grapes cucumbers.”

According to the midrash, this premature “and” sends the subtle message that while Nachshon may get to go first—someone has to, after all—his gift could just as well have followed any of the other eleven.

Removing the temptation for competition allows the entire nation, the Princes, and even Nachshon, to celebrate wholeheartedly on each of the twelve days, without feelings of jealousy or inadequacy.  They can experience true happiness.

Remember the Capuchin monkey experiment?  The surprise is that Monkey B, seeing the distress of her cell mate, sometimes stops accepting the grapes as well.  Perceived unfairness diminishes her happiness, even though she is the one who is better off. Can we say the same about ourselves?

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.