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.

Bringing Home With Us (on the occasion of my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah) – Lekh Lekha 5777

A Rabbi was once giving a lecture in which he claimed that from it’s earliest days, Judaism has always promoted the parent-child relationship.  Suddenly, a heckler stood up from within the audience, and challenged his assertion.

“Isn’t it true that God’s first commandment to Abraham was to leave his father’s home?”

“It is true,” the Rabbi responded, “but he was seventy-five at the time.  He was entitled.”

I have had the privilege of officiating as Rabbi at many Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations over the past decade.  But there is a special joy to being here as my own child becomes Bat Mitzvah.

I also try to remind myself that being the child of a Rabbi can be tough.  There is even a special nickname just for kids of clergy: PK’s – “Preacher’s Kids.”

There are the pressures of living in the fishbowl.  The boundaries between private life and public life are often blurred for Rabbis’ families.

PK’s see their parents living public lives in the same community in which they themselves are raised.  Parents sometimes place expectations on their PK kids to live up to a higher standard because the family is living in the public eye.

And, communities sometimes hold PK’s to higher standards, expecting them to have the same knowledge, religious commitment, or leadership qualities of their parents.

For the child of Rabbi, this pressure is nowhere more on display than at a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  We are sure aware of it as parents, as we celebrate a personal simchah within the community that we serve.  Noa, I am sure that you feel it as our daughter.

Dana and I are grateful to the Sinai community for respecting boundaries and giving our children the freedom to be regular kids, almost all the time.

The truth is, these issues are not unique to PK’s.  All of us struggle in one way or another with the legacies left to us by our parents.  We all must find a way to differentiate ourselves, to break free, to step out of our parents’ shadows.

Some of us, as we get older, choose to emulate the qualities of the homes in which we were raised.  Others go the opposite direction, rejecting the examples of those who brought us into the world and guided us in our early years.

For all of us, though, there is a tension between leaving the home of our childhood vs. bringing the home of our childhood with us.

This morning’s Torah portion, parashat Lekh L’kha sends something of a mixed message with regard to continuing our parents’ legacies.  It begins:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה֙’ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶךָּ:

The Lord said to Avram: Go forth from your land and your birthplace and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  (Gen. 12:1)

God could have told Abraham simply, “Pack your bags and go.”  Instead, God emphasizes the departure in triplicate.

Nachmanides, the 13th century Spanish commentator, explains this threefold instruction:

It is difficult for a person to leave the land in which he, along with all of his loved ones and companions, has lived; and even more so when it is the place in which he was born; and even more so when his father’s entire household is there.  Therefore, it was necessary to tell him to leave everything – out of his love for the Holy One, blessed be He.

What a tremendous request this is from God.  Abraham is being asked to make a clean and total break from his past.  And this is really something.  Abraham will never go back.  He will never see any of his family members again.

It is ironic, because one of the central components of God’s covenant with Abraham is about family.  “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them…  So shall your offspring be.”  (Gen. 15:5)  God promises the land of Israel to these yet-to-be-seen descendants of Abraham.

Towards the end of the parashah, God instructs Abraham to circumcise himself and his household, explaining that it will be a sign of the everlasting covenant between God and Abraham’s children.

In next week’s parashah, as God is deciding to consult with Abraham over the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, God reveals another aspect of Abraham’s legacy.  “I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right…”  (Gen. 18:19)

Ever since, the Jewish people have treasured the transmission of values from one generation to the next.  So many aspects of Jewish law and custom emphasize this.

How do we transmit our values?  Of course, we place great focus on learning – Talmud Torah – and not just for an elite class of scholars.  Universal education for all – that is the Jewish way.

But we also recognize that, as a medium for transmitting values, formal education alone is insufficient.  Jewish values must be lived.  All of our holiday celebrations take place in the home.  The most obvious of these, of course, is Passover, with its encouraging of children to engage with their elders through questions.  But our other holidays also involve multiple generations celebrating together.  This is how values are transmitted – not by classroom learning, but by intergenerational living within a household and amongst a community.

It is profoundly ironic, therefore, that God asks Abraham to sever his relationship with previous generations, his father’s household, and his community.

This break is a necessary step for Abraham.  His particular household and community is thoroughly immersed in idolatry and immorality.  The Rabbis develop this idea in numerous Midrashim about Abraham’s youth.  In the most well-known of them, Abraham’s own father, Terach, is an idol merchant.

For Abraham to fulfill his destiny, he must first break free from his father’s shadow.

Other figures in the Book of Genesis struggle with this as well.  Midway through Parashat Lekh L’kha, tensions are rising between Abraham and his nephew Lot’s shepherds.  The time has come for Lot to leave home, to strike out on his own.  He needs to get out of Abraham’s shadow to live his own life.  Unfortunately, he does not choose well, settling in Sodom, which is such a depraved society that God annihilates it in next week’s parashah.

Later, Isaac has trouble breaking free from his father, Abraham’s, strong personality.  But Jacob, and in the subsequent generation, Joseph, leave their homes and families to spend significant portions of their lives on their own.

As a Diaspora people for thousands of years, we have developed the ability to bring home with us in our journeys.  It is this ability which has enabled the survival of our people.

In Abraham’s day, most people were born, lived their lives, and died within the same community.  Nowadays, it is common for children to move away.  This raises the stakes even higher for parents to instill a deep sense of home in their children.

Maybe it is too soon for me to be thinking these thoughts.  After all, Noa, you are only in seventh grade.  I don’t think you are quite ready to leave home yet.  Nevertheless, as you make this transition into adolescence, it has been on my mind.

As a father, I see it as my primary duty to raise children who will bring home with them wherever they go in life.

For me, this means children who are grounded, who know themselves, and who have humility about their limitations and their strengths.  They feel a deep sense of peoplehood, and a mature understanding and sincere commitment to Jewish practices and beliefs.  They are curious, and love to learn.  They feel connected to Israel and speak Hebrew, the language of the Jewish people.

They know the stories of their own family, and their connection to previous generations gives them a sense of rootedness in a rapidly-changing world.

They are resilient, able to be flexible and respond thoughtfully to unexpected challenges.  They recognize the importance of community, and they have people in their lives who care about them.  They are generous, and give freely of themselves to support others in their need.

While I would like to say that our children will also live near us, I must recognize that all of Dana and my family members have flown in from out of town to celebrate Noa’s becoming Bat Mitzvah.  That is the unfortunate reality of contemporary life.  God’s request – for Abraham to leave his land, his birthplace, and his father’s household – which was so radical in its day, is commonplace now.

My more realistic hope is that, when my children move out, they bring their “home” with them.

Noa, you are an inspiring young woman.  From a young age, you have demonstrated a level of self-awareness that has taken me until adulthood to achieve.

You spoke about your desire to develop more patience.  That is certainly an admirable quality to pursue, and one that will result in greater happiness.  But impatience is not all bad.  A healthy dose of channeled impatience compels us to change the status quo, right wrongs, solve problems, and make discoveries.  But, try to be more patient with your family.

Noa, you are a naturally curious, skeptical person.  You often express your doubt regarding religion and belief.  I applaud those questions, and I often share your doubts.  I encourage you to be as open-minded to hearing answers as you are willing to ask questions.

Throughout your life, you have embraced Jewish practices and traditions with enthusiasm and joy.  I have loved watching your challah baking, sukkah building, and Torah reading skills develop over the years.  As soon as you were old enough, you chose to join me on the early walk to synagogue most Shabbat mornings.  I have loved that weekly time together.

These are religious activities that connect you to your tradition and your past.  They will be tangible ways for you to bring your “home” with you as you go out into the world.

Noa, may your curiosity continue to inspire you to learn Torah, asking critical questions while embracing the ancient wisdom of those who have come before us.  May you continue to fulfill the mitzvot and customs of Judaism with joy and enthusiasm.  May you always remain deeply rooted in community, family, and home, wherever your journey takes you.  I love you.

Self Absorption – Rosh Hashanah 5777

The story of the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac, which we read every year on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, is so tantalizingly evocative, inspiring, and troubling.  It is a carefully written literary masterpiece.  Every year, we find new ways to read it.

“Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test.”

What kind of test is this?  Is it pass/fail?  Is it a test for which God does not know the answer, or a test meant to impart some lesson?

Maybe it is like the test of the emergency broadcast system.  “This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System.  Had the All-Powerful Supreme Ruler of the Universe actually wanted you to sacrifice your son, more information would have followed.  This is only a test.”

Or, perhaps it is a test for us – the readers.

Of course, we know it is a test from the beginning.  The actors in this drama have no such foreknowledge.

“Abraham.”

“Here I am.”  Hineni.

“Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah.  V’ha’aleihu sham l’olah on one of the heights that I will point out to you.”

Abraham hears this as “offer him there as a burnt offering.”

Before we get too upset, keep in mind that child sacrifice was not such a far-fetched idea in Abraham’s day.  It was a widespread practice throughout the Ancient world, including in the Land of Canaan.  We have biblical and other ancient literary references, as well as archaeological remains.  As far as humans in ancient times knew, the gods liked it when people offered up their children.  It probably did not sound all that strange to Abraham.  So he complies with the request.

Without a word, Abraham gets up early, saddles a donkey, enlists two servants and Isaac, and chops some wood to serve as fuel.

On the third day, Abraham looks up and sees the mountain.  He tells the servants to wait at the bottom with the donkey.  He gives Isaac the wood to carry, and they set off to climb the mountain.  He himself carries the firestone and the cleaver.

Suddenly, we hear Isaac’s voice, the only time that the Torah records father and son speaking together.

“Father.”

“Here I am, my son.”

“Here is the fire and the wood; but where is the sheep for the offering?”

“God will see to the sheep for His offering, my son.”

And the two of them walk on together.

No more words are exchanged.  They reach the top of the mountain.  Abraham, methodically, goes about his business.  He lays out an altar.  He places the wood on it.  He binds Isaac and places him on top of the wood.

He reaches out his hand and takes hold of the cleaver in order to slaughter his son.

And suddenly a voice cries out:  “Abraham!  Abraham!”

It is an angel of the Lord from the heavens.

“Here I am.”  Hineni.

“Do not reach out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him, for now I know that you fear God and you have not held back your son, your only one, from Me.”

Abraham raises his eyes and he looks and ‘Behold!  A Ram!’

―with its horns caught in the thicket.  And Abraham takes the ram and offers it up as a burnt offering in the place of his son.

Abraham barely speaks throughout this story, and never once to God.  Rashi, citing a midrash, imagines that Abraham might have had a few questions that did not make the final edit.

“I will lay my complaint before you,” he begins.  “You told me, (Genesis 21:12) ‘through Isaac shall your seed be acclaimed,’ and then you changed your mind and said, (Genesis 22:2) ‘Take, pray, your son.’  Now you tell me, ‘Do not reach out your hand against the lad!'”

Abraham is understandably confused.  God has promised that Abraham will be the father of a great nation, descended specifically through Isaac.  We read about in just the previous chapter, and we chanted it yesterday.

Then, God seems to change the plan by asking Abraham to offer Isaac up.

Through it all, Abraham goes along.

Now, having done everything God has asked of him, despite the contradictions, Abraham is told not to follow through!?

The Holy One, blessed be He, says to him, [You misunderstood me.]  When I told you, ‘Take [your son…,] I did not tell you ‘slay him’ but rather ‘bring him up,’ for the sake of love did I say it to you.  You have brought him up, in fulfillment of my words — now take him down.’ (Genesis Rabbah 56)

The miscommunication hinges on the phrase v’ha’aleihu sham l’olahAn olah is a burnt offering.  That is how Abraham hears it.

But it also means “go up” or “ascend.”  A person who moves to Israel makes aliyah.  Someone who is given an honor in synagogue receives an aliyah.  In the midrash, God means for Abraham to bring Isaac up to the top of the mountain as an expression of love, not to be a sacrifice.

How could Abraham have misunderstood?

To answer this, we must identify the role of the angel in this story.

Imagine the critical scene in your mind, when Abraham has grasped the blade in his hand, and the angel comes to intervene.  Picture it.  Where are Isaac, Abraham, and the angel situated?

In almost every work of art depicting the Binding of Isaac, the angel is reaching out a hand and grabbing Abraham to prevent him from slaughtering his son.  That image of physical intervention has entered our consciousness.

But that is not what the text says.  The only intervention that takes place is verbal.  “Abraham.  Abraham.”

“Here I am,” he responds.

It is Abraham who holds back his own hand.

There is a vein within the Jewish mystical tradition extending into mussar thinking that understands angels as inert forces in our world.  They are unable to act.  It is righteous human action, or expressions of will, that activates these inert Divine forces.

Mussar understands the expression of the human will as it acts in the world to be our yetzer.  The yetzer can be tov – good, or it can be ra – evil.

When we allow it to flow out of us, the yetzer is tov.  But when it is stopped up inside, it becomes ra.

To expand on this―when my focus is external; when my concern is for the other; when the question I ask myself about the person before me is “what does this person need from me?”―That is when my soul opens up, and my yetzer flows out.

But when I am self-absorbed; when I am concerned for my own needs; when I am wrapped up in my own suffering― then I am unable to recognize the needs of the person facing me.  My soul is stopped up, and my yetzer works its evil, rotting inside of me.

All that God or the angel can do is speak.  Only Abraham can act to change the course of events in this story.

In the beginning, God calls out to Abraham and asks him to raise up his son in love.  But Abraham, in this moment self-absorbed in his devotion to a god who might just be a projection of his own ego, hears the message differently.  The yetzer hara has taken hold.  Can Abraham break out of his self-absorption and release his yetzer hatov?

Abraham has other moments of greatness, when his yetzer tov flows out into the world.  When he runs out of his tent to welcome three angels disguised as travelers, when he argues with God on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah―these are moments when Abraham has set aside his own self-concern to serve others, and in so doing, to activate God’s Presence in the world.

In this story, however, Abraham’s yetzer is stopped up.  He is not able to activate the Divine potential that lies dormant.  He does not see the suffering of his son.

Something happens on top of the mountain.  The angel calls out twice.  Abraham looks up.  Not only does he see the ram, he sees his son, perhaps for the first time.  That is the test.  And he passes.  He saves his son, substituting the ram.

Only then does God bless him.

We live in an epidemic of self-absorption.  In former times, people lived in close quarters.  It was not uncommon for three generations to reside under the same roof.  We were thrown against each other in such a way that it was nearly impossible to find privacy, even in our own homes.  Facing each other’s needs was inevitable.

Now, we are so spread out.  Most households today have just one or two generations living under the same roof.  Plus, the distance between our homes has grown, so we are farther away from our neighbors.

The membership of our synagogue is spread out over many square miles.  We’ve gone to the opposite extreme.  We have so much private space that we now find ourselves alone much of the time.  If we want to be with other people, we have to actively do something to make it happen.

The internet offers the promise of connecting with each other across the physical divide.  But how do we use it?

I might snap a selfie, or post the silly thing that my kid said.  I’ll take a picture of my lunch and share it with the world.  And then I’ll check to see how many “likes” I’ve received.  Is this really connecting with other people, or might this perhaps be a manifestation of my self-absorption?

There is an inverse relationship between the amount of time we spend “connecting” online and the amount of time we spend “connecting” in person.  It is getting steadily worse as the number of screen devices in our lives increases.

Our tradition teaches us that holiness is encountered in the relationships between people.  The three dimensional relationships.  God, as a latent force, is activated when we care for another person, placing that other person’s needs before our own.

And believe it or not, quantity matters.

The question is asked―If I have a thousand gold coins to give away, is it better to give all thousand coins to one person, or should I give one coin each to a thousand people?

I might think that it does not make a difference.  What matters is the bottom line.  The tax deduction is the same either way.  Or, I might say that one coin is not going to do anyone any good, but one thousand coins will surely make a difference in someone’s life.

But that is not what our tradition says.  It is better for me to give a thousand coins to a thousand people.  Why?  Because of the impact of one thousand face-to-face interactions on me.

The word v’natnu, meaning “and you shall give” is the longest palindrome in the Torah―vav nun tav nun vav.  This teaches us that the blessings of generosity flow forward to the receiver and backward to the giver.

What are those blessings?  Increased consciousness of the other.  Holiness.  Awareness of God.

What will it take for us to be less self-absorbed?  Deliberate effort.  We have got to train ourselves if we want to be able to resist the forces that drive us towards increased alienation.  And just like the thousand coins, quantity matters.

It is one of the reasons why our synagogue is so important.  Involvement in a religious community offers many ways to break out of self-absorption and see the other:  attending Shabbat services, where we pray side-by-side, and then share a meal together; learning together at a Limmud La-ad, Lifelong Jewish Learning, program; taking time out to comfort a mourner by attending a funeral or a shiva minyan; delivering a meal and visiting with someone in our community who is ill; helping to serve lunch at a homeless shelter.

In this new year, let us each identify individual actions that we can take that will change the question from “what do I want?” to “what does the person before me need?”

The accumulation of many such actions can eventually unstop our hearts, release our yetzer tov, connect us with others in a world of increasing alienation, and activate the Divine Presence in our world.

Like Abraham, who at the critical moment, heard the Divine Voice calling, and woke out of his narrow-minded self focus to see his bound son suffering before him – we too can wake up.

Shanah Tovah.

 

Thanks to Rabbi Ira Stone for providing ideas that went into this D’var Torah.

Jacob’s Story – Toldot 5776

Jacob the Liar.  Jacob the Trickster.  Jacob our Patriarch.

Every year, when we come to this week’s Torah portion, at least one person, usually more, comes to me with something critical to say about Jacob.  How can such an immoral person, a thief and manipulator – be one of our Patriarchs?  But the Torah tells the story from a bird’s eye view, without passing judgment on Jacob or any of the other characters in the story.  What about Jacob the person – the son, the brother?  How did he become who he became?  With your permission, I will attempt to delve into Jacob’s character from a first-person vantage point.

My name is Ya-akov, which means “Heel.”  Why anyone would name their child after a heel is beyond me.  They say that I came out of my mother second, holding on to my twin brother’s foot as if I didn’t want to be left behind, or perhaps even as if I was struggling to come out first.  Anyways, being called a “Heel” all of the time has got to be somebody’s idea of a cruel joke.

Right now, I’m on the run.  My brother vowed to kill me – and I believe he just might do it.  So I had to skip town in a hurry, with nothing but the clothes on my back.

Let me tell you about my brother, Esau.  First of all, I cannot believe that we are even related, much less twins.  He is my opposite in every way.  He is big and strong.  He has red hair all over his body.  He spends as much time as he can away from home, hunting out in the fields with his bow and arrow.

And let’s just say that he is not much of a reader.  He is brash, quick-tempered, and prone to hyperbole – not that he knows the meaning of the word.

Not only that, I think Esau might be evil.  What does he do all day when he is out in the fields?  I know he is a good hunter, and he always brings home a fresh kill for my father, but he is gone so long that he has to be up to other things.

I have my suspicions.  And there are rumors.  They say (Genesis Rabbah 63:12) he spends a lot of time with the ladies.  And not just the single ones.  (Ibid. 65:1) I even heard that he once forced himself on a young woman who was engaged to be married.  But nobody is going to mess with Esau – so he gets away with it.

I also overheard our servants whispering that they heard Esau killed a man.  There weren’t any details, but knowing my brother, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to find out that it is true.

And yet, my father, Isaac, clearly favors Esau.  He barely even acknowledges me.  Every day, Esau struts back into our homestead with his bloody carcass from that day’s hunt.  He roasts it up just how dad likes it.  Then he changes out of his soiled clothes  (Deuteronomy Rabbah 1:15) and brings the meat to father with a glass of wine (Genesis Rabbah 63:10), which he keeps refilling.  He plays the part of the obedient, respectful son to a T.

He asks father questions to try to foster an aura of righteousness that couldn’t be farther from the truth.  One day, I overhead him asking about the proper way to tithe salt and straw, as if he has ever tithed anything or offered a single word of praise to God in his life.  But father thought Esau was so pious, he talked about it for days.  There isn’t even an obligation to tithe salt or straw.  (Rashi on Genesis 25:27)   He hunts our father’s emotions just like the prey that he tracks out in the wilds.

The worst part of it all is that this so-called brother of mine, simply because he came out a few seconds before me, is entitled to receive a double inheritance of our father’s estate.  This brute, who knows nothing about running a farm, managing a household, or maintaining good relations with neighbors, will get to take over the family business.  He is going to squander everything that our grandfather Abraham and our father Isaac built to satisfy his own gluttonous passions.

Does my father, Isaac, see any of this?  He is a wise man, and a good man.  How can he be so blind?

I sometimes think that he feels guilty about what happened to his own half-brother, Ishmael.  Even though Uncle Ishmael was the son of a slave, he was still Grandfather Abraham’s oldest child.  After my father was born, Ishmael was sent away so that we wouldn’t be a threat, and so that father could be the uncontested heir.  Ishmael grew up into a wild man, quite the opposite of dad.  But I wonder if father feels that he somehow owes something to Ishmael that he cannot repay, and so he overlooks Esau’s terrible qualities.

I could not let Esau inherit our father’s possessions.  Not because I thought they should be mine.  But because Father doesn’t see Esau as he truly is.  So when opportunity presented itself, I took advantage.

One afternoon, I was cooking a red lentil stew.  I have to stay, I am quite the chef.  Because I have spent so much of my time around the tents and with mother, I have picked up a thing or two in the kitchen.

Esau came in from the field in one of his moods.  He had been tracking an ibex or antelope or something that had gotten away, so he was pretty upset.

“Argggh!” was the announcement of his approach.  I heard the clattering sound of a bow and quiver of arrows as it was thrown to the ground.

Then Esau shoved his ugly, dirty, hairy face in front of mine.  “I’m starving!” he shouted.  “Give me that red red stuff!”

Startled, I looked in his face, and saw my chance.  “Sell me your birthright, and you can have as much as you want.”  I knew exactly how he would respond.

“I’m dying of hunger here.  I’ve got no use for a birthright!”

But I wanted to be sure.  “No.  You’ve got to swear to me.”

“Fine!  Whatever!  I swear you can have the birthright.  Now gimme that red stuff!”

So I let him have it.  He ate, drank, got up, and stormed off.  I don’t think he even tasted the soup.

Now let me tell you about my father.  One year, there was a famine, so he moved the household to Philistine territory, near Gerar.  Father did not feel very confident in himself, so he told everyone that his wife was actually his sister so they would not be tempted to kill him and steal her.  Well, the ruse did not last very long.  When King Avimelech saw them fooling around out in the fields one day, he summoned father to the palace for an explanation.

Overall, though, we did pretty well in Gerar.  Father made a lot of money.  But the locals were not pleased, so they started stopping up all of his wells.  Those wells, by the way, were wells that Grandfather Avraham had dug many years ago.  Then the King ordered us to leave.  Instead of standing up for himself, father just acquiesced, and we moved further out, to a dry riverbed.

Farther sent his workers out to re-dig the stopped-up wells.  Whenever they struck water, the locals came out to claim them as their own.  So what did father do?  He gave in and moved on to dig another well.  After three times, he just picked up and moved us all far away to Be’er Sheva.

I hate to say this, but my father is not a brave man.

He is blind to my brother’s wickedness, and he lets people push him around.

Mother?  She is another story entirely.  Rebecca is a force to be reckoned with.

Like I said, I spend most of my days by the tents.  But those days are not idly spent.  She makes sure of that.  Mother is constantly drilling me to learn.  She made sure I could read, and that I knew my numbers.  She taught me to watch people, to read their emotions and understand their motivations so that I would know how to deal with them.  She made sure that I understood how the household worked, and how to manage our people.

Let me tell you – she is a demanding teacher.  Do not talk back to that woman.  You do what she says, or else.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love my mother.  But it’s a complicated relationship.  Sometimes I think that she is too much in my business.  She misses nothing.

At least she doesn’t have any illusions about her eldest son.  Mother knows exactly who, and what, Esau is.  Unfortunately, father cannot tolerate anything bad said about him – even when she confronts him with the truth.  It’s infuriating.

One day, mother came to me in a rush.  “Quick, Jacob.  Your father has just asked your brother to go out and hunt him some game.  He is about to give him his innermost blessing.  We cannot allow that to happen!”

“But,” I protested, “I’ve already gotten the birthright from him.  What do I need the blessing for?”

“The Lord made a sacred promise to your grandfather that his descendants would become a great nation and be a blessing to the world.  That blessing passed on to your father.  It cannot go on to your brother.”

“But he is the oldest.”  I said.

Then her face softened.  “I never told you this.  My pregnancy with you was terrible.  I thought I was going to die.  It was something unnatural.  So I asked the Lord ‘what’s the point of all this?’ and I received an answer: ‘Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body; one people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.'””

“So Jacob, it must be you.  Go select two animals from the flock.  I’ll prepare them the way that your father likes.  Bring them in to him, and he will give you his blessing.”

I sucked in my breath and spoke back to her again: “But mother, there is no way that father is going to think I am Esau.  Yes, he is blind, but Esau is covered in hair, and I’m smooth-skinned.  As soon as father touches me, he is going to know who it is, and then I’m going to be cursed.”

“Let the curse fall upon me.” she snapped.  “Just do it.  The future depends on it.”

You should have seen her in that moment.  Her eyes were blazing.  Her face was scarlet.  I had to do what she said.

So I got the animals and gave them to mother.  She prepared the meal while I snuck into my brother’s tent to steal his clothes.  Then I took some animal skins and put them on my arms so that they would feel like Esau’s.  Yes.  He is that hairy.

I brought the food in.  “Father,” I said.  “It’s me your son.”

“Which son are you?” he asked.

I gulped.  “I am Esau, your first-born.  I did what you told me.  Please sit up and eat of this game, so that you can give me your innermost blessing.”

“That was fast,” he said.  “How did you come back so quickly.”

Without thinking, I responded, “Because the Lord your God granted me good fortune.”  That was a stupid thing to say.  Esau would never talk like that.

Father seemed suspicious, and he said, “come closer so I can feel you, and know whether you are Esau or not.”  He suspected!

So I approached and nervously held out my arms for him to feel.

“The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.  Are you really Esau?”

“I am.”

“Then serve me so that I may eat of my son’s game and give him my innermost blessing.”

So I did.  My father ate, and then he called me over close and asked me to kiss him.  Holding my breath, I did as he asked.

“Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of the fields that the Lord has blessed.”

Was this really going to work?

Apparently it was.  He blessed me.  “May God give you Of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, abundance of new grain and wine.  Let peoples serve you, and nations bow to you; be master over your brothers, and let your mother’s sons bow to you.  Cursed be they who curse you, blessed they who bless you.”

Believe me, I got out of there as fast as I could.  I rushed past mother, who was waiting outside the tent, and went to get out of sight as quickly as possible.  I did not want to be around when my brother got back.

Good thing, too.  Because Esau showed up seconds later.  I was hiding in my tent, so I don’t know what happened when they figured out what I had done.  But a little while later, I heard the loudest scream I have ever heard.  It was filled with pain, anger, and rage.

That night, mother came to my tent.  She grabbed a travel bag and started rushing around, grabbing things to pack into it.  “Jacob, you have to leave immediately” she said.  “Esau is furious.  He is swearing that as soon as your father dies, he is going to come after you to kill you.  Here is what I want you to do.  Leave the country, and travel to Haran, where I was born.  Find my brother Laban.  You can stay with him for as long as you need.  After Esau calms down, I’ll send for you.”

That’s it!?  My mother forces me to trick my father and infuriate my brother – and now I’ve got to go into exile!?  What did she think was going to happen?  Not that I shouldn’t have been the one to get the blessing, mind you.  I agree with her there.  There is no way that Esau’s descendants will be blessings to the world.

But it’s not like she gave me any alternatives.  What was I supposed to do?

So I packed my things, and was about to leave when my father sent for me.  “Uh oh.  Now I’m in for it,” I thought.  “Here comes the curse.”

I went back into father’s tent, terrified of what was to come next.

“You shall not take a wife from among the Canaanite women,” he ordered.  “Up, go to Paddan-aram, to the house of Bethuel, your mother’s father, and take a wife there from among the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother.”

It sounds like mother got to him first.  She must have complained to father about the local women so that he would think that it was his idea to send me abroad.  She is a devious one.

Then father gave me another blessing.  “May El Shaddai bless you, make you fertile and numerous, so that you become an assembly of peoples.  May He grant the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which God assigned to Abraham.”

He didn’t say a word about my deceiving him.  Nothing.  I was flabbergasted, but I wasn’t going to stick around to find out what he was going to say next.  I hit the road immediately, and that’s where I am now.  Be’er Sheva is behind me.  I think I am out of my brother’s range.

So now you know my story.  Before you judge me too harshly, please consider what I have had to deal with in my life up until now: a brother who could not be more different, who is crude, uneducated, wicked, and deceitful; a father who cannot stand up for himself, and who allows himself to be deceived; and an overbearing mother who knows how to get what she wants, but whose love is, at times, suffocating.

I think it’s good for me to get away for a while, to escape this atmosphere of dishonesty and duplicity.  It’s time for me to chart my own course.

 

Migrations – Lekh L’kha 5776

Lekh L’kha  Go forth!  Parashat Lekh Lekha is a parashah of migrations.  From beginning to end, its characters leave behind their past and set out for the unknown.  They are driven to do so by the same causes that lead people today to become immigrants: religion, culture, economic opportunity, famine, war, and persecution.

The story actually begins at the end of last week’s parashah, when we first encounter Avram.  (He has not yet had his name changed to Avraham).  His family hails from a place called Ur Kasdim.  We are not exactly sure where it is.  It is either the major city of Ur which is located in Southern Iraq on the coast of the Persian Gulf, or it is a smaller town in Upper Mesopotamia.

Avram’s father, Terach, moves the entire household – including Avram, his two brothers, and their respective households – intending to eventually settle in the Land of Canaan.  For some reason, they stop in a place called Haran.

Haran was a major station along the caravan route between Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean Sea.  It is located about ten miles North of the present border between Syria and Turkey.  The Torah does not tell us what prompted Terach to move the family from Ur Kasdim, nor do we know why they interrupt their migration in Haran.  We do know that the rest of Avram’s family remains in Haran.  Only he completes the journey that his father had begun.

This morning’s parashah begins with God’s revelation to seventy five year old Avram.  Lekh L’kha – “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”  God has big plans for Avram.

Avram responds with alacrity, setting out with his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all of their possessions, and a rather large but unnamed retinue of followers that they managed to acquire while in Haran.  It is not a short journey, and Avram does not stop when he reaches the border.  Rather, he continues his migration until he arrives in Shechem (known today as Nablus).  This is the physical center of the land that God has promised his descendants as an inheritance.

Soon after arriving in Shechem and building an altar to God, Avram continues moving south for another 20 miles, pitching his tent in the hill country east of Beit El, where he builds another altar.  He then continues south by stages until he reaches the Negev, probably near Beer-Sheva.  By now, Avram has traversed the entire length of the Promised Land, from North to South.

How might we describe this migration?  What is Avram abandoning, and what is he hoping to find when he reaches his destination?  The Torah’s emphasis on leaving behind his native land and his father’s house suggests that there is something culturally or morally unsavory about his birthplace.  Although we know nothing about Avram’s first seventy five years of life in Haran, many midrashim fill in the gaps.  Legends abound describing Terach’s idolatry, the deviousness of the local King Nimrod, and the rampant idolatry of Babylonian culture.

Remaining in Haran will subject Avram and his progeny to bad influences which will prevent the realization of God’s blessing that his descendants will become a great nation.  To fulfill his destiny, Avram needs to make a clean break with his culture of origin.

We might describe this move as a religious migration.  But perhaps it also might be akin to moving to a better neighborhood, where Avram’s family will have access to higher quality schools, less crime, and a more cohesive communal environment.

It does not take long for a new situation to arise which will force Avram to pack up his tent and move his household once again.  The land is struck by a famine.  Israel is dependent on seasonal rains.  Several years of poor rainfall, therefore, are disastrous and result in famine.  In contrast, Egypt receives its water from the annual flooding of the Nile River, which is a much more reliable source.  While the text only mentions Avram, it is safe to assume that his household is just one of a deluge of refugees fleeing south to Egypt for food.

The typical experience of refugees is not a pleasant one.  They usually find discrimination in their host countries.  If refugees end up settling permanently in their new countries, it often takes several generations before full assimilation and acceptance is reached.

Avram somehow defies the usual pattern and acquires great wealth during his time in Egypt. In 1848, a Potato Famine prompted the massive immigration of nearly one million Irish to the United States.  In the mid 1980’s a massive famine and war in Ethiopia caused the deaths of over one million people.  Six hundred thousand fled Ethiopia for Sudan, where they remained in refugee camps for several years before finally returning home.

One of the factors in the current Syrian refugee crisis is a famine that has been exacerbated, or even perhaps caused by war.

When the famine ends, Avram returns with his family to his former home east of Beit El.  There, his situation seems to stabilize for a short time.  At this point, Avram has huge flocks.  His nephew Lot has also managed to become wealthy.  Both of them send their herds out into the surrounding fields each day.  Soon, their respective shepherds are quarreling with one another over access to grazing land.

Avram recognizes that the status quo cannot continue, so he offers his nephew a choice.  “This is a fertile land, with plenty of room for both of us.  We just can’t stay here in the same place.  Pick where you want to go,” he says.  “If you go right, I’ll go left.  If you go left, I’ll go right.”  Lot chooses to settle in Sodom, where he has access to the lush Jordan River plain.  Avram stays put.

This migration is not the result of a crisis.  Quite the opposite.  Avram and Lot have become too wealthy, and they need to expand their markets.  Lot moves so that he can have access to better economic opportunities.

God appears once again to Avram, reiterating the blessing.  Afterwards, Avram moves his tent to the terebinths of Mamre, near Hebron.  Again, the Torah does not give us a specific reason for Avram’s move, but like his original journey into the Land of Canaan, it seems to be a religious migration.

Lot, meanwhile, gets caught up in a war when the cities of the Jordan Valley, including Sodom, rebel against their vassal overlords to the east.  The rebel cities are defeated and the conquering armies plunder them and take their residents as spoils of war.  When Avram hears that Lot has been taken captive, he assembles a small army and launches a rescue mission.  His risky venture takes him all the way to Dan, which is located at the far northern point of the Land of Israel, on the slopes of Mount Hermon.  He then goes on a night raid to a location north of Damascus.

The mission is successful, and Avram manages to defeat the enemy armies and rescue his nephew, along with all of the other prisoners who have been forcibly removed from their homes.

We see in this story another kind of migration – one prompted by war.  In this case, residents are taken and enslaved by their conquerors.  As we are seeing vividly right now with the millions of Syrian refugees, people tend to flee from war-torn areas.

The final migration occurs towards the end of the parashahSarai is unable to get pregnant, and so she gives her handmaiden Hagar to Avram to bear a child in her name.  When Hagar gets pregnant, tensions rise in the household, and Sarai begins to treat Hagar harshly.  We don’t know how bad the mistreatment was, but it was enough to cause Hagar to flee.  She heads south, embarking on the Road to Shur, which leads eventually to Egypt.  Along the way, an angel of God appears to Hagar and reassures her that God will bless her son.  In the meantime, she should go back to Sarai and “submit to her harsh treatment.”

This is not an optimistic text, but it illustrates another cause of migration: persecution.  How many millions of Americans came to this country fleeing religious persecution?!  It is what brought the original Pilgrims.  The rise of modern Zionism came about when Theodore Herzl and the other early leaders realized that the persecution of the Jewish people in the Diaspora was not going to go away.  The Jewish people needed a homeland where Jews could immigrate.  Sadly, Herzl’s prediction that the reestablishment of Jewish autonomy in the land of Israel would eliminate antisemitism in the Diaspora has proved to be incorrect, and Jews continue to immigrate to Israel because of persecution.

The reasons that compel a person to leave his or her home and move to a strange new place have not changed in four thousand years.  We immigrate because we want better lives for ourselves and our families.  We want to provide our children with safer environments in which to learn and play.  We move to find better economic opportunities.  Sometimes, we flee dangerous situations like war and famine.  And we leave places in which we face discrimination in favor of communities that will accept us as we are.

All of these factors lead the characters in Parashat Lekh L’kha to become immigrants, just as they lead people in our world today to seek better lives in new lands.

While the reasons to immigrate may be the same, in our world, some of the barriers have changed.

Globalization and technology have made it much easier to travel from one place to another.  A journey that once might have taken an entire year can be accomplished in less than a day.  Images of drowned children vividly demonstrate how dangerous the world can be for someone who is fleeing their homeland in desperation.

While antagonism towards immigrants is certainly still with us, multicultural attitudes in many countries in the world allow for an easier welcome and integration than in earlier centuries.

And yet, legal bureaucracies and quotas place significant obstacles before immigrants.  I doubt Avram was asked to produce his passport and visa when he crossed the border into the Land of Canaan.

Let us each think about our own family history.  How did we get to this country?  On my father’s side, my family immigrated to the United States after surviving World War Two and the Holocaust.  My mother’s ancestors arrived a generation or two earlier with millions of other Jews from Eastern Europe who were fleeing persecution.  My parents migrated from Southern California to the Bay Area, to Atlanta, and finally to Seattle as they sought better economic opportunities and a healthy environment to raise my brother and I.

Illegal immigration is a serious challenge in our world.  There are currently over eleven million undocumented people in the United States.  European countries are facing hundred of thousands of Syrians crossing their borders.  Millions of Syrians have been displaced and are living in refugee camps in Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon.  Huge influxes of immigrants has the potential to be destabilizing for a country, especially when that country does not do a good job of assimilating the newcomers.  I don’t have answers to these challenges, but as a people whose founders are immigrants, we ought to approach the issue with compassion and understanding.

For the Love of Israel – Rosh Hashanah 5776

I am a lover of Israel.  And so it is with great love that I share the following:  This summer has been a tough one for Israel.  I am not talking about the Iran deal.

It started in June, when the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes, one of the holiest sights in Israel for Christians, was burned down in an arson attack.  Spray-painted on the wall were the words, in Hebrew, v’ha-elilim karot yikareitun – and their gods will be cut down, lifted out of our siddur from the prayer Aleinu.

On July 30, at the Jerusalem Gay Pride parade, an ultra-Orthodox man stabbed six people, one of whom, a teenage girl named Shira Banki, died.  The murderer had been released from prison just three weeks previously after finishing a ten year sentence for stabbing several people at a gay pride parade in 2005.

The next day, Jewish arsonists firebombed the home of the Dawabsheh family in the Palestinian town of Duma, killing 18 month old Ali, and both of his parents.  Four year old Ahmad is the only survivor, with burns covering 60% of his body.  Hebrew graffiti was found on a nearby wall with the spray-painted words nekamah – “revenge,” and y’chi hamelekh ha-mashiach – “long live the the king, the messiah.”

These are not just stand-alone incidents.  Over the last several years, there has been a rise in Jewish extremism and terrorism.  Although often cloaked in religious garb, it is classic right-wing nationalism.

Without a doubt, these actions do not represent the attitudes of the vast majority of Israelis, or of Jews around the world.  Politicians and national leaders from all parties, as well as leading Rabbis, were quick to publicly denounce violence, call for the criminals to be brought to justice, and pay condolence calls to the families of the victims.  The Israeli public was appropriately outraged.

But when it comes to taking action, it is a different story.  Israel has been slow to address the problem of Jewish extremism and racism.

Over the past three and a half years, more than forty churches and mosques have been burned in Israel, usually accompanied by biblical passages scrawled on a nearby wall.  Until this past June’s attack, Israeli security services had not arrested a single person.  No arrests have been made for the murder of the Dawabsheh family.  Not a single Rabbi was detained for encouraging students to commit violence.

Do any of us have any doubts whatsoever about the capabilities of Israeli security services to take these kinds of Jewish hate-crimes seriously?  Where were the task forces and undercover informants?

Just this summer, under pressure, the Shin Bet began using “Administrative Detention” to apprehend Jewish terrorist suspects.  It is a tool that has been using against Palestinians, with great success, for many years.  Why did they wait so long?

It did not happen earlier because there was no political will to do so.  Policies by every single Israeli government for the past thirty five years to settle the West Bank with 400,000 Jews has quietly fanned the flames of Jewish nationalist extremism.  The perpetrators are widely known to come from extreme religious nationalist settlements which often have a lot of political clout.

We cannot complain about moderate Muslims’ failure to take on Islamic extremism while we ignore our own Jewish extremism.

I know that some of us are thinking, ‘but what about all of the Islamic fundamentalism around the world?  How can we even compare what a few religious wackos are doing to what is going in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, and many other parts of the Muslim world?’  You are right, there is no comparison.

But they are not our own people.  We are talking about family.

How do we, the American Jewish community, react when we hear about Jewish racism and Jewish terrorism?

There are some in the Jewish community that will never say anything critical of Israel, at least not publicly.  Others have bought in to the anti-Zionist rhetoric that portrays Israel as a gross violator of human rights.

These two groups tend to be made up of the people who yell the loudest, creating what I suspect is a false depiction of a divided American Jewish community.

Anyone who says that Israel has a perfect human rights record is either blind or does not know what ethics is.  Anyone who claims that Israel is one of the worst human rights abusers in the world is either naive or antisemitic.

Both extremists are guilty of the same assumption – that Israel must be perfect.  Those who don’t see the blemishes and those who only see the blemishes are both blind.

But we can admit it: there are blemishes.  Israel has some serious challenges.  It struggles with poverty and unaffordable housing costs.  It faces sharp social divides between different ethnic and religious streams.  It has a problem with large numbers of immigrants trying to cross the border illegally.  There is deeply-felt racism, conflict, and distrust between ethnic and religious groups.  Hundreds of thousands of people who had lived on the land for generations were displaced when new immigrants arrived.

These problems should all sound familiar, because these are all challenges that are faced: here in America, as well as in Europe, South America, Asia, Africa, and Australia.  In other words, nations, by definition, struggle to balance the pursuit of security and prosperity with the pursuit of justice and morality.

We don’t give up on America because it is not perfect.  Nor should we give up on Israel because it is not perfect.

The Torah reading for this morning, the first day of Rosh Hashanah, begins with Isaac’s birth.  Abraham circumcises his son on the eighth day, and then, at his weaning a few years later, throws a party on his behalf.  At the party, Sarah, Isaac’s mother, sees Ishmael, Abraham’s other son, playing – m’tzachek.  Something bothers her, and she tells her husband to banish Ishmael and his mother Hagar from the household, “for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”

Abraham is distressed, but God reassures him that all will be okay.  ‘Do what your wife tells you to do.  I will make Ishmael the father of a great nation as well.’

Sarah and Abraham represent two distinct parental concerns.  Sarah looks at Ishmael and sees in him a threat.  One midrash explains that Ishmael was bragging that he, as the eldest son, would receive a double inheritance.  Other commentators suggest that the word m’tzachek implies that Ishmael was involved in idolatry, and that Sarah was concerned that he would be a corrupting influence.  Sarah is the mother who will protect her son from any perceived outside threat, regardless of collateral damage.

Abraham, in contrast, is concerned about the effect that favoring Isaac will have on Hagar and Ishmael.  He knows that that there will be a personal and moral toll if he defends Isaac at all costs.  He understands Sarah’s desire to protect her son, but he also sees the suffering that will ensue on the part of Hagar and Ishmael.  So he is paralyzed, unable to take action until God breaks the stalemate in his conscience by assuring Abraham that Ishmael will not only survive, but will thrive.  In the end, God affirms both Sarah’s protectiveness of Isaac and Abraham’s concern for Ishmael.

When I think about Israel today, I hear Sarah and Abraham’s voices arguing in my mind and in my heart.

We have got to look out for the Jewish people, because if we do not, nobody else will.  And, we have to be concerned with morality in our treatment of the other.

In a perfect world, there would be no contradiction between these two values.  In a perfect world, Sarah and Abraham would be of one mind when it came to matters affecting their son.  In an almost perfect world, God would step in to offer a solution when our self-protection conflicts with our ethics.

Alas, we do not live in a perfect world, or even a near-perfect world.

As I said earlier, I am a lover of Israel.  But there are different kinds of love.

Any good love affair begins with infatuation.  Our beloved glows.  Everything she does is perfect.

After Israel gained independence in 1948, Jews around the world were infatuated.  Israel could do no wrong.  What was the narrative?  Israel had risen out of the ashes of the Holocaust.  The New Jewish soldier-farmers fought a scrappy war of Independence against all odds to enable the Jewish people to come out of exile and reclaim our place in history.

In 1967, Israel’s sneak attack and victory against menacing Arab armies created an illusion of invincibility.  It was David against Goliath, and we were David.

In 1982, that image began to crumble.  Israel invaded another country in a war that was optional.  It was not, like the others, a fight for survival.  The IDF found itself an occupying power in Southern Lebanon.  Atrocities were committed.  While Israeli soldiers looked the other way, Lebanese Christian Phalangists murdered over two thousand civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut.

International condemnation followed, and the Israeli public was furious.  Ariel Sharon, the Defense Minister at the time, was found to be personally responsible by an Israeli commission of inquiry, and was forced to resign.

The Lebanon war was followed a few years later by the First Intifada, Oslo, the Second Intifada, The Gaza pullout and subsequent wars with Hamas.  You know the stories.

It has been a complicated thirty years in which Israel is no longer David to the Arabs’ Goliath.  Israel has struggled to balance security and morality as a powerful nation with dangerous enemies and sovereignty over people who refuse to accept it.

And all of this occurs in the spotlight, under a magnifying glass.  I do not need to tell you this.  So what kind of love do we bring with us?

For those of you (I do have to exclude myself) born before 1967, your foundational memories of Israel are of a nation that can do no wrong.  The American Jewish community, especially after the Six Day War, was infatuated.

But for those of you born after 1982 (again, I have to exclude myself) – the only Israel you have known is one that has struggled, in the most public way, with being depicted as an immoral aggressor.  You never had a chance to experience infatuation and fall in love.

In recent years, the rise of the BDS movement on many college campuses has created such an oppressive atmosphere for Jewish students, that some feel the need to hide their identity, and not get involved in Jewish life altogether.  The rest are put in the position, as 18-22 year olds, of defending Israel on behalf of the rest of the American Jewish community.  It is a tremendously unfair burden.

Some American Jews are so turned off by all of the attention that they check out.  Why should I care?  Why should I get emotionally invested in something that attracts so much conflict?  For those Jews, Israel does not play much of a role in their identity.

That is unfortunate.  Israel has been central to the Jewish people throughout our existence.  When God first spoke to Abraham, it was to send him to an unknown Promised Land where his descendants would one day constitute a nation that would serve as a blessing to the world.  When our ancestors left Egypt, their destination was Israel.  At the Covenant at Mount Sinai, we committed to accepting the Torah and the mitzvot and God committed to settling us in the land of Israel in peace and prosperity.

And so, Ahavat Yisrael, the love of Israel, both the people and the land, has been central to Jewish identity from our formation as a family, as a religion, and as a nation.

But what kind of love?

Not infatuation that blinds us to seeing our beloved as she truly is.  Real love is not blind.  Real love requires our eyes to be wide open.  Real love is conditional.  I love you because of who you are, not regardless of who you are.

So what would a mature, lasting love of Israel look like?

On Rosh Hashanah, as we celebrate the beginning of the new year, we engage in Cheshbon HaNefesh, taking stock of our souls – not just as individuals, but also as a people.  What does Cheshbon HaNegesh mean on a national scale?

It means lively and respectful debate about where we are as a Jewish people, here in our local community, in America, and as a global Jewish community.  Israel, as our eternal homeland, must be part of that debate.

Unfortunately, so many aspects of Israel have become polarized.  If you are a Republican, then you are against the Iran deal, against Obama, and for Netanyahu.  If you are a Democrat, you are for the Iran deal, for Obama, and against Netanyahu.  We have to reject this kind of “issue packaging.”  A person can be against the Iran deal and still like Obama.  A person can be for the Iran deal and against the settlements.  It is possible to be disappointed in both Netanyahu and Obama, or to be fans of both (not very likely).  We have allowed the loudest voices to polarize the Jewish community in a very unhealthy way.

Let me tell you about the Israel I love.  As you may know, my family and I recently returned from a five month sabbatical, most of which we spent living in Israel, so I’ve had a lot of time recently to think about this.

I love that Israel provides an opportunity for the Jewish people to bring the values of our tradition into the real world.  When we read the Bible and pay close attention, we realize that Jewish sovereignty in the Bible ultimately failed.  The Torah presents a model of a society that, in addition to an elaborate system of ritual worship, emphasizes justice, ethical social and economic interactions, and righteous treatment of all members of society, including resident non-Israelites.  The biblical Prophets are constantly railing against both the leaders and the populace for failing to live up to the standards established by the Torah.

The modern State of Israel, as a democratic Jewish State, offers us an opportunity to bring Jewish values into the world, with all of the messy challenges that are entailed.  And while not perfect, I think Israel’s record is pretty strong, especially considering how many challenges it faces.

I also love the expansion of interest in Jewish life that has been taking place in Israel in recent years.  More and more secular Israelis are turning back to our religious tradition and our texts for spiritual fulfillment.  In contrast to a shrinking non-Orthodox Judaism in America, the liberal movements in Israel are growing.

I love all the ways that usually go unreported that different groups interact with each other positively.  In June, Dana and I participated in the Zarzir Night Run.  Zarzir is a Bedouin Village in the Jezreel Valley close to where we lived in Kibbutz Chanaton.  Our kids drove through Zarzir every day on their way to and from school.  On full moons during the summer time, a running store on the outskirts of Zarzir hosts a night run on paths through the fields.  Well over a thousand men and women showed up, including religious Jews, secular Jews, and Arabs.

I love that Israel is expanding it’s national parks, and making them more accessible.  I love that Hebrew has been revived as a spoken language.  I love that Israel has an entire month dedicated to books.  I love Israeli pop music.

There are also ways in which I wish Israel did better, and it is love that makes me care so much about where Israel is off the mark.

I am horrified that there are racist Jews, and even more so that there are members of our people who commit terror.  And I am disappointed that Israel’s leaders have been so slow to do anything about it.

I wish that the government supported education equally for all Israelis.  Currently, there are different funding levels depending on which public school system a child is learning in.  Arab Israeli students receive far less education spending than their Jewish counterparts.  That is wrong.

I cannot stand that the Rabbanut is allowed to impose its will on the rest of the country in matters pertaining to marriage, divorce, and conversion.  I wish the Israeli government recognized the rights of non-Orthodox movements so that, for example, a wedding officiated by one of my Masorti colleagues would be recognized by the State.

I wish the government did not continue to encourage new Jewish settlement in the West Bank.  I think it makes peace more difficult and sends unspoken messages that encourage extremist behavior.

Israel is a complex country that is far from perfect.  And yet, to me, it is special and unique.  I think it ought to be that way for all Jews.  So I am not asking any of us to love everything.  I am asking all of us to find what it is that we love about Israel, and love it even more.  And if we can identify aspects of Israel that we think are off the mark, it is ok to disagree, as long as we are not disagreeable.

Distance Yourself From Lying Words – Mishpatim 5775

In one of my favorite scenes from Seinfeld, Jerry claims to have never watched a single episode of Melrose Place.  He is called on it, and is being forced to take a lie detector test to prove it.  So he turns to the expert for advice.

Jerry: So George, how do I beat this lie detector?

George: I’m sorry, Jerry I can’t help you.

Jerry: Come on, you’ve got the gift. You’re the only one that can help me.

George: Jerry, I can’t. It’s like saying to Pavorotti, “Teach me to sing like you.”

Jerry: All right, well I’ve got to go take this test. I can’t believe I’m doing this.

George: Jerry, just remember. It’s not a lie… if you believe it.

How true.  How true.

A study published about fifteen years ago found that people say things that they do not know to be factually true up to about two hundred times per day.  Men tend to lie about 20% more often than women.  Women, it turns out, are much better at it than men.

The study’s author, a social psychologist from the University of Budapest named Peter Steignitz, found that 41% of lies are to cover up some sort of misbehavior, 14% are “white lies” that “make social life possible,” and 6% of lies are sheer laziness.  In most cases, Steignitz concluded, lies are harmless.  In fact, he claimed, if nobody on earth lied anymore, “then this planet would end up completely deserted.  There would be 100 wars.”  His advice:  “Let us be honest about our lies.”

So, how about some honesty?  Someone comes up to you and says, excitedly: “how do you like my new haircut.”  It’s hideous.  But what do you say?

Your friend skips out on a dinner that you are both invited to.  You know that he is at a hockey game, but he asks you to tell the host that he is home sick.  What do you tell the host?

There are many everyday situations in which the simple telling of a white lie could save embarrassment, smooth over social interactions, or even get us out of trouble.  Innocuous, right?

The social science notwithstanding, perhaps we should not be so flippant about the harmlessness of most lies.  The truth is, being truthful is considered by most religious and ethical traditions to be the morally correct path.

Indeed, the Torah insists on our honesty on numerous occasions, in numerous contexts.  On the other hand, the Bible’s stories are filled with people, including our greatest biblical heroes, lying themselves silly.

Both Abraham and Isaac lie about their wives, passing them off as their sisters, in order to not be killed.  Jacob lies to his father Isaac, claiming to be his brother Esau in order to steal the blessing.  In return, everybody lies to Jacob.  After Jacob dies, Joseph’s brothers lie to him about their father’s desire for them to make peace.  And all this is just in the book of Genesis!

There seems to be a discrepancy between the ideals of truthfulness contained in the Torah’s law codes, and the real-life experiences of human beings.  Of course, this is entirely consistent with our experiences as well.  We may, in theory, express our commitment to the principle of honesty, and yet, if we are truly honest with ourselves, most of us will probably have to admit that we lie on a daily basis.

The Torah includes many mitzvot that regulate our interactions with each other.  A significant portion of those mitzvot have to do with behaviors that are forbidden.  You shall not murder.  You shall not steal.  You shall not subvert the rights of the needy, and so on.  This morning’s Torah portion presents a particular behavior in a unique way.  מִדְּבַר שֶׁקֶר תִּרְחָק.  “From a lying word stay far away.”  (Exodus 23:7)

It does not say, “you shall not lie,” or “he who lies shall be punished in the following manner.”  It tells us, instead, to distance ourself from lies.  Lying is the only behavior in the entire Torah from which we are commanded to stay away.

Many commentators understand this requirement to be directed specifically at judges.  The commentator Rashbam explains that in a case in which a judgment seems contrived and the witnesses false, but in which we are unable to provide an effective refutation, it is best to stay as far away as possible.  A judge should stay clear of anything which could create the impression that he or she has dealings with something that is corrupt.  (Sforno)

But our sources also understand this injunction to distance ourselves from lying words more broadly.  The Maggid from Kelm claims that a liar is worse than a thief or a robber.  The thief steals when no one is watching, and at night.  The robber will steal at any time, but only from an individual person.  A liar, on the other hand, will lie day or night, to individuals and groups.  Our tradition has many other pithy statements like this extolling the importance of truth.

The truth is, honesty does not come naturally to us.  It is something that must be taught.  Any parent knows this.  The most indiscriminate liars in the world are toddlers.  “I didn’t do it.  It fell by itself.”  Our natural instinct for self-preservation pushes us to lie.

It falls on parents, teachers, and the community to educate children about the importance of truthfulness.  In our family, we try to emphasize that the absolute most important rule is being honest with each other.  Of course, to convey this with any success whatsoever, we have to be honest ourselves, because kids can sniff out dishonesty a mile away.

Perhaps that is what Rabbi Zeira, one of our Sages from the Talmud, is getting at when he teaches that “a person should not tell a child, I will give you something – and then not give it, because this teaches the child falsehood.”  (BT Succah 46b)

The Talmud (BT Yevamot 63a) tells a story about a Sage named Rav, whose wife would constantly mess with him, and it drove him crazy.  If he asked her to make lentils for dinner, she would make peas.  If he asked for peas, she would cook lentils.

When their son Chiyya got older, Rav would send him into the kitchen to pass along his requests for dinner.  Chiyya, a bright child, would switch the requests around.  If his father asked for lentils, he would tell his mother that he wanted peas, and she would then cook lentils, and vice versa.  That way, Rav got exactly what he wanted for dinner every night, and his parents’ fighting improved.

This went on for some time, until one day, Rav commented to his son, “Your mother has gotten better.”

Chiyya then confessed that he had been switching the messages around.

Rav was impressed with his son’s wisdom, acknowledging the popular saying “From your own children you learn reason.”  Nevertheless, he recalled the Bible’s warnings about dishonesty, and told Chiyya not to lie anymore.  Rav recognized that his parental obligation to teach truthfulness to his son overrode any short-term benefit this little white lie may have had.  He and his wife would have to deal with their issues on their own.

Jewish law emphatically emphasizes the importance of truth-telling in certain areas.  When it comes to business, for example, both business owners and customers must be honest at all times.

However, our tradition does not hold truth-telling to be an absolute.  There are circumstances in which it might be appropriate, or possibly even necessary, to say something that is not true.

The Talmud (BT Yevamot 65b) teaches that one may tell a lie in the interests of peace.  Various examples are given.  The question is asked regarding what one should say to an ugly bride on her wedding day.  Beit Shammai insists that one must always tell the truth, while Beit Hillel says that we must praise her as beautiful and full of grace.  Our tradition fallows Beit Hillel.

Other examples are given about when it is permissible to lie, including when life is in danger and when it would bring about peace.  Husbands and wives are not supposed to tell the truth to others about what goes on in the bedroom.  A person who is particularly knowledgeable on a subject should not claim to be an expert.  To do so would be immodest, or could lead to embarrassment if he is then asked a question that he cannot answer.  Finally, a person who has been graciously hosted is not supposed to go around telling people about it, because it could lead to disreputable individuals calling upon the wealthy host.

It would appear that our tradition does not define truth and lies as a straightforward reporting of factually accurate or inaccurate information.

Truth, considered to be one of the pillars of the world, is more complicated.  In Michtav M’Eliyahu (Vol. I, p. 94) Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler explains:  We had better define truth as that which is conducive to good and which conforms with the Will of the Creator, and falsehood as that which furthers the scheme of the yetzer harah, the power of evil in the world.

When the Torah urges us to distance ourselves from lying words, it is really setting an ideal for us to build families and communities that are rooted in honesty.  While little white lies may sometimes be called for, they do take their toll on us.

As the Talmud states (BT Sanhedrin 89b), “this is the punishment of the liar, that even if he speaks the truth – nobody listens to him.”

Our tradition recognizes that reality is complicated,  and that absolutes are often unrealistic.  Nevertheless, we can imagine what a community built on truth looks like, and we can strive to create it.

Torture vs. “Enhanced Interrogation” in Judaism – Vayeshev 5775

Like just about everything that takes place in Congress, Senate’s Report on Torture by the CIA that was released this week is probably partisan – at least that is what everyone who does not like it seems to be saying.  It was put out by a Democratic-controlled committee on its way out of power about events that took place under policies of the previous, Republican administration.

Just consider if the roles were reversed: What if it was a report by a Republican controlled committee about policies from a prior Democratic administration?  We would likely be hearing the same voices that are currently crying fair or foul on opposite sides.

Keep in mind that this does not mean that information in the report is not accurate.  Just because a person has a bias does not make that person wrong.  So how are we to know what to think?

Unfortunately, much, most, or perhaps even all of what we think we know about torture comes from television and movies.  Jack Bauer employs torture to great success in every season of “24.”  The movie Zero Dark Thirty suggests that the location of Osama Bin Laden was made possible through “enhanced interrogation techniques.”  If you have seen the movie, I am not sure that you could call what it shows on screen anything but torture.  Most James Bond movies involve some sort of torture scene – although 007 is usually able to keep his secrets..  And the list goes on.

We also hear politicians and talking heads disagreeing vociferously on the subject.  Those who oppose it call it torture and say that it does not produce any actionable intelligence.  Those who support it call it “enhanced interrogation techniques” and claim that it saves lives.

I personally do not know whether torture works.  I doubt that there is anybody in this room who does.  If we are honest with ourselves, we ought to admit that our opinions on the matter are influenced more by our our underlying political leanings and our consumption of entertainment than by personal experience or our familiarity with the facts.

This is a real problem.

In a democracy, we the citizens are responsible for the actions of our government.  If the U.S. government is for the people, by the people, then we are complicit in what the CIA does, and we have a moral obligation to acknowledge this, and potentially to do something about it.

So how do we really feel about torture, and what are willing to have our government do in our names?

Let’s get past the political, partisan posturing.  Let’s try to set aside what we think we know from television and movies.

Let us try to clarify some of the issues around torture so that we can better understand what our values truly are.  Let us consider also how our Jewish tradition informs these issues in a way that enables us to take a more sophisticated and informed position.

The first question must be: what constitutes torture?

In this morning’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, the sibling rivalry between Joseph and his brothers spirals out of control.  As we heard earlier, the brothers’ hatred becomes so pitched that they decide to kill him.  Before they commit fratricide, they throw their annoying little brother into a pit.  This is how the Torah describes it:

…they stripped Joseph of his tunic, the ornamented tunic that he was wearing, and took him and cast him into the pit.  The pit was empty; there was no water in it.  Then they sat down to a meal.  (Genesis 37:23-25)

The medieval commentator Rashi cites a midrash that explains that not only did the pit not have any water, it was filled with snakes and scorpions.

What have they done to him?  The brothers have humiliated Joseph by stripping off his coat.  They have deprived him of food and water, highlighted by the Torah’s juxtaposition of the parched pit with the brothers’ picnic.  And according to the midrash, they have terrorized him by putting him in with poisonous animals.

In this case, the brothers are not trying to get any intelligence out of Joseph.  It is straightforward revenge.  They are getting back at him because they feel he has wronged them.

But perhaps we need a more specific definition.  According to a summary of Article 1 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment “torture is the intentional infliction of severe mental or physical pain or suffering by or with the consent of the state authorities for a specific purpose.”

I am not going to read the entire list of tactics that the Senate report contains, because some of it is pretty disturbing.  But it does include things like keeping prisoners awake for 180 hours consecutively, waterboarding, threatening to harm family members, keeping prisdoners in total darkness for extended periods of time, exposure to extreme cold, withholding of medical care, and so on.  “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” or “Torture?”  Do we rally need to argue about terminology?  Does the name matter?

The second question is a critical one.  Are there some circumstances in which torture could be permitted?

We might say, on the one hand, that torture in any circumstance is wrong and should be avoided.  While the Constitution protects American citizens on American soil from cruel and unusual punishment, this is really a universal moral value that applies equally to all human beings everywhere.

On the other hand, what about the “ticking time bomb” scenario.  A bomb is set to go off somewhere in the city, and we have a person in custody who knows where it is and how to disarm it.  Many, if not most of us would agree that torturing that person would be acceptable if it would produce information that could potentially save hundreds of lives.

This is the fundamental question:  Am I categorically opposed to torture, in which case there is no need for further discussion, or am I willing to consider the possibility that torture might be justified in certain circumstances?

Jewish law does not address this question directly, but it does deal with a related issue.  According to Jewish law, self-incrimination is not permitted.  Under no circumstances may a person’s own testimony be used against that person.  The mid-twentieth century Rabbi and Professor Saul Lieberman, possibly the greatest Talmudist in history, taught that  “the purpose of the rule [banning self-incrimination] was to eliminate the possibility of forced confessions and testimony motivated by fear…[Early Jewish law] insisted on a strict standard for the admission of evidence and eliminated the possibility of torture to compel confessions at a time when torture and other cruel practices prevailed in the Roman court.”  (Elijah J. Schochet and Solomon Spiro, Saul Lieberman: The Man and His Work, Jewish Theological Seminary Press, 2005, pp. 209-210.)

In other words, there was concern that a person would falsely confess after being tortured.  So to prevent this from happening, confessions were ruled to be inadmissible.  A conviction in Jewish law requires testimony from two valid witnesses.

Similarly, the Fifth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution grants citizens the right to not self-incriminate.  This is not as strict a standard as Jewish law, mind you.  We are all experts on the Fifth Amendment, by the way.   Whenever the cops on a television police drama arrest a suspect, they have to read him his Miranda rights, “You have the right to remain silent.  You have the right to an attorney…”

That requirement came about as the result of a 1966 Supreme Court case, Miranda v. Arizona.  In it, Chief Justice Earl Warren traces the origin of the principle of non self-incrimination.  “We sometimes forget how long it has taken to establish the privilege against self-incrimination, the sources from which it came and the fervor with which it was defended.  Its roots go back into ancient times.”  In his footnote, Chief Justice Warren cites Maimonides’ thirteenth century law code, the Mishneh Torah.

Another Supreme Court decision (Garrity v. New Jersey, 385 U.S. 493 (1967)) issued one year later elaborates on the principle.

…the Constitutional ruling on self-incrimination concerns only forced confessions, and its restricted character is a result of its historical evolution as a civilized protest against the use of torture in extorting confessions. The Halakhic ruling, however, is much broader and discards confessions in toto, and this because of its psychological insight and its concern for saving man from his own destructive inclinations.

Of course, this concern with self-incrimination and torture is only in the context of confessing one’s own guilt.  What if the purpose is not to determine guilt, but rather to gain information that would save lives?

The Jewish concept of din rodef, the law of the pursuer, teaches that if a person is being pursued by another with the intent to kill, that person is permitted to use physical means to protect him or herself.  Din rode also stipulates that one may use force to prevent the pursuer from harming another person.  This opens up the possibility that torture could be used if it will result in saving lives from an imminent attack.

This leads to our second question.  How effective does torture need to be?  What percent of the time must torture yield helpful information?  How many innocent people are we willing to torture to find the ones with actionable intelligence?

The problem with this question is that there is no way of knowing whether torture will be successful until after it has taken place.  To make an ethically informed decision, we still have to have an idea about success rates, and we have to be prepared for the possibility that it may not produce results.

This needs numbers.  If you knew that 50% of the time, torture would yield important information, and 50% of the time a tortured person would not provide any useful information, would you condone it?  What if it was 20% of the time?  10%?  1%?  We have got to draw the line somewhere.

What about the type of intelligence?  There is a difference between information that leads to stopping an impending terror threat and information about the location of training camps.  How many lives must be saved to justify torture?

Finally, we know that our justice system makes mistakes.  How many innocent people are we willing to torture to get to the ones who have information?

Of the 119 tortured prisoners described in this week’s Senate report, twenty six of them are considered to have been wrongfully detained, in other words, altogether innocent.  That is 22%.  Is that a tolerable percentage?

We come from a religious and ethical tradition in which Abraham, our forefather, challenges God about God’s plan to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their wickedness.  Certain that there must be some righteous people in those societies, Abraham boldly asks: “Shall the judge of all the earth not perform justice?”  He then argues that a small fraction of innocent people ought to save the lives of a thoroughly wicked populace.

The question of torture is almost the opposite of Abraham’s.  How many possibly guilty people are we prepared to torture to possibly save the lives of innocents?  That is what this comes down to.

Ours is a tradition that has at its core a respect for the dignity of every human being.  All humans are made in the image of God.

We have explored several questions this morning that I hope will help us get past the politics, and past the television shows to the fundamental questions about what we are willing to have our government do in our names.

It is essential for us, as citizens of our country, and as Jews who have inherited a strong ethical tradition, to face difficult issues like the use of torture in the fight against terror with open eyes and with honesty.

How to Behave as Jew in the Wider World: Toldot 5775

One of the wonderful things about Torah is that there are so many different lenses through which to read it.  Tradition uses the word Pardes, meaning orchard, as an acronym of four styles of Torah interpretation.  The peh is for p’shat – the plain sense meaning of the text.  What did these words mean to the ancient reader who spoke the language and lived in the society that the Torah describes?

The resh is for remez – hints that are alluded to in the Biblical text.

The dalet is for d’rash, or midrash, (fancy word: exegesis).  This is the attempt to explain silences, contradictions, and problems in the text in ways that are not possible from within the text itself.

And finally, the samech is for sod, secret, which refers to the hidden kabbalistic, or mystical truths which are hidden beneath the surface of the text.

All four methods of biblical interpretation are valid, and all four are Jewish.  All have the capability of revealing religious truths.  Whenever we study Torah, it is crucial that we understand which method of interpretation we are using.

This morning, I am going to request that we suspend our skepticism for the next few minutes and immerse ourselves fully in midrash.  In the midrash, Jacob is a good, pious person.  Easau is wicked.  And Lavan is a liar and a cheat.  For now, we need to accept that particular understanding of these characters.

Parashat Toldot introduces us to the third generation of the Patriarchs.  Rebecca is pregnant with twins, and they are already struggling in her womb.  It is such a difficult pregnancy that she wonders if it is even worth it to be alive.  The Torah tells us that she goes to inquire of the Lord, seeking a prophecy which will explain what is going on inside her body.  The nature of her sons is then revealed, with a prophecy that the older will serve the younger.

The midrash (Genesis Rabbah 63:6), as we might expect, expands the story.  Whenever Rebecca would walk in front of study houses and synagogues, Jacob would struggle to get out, and whenever she would walk next to houses of idolatry, Esau would squirm to make his escape.

Another midrash (Yalkut Shimoni Toldot 110) identifies the location from which Rebecca seeks out God’s answer to her travails.  She travels to the Beit Midrash, the academy, of Shem and Ever, where the answer is revealed.

Who are Shem and Ever, and why do they have an academy?

Shem is one of the three sons of Noach, who survives the flood and begins humanity’s repopulation of the earth.  We do not know much about him from the Torah, only this:  When Noach gets drunk and passes out naked, the middle brother Cham does something inappropriate and unforgivable.  Shem, with the youngest brother Yefet, do not look at their father and respectfully bring him a cloak to cover himself.  As a result, Noach curses Cham and blesses the other two children.

“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem… May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem…”  (Genesis 9:26-27)

Notice that this blessing associates Shem with God.  It also refers to tents, in which the younger brother seems to be finding shelter.  Thus, Shem seems to have been a monotheist, and a man of some standing.

Ever, the other Head of School, is Shem‘s grandson, and we have no distinctive information about him from the Torah.

From these scant details, the Rabbis develop a sophisticated narrative about the state of monotheism before Abraham.  Shem, later joined by his grandson Ever, establish a tent, understood metaphorically as a Beit Midrash.  There, they teach about God and God’s commandments.

But, you say, the Torah has not been given yet, so how is it possible that there can be mitzvot?  According the Rabbis, the seven mitzvot of the children of Noach have been given, and it is these which serve as the curriculum of this proto-yeshiva.  Among these commandments, which our tradition understands as applying to all of humanity, is the requirement to have societies governed by laws that are administered justly and fairly.  To create such laws certainly necessitates extensive learning, and that is the kind of learning taught by Shem and Ever.

So who makes up the student body?

One of the valedictorians is Abraham.  It is in the Beit Midrash of Shem and Ever that he receives his introductory instructions in theology.  He first learns about God from them.  But was not Abraham an iconoclast, the first person to bring monotheism into the world?  Not in this midrash.  The difference, however, is that Abraham brings his message of monotheism out into the world.  He proselytizes, so to speak, and quite effectively, whereas Shem and Ever are cloistered in their ivory tower (or tent).

In the Babylonian Talmud’s Tractate Avodah Zarah (BT Avodah Zarah 14b), which deals with Judaism’s laws against idolatry, a tradition is recorded that Abraham himself studied that same tractate.  When he studied, however, it was comprised of four hundred chapters.  He really had to know his stuff if he was going to go out into an idolatrous world and convince people of the existence of the One True God.  In our Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zarah is only five chapters long.

A generation later, Abraham sends Isaac to the Beit Midrash of Shem and Ever after his near-sacrifice on Mount Moriah.

You can probably guess by now that Jacob will end up enrolling in his father and grandfather’s alma mater as well.

According to the midrash, Esau and Jacob spend their first years with their lives somewhat intertwined.  They have yet to fully differentiate.  By the time they reach their thirteenth birthday, their personalities have been revealed and they start to go their own ways.  The Torah describes the respective characters of Esau and Jacob.  Va-yi-h’yu Esav ish yodea tzayid ish sadeh, v’Ya-akov ish tam yoshev ohalim.  “Esau was a man who knew the hunt, a man of the field, while Jacob was a simple man, a dweller of tents.”  (Genesis 25:27)

The midrash (Genesis Rabbah 63:10), noting that Jacob seems to be spending a lot of time in tents, identifies them as the same tents of Shem and Ever.  In other words, he enrolls in the prestigious Beit Midrash that his ancestors had established generations earlier.

He goes back later for graduate school.

This morning’s Torah portion ends with Jacob fleeing from Esau’s wrath after he steals the older twin’s blessing.  Rebecca urges her favored son to travel East to her brother Lavan’s home in Haran to wait for Esau’s temper to cool.  Isaac then offers Jacob a parting blessing and sends him on his way.

Rashi, based on a midrash in the Talmud (Rashi on Genesis 28:9), then performs some detailed calculations.  He looks at the various ages of the characters that are described at different points in the story, and comes to the conclusion that there are fourteen missing years between the time that Jacob leaves home and when he arrives at his uncle Lavan’s household.

Where did he go in the meantime?

You can probably guess by now.  What do people typically do when the economy takes a downturn?  They go to graduate school.

Jacob reenrolls in the Beit Midrash of Shem and Ever.  Why is it so important that he spend this time learning?  Because of where he is about to go.  Jacob leaves penniless, but his destiny is to become wildly successful in his time abroad.  Jacob will prosper in Lavan’s house.  But there is an inherent danger, as Lavan is not a good influence.  He is greedy and duplicitous.  There is a real risk that when Jacob is away from home, outside of his parents’ influences, he will assimilate Lavan’s value system.  How can Jacob spend so much time with Lavan without becoming him?

He needs an inoculation from the influence of his no-good uncle.  That is where school comes in.  Education is what will enable Jacob to retain his values despite his environment.  Intensive Torah study inside the academy will prepare him to live a life of Torah out in the world.

Jacob might also need some time to mature on his own.  After all, the fact that he is running for his life is kind of his own fault.  He has outnegotiated Esau for the birthright, stolen the blessing from him, and lied and tricked his father.  Perhaps Jacob needs to go back to school for some moral reeducation as well.

As it turns out, Jacob does well in Lavan’s household.  He spends twenty two years there, builds a family, and acquires great wealth.  Jacob eventually must leave, however, as it is not his home.  He knows that to fulfill his destiny, he must separate and go back home.  One of the first things he does after returning to the Land of Israel is to force all of the members of his household to throw out any personal idols that they have brought with them.  Those idolatrous values from Lavan’s home will have no place in Jacob’s household.

On one level, these midrashim about the Beit Midrash of Shem and Ever are anachronistic.  They retroject the Rabbis’ values of Torah study into an ancient time which clearly had different priorities and institutions.  On the other hand, by using recognizable contemporary symbols, these midrashim are able to tell us something about what was important to the Rabbis in their own time, which may help us better understand the situations we face in the present.

In sending Jacob to yeshivah, the midrash does the same thing as I did a few minutes ago when I described Jacob’s return to yeshiva as graduate school.  This is one of the ways that Torah comes alive for us.

So what are the Rabbis trying to tell us in these midrashim?  They are making a point about how we can best prepare ourselves and our children to deal with the world successfully without taking on the bad qualities of that world.

One lesson they may be imparting is how to best prepare oneself to maintain one’s values within a wider society that does not share them.  That sounds pretty relevant to me.  Judaism has always struggled with finding a healthy balance between engaging with the world, incorporating positive elements from other cultures, and resisting the negative ones.

Let me share an example.  This coming Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, is known as Black Friday.  Over the last several years, we have seen Black Friday pushed back earlier and earlier onto Thanksgiving, giving consumers more opportunities to buy stuff and giving retail workers less opportunities to celebrate Thanksgiving.  It creates a sense of competition between stores to move up their openings times so that their competitors do not gain an advantage.  And it creates competition between consumers who feel that they need to be first in line in order to get the best deals.  The result is a cheapening and weakening of Thanksgiving, which in my opinion is the one national holiday that most Americans seem to take seriously.

The Canadian organization Adbusters created a campaign a few years ago called International Buy Nothing Day, on which people are urged to not spend any money on Black Friday.

As Jews, we do not really need to set aside a day for anti-consumerism.  We already have Shabbat, which instead of once every 365 days, occurs once in seven.  Nevertheless, every year when Black Friday roles around, I am so happy to be Jewish, and to not have that pressure to go out and get the best deals on Christmas presents.  I would put Black Friday in the category of things from the dominant culture for us to avoid.

But we have assimilated much that is good into our tradition as well.

In recent decades, we have incorporated into Judaism values like feminism and social action while struggling to resist messages that promote violence and encourage immodesty.  How do we inculcate the moral strength to stick by the values of our ancestors?  Through learning.

The lesson here is that a deep education in Torah lays the essential moral groundwork for going out into the world and behaving as a Jew ought to behave.  It was that education, at least according to the midrash, that was available to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  It was that education that made it possible for Jacob to go abroad, away from the protective influence of his parents, retain his values in a foreign culture, and eventually return home with those values intact.