Tzedakah or Selfishness – Vayera 5779

Justice, tzedakah, is one of the recurring themes in this morning’s Torah portion, Vayera.  As God contemplates the fate of the Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities in the Jordan River Valley, God decides to hire a consultant.  

Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do… for I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children… to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right…—tzedakah u’mishpat.

God tells Abraham about the plan to destroy the two cities because of the extreme wickedness of their inhabitants.  Abraham immediately challenges God:  Ha’af tispeh tzadik im rasha  

Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?  What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it?…  Far be it from You… to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty…

God is convinced, promising “If I find within the city of Sodom fifty innocent ones, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.”

This is just the opening salvo in the negotiation.  Abraham lowers the threshold to 45, then 40, 30, 20, and finally 10 innocent people to save the remainder of the population.  God agrees every time.  

It seems, based on God’s original assessment, that this was the plan all along.  After all, God has already identified Abraham as someone who will pass on the values of tzedakah and mishpat — justice and righteousness — to his children.

It turns out that there are not even 10 righteous individuals in the two cities, leaving God free to carry out the original sentence.  Perhaps if Abraham had gone still lower…  God would probably have agreed.

This story depicts Abraham at his best.  He puts everything on the line for the sake of his fellow human beings.  These particular human beings are the worst of the worst,  but Abraham cannot sit idly by, even for such a depraved population.

Soon afterwards, Abraham and Sarah find themselves the land of Gerar, which is near Gaza.  As in a prior encounter with Pharaoh in Egypt, Abraham passes off his wife, Sarah, as his sister.  So what happens?  The King, Avimelech, thinking that she is single, has Sarah brought into his household.  [She is 89 years old at the time, but never mind.]

Before anything happens, God speaks to Avimelech in a dream.  “You are to die because of the woman you have taken, for she is a married woman!”

Still in the dream, Avimelech defends himself.  “O Lord, will you slay people even though innocent? — ha’goy gam tzadik ta’harog?  Sound familiar?  Avimelech makes the argument with God on his own behalf as Abraham made earlier on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah.  God agrees, and instructs Avimelech to return Sarah to her husband.

The next day, Avimelech confronts Abraham.  “What did I ever do to you?  You’ve brought disaster upon us.  You have done things to me that ought not to be done!”

Abraham’s response is difficult to hear. “I thought,” he says, “surely there is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.”  (Gen. 20:11)  Then he offers some weak excuse explaining how Sarah is really his half-sister, and he did not technically lie.  Whether she is his sister or not is irrelevant.  What matters is his hiding the fact that she is a married woman.

Abraham, who had just recently behaved so nobly, now thinks only of himself.  He puts a lot of people in danger.  First of all, Sarah.  As soon as they arrive, she is taken to the palace, presumably to be made part of the harem.  Avimelech is endangered, as even a King is not allowed to be with a married woman.  And finally, because Abraham is, well Abraham, Avimelech’s entire household is stricken with temporary infertility, merely for bringing Sarah in to the palace.  If things had gone further, God’s wrath would have turned lethal.

Abraham assumes the worst of Avimelech and his people.  He condemns them before he even meets them.  But Abraham is wrong.  These are not wicked people.  As it turns out, Avimelech is a God-fearing man, with a sense of justice.  

This story has close parallels to the earlier story.  Only this time, it is Avimelech playing the role of the prophet standing in the breach, arguing for justice against a vengeful God.  In this case, like the previous, God wants to be convinced.  God wants tzedakah, justice, to reign.  God does not want the innocent to suffer the fate of the guilty.  As before, Abraham must personally intercede, praying to God for the health and well-being of Avimelech and his household.  But Abraham’s prayers come only after Avimelech bribes presents him with sheep, oxen, servants, land, and silver.

Abraham does not come out well in this story.  Is this the same person who put everything on the line to argue with God on behalf of people that he knew were wicked?  He is supposed to be the optimist, the one devoted to bringing justice into the world.  He should at least have given Avimelech the benefit of the doubt.

What are we to make of Abraham?  The Torah does not hold back in presenting its heroes as flawed individuals.  They make mistakes.  Sometimes, their opponents have qualities going for them as well.  The underlying theme of these two stories is tzedakah.  God wants justice.  God does not want the innocent to suffer punishments that should be reserved just for the wicked.  And in both stories, it seems that God is not capable of holding back the injustice without human intercession.

Abraham’s abrupt turn from being a justice-hero to behaving with selfishness and distrust teaches us something about the impact that fear can have, even on the best of us.  Abraham is afraid.  He says so himself.  His fear leads him to treat others unfairly, including his own wife.  He succumbs to stereotypes.

And Abraham, remember, is a good man.  He is the one whom God has selected to be a blessing to the world, and to teach his children about justice and righteousness.  If Abraham is susceptible to fear, how much the more so are we!

I don’t think I need to detail the many examples of how fear leads to injustice.  In this case, the victim was King Avimelech, a person in power.  But usually, the ones who are most harmed by fear and distrust are those without power.

The lesson from both stories is that God needs human intercessors to bring tzedakah into the world.  Any of us has the capacity to be such an intercessor, just as any of us has the capacity, through fear, to turn our backs on our brothers and sisters.

As Jews, we take this on as a special obligation, going all the way back to Abraham, whom God selected to “instruct his children… to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right.”

May we always strive to live up to that ideal.

A Natural Family with a Supernatural Mandate – Lekh L’kha 5779

The Silicon Valley Introduction to Judaism class began this past week.  It is a wonderful example of collaboration in our Jewish community.  I, along with Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist colleagues, teach this class every year.

Adult students have an opportunity to learn from Rabbis of different denominations.  Classes rotate, depending on who is teaching that night, between the Jewish Community Center, Congregation Sinai, Congregation Beth David, Congregation Shir Hadash, and Temple Emanu-El.

At the first Introduction to Judaism session, students are invited to introduce themselves and share their reasons for taking the class.  Every year, there are a variety of reasons given.

Some students are Jewish adults who either never received a Jewish education, or who feel that they want to learn about Judaism in a more sophisticated way, as compared to the child-focused education they received years ago.  Some are members of synagogues.  Some are not.

There are also non-Jewish students who are lifelong learners.  Their spiritual and intellectual journeys have led them to learn about different faiths and traditions.

Some class participants are interested in converting to Judaism.  This can include those who have a Jewish partner, as well as those who have decided to explore Judaism on their own.

Finally, some non-Jewish students do not intend to convert, but are committed to supporting their Jewish partners in building a Jewish home and raising Jewish children.

As students describe the journeys that led them to the Introduction to Judaism class, there are often incredible stories.

Some share strange, mysterious family traditions.  Often they involve lighting candles at particular times during the year, or avoiding certain kinds of foods. In some families, there are secrets that are known only to the older members from earlier generations, who hush up in seeming embarrassment whenever the topic arises.

Usually, these suspicions of a Jewish past point to a possible Sephardic family connection.  But not always.

With the growing popularity and availability of DNA testing, it is now possible to confirm long-held suspicions of Jewish ancestry.  That is increasingly serving as the impetus for people to explore Judaism as a way to regain a lost family heritage.

Also at the first session, we divide students into small groups and give them an assignment: Write a one sentence definition of Judaism that is grammatically and syntactically correct – no run-ons.  It is a very difficult assignment which students have a tough time completing.  That is kind of the point.

Judaism is not a religion in the way that we typically think of religion.  Simply by being born to a Jewish mother,  a person is Jewish regardless of what he or she believes.  Don’t learn from this, however, that Judaism does not have particular beliefs.  It does.

So does this make Judaism a race?  Not at all.  For if Judaism was a race, it would be impossible to convert.  And yet Judaism has always welcomed converts, as we will see shortly.

Professor Jon Levenson expresses the difficulty in defining Judaism succinctly in his book, Inheriting Abraham.

The people Israel is neither a nationality in the conventional sense nor a church-like body composed of like-minded believers or practitioners of a common set of norms.  Having something in common with both of these more familiar identities, it reduces to neither of them.

Levenson has stated the difficulty of coming up with a definition.  Then he offers us one:

Rather, as the call and commission of Abram already indicate, it is a natural family with a supernatural mandate.

“A natural family with a supernatural mandate.”  We are family, and we strive to rise above our base nature as human beings to embrace a set of divinely-given, shared practices and values.

This morning’s parashah, Lekh L’kha, opens with God instructing Abram to leave behind his home and his father’s household and travel to the land that God will show him.  Without asking any questions, Abram packs up his household and begins the journey.

וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָם אֶת־שָׂרַי אִשְׁתּוֹ וְאֶת־לוֹט בֶּן־אָחִיו וְאֶת־כָּל־רְכוּשָׁם אֲשֶׁר רָכָשׁוּ וְאֶת־הַנֶּפֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר־עָשׂוּ בְחָרָן וַיֵּצְאוּ לָלֶכֶת אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן וַיָּבֹאוּ אַרְצָה כְּנָעַן:

Then Avram took Sarai his wife and Lot his nephew and all of their property which they had acquired and the persons that they acquired in Haran, and they went towards Canaan and they came to the land of Canaan.  (Genesis 12:5)

A midrash focuses on a peculiar phrase in this sentence.  v’et ha’nefesh asher asu.  Many translations say “the persons that they acquired,” which refers to the many servants that had joined their household.  Abram had done quite well for himself in Haran, apparently. 

An often-cited midrash (Genesis Rabbah 39:14) understands it a bit more creatively.  Literally, I might translate v’et ha’nefesh asher asu as “the soul that they had made.”  Is it possible to create life?

Rabbi Eleazar ben Zimra explains that if all of the people of the world were gathered together, we could not even make a fly, much less a human being.  The Torah says that the soul that was made refers to all the people that Abram and Sarai converted.  We learn that whoever brings idolaters into the fold is considered to have created them.

In other words, Abraham and Sarah were busy in Haran.  They were teaching their neighbors about God, and leading them away from idolatry.

In Levenson’s terms, they were joining the family.  This family is comprised not of people who are related by blood, but by those who share beliefs and values.  That is who Abraham and Sarah brought with them to Canaan.

Rambam, the great 12th century Rabbi, physician, philosopher, and community leader was the leading authority in his day.  People would write to him from all over the world for advice and legal rulings.

A question was once asked of him by a man named Ovadiah, a convert to Judaism.  Ovadiah notes that the language in many of the prayers uses us or we, in reference to events that occurred to previous generations.

Eloheinu v’Elohei avoteinu — “Our God and God of our ancestors”

Asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav — “You who have sanctified us through Your commandments”

She’asah nissim la’avoteinu — “You who performed miracles for our ancestors”

Ovadiah asks Rambam if he, as a proselyte, whose ancestors were not part of the Jewish people, is allowed to recite all of these words.  We can only imagine what experiences Ovadiah might have had that led him to ask this question.

Rambam, in his answer, does not mince words.  He wants to make sure that Ovadiah, and anyone else who might think to raise a similar objection, gets the point.  His answer begins: “You must recite it all in its prescribed order and should not change it in the least.”

In his explanation, Rambam refers to Abraham, who taught people about God and urged them to reject idolatry.  Abraham instructed everyone in his household to follow God’s ways by engaging in righteousness and justice.

For this reason, anyone who converts to Judaism, throughout the ages, is considered to be a student of Abraham and a member of his household.  In other words, part of the family.

Not only that, Abraham is considered to be the father of all converts.  Jews-by-choice, when taking on a Jewish name, are considered to be the children of Abraham and Sarah, and are therefore referred to as ben or bat Avraham Avinu v’Sarah Imeinu—“the son/daughter of Abraham our Father and Sarah our Mother.”

Therefore, when a Jew by choice recites “our God and God of our ancestors,” it is a true statement.

While discovering Jewish roots in a DNA test may lead a person to explore their roots, it is not a determining factor, at least from a religious point of view.  Halakhah, Jewish law, does not tend to operate on the microscopic level.  

A few years ago, there was a young American woman from a Russian-speaking family who wanted to participate in a birthright trip.  She was asked to take a DNA test to prove that she was eligible.  She was ultimately denied.

This is unfortunate, and is certainly inconsistent with Jewish law.  I hope it is not a precedent.

Jewish identity is not in the blood.  It is in the family stories that are passed down from our grandparents.  It is in the moral lessons that parents impart to their children.  Jewish identity is also something that can be chosen by those who seek to be part of the Jewish family.

Does this mean that there will sometimes be questions and arguments about who is in and who is out?  Absolutely.  But we are a family, after all.  And families are messy.

Etrog: The Fruit of a Goodly Tree – Succot 5779

Today is the Shabbat of Succot.  It is the one day of the holiday on which we refrain from the Arba Minim, the Four Species.

It is similar to how we do not blow the shofar when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat.  Instead, we refer to zikhron teruah, the memory of blasting.  

So let this morning’s drash serve as a zikhron arba minim.  A memory of the Four Species.

In Sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus (23:40), the Torah give us the details.

וּלְקַחְתֶּ֨ם לָכֶ֜ם בַּיּ֣וֹם הָרִאשׁ֗וֹן פְּרִ֨י עֵ֤ץ הָדָר֙ כַּפֹּ֣ת תְּמָרִ֔ים וַעֲנַ֥ף עֵץ־עָבֹ֖ת וְעַרְבֵי־נָ֑חַל וּשְׂמַחְתֶּ֗ם לִפְנֵ֛י ה֥’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶ֖ם שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִֽים׃

You shall take for yourselves on the first day: the fruit of a goodly tree, branches of date palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.

Four species: Fruit of a goodly tree – it is not clear what tree it is.  Branches of date palm trees – that is the lulav.  Boughs of leafy trees – that also is not clear, although it is understood to be the myrtle, or hadas.  And finally, willows of the brook – that is the aravah.  

Let’s focus on the pri etz hadar, the fruit of a goodly tree.  What is this fruit that the Torah is talking about?

The etrog, of course.  Everybody knows that.  Known also as the citron, or citrus medica.  

You might be surprised to learn that, 2,000 years ago, there was no such thing as an orange, a lemon, or a grapefruit.  All citrus fruits today are the result of the hybridization of three original species.  Pomelos and mandarins are known to have been in cultivation for the past two thousand years, and originated in China.  The citron is native to India and has been in cultivation for at least 2,300 years. 

Theophrastus of Eresos was an historian who accompanied Alexander the Great.  In his book, Historia Plantarum, he describes the citron that he encountered during a trip to Babylon in approximately 310 BCE.  He refers to it as “Median Fruit” and claims that it cannot be eaten.

It seams that Alexander brought it back with him to the Mediterranean.  It was the first citrus fruit to be introduced to the region.  There were no citrus fruits in the land of Israel during the biblical period.

Or, at least, that was the assumption until a recent archaeological discovery.  A layer of plaster from an ancient palace on the grounds of Ramat Rahel, a kibbutz in Southern Jerusalem, was dated to the Persian period (5th or 4th century BCE).  In that plaster, an Israeli archaeo-botanist discovered pollen from a number of plants, including the citron.

This suggests that etrog trees might have been imported from Persia to Israel during the early second Temple period.  Further supporting this find is the word etrog itself, which seems to be a derivation of the Persian name for the citron, turung.  

Textual and archaeological evidence exists that indicates that by the first or even second century, BCE, the citron, or etrog, was being used by Jews as one of the Four Species during Succot.

One of the only letters found to have been written by Bar Kochba himself during the revolt of 132-135 CE includes the following instructions:  

Shimon to Yehudah Bar Menashe: Kiryat Arabaya. I have sent two donkeys. You shall send two men with them to Yehonatan bar Be’ayan and to Masabla. They shall pack and bring back to you palm branches and etrogim. You should send others from your place to bring back myrtles and willows. See that they are tithed. Send them all to my camp. Our army is large. Peace.

In the midst of the fighting, Bar Kokhba made sure that his soldiers would be able to observe Succot properly, with the Four Species in hand.

Synagogue mosaic floor from Hamat Teveriah, 4th century. Note the Four Species in the bottom left corner.

Images of the Four Species, with etrogim appearing prominently, appear all over the mosaic floors and fresco walls of ancient synagogues from the Roman and Byzantine era.  It is one of the most frequently-appearing religious symbols, which indicates how important it was in the ancient world.

Rabbinic texts—the Talmud and early midrashim—agree that “fruit of a goodly tree” refers to the etrog, and there are many explanations as to why.  Here are a few:

Does hadar, “goodly,” refer to pri, the fruit, or to etz, the tree?  It could be either, and the expression could be translated either as “fruit of a goodly tree” or “goodly fruit of a tree.”  The Talmud (BT Sukkah 35a) concludes that we should understand it both ways.  Both the fruit and the tree must taste the same.  Only the Etrog meets this standard, the Talmud concludes.

Rabbi Abahu offers a different explanation.  Hadar, he claims, is related to dirah, a dwelling place.  Pri etz ha-dar.  the fruit that dwells on its tree year round.  The citron is not a seasonal tree.  It produces fruit year round.

Ben Azzai draws a connection between hadar and the Greek word hydro, meaning water.  Citron trees require intensive irrigation.

Others (Song of Songs Rabbah) identify the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden as the Etrog.  Genesis (3:6) describes the woman’s impression of the tree: “The woman saw that the tree was good for eating.”  Rav Abba of Acco asks, “what other tree is there whose wood and fruit are both edible?  It can only be the etrog.”

One thousand years later, Maimonides seems to doubt the validity of any of these explanations.  The fact that everyone knows the Torah is talking about the etrog, despite such a vague description, is proof of the validity of an oral tradition going back to Moses.

But it was Eleazar ben Yehudah of Worms, from the late 12th and early 13th centuries, who proved it *conclusively* using gematria.  But first, we must recognize one of the fundamental rules of gematria: a difference of plus or minus 1 is irrelevant.  Let’s add up the numerical value of the letters in pri etz hadar.

פְּרִי עֵץ הָדָר – pri etz hadar 

80 + 200 + 10 + 70 + 90 + 5 + 4 + 200 = 659

אתרוגים – etrogim (plural of etrog)

1 + 400 + 200 + 6 + 3 +10 + 40 = 660

Seems conclusive to me.  

In any event, we can say with almost 100% certainty that Jews have understood “fruit of a goodly tree” to mean the etrog for over 2,000 years.

This was fine when most Jews were living around the Mediterranean, where citron trees grow easily.  As Jews began to move further out into the Diaspora, however, acquiring an etrog for Succot became more of a challenge.  In addition, Jews stopped being farmers—often because they were forbidden by Christian authorities.  This meant that they would have to rely on non-Jewish farmers, who may not have been aware, or may not have cared, about halakhic concerns.

The main halakhic concern is grafting, when a branch is attached to healthy root stock from a different species.  A grafted etrog, called murkav, is not acceptable.  Italian Jews were said to have been able to identify etrogim grown on a grafted tree on sight.  This was not the case for Jews who lived outside of cultivation zones.

A Jew living in northern Poland found himself at the mercy of the Jewish trader who would import etrogim for the holiday.  This resulted in a considerable amount of dishonest behavior.  In medieval times, local lords would grant exclusive charters to individual merchants to be able to conduct their trading practices.  These charters were often granted in exchange for bribes.

There were some years in which etrogim simply could not be obtained.  There are some prominent Ashkenazi Rabbis who gave permission to communities to use grafted etrogim, or even a previous year’s etrog, which had become completely dried out and would therefore not have been permissible under normal circumstances.

The difficulty of acquiring an etrog was so great that communities would sometimes import a single fruit, which would be owned in partnership by the entire community.

Through the seventeenth century, etrogim grown around the Mediterranean were shipped by way of Genoa or Venice, port cities located at the top of the Western and Eastern sides, respectively, of the Italian boot. 

By the eighteenth century, most etrogim made their way to Northern Europe through the port of Trieste, which is located in what is today northeast Italy, at the very top of the Adriatic Sea.

With the rise of Napoleon, borders between French and Austrian controlled areas became closed, upsetting trade routes and interfering with the traditional paths that etrogim took each year.

Only the Ottoman Sultan’s territories in the Eastern Mediterranean remained unaffected. Etrogim from that area were shipped through Corfu, an island off the coast of Southern Albania and Northern Greece, and on to Trieste.

The Sultan’s etrogim came to be known as Corfu Etrogim, and were highly regarded as being of great quality and consistency.  Because of tight controls, they could also be trusted to not come from hybrid trees.

In 1840, the Sultan let his exclusive monopoly on etrog production expire.  Without central controls, etrogim could no longer be relied upon to be ungrafted.  Etrog production exploded on islands surrounding what is today Greece.  The Rabbi on Corfu gave his hashgacha, his seal of approval, to them—without ever actually inspecting the orchards.

Eastern European Rabbis objected.  In 1846, they issued a collection of teshuvot, legal decisions, banning all etrogim from the area, advising that Jews should instead purchase etrogim grown in Parga, Corsica, or North Africa.  

This turned out to be impossible.  Most Mediterranean etrogim were being shipped through Corfu, where Greek traders packaged them together indiscriminately.

Further exacerbating the problem was the practice, also by Greek traders, of literally dumping etrogim into the Adriatic Sea to create scarcity and raise prices.

This led to a wholesale ban on Corfu etrogim by most of the Rabbis in Eastern Europe, the Chief Rabbi of England, and Rabbis from several German cities.  Sephardic Rabbis were more likely to permit the use of Corfu etrogim.  Some Hassidic Jews not only permitted the Corfu etrog, but even came to prefer it, seeing it as symbolic of Hassidism itself.

In addition to the religious issues, there were also economic implications.  Controversies arose between competing authorities, some of whom had personal financial stakes in the permissibility or otherwise of the Corfu etrogim.

Despite gains made under the Enlightenment and under the influence of Napoleon’s granting of citizenship to the Jews, antisemitic sentiments were widespread.  With growing Jewish boycotts of Corfu etrogim, attitudes towards Jews worsened.

In 1891, the Jews of Corfu were accused of ritual murder, leading to pogroms against the community.  In response, even more Rabbis issued bans against the fruit.  More moderate leaders advised caution, fearful of exacerbating the situation.

With European demand falling, Corfu etrog traders tried to market directly to the American Jewish public by touting the high quality of the fruit.  “Real Corfu Esrogim” almost became a name brand.

A Latvian immigrant named Ephraim Deinard was not impressed.  He was a professional traveler and writer, but not a Rabbi.  In 1892, Deinard wrote a pamphlet in Hebrew entitled God’s War Against Amalek in which he did not mince his words:

The shriek of the children of Israel on Corfu, the island of blood, pierces heaven. These cursed beasts, these Greeks, children of Antiochus the tyrant, after two thousand years have still not gorged themselves sufficiently upon the blood of our fathers. Not a year passes, but these cannibals slander us with accusations of ritual murder in all the countries of Greece, Turkey, and Russia. Before our eyes runs the blood of our brethren in Salonica, Smyrna, Odessa, Alexandria, Port Said, and Corfu.

Calling out the New Yorkers who were importing Corfu etrogim, he wrote:

. . . they are traders in the blood of Israel . . . and since there is hardly a man in Europe who will touch them [the etrogim] they bought these etrogim dripping with the blood of the sons of Zion. . . . These circumcised anti-Semites . . . have connived with importers from Trieste and a group of Galician Jews . . . to mislead the people of God.,  

Deinard identified the “robbers’ hideout” of these dishonest merchants: 185 East Broadway.

Around the same time, Jewish farmers living in Palestine were beginning to grow etrog trees.  The Fruit of the Goodly Tree Association was founded by Palestinian growers to promote their product.

The Chief Rabbi of Jaffa at the time, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, offered his endorsement.  He stated that when the Torah declares ul’kachtem lakhem, literally, “you shall take for yourselves… fruit of a goodly tree…” it implies, you shall take purely – that is not steal.”  He adds, “you shall take for yourselves” means “you shall take from yourselves,” that is to say from Jews and Jewish soil.

Today, most of the etrogim that we get are from Israel.  During shemitah, or sabbatical years, supply shifts to other sources, such as Greece, Italy, Morocco, and Yemen.

Don’t get too bogged down in this long, and sometimes unsavory, history.

The Torah tells us to take for ourselves pri etz hadar.  The fruit of a goodly tree.  From this expression comes the idea of hiddur mitzvah: the beautification of the mitzvah.

It is possible to simply go through the motions when we fulfill our ritual obligations.  The Torah suggests that there is a higher level that we can achieve.

It has become customary to try to get our hands on the most beautiful etrog available.  

This was true when entire communities would join together to purchase a single, sad etrog that had made the long, thousand mile long journey from a remote Mediterranean island by boat, mule, and cart.

It is a bit easier for us today, as our etrogim are shipped by overnight delivery, each in its own insulated and foam-lined box.  But there is something special about it.

The Etrog is a strange fruit.  We don’t eat it.  With its bumpy skin, it looks kind of ugly.  It has a unique, beautiful smell. 

Every year, I savor the moment when I first take my etrog out of its box.  I inspect its skin, check to see that it has its pitam intact.  Then I inhale its special smell.  Beautiful.  Moadim L’simchah.  Have a Happy Succot.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Erich and Rael Isaac, “A Goodly Tree” in The Sukkot/Simhat Torah Anthology, ed. Philip Goodman.

Jenna Weissman Joselit, “The Trail of the Elusive Etrog,” The Forward, Oct. 2, 2008

Gabriel Moskovitz, “The Genesis of the Etrog (Citron) as Part of the Four Species,” Jewish Bible Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 2, 2015

Eliezer Segal, “Citric Asset

What Is Life Worth? – Yom Kippur 5779

[I got the idea for this sermon from an interview of Kenneth Feinberg by Steven J. Dubner on the podcast Freakonomics (of which I am a regular listener).  You can listen to the podcast here.]

Last week, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we observed the seventeenth anniversary of 9/11, when 19 terrorists hijacked four airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.  Nearly 3000 people were killed and more than 6000 were injured.

Almost immediately after the attacks, the airline industry started lobbying Congress.  It worried that the victims would bring lawsuits that would bog them down in court for years.  Congress worried that lawsuits would cause Americans to lose faith in air transportation and stop flying, which could have devastating effects on the country.  It quickly began drafting a law to limit the airlines’ liabilities.  But that meant victims’ family members, as well as those who were injured, would be restricted in their abilities to seek compensation.

At the last minute, Congress added a provision to address this concern.  They created the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund of 2001, to which eligible persons could apply in exchange for foregoing all rights to sue.  The American people would collectively pay damages to the victims of 9/11.

On September 22, 2011, just eleven days after the towers fell, the Air Transportation Safety and System Stabilization Act passed and was signed into law by President Bush.

The Act required the Attorney General to appoint a Special Master, who would be granted sole authority over the entire program.  The Special Master would be responsible for developing procedures by which family members and injured persons could apply for compensation.  He would have to develop a formula for determining award amounts.  He would also determine the total amount of money that the fund would distribute.  No distinctions whatsoever were to be made between citizens and non-citizens, including victims who were undocumented.

In effect, Congress gave the Special Master a blank check with which to compensate the victims and family members of 9/11.  Short of being fired by the Attorney General, there would be no oversight and no review.

No program like it had ever existed.

Attorney General John Ashcroft turned to a lawyer by the name of Ken Feinberg.  Feinberg was a Democrat, having worked for Senator Ted Kennedy early in his career.  Feinberg also had prior experience serving as a mediator for victim compensation funds.

Although a Democrat. Feinberg was well-respected and liked across the aisle.  Perhaps most importantly, he could be easily jettisoned if things did not go well politically.

Feinberg turned out to have been the perfect choice to serve as Special Master.  He demonstrated wisdom and sensitivity for the victims and their families.  He took his role as fiduciary for the American people seriously, and he considered the precedent that his decisions would set.  After closing the compensation fund three years later, Ken Feinberg wrote a book called What is Life Worth? in which he describes his experiences.

Consider the difficult position into which Feinberg was placed.  In administering the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, he found himself in the unenviable position of having to determine how much the lives of thousands of human beings were worth—in dollars.  He would have to weigh the relative merits of competing claims and decide whose death would be compensated with more and whose would be compensated with less.

It would have been far easier to simply state: “a life is a life.  We are all equal in the eyes of God,” and allocate identical amounts for each victim. 

But, in its hastiness, Congress ruled that the awards needed to be based on economic loss, that is to say, current and future anticipated earnings.  That meant that the family of a bond trader who earned $20 million annually would receive a greater payout than a firefighter, police officer, or soldier, not to mention a busboy who earned $20 thousand per year.

So Feinberg went to his Rabbi for advice.  It was not so helpful.  His Rabbi acknowledged that 9/11 was unique.  There were no ready-made answers contained in the Torah or Jewish wisdom.  “I alone had the ultimate responsibility of determining each award,” Feinberg wrote,

based largely on a prediction of what the victim would have earned had he or she survived.  It was a job that called for the wisdom of Solomon, the technical skill of H&R Block, and the insight of a mystic with a crystal ball.  I was supposed to peer into that crystal ball, consider the ebbs and flows that made up a stranger’s life, and translate all of this into dollars and cents.  (87)

Reactions by victims’ family members were all over the place, as one might imagine.  There was tremendous distrust of the program at first, and of Feinberg in particular, who became the public face of the U.S. government’s response to the families.

This program became the primary way that the American people would acknowledge the families’ losses in the first few years after 9/11.  It was inevitable that these payouts would be perceived as determinations of the worth of a person’s life in the eyes of the public.  

But money cannot bring closure.  Feinberg tried hard to emphasize that the purpose of the fund was to meet financial need, and not to value the moral worth of the victims.  But in creating this fund, Congress set up a dynamic which encouraged people to translate the value of their loved ones in dollars.  That perception was difficult to overcome.

Feinberg knew that the families’ emotions were raw, and that they would need time and space to vent.  At the beginning of the process, he personally led public meetings, strongly encouraging all family members to attend.

He and his office personally tracked down the relatives of every single victim, in the US and abroad.  That included eleven undocumented workers, whose foreign relatives were especially difficult to locate.  He made himself available for one on one meetings with anyone who desired, at any stage in the process.  In two years, Feinberg personally met with over 900 families.

In those meetings, they told him stories about their loved ones.  They expressed anger and sadness.  They wanted to know why it happened, and why their loved ones had to die.  Some expressed faith.  Others shared their loss of faith.

Of course, every family had a story to explain why their loved one was unique, and why their death deserved greater compensation.  After all, if money is the measure of a life’s worth, I would be disrespecting my loved one’s memory if I did not argue for more.

How can the pain and suffering of two different people be compared?  Is the loss more difficult for a spouse who enjoyed thirty years with another person, or for a newlywed who had an entire lifetime taken away?

Should the family of a firefighter who died saving the lives of dozens of other people be worth more than that of a secretary, or a chef, or a lawyer?  Should age be a determining factor?  What about the more than 60 widows who were pregnant with a child who would never know their father?  Is that worth more?

In the end, Feinberg decided that he would not distinguish.  Each victim would get $250,000 for pain and suffering, and each surviving spouse or dependent would receive $100,000. 

Nevertheless, he encouraged families to talk about their loved ones, inviting them to share what was special and unique.  This program could help serve as witness to their grief.  It was an important step in reframing the program and helping families begin to move on.

Senator Kennedy advised Feinberg “to make sure that 15% of the families don’t receive 85% of the taxpayers’ money.”  While the awards could not be identical, they also did not have to be proportional to income.  Feinberg could nudge low amounts upwards, and nudge higher amounts downwards—and he did.

He developed a formula to determine awards, and further reserved the ability to make adjustments in special cases.

In the end, ninety seven percent of all eligible families entered the program.  Spouses and dependents of 2,880 victims received almost six billion dollars in tax-free compensation.  The median award was just under 1.7 million dollars, and the maximum award was 7.1 million dollars.

2,682 of those who were injured received more than one billion dollars in compensation.  

When the fund was closed at the end of 2004, it was considered to have been a tremendous success.  The families were appreciative of Ken Feinberg and his team.  The compensation they received did not bring their loved ones back, but did help them to piece their lives back together and begin to move on.  It was not so much the money that did that, but the respect and dignity that was afforded to each individual life.

Judaism has many teachings about the extraordinary worth of an individual human life.  The earliest law code, the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:3), imparts this lesson as early as the second century.

Therefore, Adam was created by himself, to teach us that whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.

The context of this teaching is important.  It is a short speech that is delivered to witnesses in a murder trial before they present their testimony.  It is supposed to warn them of the importance of testifying truthfully, as the accused’s fate will be determined by their words.

Each human being must be considered to be like Adam, the first human, from whom all of humanity descended.  “Choose life,” the Torah instructs us.  Life is of such enormous value that, with just three exceptions, we are commanded to violate every mitzvah in the Torah to save it.  In Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, we learn that a person is an olam katan, a small world, a microcosm of heaven and earth itself.

To quote a certain credit card company, a human life is “priceless.”

Valuing a life in dollars and cents is cold and arbitrary.  But we tend to do exactly that.  Think about the expression, “So and so is worth x amount of dollars.”  Or a company.  Apple recently became worth more than one trillion dollars.  I hope we can agree that a person’s real value, and even a corporation’s real value, should not be determined by income or wealth. 

To do so would seem to go against everything that Judaism teaches us.

But, in other contexts, Judaism does value human life in shekels.  In ancient times one of the ways in which a Jew could express gratitude or hope to God, would be to proclaim a vow.  A vow is essentially a promise to deliver something specific of value to the Temple.  

In making a vow, I might dedicate a field, a particular animal, or the income that someone will earn over a period of time.  Or, I could dedicate a person—either myself or a member of my household.

If I dedicate an animal, I am obligated to bring that specific animal to the priest.  No substitutions are permitted.  So if I offer a person, must that person be sacrificed, or sent to work in the Temple for the rest of his or her life?  How do I dedicate a person to God?  

The Torah establishes that to fulfill a vow for a human being, I must pay that person’s value, in shekels, to the Temple treasury.

The exact value is determined by the priest, and is based on the ability of the vower to pay.  But there is a minimum and a maximum.  The minimum, according to the Mishnah, is 1 shekel of silver.  That is about $9 in today’s money, at current silver rates.

The Torah lists the maximum amounts, based on age and gender.  Adult males between twenty and sixty are worth 50 shekels of silver.  Females are worth 30.  And so on for children, babies and elders.

The only factor that can be used is personal wealth.  The Mishnah specifically states that the maximum assessment of 50 selas (the replacement for the shekel) would be identical for the finest looking and the ugliest person in Israel.  (Arachin 3:1)

This formula is not so dissimilar to the formula that Ken Feinberg used.  Values based on wealth, with minimum and maximum caps.

What is a life worth?

Since none of our riches will come with us, what can serve as the true measure of a person’s value?  

The High Holidays bring the question of our life’s value to the forefront of our consciousness.  It is nowhere better expressed than in the prayer Unetaneh Tokef in our mahzor.

This prayer, which is really an allegory, takes place in a courtroom.  God is never mentioned directly by name, but presides as Judge, Prosecutor, Expert, and Witness.  Each of us is the plaintiff, with our actions serving as evidence and the fate of our lives hanging in the balance.  Every deed, public and private, remembered and forgotten, is entered into the record.

The shofar sounds, and the allegory shifts.  Now we are sheep passing before the Shepherd, one by one.  The Shepherd examines each one of us, counting and inspecting, and determining our fate for the year ahead.

Who will live, who will die.  Who by fire, who by water.  Who will be impoverished.  Who will be made rich.  Who will be brought low, and who will be raised up.

The results are not shared with us.  But that is not all.  Read the prayer closely.  There is no causal relationship between the verdict and the sentence.  We emerge from the courtroom in suspense, with our destinies hanging.

Unetaneh Tokef captures the fragility of our existence.  There is no appeal for the Judge to change the verdict, nor for the Shepherd to alter the decree.  The imperfect world we live in does not work that way.  Despite the illusion of control, we know that so much of our lives are determined by forces outside of our control.

In the year ahead, it is certain that each one of us will experience disappointment and loss, joy and success.  At some point, may it be many years from now, each of us can be certain that we will face the end of our own life.

While terrifying, this allegory invigorates.  It tells us that every action, in every moment, matters.  Every deed in the Book of Remembrance is a record of our impact on the universe.  

So what is a life worth?  From one perspective, almost nothing.  One of the prayers after Unetaneh Tokef compares a human being to: a broken shard, withering grass, a shriveled flower, a passing shadow, a fading cloud, a fleeting breeze, scattered dust, and a dream that flies away.  In the vastness of the universe, we are almost nothing.

But each of us is also an olam katan, a microcosm of that same universe, with a spark of divinity hidden inside our hearts.

The knowledge that there will be a reckoning makes life matter.

The value of the lives of the 9/11 victims could not be measured by any dollar amount.  It is measured by the deeds they performed in the time they were allotted; the love they shared; the people they helped; the mistakes they made; the husbands, wives, children, brothers, sisters, parents and friends they left behind; the communities they enriched; the traditions they passed down; the beauty they paused to acknowledge; and the growth and learning they experienced each day that they were blessed to be alive.  The lives of those who died rescuing others are valued by those whom they saved.

The same is true for all of us.  Unfortunately, that is a lesson that we too often learn at the end.

What is life worth?  It is worth what we decide to make it worth.

Rabbi Harold Kushner once told the story of a man who, at the end of a full life, dies and suddenly finds himself standing at the end of a long line that leads to two doors — and there is an usher. 

“Move along,” says the usher.  “Keep the line moving.  Choose a door and walk through.”

Looking ahead, the man sees, at the very end, one door marked “Heaven” and the other marked “Hell.”

Gradually, the man proceeds up the line.  He observes that most people, without hesitation, walk confidently to the door marked Heaven, open it, and enter.  For every person whose turn arrives, someone new joins the back of the line.

Eventually, the man finds himself up front.  This is his chance to ask the question that has been burning inside.  “Wait a minute.  Where’s the Last Judgment?  Where am I told if I was a good person or a bad person?  Where are all my deeds weighed and measured?”

The usher looks at him and says, “You know, I don’t know where that story ever got started.  We don’t do that here.  We’ve never done that here.  We don’t have the staff to do that here.  I mean, look, you’ve got ten thousand people showing up every minute.  I’m supposed to sit here with everyone and go over his whole life?  We’d never get anywhere.  Now move along.  You’re holding up the line. Choose a door and walk through.”

“You mean I really have to choose?”

“Yes.  Now pick one already.”

Heaven.  What would that mean?  All would be wiped away — the acts of cowardice, the mistakes and regrets.  But also the agonized moral choices, the moments of courage, the times he chose the more difficult path.  

Hell.  That would bring judgment and accusation.  It would mean risking punishment.  Can he face that?  Will his merits outweigh his misdeeds?

“Come on.  We don’t have all day,” complains the usher, tapping his foot.

Taking a deep breath, the man says to himself, “I want my life to have mattered,” and walks through the door marked “Hell,” ready to be judged.

In Defense of Strong Walls (with Big, Fat Doors in Them) – Rosh Hashanah 5779

In Jerusalem, a CNN journalist hears about a very old Jewish man who has been going to the Kotel, the Western Wall, to pray twice a day, every day, for a long, long time. So she goes to check it out. She arrives at the Western Wall and there he is!

She watches him pray and after about 45 minutes, when he turns to leave, she approaches him for an interview.

“I’m Rebecca Smith from CNN. Sir, how long have you been coming to the Wall and praying?”

“For about 60 years.”

“60 years! That’s amazing! What do you pray for?”

“I pray for peace between the Christians, Jews and the Muslims.  I pray for all the hatred to stop and I pray for all our children to grow up in safety and friendship.”

“How do you feel after doing this for 60 years?”

“Like I’m talking to a wall.”

What is the purpose of a wall?  It depends from which side you are asking the question.

A wall could be meant to keep those on the other side of it out.  Or, it might be to keep those on this side of it in.  Most walls, intentionally or not, accomplish both.

Putting up a wall invariably designates those on the opposite side as “Other.”  We humans have shown, time and again throughout our history, that “other” translates, in some fashion, to “inferior.”

The wall on a border between countries prevents those who are not citizens, or those without permission, to enter.  That is not the wall that I am going to talk about.  Sorry.

The wall around a prison keeps those whom society has decided to punish for their crimes inside, both as vengeance for the crime committed and for the protection of society.

The walls of a building at one of our many high-tech campuses here in Silicon Valley keep proprietary secrets inside, and prevent would-be corporate thieves from overhearing conversations to which they should not be privy.

A firewall stops would-be hackers from infiltrating a computer network where they could steal data or wreak havoc.

One of the most famous walls in the world of course is the Kotel, the Western Wall.  Originally, it separated the busy marketplace streets of Jerusalem—the profane—from the holy precincts of the Temple—the sacred.  Today, it separates Jewish worshippers from Muslim worshippers.

We are not going to talk about any of these walls today.  We are going to address the walls around American Judaism.

But first, let’s look at a wall that was erected some time back. 

Five hundred years ago, there was a small Jewish community that lived on the mainland outside of Venice.  They were not permitted to live inside the city proper.  Merchants would occasionally enter during the day to conduct business, departing at night. 

For more than one hundred years, Jews had been required to wear a distinguishing mark: first a yellow badge, then a yellow hat, then a red hat.

After the expulsion of Sephardi Jews from Spain in 1492, Jews began fleeing East, pouring in to cities around the Mediterranean.  Political instability, along with wars between Italian principalities, resulted in more population movement.  One of the refugees’ destinations was Venice.

With burgeoning numbers of Jews flooding in, something needed to be done.  The Venetian Senate voted to cordon off an area inside the city, building walls around the site of the former iron foundry, called geto in Italian.  Jews were permitted to live inside these walls.

That is how, in 1516, the first ghetto came into existence.  

The Venetian Ghetto was an instrument of repression and bigotry.  It served as the model for the establishment of other ghettos throughout Europe up until and including the Holocaust.

But the Venetian Ghetto also brought Jews together, forcing them to cooperate and innovate in creative ways, and helping them to maintain social cohesion at an unstable time.  The walls were physically strong and imposing, but permeable.  

The community had to fund the building of the gates that locked them in every night at sunset and the salaries of the guards stationed at the entrances 24 hours a day .

There was overcrowding and poverty.  Jews were forced to pay higher rents compared to Christians outside the ghetto.

And yet, Jewish life flourished.  By creating the ghetto, the Venetian Senate granted legitimacy to the Jews.  Not only could they legally live in the city, they enjoyed protection.

It was a diverse Jewish community.  Separate synagogues were built by the German Ashkenazi, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, and Levantine Sephardic communities.

Some Venetian Jews enrolled at the nearby University of Padua, which issued hundreds of degrees to Jews from all over Europe.  That is where many Jewish physicians received their training.  This placed them in important positions to serve as informal ambassadors between the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds.

Daniel Bomberg, a Christian, moved his printing press into the Ghetto, helping make Venice the most important early publishing center for Jewish books.  There were cultural exchanges between Jewish artists and thinkers and their Christian counterparts outside the walls, contributing to literature, music, and even religious studies.

It was not too long ago when American society erected figurative ghettos to keep Jews away.  There were walls that literally kept us out of country clubs and prevented us from moving in to certain neighborhoods.  Antisemitism prevented or limited Jews from enrolling in universities and joining certain professions.

Thankfully, those days are over.  In the last four or five decades, have any of us been held back in any way in this country?  In my life, there has not been a single thing that was denied to me because I am Jewish.

Today’s situation, in fact, is quite the opposite.

A recent study looked at attitudes towards different religions in America.  It found that overall, Jews are perceived more warmly than any other religious group in the country.

We have made it, my friends.

By and large, the non-Jewish world in America does not see us as other.  We are no longer behind a wall of “their” making.

But remember, walls don’t just keep the undesirables out.  They also keep us in, which means that we now face a different kind of danger.  The question that every Jew in America must ask is existential: do I put up a wall around my Jewish identity, and if so, what kind?

There are those who choose to put up higher and higher walls as protection against an evil and corrupting society.  They see themselves as the protectors of Torah-true Judaism and predict that all of the rest of us will cease to exist within a couple of generations.  

On the other side are those who would erase all differences between Jews and non-Jews.  Since the essence of Judaism is about being a good person, I can just be a humanist.  What do I need Judaism for?

This past May, the novelist Michael Chabon, whose books I have enjoyed, ignited controversy when he delivered the keynote address at Hebrew Union College’s graduation ceremony.

He told his audience of newly minted Rabbis, Cantors, Teachers and Community Professionals to “knock down the walls.  Abolish the checkpoints.”  He referred, emblematically, to the walls separating Israelis from Palestinians.  But those were not the only walls.

He deprecatingly described marriage between Jews as “a ghetto of two,” declaring:

I abhor homogeneity and insularity, exclusion and segregation, the redlining of neighborhoods, the erection of border walls and separation barriers. I am for mongrels and hybrids and creoles, for syncretism and confluence…

Looking at Judaism, Chabon saw only exclusivity and separateness, subjugation of women, and mistreatment of Palestinians.

Chabon told that cohort of newly minted Jewish professionals that he no longer attends synagogue on the High Holidays, and that the Passover haggadah has ceased to have any meaning for him.

Chabon ridiculed anything that makes Judaism distinctly Jewish.  Considering the values that he hopes his own children find in a mate, he rejected any wish that they find Jewish partners, declaring:

I want them to marry into the tribe that prizes learning, inquiry, skepticism, openness to new ideas. I want my children to marry into the tribe that enshrines equality before the law, and freedom of conscience, and human rights.

It is hard to argue with those values.  I certainly want those qualities in my future children-in-law.  But then he continued:

I want them to marry into the tribe that sees nations and borders as antiquated canards and ethnicity as a construct.

Nations, borders, and ethnicity may be human constructs, but we are, after all, humans. 

A construct exists because lots of people agree that it exists.  As a writer by trade, Michael Chabon knows this well.  Here are a few constructs that we employ on a daily basis: money, traffic lights, marriage, language, a high school diploma.  And yes, nations, borders, and ethnicity are also constructs.  So too is religion.  Our celebration of today being the 5,779th anniversary of the world’s creation is a construct—an incredibly meaningful one.

Constructs are what enable us to relate to the world around us.

Humanity is not ready for Chabon’s universalism.  In fact, it appears to be moving in the opposite direction.  Multicultural societies are fragmenting into traditional ethnic and religious subgroups.  We see this with the rise of nationalist parties in Europe, and the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities such as the Rohingya in Burma.

A 2014 Pew study on religion in America found that the gaps are expanding here as well.  The overall percentage of Americans who identify as religious has decreased, along with the number of people who do not have any religion.  This is especially true among millennials.  At the same time, those who identify themselves as religious are becoming more observant. 

We see it in the American Jewish community, where we increasingly polarize into one side that is religious, conservative, Republican, Zionist, and pro-Likud and another side that is increasingly secular, progressive, Democrat, and either ambivalent about Israel or even anti-Zionist.

It is becoming harder and harder to occupy the middle.

Michael Chabon’s vision of a universal global society in which the walls come down, and everyone is equal and shares the same values of freedom is wonderful.  It is a Jewish vision.  It is also a messianic vision.

Judaism is perhaps unique among religions by claiming that the path to the universal lies in the particular.

We do not expect the rest of the world to conform to Jewish beliefs and practices.  We do not promise redemption only to those who embrace our faith.  Nor do we expect other people to tear down their walls and throw out their distinct beliefs and practices.  The Torah recognizes that there are multiple paths to God.  Multiple formulations—constructs, if you will—of what it means to live a good life.

In fact, this idea finds its greatest expression on Rosh Hashanah, when we celebrate the creation of the world.

One of the most ancient prayers in Judaism, dating back to the Second Temple, is Aleinu.  

Aleinu was composed at a time when Judaism was the only monotheistic religion around.  It expresses a particularistic vision of the relationship between the Jewish people and God.

While we now recite it at the end of every service throughout the year, it was originally recited only once—on Rosh Hashanah.  It appears in our Mahzor during the Musaf service. 

Aleinu l’shabeach la’adon hakol.  It is for us[, the Jewish people,] to praise the Master of everything.  To assign greatness to the One who formed Creation.  

She-lo asanu k’goyei ha’aratzot.  Who did not make us like the peoples of other lands…

We Jews have a particular obligation to serve God.  It is an obligation that we do not share with the other nations of the earth.  We, the Jewish people, have a unique role and fate in the world.

Va’anachnu kor’im, umishtachavim umodim.  And so we bend our knees, and bow and give thanks before the King of Kings of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed is He.  

And it continues in this vein.  Then, in the second paragraph, the focus shifts.

Al ken n’kaveh l’kha.  Therefore, we put our hope in You…

L’takein olam b’malkhut Shaddai.  To fix the world under the Kingdom of Shaddai.    

We imagine a future world in which all people acknowledge the one God.  Notably, this Messianic vision does not expect all the nations of the earth to convert, nor does it ask them to embrace the covenant of Israel.  It is (merely) a vision in which wickedness is banished and humanity is unified under God’s Kingdom.

There is a story being told here in two acts.  In the first act, earth is broken and disunited.  Israel serves God in a way that is unique to it among the nations of the earth.  In the second act, each of the peoples of the earth turn to God, accepting that there is a single, unitary power who created the universe.  It is an idyllic time in which evil is banished and humanity is united.  But the nations are still distinct from one another.

This is a Jewish story.  It is our way of understanding our role in the world as a particular people.  It explains why we have unique practices, mitzvot that only apply to us, and customs that might seem strange to an outsider, but that are distinctly ours.

We can and should tell the ancient stories of Jewish peoplehood unabashedly, and with pride.  They are our stories.  They root us in time, and connect us to other Jews who, for the last three thousand years, have turned to the same stories and rituals for meaning.

The Jewish Passover seder is not about the liberation of all enslaved peoples everywhere.  When I tell the story of the Exodus of the Israelites, it is my story.  By internalizing that story, I am better able to empathize with another person’s story of slavery and freedom.  

I can be proud that the Jewish people, throughout their worldwide dispersal over two thousand years, continued to long for and pray for a return to the Holy Land.  I can hold my head up high when I look at the State of Israel’s incredible accomplishments over the past seventy years.  

We have the right to build a strong wall around Judaism.

The Jewish biochemist and philosopher, Henri Atlan (

Henri Atlan (“Chosen People” in Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought), asks how it is possible for us to manage relations with other people who hold on to such different beliefs with just as much passion and conviction as we do.  He answers that belief in a unique God can be quite helpful, as long as my belief does not negate your right to believe something different.

Instead of worrying about what other groups believe, or whether they are worshipping the same God as we are, it would be better to focus on what each group’s unique God calls upon it to do.

Where would so many of our people be if not for the courageous actions of Righteous Gentiles during the Holocaust, many of whom were inspired by their own particular religious teachings?

We can “put off the unification of the gods until a messianic era that has yet to arrive.”  Atlan concludes by quoting the prophet Zecharia, from the end of the second paragraph of Aleinu:

Bayom hahu yihyeh Adonai echad ushmo echad.  In that day, Adonai shall be one and the name of God, one.

For now, we should be putting up walls within which Judaism can thrive and flourish.  And we should be opening doors so that we can make our contribution to humanity, and welcome inside all who would join us. 

Congregation Sinai’s mission is “to connect people to Judaism, each other, Israel, and the world.”

We should never water down the Jewish content of what we do.  Quite the opposite, we should be strengthening it, doing everything we can to offer more opportunities for learning, engagement with Jewish practice, and performance of mitzvot.

It is our particular Jewish way of connecting with each other, with Jews around the world, and with our ancestors.  “Jewish” is the language by which we wrestle with questions of faith, identity, and history.  It is the unique way in which we struggle to understand suffering, and it offers beautiful traditions for comforting each other.

To maintain our identity, we need strong walls.  We need to be able to say: We are Jewish.  This is what we do.  This is what we believe.

Just one generation ago, marrying outside of the faith was looked down upon.  The Conservative movement was seen as being not especially welcoming to intermarried families.  In contrast, Reform synagogues opened their doors.

Today, things are changing quickly.  The big discussion in the Conservative movement is how to do a better job of welcoming intermarried families.

I am really proud of our congregation.  We strive to be friendly and non-judgmental.  Anyone looking to engage in Jewish life is welcomed, whatever their background.

It is especially challenging to maintain a Jewish home when one parent is not Jewish, and yet there are numerous families who have committed to exactly that, raising Jewish children and being part our community.

We have non-Jewish members who take it upon themselves to learn more, without necessarily intending to convert.  Why?  To better support a Jewish spouse or child, as well as to grow and derive personal meaning.  You have given us quite a gift.  Todah Rabah.  Thank you.

Look around this room.  There are Jews here who personally immigrated from Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina, France, Belgium, England, Romania, Egypt, South Africa, Israel, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, India, Poland, Ukraine, Moldova, Russia, China, Japan, Vietnam, Australia, and I am sure that I am missing some.  Traditions and practices vary widely among Jews from different parts of the world, and yet there is a profound sense that we are all brothers and sisters.

Many in this room are Jews by choice, without a direct family history of being Jewish, but who are the direct spiritual descendants of Abraham and Sarah.  Some are considering becoming Jewish, and are actively learning about practice and community.  There are those here who are not Jewish, but who are committed to supporting Jewish homes.

Every one of us fits inside these walls.

This year, let us commit to invigorating our unique, Jewish way of life—in our homes and in our synagogue.  Our tradition has something wonderful to offer us personally, and we, the Jewish people, have something wonderful to offer the world.

The path to universalism lies through particularism.

We need to have walls that are strong and solid enough to define and uphold our practices and values.  And we need to make sure that there are big fat doors in them that are open for all who wish to come and share.

The Ship of Theseus – Rosh Hashanah 5779

You may recall the stories of the ancient Greek hero, Thesesus.  He is the legendary founder of Athens.  Among his many adventures, Theseus’ most famous exploit is his defeat of the Minotaur, the half-man, half-bull beast that dwelled in the labyrinth created by Daedalus on the Isle of Crete.  

He returned home with the rescued youth of Athens on a ship with thirty oars.  The people of Athens, to commemorate Theseus’ great victory, preserved the ship in the Athenian harbor to serve as a memorial.

According to the ancient Greek and Roman historian, Plutarch, the ship was maintained for several centuries.  As we all know, things age, especially ships kept in the salty water, and humid air of the Mediterranean.  Over times, the wooden planks of Theseus’ ship began to rot.  They were replaced, as needed.  This went on for years, then decades, and then centuries.

Eventually, Plutarch explains, the ship gave rise to a question posed by the philosophers: If every single plank, oar, rudder, and piece of rigging from Theseus’ original ship has been replaced, can it still be considered to be Theseus’ ship?

This question came to be known as the Ship of Theseus paradox.

Let’s extend the paradox to rock and roll.

Quiet Riot is a heavy metal band from my childhood.  I remember listening to their 1983 hit, Bang Your Head, on the school bus with my friend Brian when I was in second grade.  We would bank our heads against the padded seat in front of us whenever they got to the chorus.

When Quiet Riot plays Bang Your Head today, they sound just like I remembered them, even though the only band member that was with them in 1983 is the drummer, and even he was not part of the founding lineup.  Are they still Quiet Riot?

It is a deep philosophical quandary.

Let’s shift the question to the human body.  We each are made up of about ten trillion cells.  It is often claimed that it takes seven years for every cell in the human body to regenerate itself.

It turns out, that is not quite true.  Our cells die and are regenerated at different rates.  The cells of the stomach lining, for example, are replaced every couple of weeks.  The same is true of our skin.  The liver takes about two years.  Bones take about ten years to regenerate.  Cardiomyocytes, in the heart, regenerate at about 1% per year, but the rate slows as we age.  A seventy five year old person would still have more than half of the heart cells that he had at birth.  For some parts of our body -Tooth enamel, the cells on the inner lens of the eye, and the neurons of the cerebral cortex–the cells we are born with have to last our entire lives.

On average, though, we could say that we are approximately eleven to fifteen years old.

I am in my 40’s.  Does that mean I am on my third life, or does who I am transcend the physical parts of which I am comprised? 

These are really questions about the nature of identity.  Am I the collected sum my parts?  If so, perhaps the gradual replacement of those parts transforms me into a new person.  Or maybe, since the same DNA directs the regeneration of each of my cells, I remain the same person.  My DNA is the genetic algorithm that defines me.

Or, perhaps identity has nothing to do with the physical body.  Perhaps identity is rooted in consciousness, summarized succinctly by Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum – “I think, therefore I am.”

Although still in the realm of science fiction, we could imagine the future possibility that a person’s consciousness could be uploaded into a computer, or into an artificial body.  Would this be the same person?

Might consciousness have something to do with the soul?

Maybe each moment in a person’s life is a distinct slice of existence, a solitary point in space-time, with no two slices being the same.  We are constantly changing and reforming into new entities.

Or, we could go four-dimensional, and imagine a series of slices stacked together, forming a river through time in which each individual slice is distinct from a three dimensional perspective, but identical from a four-dimensional perspective.

It is enough to make you want to “bang your head.”

Our Jewish tradition asks a similar question.  Am I the same person, year after year, throughout my life?  The answer: it is up to me.

The great medieval Rabbi, physician, philosopher, and community leader, Maimonides, suggests a number of practices that those who are truly serious about teshuvah, repentance, might undertake.  Those practices include: crying out loud to God with real tears, going out of one’s way to avoid situations in one has earlier sinned, and even possibly going so far as to pick up and move to a new city.  Finally, Maimonides suggests that a would-be-penitent might change his or her name, as if to say, “I am a different person.  I am no longer the one who perpetrated those misdeeds.” (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah, 2:4)

This is kind of the opposite of the Ship of Theseus.  The person’s physical body has remained exactly the same, but the identity is new.

These practices that Maimonides mentions are really just superficial changes.  Real teshuvah, he explains in detail, involves a much deeper transformation.

In 1944, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote a book called Halakhic Man.  In it, he connects a human being’s capacity to create to teshuvah.  He says that repentance is itself an act of self-creation.

The severing of one’s psychic identity with one’s previous ‘I,’ and the creation of a new ‘I,’ possessor of a new consciousness, a new heart and spirit, different desires, longings, goals—this is the meaning of that repentance compounded of regret over the past and resolve over the future. (110)

In short, a person who achieves teshuvah creates herself as a new individual.

Imagine a sinner.  In other words, every one of us.  That person is characterized by the term rasha – wicked.  What does it take for that person to no longer be a rasha?  Two things: regret and resolve.  The first step, regret, is about the past.  It is when I recognize and feel shame about something I have done.  

The action itself cannot be erased.  The question is: what does the action mean in the story of my life?

If I do not change, I will continue on my course as the same person, as the same rasha.  My past behaviors, personality traits, and desires will continue to direct me.  It is as if I have lost my free will.  I will continue to sin, and my sins will accumulate and become harder and harder to shed.  Rav Soloveitchik describes this person “as the random example of the biological species.”  (127)

The second step in teshuvah is resolve.  Resolve is about the future.  It is “an absolute decision of the will and intellect together” to “terminate [a person’s] past identity and assume a new identity for the future.”  (112)

With resolve, something miraculous occurs.  The future changes the past.  That sin, which prompted such feelings of regret, no longer continues, through inertia, to its inevitable conclusion.  I am no longer trapped in destructive patterns of behavior.  “Such a man is no longer a prisoner of time but is his own master.”  (127)  He creates a new universe.

My regret for the sin I have committed has become the catalyst for self-transformation.  The ability to change meaning of the sin in my past through teshuvah, says Rav Soloveitchik, is the essence of human free will.

Now, when I tell my story, I look to that low point as my wake-up call to change my ways.  My sin becomes a merit.  This is what the Talmud means when it teaches: “Great is repentance, for it causes deliberate sins to be accounted to [a person] as meritorious deeds.”  (BT Yoma 86b)

Think about this from a parent’s perspective.  We have to allow our children to make mistakes.  We have to recognize their need to test limits, even if we want to throw them out the window.  It is an essential part of their development.  We even need to allow them to behave in ways that can be harmful to other people.  

We also have to make sure that our kids face the consequences of their actions.  That is the only way for them to mature into resilient human beings with a solid ethical foundation.  If we shield our children from errors, they will grow into weak adults, unable to take charge of their destiny.

It is only by making mistakes that we have the opportunity to grow.  The Talmud teaches “in the place where repentant sinners stand, the wholly righteous cannot stand.”  (BT Berakhot 34b)

The midrash (Genesis Rabbah 1:4) teaches that, even before the creation of the physical world, God created teshuvah.  It is built-in to human identity.  Rav Soloveitchik adds that teshuvah is the key to a human’s ability to create as a partner with God.

A person is creative; he was endowed with the power to create at his very inception.  When he finds himself in a situation of sin, he takes advantage of his creative capacity, returns to God, and becomes a creator and self-fashioner.  Man, through repentance, creates himself, his own “I.”  (113)

This sounds great.  But is it true?  Can we really stop the inertia of destructive behavior and transform ourselves? ?

If I look at my resolutions from previous High Holidays, can I honestly say that I have succeeded?  Am I a new person from the person I was one year ago, five years ago?  Have I created a new “I?”

Every night, the Hassidic Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev would examine his heart.  He would review the day, considering everything he had done, every interaction, every moment.  As he was only human, he would inevitably discover a flaw of some sort.  Then he would announce out loud: “Levi Yitzchak will not do this again!”

Then he would pause and reflect: “Levi Yitzchak said exactly the same thing yesterday!”

To which he would add: “Yesterday Levi Yitzchak did not speak the truth, but he does speak the truth today.”  (Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, Vol. I, p. 218)

This sounds a little more realistic.

The first instance of teshuvah in the Torah occurs between brothers.  Joseph is the Viceroy of Egypt, tasked with guiding the nation through seven years of famine.  He is in disguise when his brothers come begging for food.

To test them, Joseph accuses his brothers of being spies and throws them in jail for three days.  Then he keeps Simeon as a hostage, and sends the others back to their father in the Land of Canaan.  “Do not return,” he says, “unless you bring your youngest brother, Benjamin, with you!”

When they eventually come back for more food, Benjamin in tow, Joseph continues the test.  He plants a silver goblet in Benjamin’s sack of grain and has them arrested.  “Return to your father in peace,” he orders, “but Benjamin must remain here in Egypt as my prisoner!”

Joseph has reproduced the exact circumstances from twenty years earlier when they returned home to their father without their brother.

You will recall that it was Judah who devised the plan to sell Joseph into slavery.  Now, it is again Judah who steps forward.  “Take me as your prisoner and slave, and let Benjamin return to our father.  For I cannot bear to return to him without the boy.”

Maimonides defines teshuvah gemurah, complete repentance, in the following way:  When a person is found in the same circumstances, able to commit the same crime, and yet does not–that is complete repentance.

Judah has become a new man.  He, along with the other brothers, are not the same people that they were twenty years earlier.  Perhaps that is why Joseph, after revealing himself, says “it was not you who sent me here, but God.”  (Genesis 45:8)

Regret leads the brothers to resolve to change.  They rewrite the meaning of their earlier mistreatment of Joseph in their own narratives.  They are not the same siblings who banished their brother.  Since these are different men standing before him, Joseph cannot hold them accountable.  He forgives them. 

The Ship of Theseus paradox is not an analog for a human being.  The ship was placed in the Athenian Harbor to remind future generations of what Theseus once did.  Its meaning and memory is static.  Regardless of how much a philosopher bangs his head against the problem, those tasked with maintaining the ship do not want it to change.

We are the opposite.  Our bodies may remain basically the same from one moment to the next, but our purpose, as human beings fashioned in God’s image, is to be dynamic.

Rosh Hashanah celebrates Creation.  While most of our liturgy focuses on God’s Creation of the World, there is another aspect of Creation which is at least as important.  We often describe human beings as partners with God in Creation.

This rolls off the tongue easily, and sounds inspiring.  But what does it really mean for a human being to create—to produce something out of nothing—to change the nature of reality?

That is what teshuvah can be.  An opportunity not only to create a new “I,” but to create a new world.  That is the aspect of  being human that is God-like.  It is the possibility to create.  But to be Creators, we must look at what we have done with open eyes and brutal honesty.

I note those moments when I could have been better.

I discern the patterns of repeated mistakes.

I feel regret.

Am I prepared to change?

Can I resolve to become a new “I”?

Am I ready to create a new world?

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

David P. Goldman, “The Jewish Idea of Freedom” in Ḥakirah 20, 2015 – (http://www.hakirah.org/Vol20Goldman.pdf)

Ilana Kurshan, If All the Seas Were Ink

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Birth of Forgiveness (Vayigash 5775) – (http://rabbisacks.org/birth-forgiveness-vayigash-5775/#_ftnref2)

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man

Neal Stephenson, Anathem

Don’t Take Time and Space for Granted – Ki Tavo 5778

The universe is inconceivably big.  It has a diameter of 91 billion light years.  In miles, that is approximately 54, followed by 22 zeros.  The universe is comprised of between 100 and 200 billion galaxies.  Our Milky Way Galaxy has about 100 billion stars.  The closest star to the earth is a little bit more than four light years away.

Planet Earth has a number of rare features that have made the development of life possible.  Moving tectonic plates enable the formation and maintenance of an atmosphere.  The climate is not too hot and not too cold.  The moon is unusually large, blocking just enough solar radiation to allow genetic mutation to occur at a reasonable pace.  Earth’s orbit around the sun is pretty close to circular.  The sun itself is larger than most stars, and smaller than others.  In so many ways, the earth is “just right.”

The earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago.  Life came into existence around 4 billion years ago.  More than 99% of all species that ever lived on Earth are now extinct.  Homo Sapiens emerged about 300,000 years ago.  Our ancestors began to develop modern ways of thinking, reflected by the use of complex tools, cave painting, big game hunting, and ritual burial.

3,800 years ago, Abraham heard the voice of God blessing him with the promise of land and offspring.  3,300 years ago, Moses led our people out of slavery in Egypt to the land of Israel.  Solomon built the Temple.  It was destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again over the next thousand years, sending our ancestors into exile.  That exile ended in 1948, and here we are…

…residing in the most prosperous country in the history of the planet, and for all we know, the universe.  Here in Silicon Valley, we have a perfect climate.  We have air conditioning.  In about 45 minutes, we will sit down to have lunch together, and there will probably be enough food for us to go back for seconds and thirds.

How incredibly unlikely it is that each one of us is here right now.

Is there an appropriate response to the unfathomably minute possibility of my existence?

If such a response exists, I am not sure what it is.

We humans have a built-in tendency to take our lives for granted.  This is one of Moses’ concerns as he prepares to make his final goodbyes to the Israelites, whom he has led for the previous forty years.  Over the course of Deuteronomy, he has been delivering his final series of instructions to those who will be entering the Promised Land without him.

In this morning’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, Moses lays out a few ritual ceremonies that the Israelites will have to observe.

The first of those ceremonies will not be performed by the generation that stands before him.  True, they will enter the land, but it will take several more generations until their descendants complete its conquest, and even longer before they build the Temple.

That is the time to which Moses refers.  Israelite farmers will plant their seeds and harvest their crops.  When the first fruits of those crops come in, the farmer will place it in a basket and bring it to the Temple in Jerusalem, identified by Moses as “the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name.”  The farmer will present the fruit to the priest on duty and make a declaration:

I acknowledge this day before the Lord your God that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to assign us.”  (Deut. 26:3)

The priest will take the basket from him, and the farmer will continue:

My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us . . . and the LORD heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The LORD freed us from Egypt . . . He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me.  (Deut. 26: 5–10)

This speech integrates themes of agriculture with history.  This is one of the great theological innovations of the Torah: God is both the Creator of the natural world, as well as the God of history.

We see this throughout the Torah, as the various agricultural holidays are infused with historical significance.  Passover, the Spring festival to celebrate the beginning of the agricultural season, is also the holiday celebrating freedom from slavery.  Succot, the Fall harvest festival, also commemorates the booths that our ancestors dwelt in while they were in the wilderness.

This is what Moses wants to ensure that future Israelites will remember.  He wants future Israelites to know:  My ancestors were once slaves in Egypt.  God brought them out, enabling me to be born in freedom.  I am here now because of God’s promise to my ancestors.  Without them, I would not be in this land, this land that is so prosperous that it flows with milk and honey. 

Notice that the farmer never makes any reference to all of his hard work: the early mornings planting and weeding; the backbreaking labor; the difficult journey from his home to the Temple.  That is not the point.  The point is for him to acknowledge everything that has happened to bring him to this blessed moment.  

Moses knows that future Israelites will have a tendency to take two things for granted.  One, that he lives in a fortuitous time period.  Two, that he lives in a fertile place.

In other words, Moses worries that the farmer will take time and space for granted.

It is not just ancient Israelite farmers who tended to take their existence in time and space for granted.  We all do.  When we are successful, we tend to overweight the impact of our own hard work and underweight the countless factors outside of our control that made our success possible.

The purpose of much of Jewish ritual is to alert us to the many blessings that we enjoy.  In our daily prayers, we acknowledge God as the Creator of the universe, the heavenly bodies, and the daily rising and setting of the sun and moon.  

We acknowledge the incredible way in which the human body is put together.  We give thanks for knowledge and understanding.  We praise God for moments of our ancestors’ redemption, without which we would not be alive.

Before eating a piece of bread, we recite a blessing indicating that it is God who “brings forth bread from the earth.”  Even though this is not literally where bread comes from, we remind ourselves of the many natural miracles that must occur so that human beings can produce food that is delicious and nutritious.  

People who express gratitude are happier, and experience life as more meaningful.  I suspect, as well, that those who are conscious of how undeservedly blessed they are tend to behave towards others with more generosity and compassion.

So, is there an appropriate response to the unfathomably minute possibility of our existence?  Let’s start with simply trying to acknowledge it:

The universe has conspired to bring me to this moment in time and space.  And for that I am grateful.