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.

Jewish Sovereignty and Its Possibilities – Chayei Sarah 5775

In 1913, Sigmund Freud, the father of Psychoanalysis, wrote a book called Totem and Taboo, exploring issues of archaeology, anthropology, and religion through the perspective of psychoanalysis.  Freud was an Austrian Jew who was totally secular.  He did not observe Jewish traditions in any significant way.  He could not read Hebrew.  Yet, he felt himself to be a Jew, and he never renounced his Jewish identity.

In 1930, Totem and Taboo was translated into Hebrew.  In the preface to this version, Freud, writing from his home in Vienna, describes how he feels about his book appearing in the revived and modernized language of his ancestors.  You’ll have to excuse him.  He writes about himself in a somewhat disjointed third person.

No reader of [the Hebrew version of] this book will find it easy to put himself in the emotional position of an author who is ignorant of the language of holy writ, who is completely estranged from the religion of his fathers—as well as from every other religion—and who cannot take a share in nationalist ideals, but who has yet never repudiated his people, who feels that he is in his essential nature a Jew and who has no desire to alter that nature. If the question were put to him: ‘Since you have abandoned all these common characteristics of your countrymen, what is there left to you that is Jewish?’ he would reply: ‘A very great deal, and probably its very essence.’ He could not now express that essence clearly in words; but some day, no doubt, it will become accessible to the scientific mind.

Thus it is an experience of a quite special kind for such an author when a book of his is translated into the Hebrew language and put into the hands of readers for whom that historic idiom is a living tongue….

Freud is so moved by the translation of his book into Hebrew, but he has no idea why.  Something about the revitalization of the ancient national language of his people in their land has awoken in him a profound sense of identity, even though his active participation in Jewish life is negligible.  How can that be?  What has been awakened in the father of psychoanalysis?

Something quite ancient.

This morning’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, begins with the death of our first matriarch.  Abraham, the lonely widower, must now attend to her burial.  Abraham has a problem, however.  He has no place to bury her.  Although God has promised that his descendants would inherit the land, he has yet to take possession of any property.  He is still wandering.

Abraham turns to his neighbors, the Hittites, and asks them to sell him a plot of land so that he can take proceed with his wife’s funeral.  He identifies the Cave of Machpelah, owned by Ephron son of Tzochar, as his intended property, and offers to pay full price for it.

“No, my lord…” Ephron objects, “I give you the field and I give you the cave that is in it; I give it to you in the presence of my people.  Bury your dead.”  (Genesis 23:11)

What a deal!  Abraham should take it, shouldn’t he?  No.  He should not.  Abraham can read between the lines, and he understands that if the land is merely given to him, it will not be truly his.  Ephron or his descendants could come back to Abraham or his descendants and repossess it.  Abraham knows that he must pay.  Ephron knows this too, by the way.  So they enter into a back and forth negotiation, resulting in a final purchase price of 400 shekels of silver.  Abraham pays and takes possession of the land in the presence of all the Hittites, so there is no question that he now owns it.  This is the Jewish people’s first foothold in the land of Israel, nearly four thousand years ago.

This property remains highly significant.  At the end of the Torah portion, Abraham himself dies.  Isaac and Ishmael, estranged half-brothers, return to the Cave of Machpelah to bury their father together.  Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah would also be buried there in subsequent generations.

At the end of the book of Genesis, Abraham’s descendants are all living in the Diaspora, in Egypt.  His great grandson, Joseph, has risen to be the Viceroy, second only to Pharaoh.  At the moment, life is good for them there, but they know in their hearts that Egypt is not home.  As death approaches, Joseph calls his family to him and makes them swear an oath.  “I am about to die,” he says.  “God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land that He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob…  When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.”  (Genesis 50:24-25)  This is Joseph’s dying request: for his bones to be returned to the land of his ancestors.

It would take many generations to fulfill Joseph’s instructions.  The family of Abraham would transform into the Israelite nation, and be enslaved by a new Pharaonic administration.  When Moses arises to lead his people to freedom, centuries later, he still remembers the oath.  On the night that they leave Egypt, Moses makes one extra stop to collect Joseph’s bones so that they can be returned to the land of the Patriarchs.

The story ends at the end of the book of Joshua, where we are told that Joseph’s bones are finally laid to rest in Shechem, on land that Jacob had purchased from the children of Hamor for one hundred kesitahs.  We see that from the very beginnings of our people, connection to the land of Israel is intimately tied up with our national identity.

Perhaps this explains why Freud is so moved when his book is translated into the language that is being spoken by his fellow Jews who are trying to reestablish Jewish sovereignty in Israel.  Freud and Joseph both feel the same sense of longing for the land of their ancestors.

In 1950, soon after the formation of the State of Israel, the Knesset passed Chok Ha-Shvut – the Law of Return, giving Jews everywhere the right to live in Israel and become citizens.  In the debate preceding its passage, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion outlined the philosophy behind the Law of Return.

The Law of Return…. comprises the central mission of our state, namely, ingathering of exiles. This law determines that it is not the state that grants the Jew from abroad the right to settle in the state. Rather, this right is inherent in him by the very fact that he is a Jew, if only he desires to join in the settlement of the land…. The right to return preceded the State of Israel and it is this right that built the state. This right originates in the unbroken historical connection between the people and the homeland, a connection which has also been acknowledged in actual practice by the tribunal of the peoples.

According to Ben Gurion, the authority to pass the Law of Return does not come from the State of Israel.  The Law of Return does not exist because the Knesset said so.  It is, in fact, the other way around.  The Knesset exists because the Jewish people have a core connection to the Land of Israel that extends back in history to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, originating in God’s Promise to Abraham and Abraham’s purchase of the Cave of Machpelah for four hundred shekels of silver.  Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people.  This has always been an essential aspect of our national identity.  This has been true both during times of Jewish sovereignty, as well as when our people lived in exile.  The longing to return home has always been a source of hope for our people.

Why is sovereignty over our land so important to us?  Because it provides us with the opportunity to put Jewish values and principles into practice.  When we lived as an exiled people, always as a minority within a dominant culture, much of our values could only be dealt with theoretically, in the study hall or on the bookshelf.

Our tradition has a lot to say, for example, about how to conduct a criminal trial.  The Torah, and later the Rabbis, imposed a high burden of proof.  Witnesses are warned repeatedly about the importance of giving true testimony.  A verdict is thrown out as untrustworthy unless someone can make a strong case on behalf of the accused.  Our tradition has an extensive theoretical tradition about how to conduct a trial fairly.  Only in the State of Israel is it possible for our Jewish people to wrestle with how to bring principles that were once theoretical into the real world.  The result has been that, except for the solitary case of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann, Israeli courts have not executed a single criminal.

Another example is relevant right now.  This year is a shemitah year, the sabbatical year during which, according to the Torah, agricultural land in Israel must lie fallow.  Trespassing restrictions are lifted, and the poor are entitled to enter landowners’ fields to harvest whatever happens to be growing there.  Indentured slaves are released as debts are forgiven.  Shemitah, as it appears in our sources, reminds us that the land ultimately belongs to God, not ourselves.  It emphasizes the importance of social justice, and resets the economic inequities that inevitably develop so as to prevent multi-generational poverty.

There are many ways in which the laws of shemitah are incompatible with a modern, capitalist, globalized economy.  They were not practical in the ancient world either, and probably were never observed.  But with Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel today, we have an opportunity to bring the institution of shemita out of our books and into the marketplace.  What would it mean to create an economy that promoted the principles of social justice and ecological humility that are at the heart of shemita?  This has not yet happened in Israel, by the way, where people either ignore shemitah, or find a creative loophole by selling the land to a non-Jew so that they do not have to suffer the economic loss.

A third example has implications for health care policy.  I do not have to tell you that our Jewish tradition values children.  It is considered a mitzvah to have kids, although the reality is that this is sometimes a challenge, as expressed in numerous cases of barrenness in the Torah, including three out of the four matriarchs.  The Israeli health care system offers unlimited, free, state-funded in vitro fertilization up the age of forty five.  As a a result, Israel has the highest per capita rate of infertility therapy in the world.  This is a decision that is surely an expensive one, but one that has been deemed worthwhile by the State.  As an expression of Jewish values, this is only possible in a place in which Jews have sovereignty.

For Jews living and flourishing outside of Israel, sovereignty is also important.  It changes how we see ourselves, and challenges us to bring our expression of Jewish identity out of our homes and synagogues and into the world.  The pride and openness of being Jewish that we feel here in America is made possible, at least in part, by a flourishing Jewish community in the Land of Israel.

If this conversation interests you, I would like to encourage you to join a course that I am teaching on Thursday nights called Engaging Israel, from a course offered by the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.  My words this morning, along with some of the sources I have used, are taken from the topic of this past week’s class.  The overall goal is to explore our people’s connection to Israel and to identify how Jewish sovereignty in our ancestral homeland opens up new possibilities for the the expression and fulfillment of core Jewish values, whether a person is religious or secular, or living in Israel or the Diaspora.

Faith, Tzedakah, and Hope – Lech L’kha 5775

We take Abraham’s faith for granted.  He has been described as the Lonely Man of Faith.  Jewish tradition sees him as the paradigm for loving God.  Although it disturbs us, the story of the Binding of Isaac is seen as a story of Abraham’s selflessness, his willingness to go all the way in serving God.

But is it helpful for us to hold up such a “perfect” model of faith.  I’m not sure there are many people who can see themselves as truly following Abraham’s example.

On the other hand, maybe Abraham wasn’t the perfect man of faith that he is often presented as.  Perhaps Abraham had his moments of doubts as well.

This morning’s Torah portion, Lekh L’kha, opens with Abram (his name has not yet been changed to Abraham) as a seventy five year old man.  God promises him that he will be a great nation, and will inherit the Promised Land.  Abram obeys, and soon arrives in the unnamed land to which God leads him.  Things are going well at first, but then discord breaks out in the household.  Abram’s only living relative, his nephew Lot, is also a successful shepherd.  Their respective herdsman cannot seem to cooperate when it comes to pasturing the flocks, and so the two branches of the family are forced to split apart.  Abram is magnanimous about it, offering his nephew the first choice about where to settle, but the end result is that Abram is separated from his only family member in a foreign land.  He must be lonely.

Soon afterwards. Abram finds himself in a famine.  So he uproots his household and heads down to Egypt, where food is available.  There, he feels compelled to lie about Sarai his wife, passing her off as his sister rather than his wife.  Apparently, he feels that it would be better for Pharaoh to bring her into the palace under the assumption that she is available rather than risk being killed as competition.

These are not the actions of a secure individual.

Nevertheless, the subterfuge works, and Abram prospers greatly in Egypt.  We do not know about Sarai’s experience in the palace, however.  When God strikes the Egyptians with a plague, the Abram’s deception is revealed.  Needless to say, Pharaoh is not impressed, and Abram is expelled from Egypt.  Back to Canaan he goes.

Meanwhile, war breaks out between several cities in the Jordan valley and an alliance of foreign kings.  In the fighting, Lot is taken captive by the invading armies.  Abram marshalls his household and rides off to the rescue.  After restoring his nephew to safety, Abram once again returns to Canaan.

At this point, how might we imagine that Abram is feeling about his life?  He has left everything – his homeland, his culture, his family, his father and brothers, to follow a voice that leads him to the West with unspecified promises of land and progeny.  By now, Abram has put forth great effort.  While he may be wealthy, he is still a nomad, and he is still childless.  While Abram has been totally silent until now, I would think that he must be feeling his mortality.  “What have I done with my life?” he must be thinking.  “What is my legacy?  What do I leave behind me in the world.”

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, God appears to Abram for the second time in a vision.  “Fear not, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great.”  (Genesis 15:1)

That’s it?!

It seems to rub salt in the wound.  All of Abram’s doubts and fears bubble to the surface, and he finally expresses the frustration and disappointment that has been growing in his heart.

“O Lord God, what can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless, and the one in charge of my household is Dammesek Eliezer!”  He then continues, “Since You have granted me no offspring, my steward will be my heir.”  (Genesis 15:2-3)

In the ancient world, if a couple was childless, their estate could be inherited by a loyal servant.  (Nahum Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary, Genesis, p. 113)  This is the only time in the Tanakh that Abram’s head servant is mentioned by his name, Eliezer.  It suggests that Abram’s statement is not rhetorical.  He truly is resigned to the fact that he and Sarai will not be having any children.  What then is to become of God’s promise that he will be a great nation?

God responds by reassuring Abram.  “That one shall not be your heir,” God responds, “but your very own issue shall be your heir.”  (Genesis 15:4)  Then God brings Abram outside and instructs him to look up.  “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them… so shall your offspring be.”  (Genesis 15:5)

Would that reassure you?

It did reassure Abram.  “And because he put his trust in the Lord, He (God) reckoned it to his (Abram’s) merit.”  וְהֶאֱמִן בַּה’ וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לּוֹ צְדָקָה  (Genesis 15:6)

Rabbi Jacob Mann Rakovski, who passed away in 2012 and served for more than 50 years as the Rabbi at Hadassah Medical Organization in Jerusalem, comments on the final word of this phrase, tzedakah.  (Iturei Torah, vol. 1, p. 105)  What does the Torah mean when it describes Abram continuing trust, or faith, emunah, in God to be tzedakah?

Rakovski says that by having faith at such a seemingly hopeless moment, Abram offers a tremendous gift to the world.  That gift is the ability to live a life with purpose and meaning, which is only possible through faith.

When a person lives without faith, Rakovski says, that person’s life has no meaning.  When such a person experience difficulties, he or she is inclined to ask, “what good is my life?  Why bother?”

Abram saved the world by demonstrating that there is, indeed, something for which to live, and thus, life is immeasurably precious.  That is why the Torah uses the word tzedakah to describe what Abram did.  His gift is a kind of tzedakah.

Abram may be unique in his ability to maintain faith in God’s promise that he will have children when he has not managed to do for the first 80-plus years of his life.  But the lesson to us is important.

Think about a time when you were disappointed.  When the things you hoped for did not come to be.  Perhaps it was a college program you were hoping to get into, a dream job that you could not get, a romance that did not develop the way you were hoping, not being able to have the family that you imagined.

To be human is to face disappointment.  Our challenge is to keep going when things do not turn out as we are hoping.  And that is where faith comes in.  I found it interesting that Rakovski does not actually specify faith in God, although I imagine that he probably implied it.

But I’ll suggest that when we have faith in something, whatever that something is, we are far better suited to deal with life’s challenges when they come our way, and we experience life’s blessings as far more momentous and meaningful when they happen.

In 2004, the This I Believe project was founded.  It was actually the resurrection of a radio program hosted by Edward R. Murrow in the 1950’s in which famous, and not-so-famous people were asked to speak about the guiding principles by which they lived.

At this point, more than 125,000 people have submitted essays about the values that guide their daily lives and give them a sense of meaning.

For several years, This I Believe essays would be read on NPR, and I had a chance to hear some of them during my commutes to Rabbinical School.  There was one essay in particular that stuck with me.  I would like to share it.  It is by Harold Taw, an attorney from Seattle and the son of Burmese immigrants.  He comes from a totally different tradition than that of the monotheistic religions, and yet the thing in which he believes, gives his life meaning and purpose.

I could say that I believe in America because it rewarded my family’s hard work to overcome poverty. I could say that I believe in holding on to rituals and traditions, because they helped us flourish in a new country. But these concepts are more concretely expressed this way: I believe in feeding monkeys on my birthday, something I’ve done without fail for 35 years.

When I was born, a blind Buddhist monk living alone in the Burmese jungle predicted that my birth would bring great prosperity to the family. To ensure this prosperity, I was to feed monkeys on my birthday. While this sounds superstitious, the practice makes karmic sense. On a day normally given over to narcissism, I must consider my family and give nourishment to another living creature.

The monk never meant for the ritual to be a burden. In the Burmese jungle, monkeys are as common as pigeons. He probably had to shoo them away from his sticky rice and mangoes. It was only in America that feeding monkeys meant violating the rules. As a kid, I thought that was cool. I learned English through watching bad television shows, and I felt like Caine from “Kung Fu,” except I was a chosen warrior sent to defend my family. Dad and I would go to the zoo early in the morning, just the two of us. When the coast was clear, I would throw my contraband peanuts to the monkeys.

I never had to explain myself until my 18th birthday. It was the first year I didn’t go with my father. I went with my friends and arrived 10 minutes after the zoo gates closed. `Please,’ I beseeched the zookeeper, `I feed monkeys for my family, not for me. Can’t you make an exception?’ `Go find a pet store,’ she said. If only it were so easy. That time I got lucky. I found out that a high school classmate trained the monkeys for the movie “Out of Africa,” so he allowed me to feed his monkey.

I’ve had other close calls. Once a man with a pet monkey suspected that my story was a ploy and that I was an animal rights activist out to liberate his monkey. Another time a zoo told me that outsiders could not feed their monkeys without violating the zookeepers’ collective bargaining agreement. In a pet store once, I managed to feed a marmoset being kept in a bird cage. Another time I was asked to wear a biohazard suit to feed a laboratory monkey.

It’s rarely easy, and yet somehow I’ve found a way to feed a monkey every year since I was born. Our family has prospered in America. I believe that I’ve ensured this prosperity by observing our family ritual and feeding monkeys on my birthday. Do I believe that literally? Maybe. But I have faith in our family, and I believe in honoring that faith in any way I can.

What do you believe in?  Maybe it’s feeding monkeys.  Or maybe it has something to do with serving humanity, or supporting the Jewish community, or following Jewish law and tradition, or raising a family.  When we can articulate the values and beliefs that inspire us to live lives of immeasurable meaning.  What gives your life meaning?  What gives you strength when things are not going well?  What inspires you to get out of bed each morning and face a new day?

What Do I Do That Makes Me a Jew – Rosh Hashanah 5775 (second day)

The Torah does not make any connection between Rosh Hashanah and repentance.  Yom Kippur, yes.  But Rosh Hashanah is described in the Torah as Yom Teruah – a Day of Blasting.  Although it is not stated explicitly, the biblical Rosh Hashanah did mark a new year of sorts.  It was a coronation holiday, when ancient Israel celebrated the crowning of God as King.

It was implied that on the day we celebrate God’s Kingship over the universe, we also celebrate God’s creation of that universe.

The element of teshuvah, repentance, does not seem so obvious.  Why celebrate something so grand by first going through the soul-wrenching experience of teshuvah?

The musaf Amidah includes three major themes: Malkhuyot, Zikhronot, and Shofarot – Kingship, Remembrances, and Shofar blasts.  Each section is comprised of ten biblical passages followed by a concluding blessing.

The verses in the first of the three sections, Malkhuyot, proclaim God’s Kingship over the universe, as we might expect.  The ninth verse is from the Prophet Zechariah: v’hayah Adonai l’melekh al kol ha’aretz, bayom hahu yi-h’yeh Adonai echad ushmo echad.  “Adonai shall be acknowledged King over all the earth; On that day Adonai shall be one, and His name, one.”

It might sound familiar.  This verse is included in the final line of v’al kein, the paragraph after Aleinu.

Notice that in Zechariah’s words, God is not currently recognized as King over all the earth.  The Prophet speaks of a future time when God will reign supreme.  “Adonai shall be acknowledged King…”

Zechariah looks ahead, to a time when all of humanity will be united in recognition of God.  Neither Zechariah, nor any other biblical or Rabbinic text, proclaims that everyone will become Jewish.  We have never expected the nations of the world to convert to be saved.  Rather, Zechariah imagines that all peoples will come to recognize God, and will be united in their commitment to justice and kindness.  That is the messianic future in our Jewish tradition.

So if, from the human perspective, God is not currently King, why do we celebrate God’s Kingship?

The clue is perhaps to be found in the tenth verse of Malkhuyot.  This should also sound familiar.  Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.  “Listen Israel: Adonai is our God, Adonai alone.”  It is included in Malkhuyot, even though it does not contain any obvious reference to God’s Kingship, either now or in the future.

The Rabbis of the Talmud understand the Shema as a statement about the Jewish people’s sole commitment to God.  In declaring our allegiance to Adonai alone, we proclaim our acceptance of ol malkhut shamayim, the yoke of the kingdom of heaven.

But there is something unusual about the language of the Shema compared to almost every other prayer.  Usually, we direct our prayers towards God.  God, you are great, merciful, powerful, and so on… Heal us, forgive us, save us…  You get the picture.

With the Shema, however, we talk to each other.  Shema Yisrael – “Listen Israel.”  Our tradition is to close our eyes to help us concentrate better, but it might make more sense to actually turn to the people around us, and make eye contact.  That is what the words themselves would seem to suggest.

Shema Yisrael!  “Listen, my fellow Jews, standing to my right and my left, in front and behind me.”  Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad! – “Adonai is our God, Adonai alone!”

This proclamation we make to one another is kind of a pep talk.  While the rest of the world may not yet have come to acknowledge God, we the Jewish people are committed.  We have a unique covenant, a particular sacred relationship with God that confers certain responsibilities on us.

By reciting the Shema as the conclusion of Malkhuyot, we send a message to ourselves and each other that the Jewish people has a role to play in crowning God as King of the world.  What is that role?  To live up to our potential as individuals and as a people. As Jews, the Torah is our recipe for reaching higher.

Teshuvah, repentance, is about refocusing ourselves on a life of Torah, recommitting to what truly matters in life.  That is how we bring Zekhariah’s vision closer to reality.

Today, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we read the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac.  As a test, God asks Abraham to offer up his beloved son Isaac as a burnt offering.  Abraham complies without a word of protest.  At the last moment, as the knife is raised above his bound son, an angel calls out, “Abraham, Abraham… Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him…”

To our ears, this is a horrific story.  How could Abraham go along with such an awful request, we ask.  Why does the man who argued with God on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah not plead for the life of his own son?  What kind of a God would ask such a thing, even if the plan all along was to stop Abraham from finishing the task?

These morally troubling questions might seem obvious to us, but before modern times, these were not the issues that Jews raised.

Traditional commentaries and midrashim recognize the importance of this story, but for different reasons.  It is so significant that our ancient Sages selected it as the Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah.  I do not think their goal was to horrify Jews sitting through long High Holiday services.

Why did they pick it?

The answer can be found in the angel’s next words to Abraham:  “For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.”

It is Abraham’s faith, his willingness to offer up the ultimate sacrifice, that the Rabbis suggest as a model.  Abraham did not want to sacrifice his son.  The text tells us as much.  “Take your son,” God instructs Abraham at the beginning of the story.  “your favored one, Isaac, whom you love…”  There is no question that Abraham loves Isaac, and that he does not want to do what has been asked of him, but his fear of God is even greater.

For millenia, Jews read this story and saw in Abraham not a model to be emulated, but a solitary act of faith whose merits would continue to reverberate with blessings throughout the generations.  To this day, prayers in our siddur evoke Abraham’s (and Isaac’s) tremendous act of faith.  Jews in the middle ages who took their own and their children’s lives rather than be murdered by Crusader mobs looked to the Akedah as a model for martyrdom.  “Abraham did not finish the task, but we did,” they proclaimed.

One reading of the story could be as a rejection of child sacrifice.  After all, God tells Abraham that he does not want him to sacrifice Isaac.  Contrary to the pagan gods of the ancient world, our God is not like that.  The sacrifices asked of us do not require that we give up our future.  Quite the opposite.  The purpose of the Torah and the mitzvot is to promote life.

Nevertheless, we are asked to offer our children to God, but in a different way.

A midrash teaches that as the Jewish people are at Mount Sinai about to receive the Torah, God suddenly stops and says, “I will not give this Torah to you unless you provide worthy guarantors who will ensure that you keep it.”

The people are dumbfounded.  “We’ll give you the Patriarchs,” they offer.

“Nah.”  God is not impressed.  “They didn’t always do what I wanted.  They need their own guarantors.”

“Okay,” the Israelites think. “We’ll give you the Prophets.”

“Nope,” God responds.  “I have problems with them too.”

Finally, the Israelites look up.  “Our children will be our guarantors.”

God smiles.  “That I can work with.”

From that moment on, the Jewish people have been committed to living by the Torah.  This commitment is primarily not about belief, but rather it is about action, so let each of us ask ourselves the following question:  What do I do that makes me a Jew?

It is not such a simple question.  Let me reframe it.  What does Judaism compel me to do that, left to my own devices, I would not do on my own?

For example:  I would love to stay in bed all morning on Saturday, but according to Jewish law I am supposed to get up in order to pray, ideally with a community.  So instead of sleeping in, I come to synagogue.

Here is the inverse of the question:  What would I love to do that I don’t because Judaism says no?

That’s easy.  I would eat a bacon double cheeseburger.  I have never had one, but I am certain that it is delicious.  According to the Torah, bacon double cheeseburgers are not kosher, so I will have to go without.

What do I do that makes me a Jew?  It is an important question because being Jewish is more than just a cultural aspect of our identities.  Judaism is supposed to be lived.  We ought to be able to point to specific decisions we make that we would not make if we were not Jewish.  Everyone in this room made a choice to come here today.  You are here because of Judaism.  How else does being Jewish impact our decisions and actions?

In recent decades, much of the Jewish world has embraced tikkun olam, literally, “repairing the world,” as a core expression of Jewish values.  While traditional texts have something more mystical and spiritual in mind, we have redefined the term to refer to social action and social justice.  Tikkun olam means literally, “repairing the world.”  Reinterpreting tikkun olam in this way is a wonderful application of traditional Jewish values about justice to contemporary life.  But is social justice Jewish?

After all, there are lots of people of all faiths, and of no faith, who are dedicated to social action and social justice.  I do not need to be Jewish to volunteer at a soup kitchen, clean up a creek, run a clothing drive, or make a micro-loan.

Would I do the same volunteer work and give the same money to charity if I was not a Jew?  If the answer is yes, then can I really claim to be doing something Jewish?  Do not get me wrong, humanist values are important, and often overlap with Jewish values.  In fact, these kinds of shared values are a great opportunity for finding common ground with other groups.

But a Judaism that is only about social action and social justice is incomplete.

So let’s come back to the question:  What do I do that makes me a Jew?

Let’s consider our homes.  If someone were to walk inside your home, how would she know that its residents were Jewish?  A Jewish home has a mezuzah, at least on the main entrance, and preferably on all doors except bathrooms and closets.  Jewish homes have books, especially Jewish books, emphasizing our commitment to learning.  Jewish homes have ritual items on display like Shabbat candles, Challah plates, kiddush cups, Chanukah menorah’s, seder plates, and so on.  Ideally, these ritual items should be used.  Jewish homes often have Jewish art on the wall.  If it is the home of a married couple, the ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract, might be displayed prominently.  A Jewish home probably has a Jewish calendar hanging up somewhere.  The synagogue bulletin might be on a coffee table or attached by magnet to the fridge.

If a home is kosher, it might have labels on the kitchen cabinets, indicating whether the milk or the meat utensils belong there.

That’s the home.  What about when we are out in the world?  When it comes to food, there are twenty four primary regulations that make up the rules of kashrut.  But did you know that there are over one hundred rules that deal with business conduct?  Those rules are a lot more complicated than “be honest.”  These laws often go beyond what the secular legal system would allow, and represent a way of conducting our affairs that is rooted in morality, fairness, and compassion.  For example, it is forbidden to ask a shopkeeper how much something costs if we do not have any intention of making a purchase.  While perfectly legal under American law, our Jewish law considers it cruel to falsely raise the hopes of someone whose livelihood depends on making a sale.  Let us think about that the next time we go into a brick and mortar store to check out an item that we intend to purchase online.

It is a mitzvah to give tzedakah, charity.  Specifically, we are asked to give a minimum of 10% of our income.  This applies even to the person who is himself a recipient of tzedakah.

How does Judaism impact the financial decisions we make?

Judaism has a lot to say about what comes out of our mouths.  Spreading gossip, lashon hara in Hebrew, which literally means “the evil tongue,” is forbidden in Judaism.  Entire books have been written that explore the numerous permutations of this most ubiquitous of activities.  To talk as a Jew involves holding our tongue in rather significant ways.

The ways that Judaism offers guidance for our lives covers nearly every category we can imagine: how we treat our family members, how we support members of our community in need, how we celebrate with a bride and groom.

Taken as a whole, to live a Jewish life has the potential to touch on every moment of the day.  Committment to the mitzvot puts us on the path for living an ethical life, a life in which our everyday moments are elevated in holiness, a life in which our own characters are refined, and a life in which we share a deep connection with the Jewish people of today, those who have come before us, and those who will follow.

The question that everybody involved in Jewish continuity wrestles with is “How do we ensure that the next generation of Jews will stay committed?”

The answer is so simple.  We have to do Jewish and like it.  When children are immersed in families and communities in which the adults, their role models, have made a commitment to Jewish life because it is meaningful to them, it makes an impression.  It must be more than dropping off our kids at Religious School or Day School.  We have got to model how living a committed Jewish life is worthwhile for adults.

That is the simple answer for how to raise committed Jews.

Last year, the well-publicized Pew Report on Jewish identity in America indicated declining rates of affiliation among Jews.  Every marker of Jewish identity and commitment, ranging from raising children as exclusively Jewish, to lighting Shabbat candles, to feeling connected to Israel, had gone down rather significantly compared to surveys in previous decades.

It especially highlighted – and many articles were written subsequently about this – the decline of the Conservative Movement.

Yet here we are – so many people gathering together to celebrate Rosh Hashanah.  And look at all of the children who have passed through these doors the past two days.  In our little pocket here in San Jose, we seem to be bucking the trend – and there are a lot of similar pockets around the country.

It is because we have chosen to make a commitment.

Last year, Congregation Sinai adopted a new mission statement.  The first line captures what our synagogue is here to do:  “At Sinai, we connect people to Judaism, each other, Israel, and the world.”

Judaism has always been rooted in community.  The fullest expression of Jewish life needs other Jews.  It needs synagogues.  That is why the Shema is such a perfect prayer for us to recite.

It is a prayer in which we acknowledge each other.  We declare that we need one another to fulfill our role in the world.  And if we, the Jewish people, are going to play our part in bringing about Zechariah’s vision of a world that is united in its commitment to peace and justice, it will depend on each one of us.

The teshuvah that we perform during our celebration of the New Year recommits us to that vision.

Over the rest of today, and in the days ahead leading up to Yom Kippur, let us each ask ourselves the question.  Let us talk about it with each other.  Let’s talk about it with our kids:  What do I do that makes me a Jew?

Blinded by Fear – Rosh Hashanah 5775 (first day)

Today is the day when Jews around the world celebrate the new year, so it is a good time for us to take stock of how things are going around the world for the Jewish people.  Let us start with a place where things are great for the Jews – Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan is one of Israel’s closest allies.  In 1991, when Azerbaijan declared independence from the U.S.S.R., Israel was one of the first countries in the world to recognize it.  A community of around 10,000 Jews live there, with the Mountain Jews tracing their roots back 1500 years.  The Jewish Agency has had a school in Azerbaijan since 1982.  There is very little antisemitism, and Jews there are an important part of society.

Israel and Azerbaijan have close diplomatic relations.  Trade connections are strong and growing.  Israel is one of the major providers of military equipment, and has helped modernize Azerbaijan’s armed forces.  They have cooperate closely in intelligence gathering and in the fight against terrorism.  If Israel ever has to launch a strike against Iran’s nuclear program, it is likely that the plan will involve the use of an Azerbaijani airfield.

In 2010, the Azerbaijani President banned the issuing of visas at the airport for visitors from every country in the world except for two, one of which was Israel.  The majority of the population of Azerbaijan is Muslim.  So there is one shining example of sanity in our world.

Of course, much of what our people have experienced around the world has not been so positive.  Our brothers and sisters suffered through a fifty day war with Hamas this summer.  Incidents of antisemitism have been on the rise in Europe.  In Belgium a few months ago, four people were murdered at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, by a suspected Frenchman of Algerian descent who had come back after a year fighting with ISIS.  Just a couple of weeks ago, there was an arson attack against a synagogue that was also firebombed back in 2010.

Two Muslim girls were recently arrested for plotting to blow up the Great Synagogue in Lyon, France.

A cell phone store in Istanbul recently posted a sign which read “The Jew dogs cannot come in here.”

European synagogues typically station armed guards outside for weekly Shabbat services.  If you visit the website of many European synagogues, you will see something like “To attend services, please bring photo identification or fax a copy of your passport.”  Jews in Europe are feeling less and less safe.  Perhaps that is why the rates of aliyah of Jews from Western Europe increased by 35% in 2013, and are continuing to increase this year.  It is too bad for Western Europe.  Historically, nations who expel their Jews tend to go downhill shortly afterwards.

So…  Did you pay more attention to the good news or the bad news?  Which evoked a stronger emotional reaction – Azerbaijan or Europe?  I am going to guess that it was the latter.

Fear is an extremely powerful emotion, one that blinds us to the blessings that stare us right in the face and often leads us to behave irrationally, bury our heads in the sand, or adopt fatalistic attitudes about the future.

If this is the time of year for taking stock of our lives, for conducting a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our souls, then it behooves us to look both inward and outward with open eyes.  Accountants, after all, need accurate data to make their calculations.

In the Torah portion for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, fear leads to nearly disastrous consequences.  At Isaac’s weaning celebration, Sarah sees something that terrifies her.  Ishmael, her handmaiden’s son with Abraham, is playing with Isaac in a way that causes her to fear for her son’s future.  To ensure that Isaac will not have to deal with his half-brother, she demands that Abraham banish Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness.  Although troubled, Abraham complies after God assures him things will turn out okay.  He gives the unfortunate mother and son provisions and sends them away.

When the food and water run out, Hagar begins to despair.  Thinking the end is near, she places Ishmael under a bush so that she will not have to watch him die.  Then she bursts into tears.  She is despondent and passive.

The boy is also wailing, and his cries reach heaven.  God sends an angel to Hagar, who scolds her: Mah lakh Hagar?  Al tir’i – “What troubles you, Hagar?  Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.  Come, lift up the boy by his hand for I will make a great nation of him.”  (Genesis 21:17-18)

Then God opens her eyes and shows her a well of water.  Ishmael survives and grows to become the father of a great nation.

How is it possible that Hagar could have missed a well of water that was right there all along?  In the desert, wherever there is water, there are signs of it.  Plants grow where springs bubble up from the earth.  How could she not have seen it?

And how could she not have seen her son’s greatness, his destiny to become the father of a great nation?

It was fear.  The angel recognizes it instantly.  “What troubles you, Hagar?  Fear not…”  Fear blinds her to the blessings that are in front of her.

This story presents two different responses to fear.  Sarah reacts to her fear by lashing out.  Hagar’s fear leads her to bury her head in the sand, abandoning her son in his time of need.

Edmund Burke, the eighteenth century Irish statesman and supporter of the American Revolution, once said:  “No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.”

How much are our lives controlled by fear!  Fear-filled messages surround us.  They are so ubiquitous that we do not even notice them.  Here are a few examples.

The cosmetics industry.  The marketing of makeup, hair products, age-defying skin creams and the like, is based on the premise that we should be afraid of our bodies getting old, as if that is something than can be prevented.

The organic food industry is growing at a rate of approximately 14% per year, driven by fear.  We pay more money to ostensibly protect ourselves and our children from pesticides, growth hormones, and genetically modified organisms.  Milk containers often include the following two contradictory statements:  “This milk is from cows not treated with rbST,” implying that rbST is something we should be worried about, and “The Food and Drug Administration has determined there is no significant difference between milk from rbST treated cows and non-rbST treated cows.”  So is rbST safe?  I have absolutely no idea… but am I willing to risk it for myself and my family?

Politicians are notorious for using fear-mongering to attract votes and raise funds.  To avoid setting off any partisan debates with a contemporary example, let’s go back fifty years.  The famous “Daisy” ad of 1964 features a cute little two-year-old girl standing in a field, picking petals off of a flower while she counts to ten.  As soon as she reaches nine, an ominous male voice starts counting down.  “Ten, nine, eight…”  The camera zooms in to the girl’s face and her eyes open wide as she sees something alarming in the distance.  When the countdown reaches zero, we are shown the image of a nuclear explosion and its billowing mushroom cloud.  Lyndon Johnson’s voice then warns, “These are the stakes. To make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.” Then another voice summons us to “Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”  The ad was only shown once before it was pulled, but it left its mark.  Fear attracts votes.

In reporting the news, it is accepted as an ironclad law that good news will not sell more papers, but a headline about the latest ISIS attack, the spread of the Ebola virus, or the most recent grisly murder in San Jose will.  The growth of the internet and social media, and the change in the news business, have only exacerbated this.  Information moves so fast, and there is so much competition, that those who hope to share information are pressured to use any means possible to get attention, and that means fear.

Do not think that we Jews are above it.  Jewish organizations frequently use fear to garner support, whether we are talking about the the existential threats facing Israel, worsening cultures of antisemitism on college campuses, declining rates of Jewish affiliation, and so on.

The pervasive messages of fear that inundate us leave their mark.  Our world feels like a dangerous place.  The United States no longer has the influence and clout that it once enjoyed.  Our economic recovery is precarious.  Terrorism is on the rise, along with violence against women, human trafficking, illegal immigration, economic inequality, rising sea levels, pollution, drought, disease, war…  The list goes on.

Nevertheless, I am happy to report that things have never been better.

Fact:  On a global scale, we are living in the safest, freest, most peaceful time in human history.

Before we go any further, let us acknowledge that war is tragic, and violence produces real human suffering.  Nearly two hundred thousand people have been killed in the civil war in Syria, and millions have fled as refugees.  In Nigeria, Boko Haram takes schoolgirls captive and terrorizes through rape and murder.

As a people, we know what it means to be the victims of persecution and discrimination.  It has sadly been part of the Jewish experience for thousands of years.  During the Holocaust, the Nazis murdered nearly two thirds of the Jews of Europe, representing more than one third of Jews globally.  This cannot be minimized.  We must never trivialize the loss or suffering of anyone who has been the victim of violence, whether war, genocide, domestic, or other.

But speaking about humanity as a whole, we have allowed fear to blind us to the many blessings of our world.

Profesoor Steven Pinker, a Pyschologist at Harvard, wrote a book a few years ago called The Better Angels of Our Nature, in which he looks at actual data about violence throughout human history and finds that the twentieth century was the safest, most peaceful century in human history.  So far, the twenty-first is looking even better.

But what about World War One, World War Two, the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur, Syria, Ukraine?  Conventional wisdom says that the twentieth century was the bloodiest, most violent ever.  The problem with that claim, Professor Pinker points out, is that nobody who makes it looks at evidence from any other century.

Previous centuries saw wars with names like “The Thirty Years War,” “The Eighty Years War,” and “The Hundred Years War” (which was actually 116 years).  Five hundred years ago, the Great Power nations typically spent about 75% of their time in a state of war with each other.  There has not been a Great Powers War since 1945.

Contrary to what all of the experts forecasted during the Cold War, America and the Soviet Union never went to war against each other.  Nuclear weapons were not used since the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The truth is, the overall trajectory of human history demonstrates a falling likelihood that any given person would die a violent death.

Professor Pinker starts at the beginning.  Looking at the archaeological remains of prehistoric human skeletons around the world, it turns out that approximately fifteen percent of them show physical signs of having died by human caused violence.

In Europe and the United States through the entire twentieth century, including both world wars, approximately .6% of deaths resulted from violence.  Globally, during the twentieth century, violent deaths, including those resulting from man-made famines, account for about three percent of all deaths.  In the year 2005, .03% percent of deaths globally were the result of violence.

Violence within societies has also fallen dramatically.  A person living in England today has about 1/35 the chance of being murdered as his or her medieval ancestor.  This is true in every European country for which we have data.

Corporal punishment, once common, was outlawed in the United States by the 8th Amendment, which banned cruel and unusual punishment.

Although the US is the only country in the western world that has not abolished the death penalty, our execution rate is only about 45 per year in a country with almost 15,000 homicides.

Violent crime has been steadily declining for decades in both per capita and absolute terms in every single category, including murder, robbery, rape, assault, property crime, and so on.  Society is getting more peaceful.

Slavery was legal everywhere on earth until the middle of the 18th century.  As of 1980, when Mauritania abolished it, slavery is now illegal in every country on the planet, although it does persist as an underground problem.

Extreme poverty is also declining globally.  In 1990, 43.1% of human beings lived on less than the equivalent of $1.25 per day.  In 2010, it was down to 20.6.  We still have a long way to go, but that is a remarkably fast improvement.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the average global life expectancy was 31.  In 2010, the world average was 67.2.

Globally, 84.1% of people fifteen and older know how to read and write.  Under the Millennium Goals, between 1999 and 2007, the percentage of children enrolled in primary schools in sub-Saharan Africa increased from 58% to 74%.

Freedom is spreading also.  Approximately half of the world’s population now lives under some sort of democratic rule.

Women’s rights have improved dramatically.  While domestic abuse is still a problem, it is nearly universally condemned in the US today, as we are currently witnessing as the NFL is trying to address domestic violence by professional football players.

Gay rights have expanded at a very quick pace, with nineteen states plus the District of Colombia and the federal government now recognizing same sex marriage.

What has caused all of this improvement?  It is not because human nature has changed.  Pinker identifies several factors.  One is the expansion of international commerce.  It is in everyone’s best interest to have trade between countries, and that requires peace.  Literacy and education have also been huge factors.  The ability to read exposes a person to other ideas, other ways of living and believing.  And this expands what he calls “the empathy circle.”  If I can imagine what it might be like to stand in another person’s shoes, I am much less likely to take pleasure when I watch that person burned at the stake.

Societies comprised of people with more education tend to experience lower violence and less racism, and are more receptive to democracy.

Do not get me wrong.  Things are far from perfect.  There is still tremendous suffering, injustice, and inequality that requires a lot of focus.  Civil wars rage.  The spread of militant Islam cannot be ignored.  But as a human species, we must acknowledge that we have made incredible gains.  For vast numbers of people in the world, life has never been better.

What about in the Jewish world?

Again, I do not want to deny the seriousness of the threats facing Israel, nor of Jews in Europe who are dealing with often violent antisemitism, nor of the oppressive culture on many college campuses.  But let us take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

In his 2010 book American Grace, based on a massive survey of Americans’ attitudes about religion, the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam reports that Jews are the most admired religious community in America.  A 2009 study by the Anti Defamation League found “anti-Semitic attitudes equal to the lowest level in all the years of taking the pulse of American attitudes toward Jews.”  (http://forward.com/articles/133047/robert-putnam-assays-religious-tolerance-from-a-un/)

Reacting to the good news, Abraham Foxman, the National Director of the ADL, said that “…the significant diminution of widespread prejudice against Jews is tempered by the manifestation of violence, conspiracy theories and insensitivities toward them.”  (http://archive.adl.org/presrele/asus_12/5633_12.html#.VBn32Uu7uoo)

Can’t we just be happy that they like us?

As Abba Eban once said, “Show us a silver lining and we will search for the cloud.”

I am sure that you have probably received dozens of emails listing all of Israel’s extraordinary accomplishments.  Let me mention just a few to make the point.  Israel produces more scientific papers per capita than any country on earth – by a lot.  It has the highest concentration of high tech companies in the world outside of Silicon Valley.  Israel is number two in the world for venture capital funds, behind the U.S.  It is the only country in the world that entered the 21st century with a net gain in trees.  It has developed dozens and dozens of life saving medical devices, not to mention all of the other high tech innovation.  Israel is a leader in solar power and water desalinization technology.  Israel has more museums per capita and is second in books published per capita.  Israel is the one country in the Middle East in which Christianity is growing.  It is the only country in which women can travel freely without the permission of a male guardian.  (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-steven-carr-reuben-phd/imagine-a-world-without-i_1_b_5706935.html)

And so on…

But isn’t Israel a dangerous place?  That is a question that people ask me all the time.

In 2013, the rate of violent deaths per capita in Jerusalem was slightly less than that of Portland, one of America’s safest cities.

In the more than 100 year history of violence between Israel and its Arab neighbors, there have been 70,000 fewer deaths than in the Syrian civil war of the past three years.  In 2013, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict claimed 42 lives, about the monthly murder rate in Chicago.  (http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/183033/israel-insider-guide)

Even in this summer’s fighting, the enormous lengths that Israel undertook to minimize civilian deaths on both sides of the border were extraordinary.  Can you imagine how that war would have gone if any other country had been in Israel’s position?

Some will call it naive, but Israel is doing pretty good.

But in the words of the Israeli author S. Y. Agnon upon receiving the Nobel Prize: “Who remembers the blessings?  I have received so many.  I remember those who did not bless me.”

As we celebrate the beginning of the year 5775, let us start to look for the blessings.  Let us recognize and be thankful that we live in one of the most diverse, tolerant, and affluent communities in human history.

Let us look with open eyes at this world that God has created.  Where have things gone well?  When have we reached our fullest human potential?  How have we made life better for each other?  What problems that used to cause suffering are now solved because we pulled together?  It should be a long list.

Then, when we look at the persistent challenges facing us today, let fear not cause us to hide, nor to overreact.

One hundred years from now, what global challenges of today will our descendants look back on and wonder why it took us so long to fix: rising carbon emissions, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, income inequality, lack of treatment for those with mental illness, oppression of women in the developing world, lack of universal access to safe drinking water?

Which challenges facing the Jewish people must we address?  There are communities in which our fellow Jews are struggling, where synagogues, because of real threats, station armed guards 365 days a year, not just on the High Holidays.  At anti-Israel demonstrations in Europe,  people shout “Death to the Jews.”  At some college campuses, 18 year old Jewish students must walk by people screaming at them as “baby killers” on their way to class.  Israeli children live under the threat of rocket attacks.

What are we doing to support them?  Not enough.

Fear gets in the way.  A sizable portion of the Jewish community responds by burying its head in the sand.  Why be tied to the fate of a people that constantly faces existential threats?  Another portion of the community responds with bellicosity, stifling debate and branding anyone who disagrees a “self-hating Jew.”

Where is the community solidarity that we demonstrated in the movement to free the Jews of the Former Soviet Union; the willingness of Jewish communities across America, including this one, to welcome refugees into their homes?  We need to bring the best of what Judaism offers to the challenges facing our people, and the challenges facing our world.

As Jews, we have learned much about building caring communities based on the values of Torah, passing Jewish tradition down to our children, and keeping our identity while engaging positively with a surrounding non-Jewish culture.  We have learned to succeed in science, medicine, art, politics, finance, philanthropy, and the pursuit of social justice.  As Jews, we have a lot of accomplishments.

So instead of always asking, “what is wrong with the world,” this year, let us ask “what is right with the world?”

L’Shanah Tovah.

Becoming That Kind of Person – Vayera 5774

Parshat Vayera begins with Abraham sitting in his tent, during the hottest part of the day.  Last week’s parshah ended with Abraham performing a brit milah on all of the male members of the household, including himself.

The midrash connects them together, explaining that it is the third day after Abraham circumcised himself, at 100 years of age.  This is when the pain of the recovery is most intense.

So there he is, sitting in his tent.  It’s hot.  He’s in pain.  He looks up, and he see three distant figures approaching.

So what does he do?  Remember, this is the Middle East.

He does not reach for his shotgun.  He does not turn the other way, and pretend he didn’t see them.  He does not send one of his able-bodied servants to go find out who they are.

No, he rushes out to greet them.  He bows to the ground, and insists that they come in to rest.

“You must be tired, come in for a while.  Relax in the shade.  Wash your feet.  Have something to eat and drink.”

The three men agree, and Abraham starts rushing about, instructing household to to prepare food and drink for them.  He slaughters a calf himself.  While they are eating, Abraham stands before them, waiting on them like a servant.

Abraham’s behavior is remarkable.  While there is a code of hospitality in the Middle East,  Abraham goes above and beyond it.  It is not only that Abraham and Sarah had an “open-door” policy, welcoming visitors to their home.  They practiced radical hospitality.

This is not normal behavior.  Most of us, if we were recuperating from surgery, would not want to throw a dinner party and invite all our friends, not to mention strangers.  The kind of person who practices radical hospitality is the kind of person who has that quality down to his core.  Abraham is that kind of guy.

How does a person get like that?

Well, there is the rare person, like Abraham, who is simply born with that kind of generous spirit  But for most of us, it takes education from an early age.

Perhaps that explains the blessing that comes at the end of Abraham’s encounter with the three men, who turn out to have been angels.

“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, in order that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what He has promised him.”  (Genesis 18:19)

Character is built through education.  Part of God’s blessing to Abraham is a charge to instructs his children so that they become “that kind of person.”

What does it mean to be children of Abraham?  To serve.  To recognize that our obligations to others go beyond the narrow circles of our families and friends.  It extends to people we don’t know.  It may even extend to people who hold different values than us.

Two of the angels leave Abraham’s presence, and Abraham is left talking with God.  God reveals the plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, two depraved cities whose wickedness has provoked God’s anger.

Abraham boldly responds to God’s revelation with a challenge.  “Ha-shofet kol ha-aretz lo ya-aseh mishpat?  Shall the judge of all the earth not perform justice?”  This begins Abraham’s pleading with God to save the wicked people of Sodom and Gomorrah on account of the merit of 50, then 45, 40, 30, 20, and finally just 10 righteous people living among them.  Abraham is making this argument on behalf of people who do not share his values, people who probably deserve the punishment that God is about to mete out against them.

Indeed, Abraham has lived up to the blessing that God has just bestowed upon him.

As Jews, we look to Abraham as our Patriarch.  God’s covenant with him, and Abraham’s behavior, model for us the kind of role we are asked to have in the world.  And the message is that our compassion towards others, our concern for justice, must not be limited to our own.  It is clear from both of these stories that compassion must extend to people outside the circles of our families and friends.  Our pursuit of justice must reach those who do not necessarily share the same values and beliefs as us.

As Abraham’s descendants, we are asked to instruct our collective children about was is just and right.  The goal is to turn them into the kind of people who would rush out of their homes to take care of someone whom they did not know, or stand up to shout for compassion and justice on behalf of others.

That kind of training happens when we surround the next generation by a community that expresses those values through action on a regular basis.

The Torah subtly demonstrates how this kind of moral education can be successful.  One chapter later, the scene shifts to the city of Sodom.  Abraham’s nephew Lot happens to live there.  Lot’s father had died young, and so he grew up in Abraham and Sarah’s household, where he was raised by his Aunt and Uncle.  He must have learned something by their example.

When two of the three angels that had visited Abraham continue their travel, they go to Sodom.  This is how the Torah describes what happens when they get there:

“The two angels arrived in Sodom in the evening, as Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to greet them and, bowing low with his face to the ground, he said, ‘Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house to spend the night, and bathe your feet; then you may be on your way early.'”  (Genesis 19:1-2)

It seems that Lot learned a lot growing up in his aunt and uncle’s home.  He has become the kind of person who practices radical hospitality.  God’s blessing of Abraham was well-placed.  May we live up to it.

Isaac’s Bar Mitzvah Speech – Rosh Hashanah II 5774

I can’t believe this day has finally arrived. There were definitely a few moments when it was not at all certain that I would be standing here before you.

I know what you all must be wondering. What happened up there – on the mountain? It is difficult for me to talk about. Some of it I still do not understand. I keep replaying the events of those three days over and over in my mind, and different images keep flooding into my head – many of them contradictory. Looking back, I don’t quite know what was real and what might be a figment of my imagination.

Father has never talked about “the incident” since. He barely even spoke while it was going on. It all started when Father came to me, and said, his voice filled with gentleness: “My son, my favorite son whom I love, Isaac, you must come with me tomorrow. We are going to worship the Lord.”

Father had been telling me about the Lord for as long as I can remember. That this God, the only God, sent him on a journey from his native home to the land of Canaan, where we live now. Father left everything behind, and set out with Mother to come here. God had communicated with Father several times, promising that Father would be the founder of a great nation.

I was to be the one through whom this blessing, this b’rit, or covenant, as he called it, would pass. Although Father told me about the Lord often, I never heard the voice. I was never visited by angels. Father always seemed so certain, so unwavering. He knew in his heart that these promises would be fulfilled. And so I have always trusted him, even though I felt that this was too great a burden for me to bear.

When he told me to get ready for our journey, I went along.

On the morning of the third day, Father looked up and saw a mountain. He asked the two servants who were with us if they could see anything out of the ordinary, but they could not. I could see it, however. Moriah. The mountain was enveloped in clouds, with a pillar of fire flashing within.*1* He sent away the two lads with the donkey, and gave me the wood for the burnt offering to carry. Father took the flint and the knife.

Something was missing. “Father,” I asked, “Here are the flint and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering.”*2*

“God will provide, my son,” he replied. There was something in his eyes at that moment. A distant look, as if he was concentrating on a voice that was meant only for him. Then he looked at me lovingly, and without a word placed his hand on my shoulder and we walked up the mountain together.

When we reached the top, Father began collecting large stones to build an altar. It was at that moment that it became clear to me what I had known all along. There would be no sheep. I was the sheep.

But I didn’t know if I could do it.

“Father,” I said, as he put the last stone in place, “I am just a boy. I don’t know that I will be able to stay still for the sacrifice. I am worried that if I get scared, I will tremble out of fear of the knife, and you will feel sorrow, and perhaps then your sacrifice to God will become invalid. Please, Father, bind me extra tightly.”*3*

And so he did. He stacked the wood on top of the stones, and placed me, bound, on top. Then Father grasped the knife.

At the moment that he raised it high, I looked up, and beheld something wondrous. The heavens opened. I saw the Shekhinah, God’s very Presence, seated in the heavenly throne room, which was filled with angels. For the first time, I understood a little about the One who commanded Father to offer me up as a burnt offering. My soul flew out of my body.

An ethereal voice cried out, “Abraham, Abraham! Do not raise your hand against the boy.” The Holy One revived me. I came to, and all I could think to do was praise the Lord: “Blessed are you Adonai, who gives life to the dead.”*4*

I then realized that my eyesight had gone blurry. While my soul was leaving my body, Father’s eyes were dripping with tears. Apparently, he could no longer keep his emotions bottled up, even as his heart was filled with joy at fulfilling God’s command. Father’s tears poured into my eyes. I have had difficulty seeing ever since.*5*

I was in a daze. Suddenly, there was movement off to the side. It was a ram, its horns caught in a thicket. I recognized this ram, although I don’t think Father did. It was from our flock. We had named it, ironically, Isaac.

Father had come to worship the Lord, a task which he had to complete. Without betraying any emotion, he freed the other Isaac from the bush, and brought it to the altar, where he offered it up to God.

Since that day, Father and I have hardly spoken. I was sent off to the Garden of Eden to recover. Then, Father enrolled me at the Shem and Ever Day School to learn God’s Torah and the mitzvot.

But a mystery still haunts me. I was the one through whom the Covenant would be fulfilled. And yet, I was the one whom Father was asked to sacrifice. Father says that this was a test. I don’t know what exactly it was a test of. A test to see if his faith in God was greater than his love for me? A double test, to see if he would carry out the command to the very end, confident that he would be stopped at the last minute so that God’s promise of children as numerous as the starts could be fulfilled? Whatever it was, it seems that Father passed it.

Afterwards, an angel blessed him, because he did not hold back. Therefore, Father, myself, and all of our descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the shore. The nations of the world will be blessed through us, because Father obeyed the Lord’s command.

And now here I am, becoming a man.

There are a few people without whom I could not have made it to this day.

First of all, I would like to thank all of my teachers at the Shem and Ever Day School.*6* You taught me Torah and mitzvot with so much love and passion. I will strive to pass on that same love of Torah to my own children.

I also want to thank the angels at the Garden of Eden Convalescent Home.*7* You nursed me back to health when I needed you. You healed my neck, which was nicked by the knife. You did such a great job that I only have a tiny scar the size of a bead.*8* I literally would not be here without you.

Ishmael, my brother, you had to leave when I was really young, and I still do not quite understand why. Mom said you were a bad influence on me, but I really missed having a big brother around. We do not see eye to eye on most things, but I think we have more in common than most people assume. I hope we can find an opportunity to spend some time together so that we can really get to know each other. Maybe then, each of us might be able to hear and accept the other “where he is.”*9* We have spent way too many years apart.

Mom, I know that you are here with me in spirit. I was the son you always wanted. You had given up on ever having children, but then, miraculously, you got pregnant and had me. Sometimes I wonder if, having been born so late, you and dad might have put too many hopes in me. I know you protected me fiercely from what you saw as bad influences, and I do not blame you for that. You loved me more than anything in the world, and you put my future ahead of everything. You and dad each loved me intensely, but quite differently, and that could be confusing sometimes. Mom, I heard you died right after “the incident.” I overheard the angels at the Garden of Eden Convalescent Home whispering something about how the Adversary told you what Dad and I had been up to, and the shock was too great. I was so sad to not be able to mourn for you at your funeral. Whenever I look at your empty tent, I am painfully aware of the hole in my heart. I long for the day when my memory of you will not be so difficult.*10*

Last, Father. I don’t blame you for what you did. I know you love me as much as it is possible for a father to love a son. It’s just that your faith in God was stronger. My faith, I think, is not the same.

When I have kids one day, God willing, I plan to do things differently. I prefer a quieter life. I don’t want to travel far and wide. I don’t want to seize the gates of my foes. I want to be close with my kids.

I worry about how my descendants will understand what has happened to me. There will come a time when they will suffer persecution, when they will be oppressed and murdered for being heirs to this covenant. What, then, will they do – when their love for God is so great, matched only be their love for their children? What will they do when the bloodthirsty mobs come, demanding that they break the covenant, and turn over their sons and daughters, whom they love?

I know what they will do. They will look to me and Father as examples. And they will offer up their children to God. But there will be no angel to stay their hands. There will be no miracle to turn aside the hordes at the gates. They will accomplish that which Father only showed a willingness to complete. “Yours was a trial,” they will say “mine were the performances.”*11* They will compose elegies to glorify their martyrdom, such as this:

On the merit of the Akedah at Moriah once we could lean,

Safeguarded for the salvation of age after age-

Now one Akedah follows another, they cannot be counted.*12*

Is this what it means to be chosen? Chosen for what? For suffering. For love. For death.

No. Not for death. I refuse to believe that. For life. Maybe the test was a lesson. After all, God stopped Father at the last minute. “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him!”*13* cried out the angel. God does not want parents to offer up their children as burnt offerings. God wants parents to raise up their children with love, and learning.

Thanks to all of you for being here with me as I celebrate becoming Bar Mitzvah. If there is one lesson I take from what happened to me, it is to treat every day as a gift. Every day we are alive is a day that God has sent angels to protect us. We must strive to make the most of the blessings we have been granted.

That is the legacy I will leave to my descendants.

 

*1*Genesis Rabbah 56:1,2

*2*Genesis 22:7

*3*Genesis Rabbah 56:8

*4*Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 31 quoted in Shalom Spiegal’s The Last Trial, pp. 30-32

*5*Genesis Rabbah 56:8

*6*Genesis Rabbah 56:11 (4)

*7*Abravanel on Genesis 22:19 (5-6)

*8*R. Joshua ibn Shuaib, Sefer Derashot (Cracow, 1573), Hayye Sarah, 96.

*9*Genesis 21:17

*10*Genesis 24:67

*11*Shalom Spiegal’s The Last Trial, p. 16

*12*Selihah by Rabbi David bar Meshullam: “O God, do not hush up the shedding of my blood!” quoted in Shalom Spiegal’s The Last Trial, p. 21

*13*Genesis 22:12