The Earth Doesn’t Care Whose Fault It Is – Yom Kippur 5782

Mi va’esh u’mi va’mayim.  Who by fire and who by water?

We are halfway through what is already one of the worst fire seasons around the globe. More than 2.2 million acres have burned here in California so far, exacerbated by drought. Large swaths of land around the Mediterranean burned. In July, the town of Lytton, British Columbia, in Canada, reached a record 121 degrees Fahrenheit and literally burst into flame.

Less than one month ago, Hurricane Ida wreaked devastation from Louisiana to the Northeast, leaving at least 115 people dead and causing more than fifty billion dollars in damage.

Two months ago, record rainfall in Western Europe caused massive flooding, killing at least 220 people, and washing away an entire town in Germany.

Mi va’esh u’mi va’mayim. Who by fire and who by water?

The most urgent issue facing humanity is our imbalanced relationship with the earth. It outweighs every other concern: Covid, freedom, democracy, racism, poverty, education, and Israel.

Our out of balance relationship with the earth puts our species at risk of extinction. If that happens, nothing else matters – at least from humanity’s perspective.

Every one of us must do better when it comes to the ways that we utilize the earth’s resources. And since none of us can do everything, we can direct our efforts towards those issues which seem most urgent to us and which we have the greatest capacity to influence.

There are so many ciritical issues, including for those who do not believe human beings cause climate change. Much of the western United States is in extreme drought conditions. Microplastics are everywhere, from the deepest seas to the highest mountains. Humanity’s encroachment into unoccupied areas, called WUI, the Wildland Urban Interface, puts people at greater risk from disasters like fire. The oceans are acidifying.

I plead with all of us.  Pick at least one thing that you care about and do more than you are already doing.

Who is to blame for how things have gotten to be the way they are?

You may recall a famous ad that appeared regularly on television in the 1970’s. The scene opens with a Native American man paddling down a bucolic river in a canoe. His hair is in braids and he is wearing a leather “Indian” outift. The camera turns to the water. A single piece of trash floats by.  Now we see an industrial nightmare.  Large factories, container ships, and pollution spewing smoketacks dwarf the small canoe.The Native American drags his boat to the shore, where more trash litters the ground.  As he begins walking, a voiceover proclaims:

“Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country.”

He is now at the side of a busy highway. As the traffic zooms past, a driver carelessly throws a bag of rubbish out the window. It lands, scattering garbage across our hero’s feet.  The voiceover continues:

“And some people don’t.”

As the camera zooms in on the Native American’s face, a single tear rolls down his cheek and we are admonished,

“People start pollution, and people can stop it.”

This ad, which came to be known as the “The Crying Indian,” is considered by the Ad Council to be one of the “50 greatest commercials of all time.”

By every measure, it was super effective. 

Part of a campaign by a nonprofit organization called Keep America Beautiful, it helped lead to the reduction of litter by 88% across 38 states. But that was not the real goal of “The Crying Indian.” As they say: follow the money.

The nonprofit Keep America Beautiful was not founded, as its name might suggest, by a bunch of do-gooder hippies. It was created in the 1950’s by the American Can Company and the Owens-Illiniois Glass Company, which were later joined by the likes of Coca-Cola and the Dixie Cup Company.

The goal of Keep America Beautiful was to oppose the influence of environmentalists.  Prior to its founding, packaging was typically reusable.  If you bought a Coke, you paid a deposit and then returned the bottle so that it could be sterilized and reused.  In the 1950’s, as the plastics industry was taking off, bottlers and container manufacturers began to aggressively – and successfully – push single use packaging.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s there were increasing moves to enact legislation to limit the production of throwaway containers.  So Keep America Beautiful began to sponsor ad campaigns like “The Crying Indian.”

The cynical strategy was based on the simple economics of supply and demand.  If we want to do something about litter, we basically have two options: focus on the people who make the stuff or focus on the people who use the stuff.  The suppliers, or the demanders.  Supply or demand.

“The Crying Indian,” with its final message, “People start pollution, and people can stop it,” places responsibility on the demand side of the equation.

The suppliers of all of this packaging would shrug their shoulders and say, “we are just giving our customers what they want. It’s not our fault.”

In fact, it was their fault.  Through a decades-long marketing strategy, they shifted public consciousness to center all of the blame and responsibility on the demand side. The result is that there were few limits placed on supply. The companies avoided having to pay the costs of pollution and disposal, and they earned billions and billions of dollars while the plastic accumulated.

I go to Costco and discover apples on my shopping list. Organic apples.  But those apples come in a plastic clamshell.  Now I, the consumer, am stuck with this piece of plastic that I do not want, but that is now my responsibility to deal with.Does it go in the trash or the recycling bin? Well, it’s got the triangle thing on it, but I recently heard that those triangle thingies are not reliable.  Plus, the third world countries to which we used to ship all of our plastic are starting to say, “no thank you. We don’t want your trash.” As it turns out, much of that plastic heading for recycling was just being dumped in open air landfills.

Who is the manufacturer of that plastic clamshell?  Who knows. What is their legal responsibility? Nothing whatsoever.

It is because Keep America Beautiful‘s ad campaign worked.  Our economy does not include the price of disposal in the cost of manufacturing. The suppliers are off the hook.

By the way, the Indian who appeared in the ad was an actor who went by the name “Iron Eyes Cody.”  His real name was Espera De Corti. He was a second generation Italian American. 

What is your personal carbon footprint? How much CO2 and methane do your actions put into the environment? This is a question many of us have asked ourselves in recent years.

I can easily go online and find a website that will ask me to estimate the number of square feet in my home, my annual vehicle mileage, the number of airplane flights I take per year, and so on.  Enter all the data, click next, and presto – my carbon footprint!

Where did the idea for the carbon footprint come from? Follow the money.

The ad agency Ogilvy started the campaign in 2005 on behalf of its client, British Petroleum. Just like “The Crying Indian,” BP wanted to keep the moral responsibility for oil production on the demand side rather than the supply side of the equation.

So BP encourages us to calculate our carbon footprint and then offers suggestions for how we can reduce it, knowing that we will not actually follow through in any economically substanative way.  Meanwhile, BP will be there for us to supply all of the oil that we demand.

For its part, BP has made no effort to reduce its own carbon footprint. Quite the opposite – it has continued to expand its oil drilling, including a current multi-billion dollar project called “Thunder Horse” to construct an oil platform 150 miles south of New Orleans in the Gulf of Mexico. When all eight wells are completed sometime this decade, it will produce 250,000 barrels of oil and 200 million cubic feet of gas per day.

But it is our responsibility.  After all, BP is just meeting our demand.

This strategy has been used over and over again – by the petroleum industry, tobacco companies, sugary beverage producers.  “It’s not our fault. We are just giving the people what they want.”

But it is their fault.

Or maybe not entirely.

One of the most prominent sections in our Mahzor is the Vidui, the confessional. We recite Ashamnu and Al Chet. For the sins we have committed, forgive us and pardon us. We strike our chests in contrition. 

Both of these prayers are alphabetical.  The Ashamnu lists a single verb for each letter. Al Chet is a double acrostic, with two sentences per letter. We recite a litany of sins. Some are specific actions, while others are general attitudes of selfishness or duplicity.

All of the verbs end with -nu, which is the 1st person plural.  We did all of these things. Surely not! I have definitiely screwed up a lot this past year, but I’m not that bad.  I didn’t commit every sin on the list. For example, I know with certainty that I did not charge interest to anyone in 5781. I categorically reject that characterization.

We Rabbis will often explain this expression of collective guilt as a way to provide cover, to help those of us who might actually be guilty of one of these sins to face up to it. 

Or maybe, in another sense, we actually are accountable for each other’s sins. These confessions are not personal admissions.  We, as a collective entity, take responsibility for all that has happened in the lives of our congregation.

Or perhaps we, as Jews, take collective responsibility before God for all that the Jewish people have done.

Or if we widen the lens further, perhaps humanity is in some sense collectively responsible for all that we do as a species.

After all, we cannot avoid the consequences of each others’ actions. This has been made devastatingly clear during the Covid pandemic. Maybe the language of guilt and innocence is not the most helpful paradigm. Maybe it would be more constructive if we framed it this way:

There are actions that individuals and groups take which impact the lives of others. That is an unavoidable fact. When that happens, like it or not, we become responsible.

Humanity is responsible for humanity’s relationship to the earth.

As much as we might like to assign blame, the fire and the flood certainly don’t care whose fault it is.

Whether from a theological, ethical, or self-interest perspective, we are responsible for treating the earth appropriately.

Unfortunately, traditional Jewish law is somewhat deficient as a source of practical guidance. The basic categories developed two thousand years ago, at a time when there was no awareness of an interdependent global environment. Human beings did not know about chemicals that could not be seen or that could dissipate into the upper atmosphere.

Also, Jewish law tends to focus on the actions and responsibilities of individuals, not governments or corporations. In other words, on the demand side of the economic equation.

Nevertheless, our present situation is not entirely without precedent. In his twelfth century law code, Maimonides includes a section called Hilkhot Sh’khenim, Laws of Neighbors. He addresses a situation in which a person wants to build a feature or conduct business on his property that produces pollution that would travel beyond its borders. 

If a person constructs a threshing floor in the midst of his (property), or builds an outhouse, or does work which raises dust, particles of earth, etc., he must move far enough away so that the pollution does not reach his neighbor and cause harm. Even if the pollution is carried by the wind, he is obligated to move far enough away…

Rambam, Laws of Neighbors 11:1

Jewish law deals with directly identifiable harm. And we can see from the examples that Maimonides gives that the pollution in question is all what we would characterize as “natural” byproducts.

But when the harm is indirect, such as plastic in the ocean or CO2 in the atmosphere, Jewish law has no explicit prohibition. And the earth itself has no standing to sue.

I wonder, if he was writing today, what other forms of pollution Maimonides would have included in the law.

The lack of specific legal precedents does not mean that Judaism is ambivalent. A famous midrash expresses humanity’s ideal relationship with the natural world.  

When God created the first human beings, God led them around the garden of Eden and said: ‘Look at my works! See how beautiful they are — how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.’

Midrash Kohelet Rabbah on Ecclesiastes 7:13

Notice a few details. Human beings are the purpose of creation, but the world still belongs to God.

Detail two – All of the beautiful and excellent things in the world can be destroyed, but the damaged world itself will continue to exist.

Detail three – there is nobody else to repair it. We are on our own here. God will not step in to save the earth from our mismanagement. 

Let’s take this a step further. In the Torah’s language, adam, humanity, is created in God’s image. That is a theological statement.

A scientist would ask if homo sapiens is fundamentally different than any other species. The answer is no and yes.

Every living thing is comprised of the same chemical materials, and is formed and behaves according to its DNA encoding.

We share the same survival instincts as all life forms, from the great whale to the spot of mold on a rock. We are drawn to that which helps our particular genetic material reproduce and repelled by that which puts it at risk. Most animals know instinctively that fire is dangerous and it is best to run away from it. We would call this “biological knowledge.”

On the other hand, homo sapiens is the only species that can understand how the combination of dry conditions, heat, heavy winds, and a lightning storm increases the chances of a forest fire. A philosopher or scientist would call this “explanatory knowledge” – the ability to tell stories or develop formulas or ideas that explain why things are the way they are.

Those explanations may or may not be true, but they do enable a human being to approach a choice and consider, for example, “What is the ethical thing to do?” Religion, science, the arts – these are all made possible by humanity’s capacity for explanatory knowledge.

This is what makes us unique among living creatures on earth, if not the universe. Shifting back to theological language, we might say that our capacity for explanatory knowledge is what it means to be made in God’s image.

That capacity has made it possible for us to develop civilization and technology, to learn how to live in environments in which our bodies could not survive with biological knowledge alone.

This quality has enabled us to spread out across the world, to reach a global population of nearly 8 billion people, to harness the natural resources of the planet such that humanity has thrived beyond what its mere biology would allow.

This quality is also what puts our continued survival on the planet at risk.  And it is the quality that makes us the only ones who can restore the balance and save ourselves.

Whether from a theological or a scientific perspective, we are the ones who must radically change directions. Can we do it?

This afternoon, we will read the story of Jonah, the most successful prophet ever. 

Although he tries to escape his mission, Jonah eventually realizes that there is no avoiding God. Reluctantly, he marches off to the giant metropolis of Nineveh, a city so large it takes three days to walk across. He climbs up on his soap box and proclaims, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overturned!”

The people respond immediately.  They declare a fast, and put on sackcloth and ashes. When word reaches the king, he gets off his throne and he joins them, ordering everyone to participate, humans and even animals. God sees and forgives.  Disaster is averted. 

Can you imagine?

An entire society, top to bottom: the rich, the poor, the politicians, people of all ethnicities and religions – everyone recognizes the danger, accepts responsibility, and fully commits to change – overnight.

If only.

My children are really worried about whether the planet is going to be livable when they are adults.

While it would be nice to hold the greatest polluters accountable, I am afraid that it is up to humanity collectively, and us individually.

If you are in a position to make a difference on the supply side of the equation, you are our best hope. If you can influence the decision makers in government or are in government, or if you are in a position in your company to change policies and practices to be a better environmental steward, our children and grandchildren are counting on you.

Most of us are on the demand side of the equation. Whatever you are already doing, do more. If you can, install solar panels on your roof. Get rid of your gasoline powered car. Ride your bike or take public transit more. Rip out your lawn. Buy less stuff. Eat less meat. Move into a smaller space. Protect undeveloped land from human encroachment. We each have capacity, and we know best what we are capable of. Let others know what you are doing and celebrate each other’s actions. That is how we will make a difference.

May we be worthy of the trust given us by God to take care of this beautiful world with all of its excellent creations.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah.

https://www.sinai-sj.org/rjb-sermons/the-earth-doesnt-care-whos-at-fault-yk-5782

What Happens Behind Closed Tent Flaps – Rosh Hashanah 5782

When the Sofer was here last weekend to complete our new Torah scroll, he pointed out something that I had not thought about before. He asked, when in the Torah do Abraham and Isaac talk to each other?

The answer is, only during the story of Akedat Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac, which we read this morning. 

Abraham receives the call from God, a test, to “take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.”  (Genesis 22:2)

With alacrity, Abraham sets off on the journey, a donkey, two servants, Isaac, and wood for the sacrifice.  On the third day, Abraham leaves the two servants with the donkey and continues up the mountain.  He places the wood on Isaac’s shoulders, and himself carries the knife and the flint.

We now hear Isaac’s voice for the first time.

Avi – “Father”

And Abraham responds, hineni v’ni – “Here I am, my son.”

Hinei ha’esh v’ha’etzim, v’ayeh haseh l’olah – “Here are the flint and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”

Elohim yir’eh lo ha’seh l’olah b’ni, Abraham answers – “God will see to the sheep for the burnt offering, my son.” (Genesis 22:7-8)

And they continue on together.

That’s it, the only dialogue between Abraham and Isaac in the entire Torah.  

The angel comes to stop Abraham at the last minute. Indeed, God does see to the sheep for the burnt offering. Abraham looks up and sees a ram with its horns caught in a thicket, which he offers up in place of Isaac.

In reward, God reiterates the blessing to Abraham. His descendants will be as numerous as the stars in heaven and the sand on the seashore. They will seize the gates of their foes, and the nations of the earth will bless themselves by them.

Since ancient times, Jews have read the Akedah as highly significant. Although it might seem surprising to us, it is traditionally portrayed positively, the ultimate test and proof of Abraham’s faith, a test that he passes with flying colors.

But the scene ends on an ominous note — depending on how we read it.

Abraham then returned to his servants, and they departed together for Beer-sheba; and Abraham stayed in Beer-sheba.

Where is Isaac? He is neither seen nor heard from. 

Midrashim suggest a few possibilities. Abraham thinks to himself, “Everything I have is due to my commitment to Torah and mitzvot. I must ensure thay my offspring always maintain their faith.” So he sends Isaac off to study in the Yeshiva of Shem (Noah’s son).  (Genesis Rabbah 56:11)

Another midrash claims that Abraham partially slaughtered Isaac on the altar. So Isaac goes off to the Garden of Eden to recuperate for the next three years.

Other midrashim connect the Akedah directly to Sarah’s death, which follows at the beginning of the next chapter. In one legend, Sama’el, otherwise known as Satan, frustrated that Abraham passed God’s test of faith, goes to Sarah and asks her,

“Do you know what has just happened?  Your old husband has taken the lad Isaac and sacrificed him on the altar.  He cried and and wailed but there was nobody to save him.” Hearing this, Sarah herself began to cry and wail, three long gasps like the tekiah of the shofar, and three broken howls like the shevarim.  Then her soul departed.

Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 32:8

Even though the Akedah is traditionally seen as a “win” for Abraham, we still find notes of discomfort – a recognition of its painful and potentially alienating repercussions — if not for Abraham, then for Isaac and Sarah.

But I would like to come back to our initial question? Do we really think that this was the only conversation that ever occurred between Abraham and Isaac?

Of course not. 

Yes, old Abe was surely an intense guy, but I imagine they might have gone out to throw the ball around at some point.

Maybe, just maybe, they would get together from time to time over a beer and laugh about that time when Dad almost sacrificed his son.

And while the conspicuous absence of any reference to Isaac coming down from the mountain does seem ominous, we might be overreacting.

Is it possible that Abraham and Isaac had a more normal relationship than we generally assume; that the Torah’s story of their three-day father-son camping trip might not be representative of their relationship?

After all, we know only what is shown to us on the outside.

We make a lot of assumptions about the meaning of a story like the Akedah. How much do our assumptions mirror our own concerns and viewpoints rather than describe what [quote unquote] happened? This is true as well of our relationships with one another. We do not know what happens behind closed doors, or closed tent-flaps, as the case may be.

We have spent much of the past year and a half physically-distanced.  We cannot yet understand the full impact of this isolation. But let’s acknowledge for a moment some of the difficulties we have faced behind closed doors.

Much of our interactions have been by way of a two dimensional screen. We catch only partial glimpses of one another, and reveal just a fraction of ourselves, superimposed on a fake background of a tropical beach. The ability to mute ourselves or turn the camera off at will provides a further means of creating distance. Even when we have been together, we see just half of one another’s faces. We have been unable to see out of town family and friends. People who have been ill have had to spend their time in the hospital alone. Those who have lost family members have been unable to say goodbye in person. There are those who have experienced forced isolation with a sigh of relief. The removal of the pressure of social interactions has come as a blessing. Others have found their stress and anxiety levels rising. Parents have struggled to support their children, who have had to attend school from home and stay apart from friends. Often, we have been at a lost as to what to do when we see our children falling behind in schoolwork, withdrawing from friends, and suffering. We have coped with stress in ways both healthy and self-destructive.

Human beings are often quick to judge.  Quick to come to conclusions based on what we see on the surface. But just as when we read the Akedah, our judgments of others are just as if not more likely to be a reflection of ourselves than an accurate depiction of the other. Let’s keep in mind: A person who appears confident could be terrified. A friend who seems happy could be suffering. Someone who seems normal may be experiencing abuse at home.

To really see another person requires that we set aside our ego, that we be open to learning something we did not already know and could have no way of knowing. This is difficult under normal circumstances, and even more so lately.

We do not know what goes on behind closed doors, whether the physical doors of a home, or behind the doors into the soul of another person.

What we encounter of each other is limited, but God sees what is beneath the surface, perceives that which is hidden and invisible from one another. God remembers all of the forgotten things, taking note of that which we do not see, which we fail to take into account.

This day of Rosh Hashanah is a celebration of grandeur, of Creation and renewal. But as we celebrate such grandeur, we turn inward, to the innermost parts of our selves, the parts that are hidden from each other, that may even be hidden from us.  In the poetic language of the mahzor, however, all is revealed before God, for God is fundamentally different.

Atah hu yotz’ram, v’atah yode’a yitzram, ki hem basar va’dam – It is You who are their Creator, and it is You who knows their inclination, for they are flesh and blood.

This expression comes in the context of describing how God is waiting, every day of our lives, for us to turn in teshuvah. Each one of us is imperfect and mortal, our origin is from the dust and our end is to return to the dust. And the infinite God knows our innermost thoughts and feelings. The God of the universe, who surely has bigger, more important things to worry about, pays attention to the souls of each one of us. As we pray repeatedly during these holy days, God’s nature is forgiving and understanding, always willing to give us another chance.

Perhaps that is a lesson we might take to heart. The qualities we ascribe to God are those ideal qualities that we aspire to in ourselves. 

We do not know what is going on beneath the surface.  What happens inside homes, between family members. Behind the computer or smartphone screen. But it is safe to assume that there is an entire world. Each human being is an olam katan

So before we pass judgment on what we think we see, let’s make that extra effort to be compassionate, just as we ask God to do. To try to understand, with patience. To give each other the benefit of the doubt, a second chance, a third chance.

With so much alienation and distance between us, we need each other more than ever. May this new year be a year in which we open our eyes and open our hearts to one another.

Shanah Tovah.

Proud To Be Jewish – Rosh Hashanah 5782

I will admit, I have been feeling a bit down Jewishly. It feels like we have taken a beating these last few years. Jews have been murdered while praying in synagogues.

Extremes on the political left and right have been asserting themselves more boldly. Strangely, they seem to find common cause in some of the same ancient stereotypes and lies: Jews are moneygrubbing, control the media and the banks, have dual loyalty, profit on the suffering of the poor, prey on children, etc.

During the recent fighting between Israel and Hamas, anti-Israel protests frequently spilled over into Jew-hatred, in which Jews are held collectively responsible for the actions of the state of Israel. Jews were physically attacked in New York and Los Angeles, not to mention cities all over Europe. Synagogues and Cemeteries have been vandalized.

The FBI just released its data on hate crimes in 2020.  Of all crimes that targeted someone because of religion, 57.5% were against Jews.

Antisemitism shares much in common with other forms of hate: racism, anti-Muslim bias, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, and so on.  But as the most ancient form of hatred, it also has unique characteristics.

I worry that these trends have caused many of us to hunker down, to even internalize some of the criticism.

With notable exceptions, it feels like we have been less willing to put ourselves out there. 

Is there a solution? We are not going to change the minds of those who already hate us. But in reality, they are a small, albeit loud number.

The majority is simply unaware. In a recent poll, 46% of Americans could not identify or could barely identify the term ‘antisemitism.’

But this is not a sermon about antisemitism. This is a sermon about Jewish pride.

I am proud of what the Jewish people have given the world. I am proud of who we are as a people. This Rosh Hashanah, I would like to share with you why.  I would encourage you to answer the following two questions yourself:

“Why do I choose to be Jewish?”  “What makes me proud to be Jewish?”

The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks would often say “that non-Jews respect Jews who respect their Judaism, and non-Jews are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed by their Judaism.”

I cannot stop other people from Jew-hatred. But I can stand up and declare “I will not let it change how I feel about myself and my people.”

I do not believe in triumphalism. It is possible to be proud of one’s own people and history, its impact on the world, without denying the greatness of other cultures and religions and their positive influences on human civilization.

In fact, Judaism’s message is not meant for all humanity. It is a covenant with the Jewish people only. God does not prescribe a singular way of worship, nor claim that there is only one path to truth. God loves diversity. I appreciate and give thanks for what other peoples have given humanity.

Let’s start with origins.  Egypt: 1300 BCE. Ramses II is the greatest Pharaoh of the greatest dynasty the world has ever known, now at its peak.  Under his reign, Egypt is a military powerhouse, expanding its territory and influence. He directs the building of vast monuments, temples, and storehouses.

Living in Egypt are a poor, stubborn, and moody group of foreigners called the Hebrews. They have been brutally enslaved by the Egyptians and put to work building the storehouses of Pithom and Ramses.

If we ask an observer the following question: “Which of these two groups, the Egyptians or the Hebrews, is more likely to still be around in 3,300 years? What would the answer be?

Our ancestors gave the world the original model of freedom from tyrrany. The Exodus from Egypt is our people’s birth story. It has inspired countless freedom movements around the world.

Rooted in both the creation of the world and the exodus from slavery, Judaism gave the world the sabbath, a day on which we do not exert our control over nature, or over other people.

The Torah introduced monotheism to the world, replacing a world view that saw the gods as the personifications of nature waging a constantly recurring amoral and selfish battle.

The God of the Torah acts with justice and mercy. The Torah introduced the idea that all human beings are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.

With this spark of divinity residing within every person, Judaism brought a recognition of the value and dignity of every human life, whether rich or poor, free or oppressed, citizen or stranger. 

The God of the Torah commands, transmitting Divine law through Moses the lawgiver.   Underlying this concept is the recognition that something outside of humanity is the ultimate arbiter of justice. Morality is not relative. There is such a thing as good and evil, and humans have the ability to tell the difference between the two.  But it is not always obvious or easy.

Moses knew what to say to our ancestors when they were about to leave Egypt.  Three times he predicts that their children will come to ask them about the rituals of Passover.  And he tells them to “explain to your child on that day, ‘It because what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.'”

Forty years later, as those very children are poised to enter the Promised land, Moses again tells them, “And you shall teach them to your children and you shall speak of them when you dwell in your home and when you go on your way, when you lie down and when you rise up.”

From the very beginning, our secret for survival was the transmission of our story and our knowledge from each generation to the next.

We did not build great colosseums, amphitheaters, or pyramids. The physical evidence for the existence of our Biblical ancestors is scant and relatively unimpressive compared to the architectural marvels constructed by the great Empires of the ancient world.

But where they left behind colossuses of stone and themselves disappeared from the earth, we have a living Torah that parents still pass down to their children.

The word Torah means instruction. It comes from the same root word as teacher, morah, and parents, horim. This is not a coincidence.

When I talk about Judaism to groups of non-Jews, I love showing them a page of Torah in which the commentaries surround the sacred text in the middle: Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Nachmanides, and others, disagreeing passionately with one another over the meaning of Torah.

It suggests that while the truth might be right in front of us, its discovery can only come through exposure to different ways of thinking. No human being is capable of understanding the Divine will, and we should never be too confident in our own knowledge – but it is possible to get closer to Truth.

Jews have always treasured learning. It is amazing to me that, when I study 2,000 year old writings of the Talmud and midrash, I join thousands upon thousands of other Jews who are studying these same ancient words on a daily basis. 

Not just university professors or old rabbis with long beards; common Jews, eager to understand how our ancestors related to the same texts that we hold sacred today.

Every seven years, Jews fill Madison Square Garden, not for a concert or a basketball game, but to celebrate the completion of learning the entire Talmud, one page at a time.

This democratizion of learning seems rather unique.

You are undoubtedly familiar with the statistics – 22% of Nobel laureates have been Jewish. 

Albert Einstein said:

The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, an almost fanatical love of justice and the desire for personal independence—these are the features of the Jewish tradition which make me thank my stars that I belong to it.

To be Jewish is to belong to a people. As much as we argue and fight with one another, the Jewish sense of belonging is special.

The word Yisrael applies to several things. It is the acquired name of the Patriarch Jacob.  It is the word that describes the Jewish people.  And it refers to the land promised to our ancestors. It means “the people that struggles with beings Divine and human and stays in the game.” That sounds about right.

We are an incredibly diverse bunch – we come from different lands and speak different languages. We have different skin colors. We welcome those who choose to join the Jewish people as full members, but we never proselytize. 

Despite such diversity, we have a shared identity that uniquely connects us. Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh. All of Israel are interconnected with one another.

Judaism does not foster an extreme individualism, in which each person is alienated from the other.  Nor do we promote a total collectivism, in which the uniqueness of each person is subsumed under the identity and interests of the group.

We freely quote the proverb of Hillel the Elder, but I must admit I never really gave much thought to its profundity before. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I.”

It expresses the tension between autonomy and responsibility for others.  Where is the line demarcating the border between self interest and duty to others? It is in this tension that human dignity can be found.

I love that the Jewish concept of charity is tzedakah. It is not a voluntary act of generosity, but a matter of tzedek, justice. It is a commandment incumbent upon every one of us. We cannot escape our responsibility towards one another.

We are a people of memory. Much of that memory has to do with mourning past tragedies: the destruction of the first and second Temples; multiple expulsions; the Crusades; blood libels; the Spanish inquisition; the Chmielnitsky massacres; pogroms, and the Holocaust.

These are not just distant events. We tell them as our stories. These happened to people in our own communities, to our families, to us. 

We do not allow ourselves forget, but neither do we allow ourselves to be buried by our history.

For nearly two thousand years, we were a scattered, diaspora people. 75 generations of Jews directed their prayers towards a country of Israel that did not exist. 

We always prayed and dreamed for a time when things would be better. We continued to struggle with God and humanity with stubbornness and hope. We maintained a sense of humor throughout.

The establishment of the modern state of Israel, after the catastrophe of the Holocaust, is a testament to that historical optimism. It has brought new opportunities and challanges for the Jewish people that for 2,000 years were merely theoretical.

Rabbi Doniel Hartman applies the term “the troubled committed” to those, mainly American, Jews who are lovers and supporters of Israel while at the same time are deeply disturbed by “the enduring gap between ideals and reality.”

I am proud of the thriving democracy Israel has developed, its incredible flourishing in spite of so many forces working against it.  I am proud that Israel is a technological giant, that it managed to be the first nation in the world to bring widespread Covid vaccinations to its people, that it is always among the first to send delegations of aid workers when disaster strikes impoverished countries. And so much more.

These are examples of the best of what a country founded on Jewish values can achieve.

And I am extremely troubled by Israel’s unequal treatment of Palestinians and continued occupation of the West Bank. The blessing of Jewish power must be guided by righteousness, and I worry that this is not always the case.

The failure to always meet its ideals is not a reason to abandon the first Jewish state in nearly 2,000 years. We can take pride in what Israel has acheived and support it to better live up to its potential.

Because to be Jewish is to acknowledge the world as it is, while living with hope for what it could be. 

On the High Holidays, we appeal to God to forgive our sins and inscribe us in the Book of Life, to remove our sorrows and troubles and bless us with prosperity. Superficially, we are asking God to intervene in whatever physical fate awaits us in the year ahead.

When the holiday is over, what do we think is going to be different? Will our destiny somehow be changed because we spent hours upon hours in prayer? 

What happens to me physically in the upcoming year will depend on some combination of three factors: what happens in nature, what other people do, and what I do.

Of those three, I only have any control over the last one. The possibility of teshuvah, of repentance, is a fundamentally optimistic approach to being human. It is the Jewish approach. Each of us can change, at any time.

Judaism believes in free will. Moses explains that in front of each of us there is a path of life and blessing, and a path of death and curse. While God has a preference for which path we take, the choice is ours.

In another metaphor, The Talmud teaches that humanity was created with the yetzer hatov and the yetzer hara, the good and the evil inclination. But the evil inclination is often misunderstood. The Rabbis recognize that “were it not for the evil inclination, no one would build a house, get married, have children, or engage in business.”

The struggle for every one of us is to direct the yetzer hara, the ego-driven aspect of ourselves that always wants to expand and grow, towards the service of the good.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov asks “If you are not a better person tomorrow than you are today, what need have you for a tomorrow?”

For thousands of years, Jews have prayed for the coming of the Messiah. But we are not looking for God to send someone to miraculously save us from all of our troubles. What we are really striving for is to build a world that is worthy of saving. So to answer the question, “when will the Messiah arrive,” the Jewish answer is “Not yet.”

I could go on, but those are some of the reasons I choose to be choose.

I do not anticipate that the pressures facing the Jewish people are going to let up in 5782. 

This moment calls for us to remember who we are.  Let’s each ask ourselves: 

“Why am I proud to be Jewish?” And then act like we mean it.

May this year be one of strength and renewal for us and the Jewish people.

May we be inspired by the commitment of past generations to live with hope and faith as we face the opportunities and challenges of the present.

May we be worthy of transmitting all of that which makes us proud to be Jewish to future generations.

L’Shanah Tovah.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, A Letter in the Scroll

David Harris: “Time to Affirm Jewish Pride” – https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#search/AJC/FMfcgzGkZkQTDHZplfwPqPzrngDxVLKh

The Courage to Act – Chayei Sarah 5781

Last Shabbat, the Jewish world lost one of its great teachers, thinkers, and advocates, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of Great Britain. Rabbi Sacks was an Orthodox Rabbi, a philosopher, theologian, and politician. He was one of the most recognized and respected Jewish thinkers in the world.

Rabbi Sacks served as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013. In 2005, he became a Knight Bachelor for “services to the community and inter-faith relations.” In 2009, he was granted the title Baron and given a life peerage with a seat in the House of Lords.

Rabbi Sacks emphasized the study of knowledge in all of its forms, both from within and outside of Judaism. He utilized the terms Chockmah and Torah to describe the pursuit. He wrote,

Chokhmah is the truth we discover; Torah is the truth we inherit. Chokhmah is the universal language of humankind; Torah is the specific heritage of Israel. Chokhmah is what we attain by being in the image of God; Torah is what guides Jews as the people of God. Chokhmah is acquired by seeing and reasoning; Torah is received by listening and responding. Chokhmah tells us what is; Torah tells us what ought to be.

Jonathan Sacks, Future Tense (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2009), p.221

In his drashot, Rabbi Sacks was as likely to cite Shakespeare as Rashi. He had a gifted ability to communicate the universal truths of human existence, drawing deeply on the wellsprings of Torah and Jewish teaching, 

He was committed to interfaith work, often appearing on British television as a commentator to wide audiences. “No one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth,” he wrote in his book The Dignity of Difference. Rabbi Sacks was noted for his deeply held embrace of both particularism and universalism, although he backtracked after receiving criticism from Haredi Jews. He believed that Judaism had something to say, and had an important role to play, in fixing the problems of the world.

In my work as a Rabbi, people sometimes share articles or drashot with me that they read and find to be meaningful. I cannot think of another person whose teachings have been shared more than Rabbis Jonathan Sacks’. 

At his funeral this week, Gila Sacks delivered an emotional eulogy for her father. She said about him, “He taught us that the world is to be challenged, and that there is no such thing as an unsolveable problem.”

The best way to honor a great teacher is to share his teachings. So I turned to one of Rabbi Sacks’ drashot on this morning’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah

Over the course of three parashiyot, God blesses Abraham numerous times. The blessings essentially come down to two promises. One, Abraham will inherit the entire land of Canaan. And two, Abraham will be the father of a great nation, a nation that will be a blessing to the world.

In fact, each of these blessings occurs five separate times over the course of the previous two Torah portions.

As this morning’s reading begins, however, Abraham’s prospects are not looking good. Over the course of Chayei Sarah, Abraham takes important actions that are the first steps towards the fulfilment of God’s blessings.

The first to be addressed is land. Sarah dies, and Abraham must prepared for her funeral. The problem is that he is a foreigner in Canaan, with no land to his name. He turns to the Hittites, living in Hebron, with a proposal. Ger v’toshav ani imachem. “I am a resident alien among you, please let me purchase land to bury my wife.”

Abraham is in a difficult situation and he knows it. As a foreigner in a highly tribal society, it is nearly impossible for him to own land. The Hittites, who seem to respect Abraham, offer him the opportunity to bury his wife wherever he chooses.

Abraham knows what he wants, and he asks for Ephron to sell him the cave of Machpelah. Ephron offers to give Abraham the field with the cave so that he can bury Sarah. But gifts can be rescinded. So Abraham asks again to purchase the land at whatever price Ephron names. Ephron slyly tells him the cost, “A piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver-what is that between you and me?”

Abraham pays the money, and the land becomes his. To emphasize the legally binding nature of the transaction, the Torah ends the story with a summary of the contract.

So Ephron’s land in Machpelah, near Mamre—the field with its cave and all the trees anywhere within the confines of that field—passed to Abraham as his possession, in the presence of the Hittites, of all who entered the gate of his town.

Genesis 23:17-18

Notice the details – the land is described by location, along with the trees growing on it. Abraham is identified as the new owner. And the witnesses are specified. The deal is accomplished in public, before the entire town.

Then the story concludes with Abraham burying Sarah. By performing an action on the land, he takes formal possession of it.

The importance of this story cannot be overstated. This is the first fulfillment of God’s blessing of Abraham

The Torah turns to the next part of the blessing. Abraham knows that it can only be fulfilled through Isaac, but things do not seem to be moving forward on that front. At this point, Isaac is at least 37 years old. He is unmarried and still living at home. “Failure to launch,” would be an apt description.

So Abraham sends his servant to Aram-Naharaim, outside of the land of Canaan, to find a wife for Isaac from among Abraham’s kinsmen.

As with the land negotiations, it is not easy. The servant, acting as Abraham’s proxy, embarks on the long journey, bringing ten camels laden with treasures.

Upon arrival, he meets Rebecca, and bestows lavish gifts of gold and silver jewelry upon her, her brother Laban, and her mother. As with the purchase of the Cave of Machpelah, this is an expensive transaction. And he must deal with deception as well. When the servant indicates that he would like to return with Rebecca, her mother and brother try to delay. When the servant insists, they put the question to Rebecca herself, who agrees to leave immediately.

As before, external politeness hides distrust and greed. In the end, Abraham gets what he wants, but the price is dear.

Noteworthy in both of these stories is God’s absence. There are no conversations with angels, prophetic encounters, or appearances of mysterious wells. Neither Ephron nor Laban have scary dreams in the middle of the night warning them of what will happen if they do not give Abraham what he wants.

These are stories of struggle and persistence, of taking charge of one’s fate in a way that has permanent implications for the future.

At the beginning of Chayei Sarah, the prospects of God’s blessings to Abraham being fulfilled are bleak. By the end, events are set in motion. Rabbi Sacks writes that

“yes, Abraham will have a land. He will have countless children. But these things will not happen soon, or suddenly, or easily. Nor will they occur without human effort. To the contrary, only the most focused willpower and determination will bring them about. The divine promise is not what it first seemed: a statement that God will act. It is in fact a request, an invitation from God to Abraham and his children that they should act.”

“…Now, as then, the divine promise does not mean that we can leave the future to God…. Faith does not mean passivity.  It means the courage to act and never to be deterred. The future will happen, but it is we – inspired, empowered, given strength by the promise – who must bring it about.”  

Jonathan Sacks, Covenant and Conversation, pp. 126-127

I can think of no more important message for us.

The Vowels of God – Va’Etchanan 5780

One of the special qualities of Hebrew, especially Biblical Hebrew, is its ambiguity.  Exacerbating this ambiguity is the absence of vowels, which were not developed in written form until about 1,100 years ago.  As a result, words have more than one possible interpretation. The Biblical narrative relies upon this multiplicity of meaning to express itself.  

The Talmud teaches that there are seventy faces to every letter of the Torah.  In other words, perspective matters.  The same word simultaneously expresses multiple meanings and truths, depending on the lens through which a leader perceives it.  It is a powerful metaphor for us about the nature of Truth, one to keep in mind before we become too confident in ourselves and our opinions.

A particular challenge presents itself with regard to the pronunciation and meaning of the name of God.

In the Book of Deteronomy, Moses recounts the previous forty years of travelling through the wilderness to the Israelites, who are camped on the Eastern Bank of the Jordan.  Parashat Va’Etchanan opens with a particularly personal and emotional memory.  Moses recalls how he begged God to allow him to finish what he started.  

O Lord GOD, You who let Your servant see the first works of Your greatness and Your mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal!  Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon.

Deuteronomy 3:24-25

In his recollection, Moses blames the Israelites for God’s negative response to his appeal.  “The Lord was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me.”  (Deut. 3:26)

Moses initiates his request with a somewhat uncommon invocation of God.  It appears just three times in the Torah, and always to introduce a personal appeal to God.

It is a formulation that might even be impossible to pronounce, as I will attempt to explain.  I invite us to look in our texts at Deuteronomy chapter 3, verse 24, page 1005 in the Etz Chayim chumash.  We are focused on just the first two words.  How should we read these words?

אדני יהוה

According to tradition, a Torah reader would pronounce the words Adonai Elohim.  But the letters and vowels do not read that way.  Our translation, from the Jewish Publication Society, reads “O Lord God.”

Let’s see if we can break it down.   The first word is relatively easy.  Alef Dalet Nun Yud Adonai – אֲדֹנָי.  It means “My Lord.”

Adonai is a generic title that one might use when addressing someone one wishes to honor.  It could be used to address a King, religious figure, or someone with a lofty title.  A student might address a teacher with Adoni.  It might also be used by a shopkeeper speaking with a customer, or a busdriver to a rider.  Or, it could be used to address God.

The second word is more difficult.  The letters are straightforward Yud Hei Vav Hei – יהוה.  Otherwise known as the tetragramaton – the four letter name of God.  

Bible scholars think that it was pronounced Yahweh in Ancient times.  If that is true, Moses then would have begun his prayer Adonai, Yahweh – “My Lord, Yahweh.”

What does Yud Hei Vav Hei mean?  Without vowels, it is impossible to say for certain.  The three letter root is Hei Vav Hei which means “to be.”  Grammatically, it could be in either the kal or hif’il conjugation, and could be either present or future tense.  Possible meanings, therefore, could be something like “He who is,” or “He who will be,” “He who causes to exist,” or “He who will bring into existence.”  I suspect that the ambiguity is intentional, and that all four meanings are implied.

God is in a constant state of existence and coming into existence, as well as causing all that exists to come into being.  It is a theologically rich, philosophical, transcendent understanding of the nature of God and the universe.

Jewish tradition, however, holds that we, first of all, are not allowed to pronounce God’s name; and second, we do not even know how to pronounce it..

This extreme concern with saying or inscribing God’s name did not exist in Biblical times through the first part of the Second Temple Era.  The Bible makes no mention of a substitute ever being used for Yud Hei Vav Hei.  It was pronounced and written regularly in sacred and secular contexts, such as in letters, legal documents and contracts.  Parts of the Tetragramaton are incorporated into many Biblical names that we still use today.  Think of Eliyahu – Elijah.  It was normal and acceptable to refer to God by name.  

But what about the third commandment?  Later in this morning’s parashah, Moses repeats the Ten Commandments.  The third commandment states that one may not “swear falsely in the name of Yud Hei Vav Hei your God.”  This does not mean that one may not say the name.  The third commandment refers specifically to a courtroom, in which it is forbidden to lie when swearing a formal oath, invoking the Divine name.

Nowhere does the Torah forbid a person from expressing the name Yud Hei Vav Hei out loud, as written.  So when did it happen?

The practice of substituting a different word for God’s name in speech and writing seems to have developed during the latter part of the Second Temple Era.  Substitutions for God’s name are already found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Some of the scrolls even use a different alphabet, writing out the four letter Divine name in proto-Hebrew, the ancient script.  

The Talmud (BT Yoma 39b) records that Second Temple priests, when offering the Priestly Blessing to people, stopped using the correct pronunciation of God’s name when Shimon HaTzaddik died.  If the Talmudic account is accurate, that would have been in the late fourth century BCE, the beginning of the Hellenistic era.  From that point on, the priests switched to Adonai.  Eventually, even the memory of how to pronounce God’s name correctly was lost.

The Rabbis are quite concerned with the casual writing and pronunciation of God’s name, as were early Christians.  Christian copies of the Septuagent, the Greek translation of the Bible, translate Yud Hei Vav Hei as Kyrios, which means “Lord,” the same as the Hebrew, Adon.

Why is it so important to not pronounce God’s name?  Not referring to someone by his or her name is a sign of respect.  Although it is not as common as it used to be, it was not long ago when children would never refer to an adult by his or her first name.  It was always, Mister or Mrs. followed by the last name. 

It is still not generally acceptable for a child to refer to his or her parent by a first name.  The Talmud (BT Kiddushin 31b) relates how the Sage Rava, whenever he would teach a lesson that he had learned from his father, would refrain from stating his father’s name out of respect.  Instead of citing “Rav Ashi,” his father’s actual name, Rava would say, in Aramaic, Aba Mari – “Father, My Lord.”

To this day, we usually pronounce Yud Hei Vav Hei as Adonai during prayer or ritual Torah chanting.  Most English translations are based on this word but substitute “My” with “The.”  Instead of saying “My Lord,” evoking a personal, intimate relationship, we say “The Lord,” a declaration of God’s universality and uniqueness.

In casual conversation, though, “The Lord” is too sacred.  Jews substitute the word Hashem for these four letters.  Hashem means, simply, “the name.” 

In our particular passage, we have the word Adonai spelled out, followed by Yud Hei Vav Hei.  But, we do not say Adonai Adonai.  “My Lord, My Lord.”  Instead, we say Adonai Elohim, “My Lord, God.”

Are you confused?  

Now we come to the vowels.  The vowel symbols were not developed until a little over a thousand years ago, by the Masoretes.  When it came time to putting vowels on a word whose pronunciation was both unknown and forbidden, they had a problem.

The solution they came up with was to use the vowels from the word that they actually wanted the reader to say.   Since Yud Hei Vav Hei is typically pronounced Adonai, it gets those vowels.

יהוה

+

אֲדֹנָי

=

יְהֹֹוָה

If I were to read it as written, it would say Yehovah.  That is where the word Jehovah comes from.  The letter “J” in German is pronounced “Y.”

You might notice that the vowel under the alef of Adonai looks different than the vowel under Yud.  They are actually the same vowel.  For reasons we will not go into right now, it has to be modified when it appears underneath an Alef.  Trust me.

In most places in the Torah, this is how the Divine name is written with vowels.

But in our case, we do not pronounce it Adonai.  We pronounce it Elohim.  We are going to need different vowels.

יהוה

+

אֱלֹהִים

=

יְהֹֹוִה

If we read it as written, it would be Yehovih.

Our tradition embraces the idea that words can express multiple ideas at the same time.  When we read this passage, we are supposed to think of both the written Yud Hei Vav Hei and the spoken Elohim.

The commentator Rashi explains the phrase with two simple words of commentary: Rachum badin.  Merciful in judgment.

Our tradition understands each name of God as representing different aspects of the Divine.  Yud Hei Vav Hei is mercy and Elohim is judgment.

In turning to God, Moses opens Adonai Yahweh.  “My Lord, The One who is constantly becoming and bringing everything into existence.”  God has judged him, and decreed that he will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land.  But the God of judgment is also the God for mercy.  Moses appeals for mercy in judgment.  Change the verdict.  Let me finish what I started.

The answer, sadly for Moses, is “No.”  But he does not give up.  His message to the children of Israel is that they, if they remain faithful to God, can complete what he started.  He finds hope in disappointment.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Jeffrey Tigay, The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy.  Excursus 4, pp. 431-432.

It’s a Great Mitzvah to be Happy Always – Re’eh 5778

Since 2012, the United Nations has conducted an annual World Happiness Report.  It ranks 156 countries by the collective happiness of their populations using weighted metrics derived from per capita GDP, degree of social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and perception of corruption.  According to the 2018 World Happiness Report, America ranked 18th in the world, but we have been on a downward trajectory over the past decade.  Israel was 11th, if one can measure such a thing.

Of course, this has nothing to do with happiness as each of us experiences it individually.

Am I happy?

How do I get it?  And what is it?  Perhaps it is a chemical release that we can measure through neurobiology.  Maybe it is a feeling of purpose in life, or the awareness of being wanted.  Perhaps happiness is something we experience when we indulge our appetites.

One of the recurring themes in this morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Re’eh, is simchah – happiness, or joy.  The Hebrew root sin, mem, chet occurs exactly one time each in the Books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.  It appears twelve times in the Book of Deuteronomy.  Seven are in Parashat Re’eh.

All seven occurrences contain similar elements.  The Israelites are told to rejoice when they bring various kinds of voluntary and mandatory offerings to the Temple.

Here is one example, describing the observance of the holiday of Shavuot:

V’samachta lifnei Adonai Elohekha… You shall rejoice before the LORD your God with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite in your communities, and the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your midst, at the place where the LORD your God will choose to establish His name.  (Deuteronomy 16:11)

You, or rather, the Israelite, must gather together with all of the members of his household: his wife, children, and servants.  Plus, he invites the poor and dispossessed to join with him.  They are all to assemble “at the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name,” that is to say, the Temple in Jerusalem.  There, they are to bring a freewill offering from the recent harvest, as an observance of Shavuot.

Note that it is not God who is doing the rejoicing.  It’s people – us.  This is not the case in other books of the Torah, which emphasize the burning up of meat to send up a pleasing odor to the Lord.  In Deuteronomy, we worship God by celebrating together and creating a mood of festivity among ourselves.  When Israelites brought one of these offerings, they did so as an acknowledgement and expression of thanks for the blessings that had been provided by God. 

The parashah implies that the recipe for true simchah requires several things: for us to be together, for us to share our bounty with the poor, for us to eat and drink, and for us to acknowledge that any blessings we get to enjoy in this world are ultimately gifts from God, and not merely the products of our own efforts.

Finally, by emphasizing that all of this must take place in the Sanctuary, and on specific occasions, the Torah channels our expressions of joy into sacred contexts.  After all, there can be danger in unbounded releases of happiness.  Parties can get out of hand.

Does the destruction of the Temple and the ending of sacrifices mean that we no longer worship God with simchah? 

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism, placed a great emphasis on the idea of simchah as the central component of Judaism.  He offered an alternative approach to Jewish life, which in his day was so focused on intellectual achievement that it had lost the essence of what it meant to be Jewish.

All joy, even its lowest forms, originates in holiness and is a gift from God.  The Baal Shem Tov especially liked the following story from the Talmud.

Rabbi Beroka Hoza’ah used to frequent the market at Lapat where Elijah [the Prophet] often appeared to him. Once he asked [the prophet], “Is there anyone in this market who has a share in the world to come?”

[Elijah] replied, “No…” While [they were thus conversing] two [men] passed by and [Elijah] remarked, “These two have a share in the world to come.”

Rabbi Beroka then approached [the two men] and asked them, “What is your occupation?”

They replied, “We are jesters, when we see people depressed we cheer them up; furthermore when we see two people quarrelling we strive hard to make peace between them.”  (BT Ta’anit 22a)

One would imagine that the marketplace of a major Persian city would be filled with worthy people.  Scholars, merchants, philanthropists, civic leaders – many passersby who should merit a place the world to come.  Yet the only people worthy enough are the jesters.

The Baal Shem Tov’s great grandson, Rebbe Nahman of Breslov constantly strove to find ways to serve God with simchah.  Of his many beloved stories and teachings, the most well-known is: mitzvah gedolah lihyot b’simcha tamid.  “It is a great mitzvah to be in a state of joy always.”  (Likutei Moharan, II 24)

It sounds nice, and makes for nice lyrics to a niggun, but it is kind of a strange thing to say.  We usually think of happiness as something which we strive to achieve.  But a mitzvah?!  A commandments?!  Perhaps we might suggest that a life lived according to the Torah can lead a person to happiness.  But to suggest that there is a requirement to be happy seems unrealistic.

And even more far-fetched is the notion of tamid, always.  Can anyone achieve a constant state of happiness.  And if so, could the rest of us stand to be around such a person?

Rebbe Nachman knew this well.  He personally suffered from severe mood swings and depression.  He lost two children, and his wife died when he was thirty five.  He remarried almost immediately, contracted tuberculosis, and died at the age of thirty eight.  So what does Rebbe Nahman mean when he talks about simchah?

He teaches that it is in a person’s nature to be drawn to marah shechorah, black bitterness, and atzvut, sadness, from the travails of life.  We all suffers afflictions.  It would seem to demand all of our efforts to achieve a constant state of joy.  

Every one of us has a lev nishbar, Rebbe Nachman continues, a broken heart.  This broken heart is not something to suppress, nor is it something to wallow in, as that can lead us further down the path of black bitterness.  He advises instead that we should dedicate a fixed time each day during which to break our hearts and engage in honest conversation with God.  Then, we can be freed up to experience joy.

Indeed, Rebbe Nachman did this.  We have preserved many of Rebbe Nachman’s own spontaneous prayers that he recited in his daily conversations – or battles, as he described them – with God.  Embrace the brokenness and sadness, and then be freed up for joy.

Rebbe Nachman advised his chasidim to sing, and to dance.  He encouraged silliness, and lightheartedness.  “Finding true joy is the hardest of all spiritual tasks,” he taught.  “If the only way to make yourself happy is by doing something silly, do it.”  (Advice, Breslov Research Institute. p. 254)  Rebbe Nachman fervently believed that our spiritual joy could make an impact in the real world.

Shortly before Purim in 1803, Rebbe Nachman arrived in the town of Terhovitza, in Ukraine, for his annual visit.  (Likutey Moharan, Volume II, #10, p. 115) Czar Alexander I had recently issued an ukase, a decree instructing the issuance of “Enactments Concerning the Jews.”  This would eventually lead to laws for mandatory conscription and compulsory secular education.

Rebbe Nachman introduced one of his teachings by stating: “When, God forbid, there are decrees affecting the Jewish people, through dancing and hand-clapping these decrees can be mitigated.”

After he completed the lengthy and intricate lesson, Rebbe Nachman remarked: “This is what I said!  We are hearing news of decrees against the Jews.  But the days of Purim are near and Jews will dance and clap, and thereby mitigate the decree!”

At the Purim festivities that year, Rebbe Nachman danced even more fervently than usual.  “I have delayed the decrees for twenty-odd years,” he reflected afterward.

The decrees did not come until almost twenty five years later, in 1827, sixteen years after Rebbe Nachman’s death.

I don’t know if we have come any closer to defining simchah, but Parashat Re’eh and Rebbe Nachman offer paths to achieving it.  In the Torah, Simchah is experienced when we join with other people, including those without the means, to express gratitude for the gifts we have been given.  Spiritual simchah, expressed at holy moments and locations, is worship of God.

For Rebbe Nachman, it is the highest form of worship.  And even though life is difficult, unfair, and filled with sadness; and even though some people’s physical and psychological burdens seem to far exceed those of others, our ultimate task in life is to cultivate a state of constant joy.  This can only be done by acknowledging the sadness.  Maybe it is the black bitterness itself that makes true simchah possible.

Mitzvah gedolah lihyot b’simchah tamid.  “It is a great mitzvah to be in a state of joy always.”

Mordechai the Spymaster – Shabbat Zakhor 5778

Every year as I prepare for Purim, I discover a new way of reading the text that gives such wonderful insight into its characters, and seems to describe situations and relationships that we face today.

The Book of Esther is full of twisting reversals, points high and low.  It is filled with extreme emotions – joy, sadness, terror, rage, fear, hatred, and relief.  The lowest – and most triumphant – moment in the story occurs in chapter 4.

In chapter three, Haman uses lies and bribery to extract permission from King Achashverosh to kill all of the Jews of Persia in revenge for Mordechai refusing to bow down to him.  At the end of the scene, Haman and the King sit down to drink while the city is dumbfounded by the quickly spreading news.

Thus begins chapter 4.  Mordechai springs into action.  He has made it his habit to spend his days hanging outside the harem, where his niece Esther is safely ensconced as queen.  Upon hearing the terrible news, Mordechai tears his clothes, puts on sackcloth, and covers his head with ashes – all signs of mourning.

Esther’s servants inform her about the bitter weeping of the Jews of Shushan and her uncle Mordechai.  But Esther has been removed from everything taking place in the lower city, so she has no idea what is causing their great sorrow.  She is not allowed to leave the palace to see things for herself.

She sends her servant, a eunuch named Hatach, to talk to Mordechai, check things out for her, and bring back a report.  Mordechai tells him the whole story, and even shows him Haman’s decree with the King’s seal upon it.  He sends Hatach to Esther with the message that she must go before the King to appeal for mercy on behalf of her people.  In fact, Mordechai commands her to do so.

Esther’s response is disappointing to him.  “Everyone knows,” she says “that if any person, man or woman, enters the king’s presence in the inner court without having been summoned, there is but one law for him—that he be put to death.  Only if the king extends the golden scepter to him may he live. Now I have not been summoned to visit the king for the last thirty days.”

Now there are a couple of ways to understand Esther’s comment.  Thirty days is a long time.  Perhaps she is out of favor with the king, and if she shows up unannounced she faces execution.  Or perhaps she is suggesting that enough time has passed – thirty days – that she is expecting to be summoned to the King any day now.  So why risk her life needlessly?

We have been trained to think of this episode in the Megillah in the following way: Mordechai is the paternalistic uncle trying to convince the young, naive Esther to intercede on behalf of the Jewish people.  This is not what is going on.

Esther’s response is not an outright refusal.  In fact, her statement shows deeper thoughtfulness and strategy than her uncle’s.  Consider these the opening salvos in a political negotiation.

Mordechai responds, again through Hatach, playing his Kissingerian role as shuttle diplomat.  “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace.  On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish.  And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.”

How should we understand this densely packed statement?  Mordechai’s opening words sound like a threat.  He seems confident that the Jewish people will be saved, whether by Esther’s intercession or not.  This is the closest reference to God in the Megillah, although it is still just an intimation.  Perhaps Mordechai is even appealing to her ego, dangling the prospect of becoming the hero of the story.  In any event, it seems, on the face of things, that Mordechai has taken Esther’s response as a refusal to act, and now he is trying to change her mind.

Perhaps there is another way to read the story.  Esther has not refused Mordechai.  Rather, she has communicated to him what conditions in the palace are like; how dangerous it is there for her.  Now Mordechai is approving of her plan to take things slow.  This is the answer he wants.  So he offers encouragement.  The risk is worth it.  Your fate in the palace is the same as ours out here on the streets.  Indeed, if you don’t act, you could die while the rest of us are saved by some other hero.  You are the Queen.  Now act like one.

Esther responds with a plan.  She sends word to Mordechai to assemble all the Jews of Shushan and fast for three days.  Meanwhile, she will do the same with her court in the palace.  Then she throws in a bit of melodrama, “and if I am to perish, I shall perish.”

She throws Mordechai’s threats back at him.  She will indeed try to intercede, but she makes sure that Mordechai understands the risks she is taking.

We are now back where we started from.  The chapter opened with Mordechai and the Jews of Shushan in mourning.  Now, Esther has declared her solidarity with the Jews of Shushan by calling for a three day public fast, also an act of mourning.

In the postscript to the chapter, Mordechai returns to the city, and does what Esther has commanded him.

Notice that the exchanges began with Mordechai commanding Esther.  Now it is Esther who is doing the commanding.  And Mordechai seems perfectly willing to go along with it.  Their roles have reversed.

Why does Mordechai back down?  Is Esther’s plan such a good one?  ‘Fast for three days and I’ll take care of it.’  Can he not come up with something better?  Is he comfortable being commanded by his niece?

Again, we have more than one way to read this story.  On its surface, it would seem that Esther has won the argument.  The intercession will take place on her terms.  In doing so, she has established herself as the one with the power.  She is the Queen, after all.  No more will she allow herself to be controlled by Mordechai.  Mordechai obediently goes back to do as he is told.

Or, perhaps Mordechai has won the argument.  This is exactly the outcome he has wanted from the beginning.  He has always known his niece has tremendous potential.  Her selection as queen does not surprise him.  She has been perfectly placed to play a critical role on behalf of the Jewish people.  Think of her as one of those sleeper agents that are waiting to be activated.  Mordechai needs to find a way to awaken Esther’s latent talents so that she can become the hero he has trained her to be.

Mordechai is a spymaster, working from behind the scenes to nurture Esther’s talent and arrange the situation so that she will be in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.

To further support the notion that Mordechai is a spymaster, consider the following:  Mordechai is the one who somehow uncovers the plot by two guards to stage a palace coup, but he does not bring the news himself to the King, although he certainly could have.  He sends the warning through Esther.  Why?  So that she can establish her credibility and raise her stature in the court.  Mordechai stays in the background, where he wants to be.  Perhaps that is why he is not initially rewarded for his meritorious service.

Also, somehow, Mordechai has found out the exact amount of money that Haman has secretly promised to give the king.  It is safe to assume that this detail is not public knowledge.  After all, leaders generally do not want word to get out that they have accepted a bribe.  Mordechai knows just where to be and when to be there to get the critical information that he needs.

So why does Mordechai obediently follow Esther’s command?

He is happy to.

He has finally seen her leadership qualities burst forth.  He has groomed her for greatness from the very beginning.  Even though she has not elucidated her plan, Mordechai is confident that Esther will know exactly what must be done to save the Jewish people.

And she does, with Mordechai proudly watching from the sidelines.

The book is named after Esther, the hero of the story.  But we also recognize Mordechai’s contribution as the uncle who adopts her, protects her, trains her, gives her wings, and eventually lets her fly to a greatness that she achieves through her own courage and intelligence.

Isn’t that we try to do as parents?  While they are in our care, we provide our children with protection, education, and self-confidence.  We know that they will face adversity in their lives.  We encourage them to face it squarely, perhaps warning them what could befall them if they do not confront challenges directly.  And we are so proud when they recognize the risks, and step forward nevertheless.

Eventually, our children reach an age when we can no longer exert total control over their lives, as much as we might want to.  Like Mordechai, hopefully, we will have enough faith in them that we can watch from the sidelines while they make their own decisions, command their own fates, and deal with the consequences.

The difficult question that does not have a straightforward answer is: When exactly does that moment come?  Is it twelve, thirteen, thirty four?

The Fundamental Freedom – Vaera 5778

In his famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankel shares how he and others managed survive in the concentration camps: by finding ways to live with purpose.  He had just completed a manuscript for publication when he was arrested.  He tells how disappointed he was when the coat he was wearing was confiscated from him in Auschwitz.   The manuscript was hidden in the lining.  In return, he was given the worn rags of another prisoner who had recently died.  He reached into the pocket, and what did he find?

One single page torn out of a Hebrew prayer book, containing the most important Jewish prayer, Shema Yisrael.  How should I have interpreted such a coincidence[, he asks,] other than as a challenge to live my thoughts instead of merely putting them on paper.  (p. 119)

Over the course of the next several years, Frankel’s “deep desire to write this manuscript anew helped [him] to survive the rigors of the camps…”

Drawing upon his experience as a survivor, Frankel asks the fundamental question of how we live lives with meaning?  In seemingly hopeless situations, how does a person embrace hope?

As the Book of Exodus opens, the Israelites have been enslaved for generations.  They are groaning and sighing, and apparently have given up on the possibility of freedom.  But God hears their cries, and remembers the promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

When Moses goes to them the first time, they are skeptical.  After he appears before Pharaoh with his initial demand to “let my people go,” Pharaoh responds by increasing their workload.

In Parashat Vaera, God again sends Moses to carry the message to the Israelites that they are about to be freed.  “Get ready to be redeemed!”

Moses says and does exactly what God tells him, but he does not get the response that he is hoping for.  “They did not heed Moses out of shortness of breath and hard bondage.”

Moses then turns to God, exasperated.  “If the Israelites would not listen to me, how can I expect Pharaoh to take me seriously, and I am of uncircumcised lips!”

It seems that the Israelites and Moses also have some learning to do.  The commentators struggle to understand why both the Israelites and Moses are not responding enthusiastically to God’s message of freedom.

Rashi understands the Israelites’ “shortness of breath and hard bondage” literally.  They are working so hard that they are incapable of mentally processing Moses’ fairly simple message of hope.

Other commentators see the Israelites’ situation as being more spiritual and psychological.  Kotzer Ruach, “shortness of breath,” could also be translated as “shortness of spirit.”  In other words, the Israelites are depressed, and their depression renders them incapable of considering the possibility that there could be an end to their suffering.  Using Victor Frankel’s terminology, they have not yet made the choice to embrace a cause to live for.

Moses’ strange expression, “I am of uncircumcised lips,” has perplexed commentators for millennia.  Robert Alter points out that it is a mistake to see it merely as a colorful way of saying, “I have a speech impediment” or “I am not good at public speaking.”

Rather, Moses is declaring that he is not fit “for the sacred task.”  He feels that he is spiritually unable to do what God has asked him to do.  That is, to be God’s mouthpiece, both in performing miracles before Pharaoh, and in leading the Israelites to freedom.  Moses does not think that he is up for the job.

The Torah tends to be critical of people who do not have faith in God’s ability to redeem them.  But I can see where Moses and the Israelites are coming from.  They are being asked to do something that has never been done before.  So it is understandable that they might be a little hesitant about getting their hopes up.

Hope is closely related to fear.  Indeed, hope is a response to fear.  Holding us back from hope is the fear that deliverance may not come, and something terrible awaits us on the other side.

The Israelites are understandably afraid.  What if Moses fails?  What if Pharaoh increases their tasks even more?  It is better to continue in the despair that they know, rather than embrace the possibility of a redemption that they are unlikely to see.

During Passover, we remember these events.  Our core goal is to fulfill the admonition to “See ourselves as if we personally went out from each Egypt.”  We tell stories of personal deliverance, of family members being rescued.

But we must remember that before we dared hope for deliverance, we experienced moments of fear and despair.  It takes a great act of courage to hope.  It takes a willingness to embrace the freedom to choose a cause to live for.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankel writes

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.  (p. 109)

When Moses first appears to the Israelites, neither they nor he have embraced the freedom to choose their own attitudes.  The story of Exodus is the story of their eventual embrace of this fundamental freedom, which can be exercised no matter what outside influences they confront.

That is the question that we strive to ask ourselves each day, no matter what external forces may be waiting for us.  How will I embrace the fundamental freedom to choose my attitude?

In Response To Questions About My Sermon On The First Day Of Rosh Hashanah 5778

I am not a regular Facebook user (my sermons post automatically from my blog), but I have received messages from a number of concerned people alerting me to the conversations taking place on the Sinai page over the past 24 hours.

First of all, I am proud of the conversations that have been taking place in response to my sermon on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. We need to be able to communicate thoughtfully and respectfully. I cannot respond to every single issue that has been raised. Instead, I’ll share some broad thoughts.

First of all, this sermon was not delivered as a response to any earlier sermons.  As I wrote on my blog entry, I got many of the ideas from a Board of Rabbis of Northern California pre-High Holiday sermon seminar for Rabbis in late August.  I try to attend every year, and I often come away with thoughts that I incorporate into my remarks.

As someone who gets up in public most weeks to share my ideas with others, I have developed a number of principles for myself. Here are a few:

There are three sermons that I give each week: 1. The sermon I write. 2. The sermon I deliver. 3. The sermon that each individual person hears. Of course, this last one is different for everyone, as evidenced by the wide spectrum of reactions to this year’s Rosh Hashanah I sermon.

I am always speaking to myself. My sermons are the products (often incomplete) of my wrestling through difficult questions. The challenge of trying to communicate those thoughts to others forces me to try to organize and clarify my ideas in ways that others can understand. I focus on a wide variety of subjects, including Jewish textual interpretation, practice, thought, and belief, contemporary social or political issues, and more. Every time, I am striving to work through issues that interest me personally. I tell all of my B’nei Mitzvah students, “If you are boring yourself, you are probably boring your audience.”

Speak as a Rabbi. I am not a journalist, politician, or psychologist. I draw my authority to speak from the rabbinic tradition. Like everyone, I have lots of opinions. But when I speak from the pulpit, I need to do so rabbinically, relying on the teachings of Jewish tradition.

Be honest about Judaism. Jewish tradition is three thousand years old. In that time, Jewish thought and teaching has undergone tremendous changes. To claim that ancient sources provide direct support for contemporary issues is often disingenuous. For example, there is nothing in Jewish sources that explicitly posits communal obligations to provide universal health care. If I wanted to respond authentically to this issue (and I have), I would bring up that there are laws directed specifically to doctors, obligating them to care for anyone who needs it while prohibiting them from charging above-market prices for medications. I would point to those laws, along with other sources dealing with equal treatment of rich and poor, compassion, and human dignity to argue that in a society with sufficient means, Judaism should support the idea of “universal health care.”

Expect to receive a variety of responses to each sermon. A sermon is a tricky mode of communication. Listeners bring a lot of expectations – especially on the High Holidays.  I try to adhere (sometimes unsuccessfully) to the advice of my rabbinic mentor: “Give people space to disagree with you.” If I take a particular stance on an issue, I know that two things are certain to happen: 1. About 80% of the people in the room will agree with me. Some might even tell me it was a great sermon. 2. About 20% of the people in the room will disagree with me.  They might even get angry. I am reasonably certain that no minds will be changed. As a Rabbi, it is not my job to stand up and say things that confirm what 80% of the people in the room already believe. That does not accomplish anything. My job is to try to get 100% of the people in the room to think about an issue in a more in-depth way, and specifically from a Jewish perspective. For examples, check out a sermon I gave six years ago on abortion, or last year on immigration. Personally, I have plenty of opinions about individual issues. My weekly sermon is not the proper forum for me to share them.

As I go through life, my opinions and beliefs will change. One of the great (and often stressful) aspects of being a Rabbi is that I am exposed to a lot of (mostly) constructive critiques of my ideas by people with different viewpoints. It helps me grow tremendously. When confronted with a different opinion, I try to always ask myself “What is this person saying?  What from his or her experience leads him/her to say it this way? And what can I learn from this?” That said, in looking back on some old sermons, I realize that I have been pretty consistent over the years. I urge you to compare this year’s sermon to my Rosh Hashanah sermon from last year on how to argue, as well as a sermon from several months ago on being willing to change one’s mind,  and from five years ago, right after Obama’s second election victory, about talking with those with whom we disagree . I think you will find a similar theme running through all of them.

One issue that has been raised is whether the synagogue should be taking public stands and making statements on political issues. Historically, Sinai has never been politically active as an institution. It is not part of the culture of the synagogue. We do not have a social justice committee, and the systems to be able to have conversations with the community and make decisions about policy statements do not currently exist. As a Rabbi, I have freedom of the pulpit, meaning I can personally back any position I choose. And I have, sometimes publicly. See my sermon after the violence in Charlottesville, my speech advocating the abolishment of the death penalty, and my invocation this past January at the San Jose City Council meeting.

The Sinai mission statement begins “Congregation Sinai connects Jews to Judaism, each other, Israel, and the world.” I think we have done a pretty good job of keeping that mission at the center of our activities as a congregation. People come to Sinai for community, learning, and praying. Without a doubt, Tikkun Olam has become an important Jewish value over the last century.  Our synagogue, for its size, runs a healthy number of social action activities each year that I strongly support.  I wish we did more.  As I quoted Rabbi Tarfon towards the end of my sermon, “It is not for you to complete the task, neither are you free to desist from it.”

There are other synagogues that embrace, as part of their core missions, a commitment to social justice (which is not the same thing as social action). Those synagogues tend to be larger and better resourced. If Sinai members would like to form a social justice committee, I would support their efforts, provided that it is consistent with the mission of the synagogue and that it properly engages with all members of our community. We do not need to have unanimity, but we do need to make sure that all our members feel like they have the opportunity to express their views and be listened to respectfully. We should also be aware that synagogues that take political stances risk alienating segments of their community. Speaking directly, do we want synagogues to be known as either “Republican Synagogues” or “Democratic Synagogues?” It is already happening to some extent, dividing up between Orthodox on the right and Reform and Conservative on the left.  Personally, I see this as an unfortunate trend.

We are fortunate that there are plenty of opportunities for people to express their political viewpoints, including within the South Bay Jewish world. Locally, our Jewish Community Relations Council has done a wonderful job of getting our Jewish voice out into the public conversation. I encourage all of us to think deeply about the central issues of our day, being sure to explore all sides with open minds, so that we can formulate our own informed opinions, and then fight like mad for them, while always recognizing that those who disagree with us feel just as adamantly that they are right.

I am reassured to see that the conversation on Facebook has been conducted with passion, respect, and a willingness to learn from each other’s perspectives. This bodes well for us as we begin the new year.

Please respect that I prefer to have one on one, or emotional conversations face to face rather than in public forums. My door is open to anyone who would like to discuss this further.

Shanah Tovah.

The Compassionate Doubled Verb – Mishpatim 5777

There are a lot of Hebrew speakers in the room today, so I am going to focus on a particular feature of biblical Hebrew which is not found in English.  For that matter, it is not found in modern Hebrew either: doubled verbs.

Here is an example from this morning’s Torah portion:  u-makeh aviv v’imo mot yumat.  One who strikes his father or his mother…” and now here comes the doubled verb:  mot yumat.  (Exodus 21:15)

This presents a conundrum for the translator.  What is meant by the duplication of the verb, which means “die,” and how do I convey it in English?”

Our own Etz Hayim Chumash translates mot yumat as “shall be put to death,” while the Stone Chumash kicks it up a notch with “shall surely be put to death.”  Robert Alter embraces melodrama with, “is doomed to die.”  A hyper-literal translation would be something like that by Everett Fox, “is to be put-to-death, yes, death.”

Generally speaking, doubling a verb like this is one technique that Biblical Hebrew uses to create emphasis.  Each of the translations we just heard are trying, in their respective ways, to convey the seriousness of the command, even though just one of them actually translates the word “die” twice.

The bottom line is, for those kids who are listening right now, you better not hit your parents.

Over the course of the many laws listed in Parashat Mishpatim, there are numerous doubled verbs.  Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, from the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, points out a particular verse which contains no less than three of them.  It follows the instruction “You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan”  (Exodus 22:21)  And then it continues

אִם־עַנֵּ֥ה תְעַנֶּ֖ה אֹת֑וֹ כִּ֣י אִם־צָעֹ֤ק יִצְעַק֙ אֵלַ֔י שָׁמֹ֥עַ אֶשְׁמַ֖ע צַעֲקָתוֹ:

Im aneh t’aneh oto ki im tza-ok yitz’ak elai shamo-a eshma tza’akato.

Here is Everett Fox’s hyper-literal translation:

Oh, if you afflict, afflict them . . . !

For (then) they will cry, cry out to me,

and I will hearken, hearken to their cry  (Exodus 22:22)

This seems a little excessive, does it not?

Rabbi Goldfarb points out that the purpose of the doubled verbs is not necessarily to enhance.  In fact, there is a rabbinic disagreement about the meaning of אִם־עַנֵּ֥ה תְעַנֶּ֖ה, “Oh, if you afflict, afflict them.”  The Rabbis generally assume that the Torah does not waste any words.  So if a verb appears twice, each must have its own distinct meaning.

One opinion states that the first mention of afflict refers to serious afflictions and the second refers to minor afflictions.  Thus, God is going to hold us accountable for even minor mistreatments of the widow and the orphan.  The doubled verb intensifies the message.

The second opinion states that a person is not liable until the second time that he or she mistreats an orphan or widow.  In other words, the doubled verb diminishes the message.  (Mekhilta, Mishpatim 18)

This is a pretty significant difference.  Should we have a zero-tolerance policy for repression of the unfortunate or should we give ourselves second chances after messing up the first time?

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk was a Chassidic Rebbe in the first half of the nineteenth century.  He was known as the Kotzker Rebbe.  He also notices this unusual sentence, with its threefold doubled verbs, and offers a creative explanation.

The Torah is trying to emphasize something specific.  The suffering of the orphan and the widow is not like typical human suffering.  When a widow or orphan experiences mistreatment, physical harm, or financial loss, it weighs especially heavily on that person’s heart.  That is why the Torah doubles the verbs.

“If you afflict, afflict him” – he experiences double suffering.  This leads him to “cry, cry out” to God.  And God, in turn will “hearken, hearken to their cry.”  In other words, God will bring twice as much compassion, as well as inflict twice the punishment on the perpetrators of injustice.

In the Torah’s day, the widow and the orphan, along with the stranger, occupied the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder.  They had the least power and were the most vulnerable.

The Kotzker Rebbe is pointing out a timeless truth.  Those with the fewest resources tend to be the ones who are most vulnerable to misfortune.  We see this in the world today, as the poorest people are the one’s who suffer the greatest consequences from natural disasters.  Those with fewer resources do worse when the economy takes a downturn.

One of the Torah’s central messages to us is that we have a moral obligation to care for those with the least resources.  The Torah’s law codes introduce principles of social and economic equity which were unprecedented in the world at the time.

This theme underscores so many of the commandments that appear in this morning’s portion, such as: giving tzedakah, enforcing justice equally, not showing deference to the rich, making sure that punishments are proportional to the crime.

Yet the Torah also recognizes that, as much as we may try to legislate proper behavior, we are human after all.  We will mistreat each other.  And some of us will be more vulnerable than others.

The very language of the Hebrew that the Torah uses emphasizes the importance of compassion, and reminds us that even when we fail to live by the Torah’s standard, God still keeps an ear open for the cries of the least fortunate – and listens twice as closely for it.