Just Beginning to See – Va-Etchanan 5779

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

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

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

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

The Jewish equivalent is, of course, Moses.

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

Moses’s formal request begins with praise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Such a disappointing answer for Moses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moses: A Man Of Words – Devarim 5779

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other words, this is a substantial gift.

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

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

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

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

Numbers 7:11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kipah Belongs to Germany – Bechukoti 5779

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

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

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

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

That is my spiel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leviticus 26:44

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking the Downward Spiral – Behar 5779

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It didn’t work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have a lot of work to do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wouldn’t it be nice to know.

Acharei Mot 5779 – Dispel the Darkness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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