The Head & Not The Tail, The Top & Not The Bottom – Ki Tavo 5779

Rosh Hashanah is coming, and with it, an entire menu of culinary treats.  Apples and honey.  Those are obvious.  The challah is round—to symbolize a crown; and filled with raisins—for a sweet new year.

But there is more.  The Talmud recommends a number of foods to eat on Rosh Hashanah, such as beans, leeks, beets, and dates.  The Aramaic names for each of these foods form puns.

For example, rubia—”beans,”sounds like yirbu—”increase”, as in “May our merits increase.”

Karti—”leeks”—sounds like yikartu—”cut off”.  Silkei—”beets”—sounds like yistalku—”removed”.  Tamrei—”dates”—sounds like yitamu—”finished”.  All three of these can be eaten as if to say, “May our enemies be cut off, removed, or finished.”  Take your pick.  Or eat all three.

Other foods have been added to the list.  Rimon—”pomegranate”—”May our mitzvot be as numerous as the seeds in the pomegranate.”  It also happens to be symbolic of fertility, so interpret that as you will.

But the best food to eat on Rosh Hashanah—actually, this is debatable—is the head of a sheep or fish.  Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg would eat the head of a ram, to symbolize the ram that was sacrificed instead of Isaac, which we read about on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.

Does anybody here follow this custom?  In my house, we buy gummy fish, cut them in half, and eat just the head.

What do we say when we eat the fish head?  Nih’yeh l’rosh, v’lo l’zanav.  “May we be like the head, and not like the tail.”

It is a strange expression, and it comes from this morning’s Torah portion.

In Parashat Ki Tavo, Moses describes a covenant ceremony that the Israelites will perform as soon as they cross over into the Promised Land, which they be doing without him.  As an entire nation, they renew their commitment to God.  During the ceremony, they recite a litany of blessings and curses which will befall the nation as a consequence of whether the people follow God’s commandments.

The blessings are what we might expect: Abundant rain in the right season.  Successful harvests.  Prosperity.  Victory against enemies.  The other nations of the earth will stand in awe of Israel.

Then, after these tangible blessings have been pronounced, there is one additional blessing that seems less specific.  Un’tanekha Adonai l’rosh v’lo l’zanav; v’hayita rak l’ma’alah v’lo tih’yeh l’mata.  “The Lord will make you the head, not the tail; you will always be at the top and never at the bottom…”  (Deut. 28:13)

The curses, beginning a few verses later, are the inverse of the blessings, and then some.  Included among the curses is the declaration that the stranger “…shall be the head and you shall be the tail.”  (28:44)

This is clearly where the Rosh Hashanah practice of eating the sheep or fish head comes from.  But what does it mean?

On its face, it seems fairly straightforward.  It is a metaphor for the economic and political success that Israel will experience if it behaves righteously.  Even today, we use the term “head” to refer to a leader, or the person at the top.  The “tail” is the follower. There is internal evidence in the Torah that the term refers specifically to being a creditor nation, rather than a debtor nation.

Mystical interpretations, however, identify hidden, spiritual meanings in the words of the Torah.  The Chassidic Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, author of the Torah commentary Kedushat Levi, suggests a deeper meaning.

He begins his commentary by asking why the Torah bothers to include the “tail” or the “bottom.”  Shouldn’t it have been enough to have said Un’tanekha Adonai l’rosh; v’hayita rak l’ma’alah—”The Lord will make you the head and you shall always be at the top”?  Adding “and not the tail,” and “never at the bottom” is superfluous.  And the Torah never wastes ink. Here is the hidden meaning.  Please bear with me.  This is kind of esoteric.

Reality, for human beings, is made up of three domains:  1.  The domain of abstract thought; 2.  The domain of speech; and 3.  The domain of action.  

Although Levi Yitzchak does not describe it this way, think about human consciousness.  Our experience of reality is no more than electrical signals passing between neurons in different parts of our brains.  For those electrical signals to be translated into awareness, what we might describe as thoughts or feelings, we need to perform an act of translation. My mind compares these patterns of electrical signals with my previous experiences of electrical signals.  At its most basic level, that is what language is.

I see a creature moving.  It has four legs, fur, and pointy ears.  It makes a noise.  My mind tells me, “this is a dog.”

Why doesn’t my mind say “cat?”  Not because I have seen this particular animal before, but because I have previous experiences with other creatures which have been defined as dogs. Language is the act of defining abstract experiences by comparing them with previous experiences.  Language also enables me to communicate my memory of those experiences to someone else.

After I have translated my abstract thoughts into language, I can then act.  I can manipulate the physical world around me.

We operate in all three domains at all times.  

The mystic sees the first domain, that of abstract thought, as the highest.  The essence of God lies somewhere beyond, but it is the closest a human being can become to God’s domain.  In Kabbalah, God’s essence is described as the Ein Sof, which literally means, “there is no end.”  Or, it cannot be defined.  God is completely abstract.  No word will capture God’s essence. The ultimate goal of the mystic is to attach oneself to God.  This can only be accomplished through the first domain, that of abstract thought.

Now we come back to the head and the tail, the top and the bottom.  Each of the three domains has a head and a tail.  A person who ascends to the head of a lower domain touches upon the tail of the next higher domain.  This is how Levi Yitzchak understands the Torah’s language of head and tail, top and bottom. When the Jewish people is at its best, it approaches the head of the highest domain, abstract thought, and is closest to God.

Let’s bring this back down to earth.  Through our actions, our speech, and our thought, each of us has the capacity to be better.  Actions, speech and thought are related.  As we improve one, we begin to improve the next.  

I work on my physical actions with the world around me: How I treat people, how I earn and spend my money, how I express compassion.  When I achieve success with my actions, it then leads to my speech.

My spiritual health is also about the words that come out of my mouth.  Controlling speech can be even more difficult than controlling behavior.  How hard is it to not gossip: to use language that builds people up rather than puts people down; to only read words online that make me grow?

When I purify my speech, that is when I can begin to purify my thoughts.

Moses describes the ultimate spiritual blessing:  “The Lord will make you the head, not the tail; you will always be at the top and never at the bottom…”  When the Israelites fulfill their covenantal obligations, they will achieve the closest possible relationship with God. Rabbi Levi says that this is not only a lesson for the nation, but for each of us.

As we approach the new year, we are taking stock.  It might be helpful to understand ourselves as being comprised of these three domains of thought, speech, and action.  The religious goal, indeed the human goal, is to improve on all three.

At the Rosh Hashanah meal, whether we eat a sheep’s head, a ram’s head, a salmon head, or a Swedish Fish head, may it symbolize for us that the year to come will be one in which we are the head, not the tail, and always at the top, never the bottom.”

Just Beginning to See – Va-Etchanan 5779

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

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

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

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

The Jewish equivalent is, of course, Moses.

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

Moses’s formal request begins with praise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Such a disappointing answer for Moses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moses: A Man Of Words – Devarim 5779

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Beautiful Prisoner, The Great War, and the Yetzer Hara – Ki Teitzei 5778

This morning’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, contains more mitzvot, more commandments than any other parashah in the Torah.  Many of those mitzvot have direct applications to our lives today.  It is easy to see how these are timeless principles by which we ought to lead our lives.

Other mitzvot seem to be better suited for a different time and place.  In fact, we sometimes encounter mitzvot that seem to run counter to what we understand to be proper, moral behavior.

Before judging too harshly, we must remember to read on multiple levels.  Our first task is to try to understand what this law meant in the time and place in which it was given.  The Torah is a very old book.  Ancient social norms were vastly different.  We cannot judge ancient practices by modern sensibilities.

The second way of reading the text is to see it through the lens of Jewish tradition.  It turns out that our ancestors were also disturbed by some of the same things that disturb us, and they often came up with creative ways to interpret or allegorize difficult texts that made them meaningful and applicable to life in their own day.

Then, we can begin to consider how this difficult mitzvah might have meaning for us today.

The first mitzvah in today’s Torah portion is of this kind.  The opening verses describe the treatment of female captives by victorious Israelite warriors.  At a time when plunder and rape were standard practice in warfare, the Torah places extreme limits on the behavior of Israelites soldiers.

If a soldier takes a beautiful woman captive whom he desires, he cannot touch her.  Instead, he must bring her into his house.  She must shave her head, trim her nails, and go into mourning for thirty days.  Basically, he makes her as unappealing as possible.  Then, if the soldier still desires her, he must marry her.  If not, she goes free.

The Torah’s restriction on the behaviors of Israelite soldiers stands out in the history of human warfare until modern times.  Nowadays, the Geneva Convention includes accepted laws of ethical behavior in war which are agreed to by most nations in the world, including Israel.

The Torah’s regulations, therefore, would seem to be no longer relevant.

Rabbi Isaiah HaLevi Horovitz was a Polish Rabbi who moved to Tzfat in the Israel in 1621.  He was an important Kabbalist who had a great influence on Chasidism.   As is often the case, Rabbi Horovitz is best remembered not by his name, but by the acronym of his major literary work, the Shlah.  The Shlah, Shnei Luchot HaBrit, meaning “Two Tablets of the Covenant,” is a commentary on the Torah that was popular among Ashkenazi Jews.

In discussing the opening theme of Parashat Ki Teitzei, the Shlah acknowledges that the pshat, or plain meaning of the Torah, indeed describes laws and limitations of warfare.

But that is not what interests him.  The text hints at a more personal lesson pertaining to each individual human being.  The law about the woman captured in war is an allegory for an internal war that all of us wage.  It is the greatest war of all, the war against the yetzer hara, the evil inclination.

The Shlah tells a story:

There was once a pious man who encountered some soldiers returning from a war against their enemies.  With puffed up chests, they were carrying spoils that they had captured during the fierce battle.

He said to them: “You have just returned from the small war with your spoils.  Now prepare for the big war!”

“Big war?” they asked, looking around in surprise, as if there was an impending sneak attack.  “What are you talking about?”

To which he responded: “The war of the yetzer and his legions.”

The Shlah explains that when the Torah speaks of the soldier’s desire for the beautiful woman taken captive, it is really presenting an allegory about the pull of our urges.  Those urges are hard to resist.  They lead us down paths of self-destruction.  The Shlah equates committing a sin to losing a battle against our urges.  

In a real war, if one is victorious against one’s enemies over the course of a few battles, the enemies (usually) learn their lesson and surrender.  But the big war against the yetzer hara never ends, whether or not we are victorious in its individual battles.  That is the great war which all of us wage.

The soldier’s feelings of desire for the beautiful woman are a metaphor for our attraction to those urges that tempt us.  We desire many things: good food and drink, honor, wealth, possessions, power, recognition, sex.  The ultimate goal is not to suppress those feelings entirely, but rather to channel them appropriately.  The Shlah suggests that we do so by figuratively paring the nails and trimming the hair.  In other words, by making those desirable things less desirable.

The Torah recognizes that these urges are real, and in some senses are even good.  For without the Yetzer HaRa, the midrash teaches, nobody would ever build a house, get married, have children, or conduct business.  (Genesis Rabbah 9:7)

To this list we can add that the proper channeling of our urges leads to healthy living, meaningful friendships, supportive communities, joy.

Through this channeling of our urges, what might have been a sin is transformed into a merit.

The Talmud teaches that “in the place where those who have repented stand, those who are completely righteous cannot.”  (BT Berachot 34b)  The Shlah explains that because the penitent person has made mistakes, worked on them, and trained himself in the ability to resist temptations, he is thus better equipped to deal with new temptations when they arise.

It is the middle of the month of Elul.  We are just over two weeks from Rosh Hashanah, followed ten days later by Yom Kippur.  This is the time when we are supposed to be focused on cheshbon hanefesh, taking account of our souls.

Where am I in life right now?

Have I wronged anyone and not made amends?

Did I make promises that I have not kept?

Have I gone astray in other ways?

In some way, our yetzer hara is mixed up in every mistake or transgression we have committed.

My wrongdoing, my inability to control my desires, comes from selfishnesss and greed, from putting my own desires ahead of the needs of others.  My yetzer hara was victorious whenever I expressed my anger in ways that were hurtful to others, whenever I allowed my fear to cause inaction or laziness.

Let us use this annual time of introspection and life review to understand those moments when our urges have gotten the better of us.  What can we do to channel those desires into constructive actions that bring us closer to our loved ones, our friends, our community, and God?

Castrametation – Ki Teitzei 5777

I came across a new word just this past Thursday in a novel I am reading.  It was used as the title of one of the chapters.  “Castrametation.”  Does anyone know what it means?

Castrametation: the making or laying out of a military camp

Imagine my surprise the next day when I realized that castrametation is one of the themes in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki Teitzei.

And you shall have a marker outside the camp and shall go there outside.  And you shall have a spike (tent peg) together with your battle gear, and it shall be, when you sit outside. you shall dig with it and go back and cover your excrement.  For the Lord your God walks about in the midst of your camp to rescue you and to give your enemies before you, and your camp shall be holy, that He should not see among you anything shamefully exposed and turn back from you.  (Deuteronomy 23:13-15)

On a p’shat – plain sense – level, the Torah is describing castrametation – how the military camp should be organized.  Of course, there is the obvious element of sanitation and hygiene, which are at least as significant to the end results of a war as the actual fighting itself

The Torah frames it not as an issue of health, but as an issue of Sanctity.  When Israel goes to war, God is with them.  Their victory depends on God fighting on their behalf.  For God to remain, the latrines must be dug – and used – outside of the camp.  It is not about germs.  It is about holiness.

As we might expect, Jewish tradition digs through the p’shat to find broader messages for our lives.  Several Talmudic midrashim see the various elements of this law metaphorically.

The first midrash (BT Yoma 75b)understands this message not as an instruction about how to set up a military camp, but rather an allusion to the condition of the Israelites’ digestive tracks during their time in the wilderness.  The midrash begins by quoting Psalm 78 (vss. 24-25) which, referring to the manna, states “Man did eat the bread of the mighty (abirim)”  The Gemara asks what abirim are.  Eventually, it suggests that  the word abirim should actually be read as eivarim, which means “limbs.”  The manna was completely absorbed into the Israelites bodies.  There was no waste whatsoever.  How convenient!

If that is the case, the Talmud asks, why do we have to be told to dig a latrine and bury our excrement?  After tossing a few ideas around, the answer is given:

After they sinned, [the manna was not as effective.] The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: I [initially] said [that] they would be like ministering angels [who do not produce waste]; now I will trouble them to walk three parasangs [to leave the camp in order to relieve themselves].

So this is really a story about Israel’s sinfulness.  At first, there is no need to build a latrine, and God can walk about the Israelite camp without a problem.  But when Israel sins – by complaining about the manna, says Rashi – their intestines become less efficient.  Now the Israelites have to periodically leave camp to do their business so that they can maintain it as a place in which God can continue to reside.

Midrash number two, from Tractate Sotah (BT Sotah 3b) also tells a story of sin in the wilderness.  But this time, the focus is not on the entire camp, but on individual homes.  At first, Rav Hisda teaches, the Shechinah – God’s Presence – would reside within each and every Israelite home.  After they sin, however, God turns away from them so that God does not see any unseemly matter.

The commentator Rashi explains that the types of sin in question are those pertaining to sexual immorality.  That is why the focus is on God’s Presence within the individual homes of the Israelites.

The final midrash (BT Ketubot 5a) shifts the focus to the everyday situations in which each of us finds ourselves.  Like the first one, this midrash relies upon a pun in the Hebrew.

Bar Kappara asks what the Torah means when it says “And you shall have a spike (tent peg) together with your battle gear.”  “Battle gear” in Hebrew is azeinekha.  Don’t read it as azeinekha, Bar Kappara says, but rather as oznekha, which means, “your ears.”  This means that if a person hears something unseemly, an inappropriate thing, he should place his spike, that is to say, his finger, into his years.

We are exposed to situations that we know are not good for us on a daily basis.  I’ll give just one example: gossip – the most pervasive, and potentially harmful, sin in the Torah.  Even if I am not the person spreading the gossip, even hearing it can have terrible effects.

Gossip certainly harms the person being gossiped about.  The spreader of gossip is committing a sin which Jewish tradition compares to murder.  And when I hear it, it produces negative feelings about the other person, and even harms my own sense of self.

According to this midrash, whenever I find myself in the company of people who are gossiping, I should shove my fingers in my ears – figuratively by walking away, or perhaps even literally.

These three midrashim shift the focus from castrametation to our ability to maintain a community and home in which we are grateful for the blessings around us, respectful of each other’s boundaries, and cognizant of the kinds of people and situations we should place ourselves.  God’s Presence in our midst depends on our ability to maintain proper boundaries.

A 19th century Chassidic Rabbi named Jacob Kattina wrote a book called Korban He’ani.  In it, he directs our attention to an acronym hidden in the text.

כִּי֩ יְ-הֹוָ֨ה אֱ-לֹהֶ֜יךָ מִתְהַלֵּ֣ךְ | בְּקֶ֣רֶב מַחֲנֶ֗ךָ לְהַצִּילְךָ֙ וְלָתֵ֤ת אֹיְבֶ֨יךָ֙ לְפָנֶ֔יךָ

For the Lord your God walks about in the midst of your camp to rescue you and to give your enemies before you.

The last four words of this phrase – לְהַצִּילְךָ֙ וְלָתֵ֤ת אֹיְבֶ֨יךָ֙ לְפָנֶ֔יךָ “to give your enemies before you” – begin with the letters ל ,א ,ו ,ל – which are the letters in Elul – אלול, the Hebrew month in which we currently find ourselves.

Elul is the month before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we are supposed to be engaged in cheshbon hanefesh, taking stock of our lives.  What sins are we carrying from the past year?  Where are the broken places in our relationships with each other?  What is keeping us from experiencing God’s Presence in our lives?

Rabbi Kattina sees in this verse a “hint that in this month, the Holy One can be found among the Jewish people.  He then cites the Rabbis’ teaching about the verse from Isaiah: “Seek the Lord while He can be found, call to Him while He is near.”  (Isaiah 55:6) The gates of repentance are open, therefore let there not be seen in you anything unseemly and let your encampment be holy.

Let us use these next few weeks take an honest look at ourselves, our homes, and our community.  God wants to walk among us, in our homes, and in our communities.  But it is up to us to make our communities, our homes, and our selves worthy of God’s Presence.

Shabbat Shalom.

Response to Charlottesville – Re’eh 5777

Like many of you, I am astonished over what has been taking place over the past week.  I went to the University of Virginia for my undergraduate degree and lived in Charlottesville for three years.  I never expected it to be all over the news for a reason like this.

As I am sure you know, last week’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, has brought anger and fear to the surface.  People are anxious and not sure what to do.

The rally was organized by numerous self-identified Alt-Right groups, including, neo-Nazis, skinheads, white supremacists, and the Ku Klux Klan.  They were protesting the removal of a statue of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a city park.

Over the course of the two day rally, the protesters marched through the University of Virginia campus with torches, as well as through the streets of Charlottesville.  They shouted slogans and waived signs attacking Jews, Muslims, immigrants, the media, and others.

Usually, I avoid comparing contemporary situations to Nazis, Hitler, or the Holocaust.  As soon as anyone makes that kind of comparison, emotions flare and constructive conversation usually ends.

But these people were explicitly embracing Nazi slogans and actions.  They shouted the Nazi slogan “blood and soil,” they gave the Nazi salute.  Nazi flags waved.  Signs read “Goyim know,” and “Jews are satan’s children.”  Every time the Charlottesville mayor got up to speak, they shouted “Jew, Jew!”

There were large numbers of counter-protesters as well, and numerous fights broke out.  In a horrible tragedy, two State Troopers died when their helicopter crashed.  And a twenty year old man who had previously expressed Nazi sympathies drove a car into crowds on the pedestrian mall, murdering Charlottesville resident Heather Heyer and injuring 19 people.

It is hard to believe that something like this is happening in twenty first century America.  Until now, I have avoided making any public statements about President Trump.  But I cannot remain silent on this.

Many of the Unite the Right protestors were waving “Trump/Pence” signs and wearing “Make America Great Again” hats.  In their own words, they draw strength from his election.

The President spoke about Charlottesville publicly for the first time on Saturday.  He stated “we condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.”  He did not label the attack terrorism.  He did not reject the Alt-Right’s embrace of him or condemn any of the groups by name.  And by saying “many sides,” he implied that the protestors and counter-protestors were equally to blame.

Under enormous pressure from all directions, President Trump made a second statement two days later, in which he said:

To anyone who acted criminally in this weekend’s racist violence, you will be held fully accountable. Justice will be delivered. […] Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.

He said the words, but it was not an especially forceful condemnation.  Alt-Right leader Richard Spencer responded by declaring that the statement was “hollow” and that Trump had not denounced the Alt-Right movement or white nationalism.  Spencer said, “his statement today was more kumbaya nonsense… Only a dumb person would take those lines seriously.”

And then the next day, in an unscripted press conference, the President returned to his original sentiments, declaring that there was “blame on both sides.”  He claimed that “not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me.  Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch.”  And he went on to say that there were “very fine people on both sides,” and he criticized what he called the “very, very violent… alt-left.”

To declare moral equivalency between Nazi flag-waving white supremacists and the people who gather to oppose them simply boggles the mind.

There is no moral equivalency.  There is a moral obligation to oppose hate and intolerance.  We have a duty to fight racism, bigotry, antisemitism, and sexism.  Doesn’t everybody know this?

How many times have we heard, or ourselves said, something to the effect of “there are no innocent bystanders?”  When evil appears in our midst, we have a moral obligation to act.

I am reassured by the outpouring of anger by vast numbers of Americans – conservative and liberal – who are simply appalled by President Trump’s failure to provide any moral leadership.  His words and actions have fanned the flames of hate and emboldened people who until recently have only acted on the fringes of society.

I do not believe that what we are witnessing today remotely resembles Germany in the 1930’s.  We are seeing disparate fringe elements coming together and making a lot of noise.  And that noise is strengthening individuals and groups that are working towards greater  peace, acceptance, and understanding.

But we need more from the leader of our country.  Can you imagine a US President of the past fifty years, of either Party, who would not have found the right words to forcefully repudiate neo-Nazis marching in the streets of America?

The Torah is not ambivalent about right and wrong.  At the beginning of Parashat Re’eh.  Moses places a challenge before the Israelites:

See this day I place before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced.”  (Deuteronomy 11:26-28)

There is a right way and a wrong way.  Choosing the path of blessing, the path of God, has been our challenge as a people since we stood at Sinai.  What is that path?  What does it mean to choose life, to choose blessing?  The Torah often speaks in lofty language about our obligation to care for the least powerful members of society, to welcome the stranger into our midst, and to apply laws equally to citizen and foreigner.  It is the most widespread theme in the Torah, and can be found in this morning’s reading.

Parashat Re’eh also expands on what, to modern readers, is one of the most disturbing themes in the Torah.  Moses instructs the Israelites to utterly wipe out idolatry from the land of Israel.  Those who practice it must be killed relentlessly, and the cities in which it thrives must be razed to the ground.

This extreme xenophobia has always troubled Jews.  In ancient times, the Rabbis wrestled with how to live peacefully and constructively in a multicultural society.  Jews in ancient times often had good relations – both business and social – with their non-Jewish, often pagan, neighbors.  The Rabbis knew that to reconcile the Torah’s black and white message with the multi-hued society around them, it would take creativity.  They developed the understanding that the seven Canaanite nations had ceased to exist many centuries earlier.  The Torah, thus, speaks only of an ancient time that has no bearing on the present.

But the Rabbis’ solution sidesteps the issue.  With thousands of years of history behind us, we know, or at least we ought to know, the evil of racism and xenophobia.  We as a people have too often been victimized by those who have argued, “my religion is truer,” “my culture is better,” “my blood is purer.”  Yet the Torah seems to advocate that same attitude viz a viz idolatry.

I squirm in my seat when I read verses telling us to annihilate an entire people.  Justifying these words by claiming that the Torah is referring to something that happened a long time ago does not solve the moral horror.  How can the same book promote boundless generosity and acceptance on the one hand, and violence and intolerance on the other?

What does the Torah mean when it talks about idolatry?  From the Torah’s perspective, there is something pervasively and irredeemably immoral about it. The great twentieth century Rabbi and Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel was an important religious leader in the Civil Rights Movement.  In 1963, he attended a conference of religious leaders entitled “Religion and Race.”  He wrote an essay of the same name which offers us a way to understand idolatry.

Perhaps this Conference should have been called ‘Religion or Race.’  You cannot worship God and at the same time look at a man as if he were a horse…

What is an idol?  Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol.

Faith in God is not simply an afterlife-insurance policy.  Racial or religious bigotry must be recognized for what it is: satanism, blasphemy.

In the 1960’s, Heschel was speaking about a society which was racist to its core.  To raise the living conditions of African Americans, he writes, normal everyday people had to shed their complacency and get involved.

Heschel’s definition of idolatry suggests that whenever we forget that all human beings are created in God’s image, we commit idolatry.

Heschel notes that when the Bible describes God’s creation of the universe, it specifies that “God created different kinds of plants, different kinds of animals (Genesis 1:11-12, 21-25)  In striking contrast, it does not say, God created different kinds of man, men of different colors and races; it proclaims, God created one single man.  From one single man all men are descended.”

The idolatry that Parashat Re’eh would have us eradicate is the belief that not all humans are reflections of God.

If I take seriously the prohibition of “sitting idly by,” what should I be doing?  I have been struggling with how to respond.

Well, I do happen to be a Rabbi, and I have a pulpit.  That is why I am speaking about this now.  One can certainly get involved in protests and counter-protests, writing letters to politicians and newspapers.  These are admirable actions to take.  But they are not for everyone.

We combat hate with love.  Let’s make an extra effort to learn about someone who is different.  Have an open conversation with a person who does not share your opinion or way of life.  Invite them over for dinner.  Share your own stories.  When we can increase the human connections between ourselves and others, peace is sure to follow.

Thomas Jefferson, the founder of the University of Virginia (“Mr. Jefferson’s University,” as we call it), wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

We do not have to tremble for our country.  I have faith in the American people to recognize right from wrong, and to move, albeit in fits and starts, towards the direction of justice and peace.

You May Not Hide Yourself – Ki Teitzei 5776

Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa was known as a very pious man – so pious indeed that miracles were performed on his behalf.  He was also quite poor.

One day, his wife, let’s call her Mrs. Ben Dosa, found a a sack of chickens outside the front door of their house.  Someone had clearly bought them in the marketplace, and then misplaced them on the way home.

Looking around and seeing that there was nobody nearby, she brought the sackful of chickens inside the house and released them into the yard.  The birds started clucking away and pecking at the dirt, as chickens do.

When Rabbi Hanina found out, he instructed his wife, “don’t eat any of the chickens, they do not belong to us.  We have to wait for the owner to come back for them.”  But the owner did not come.

After a few days, the hens began laying eggs.  Mrs. Ben Dosa was overjoyed.  They could really use the extra food.  But Hanina insisted, “The eggs do not belong to us.  We must wait for the owner to return for them.”

Since the Ben Dosa’s could not eat them, the eggs eventually hatched.  Time passed, and the chicks grew into hens and roosters.  Pretty soon, the Ben Dosa home had become overrun with poultry.

Mrs. Ben Dosa was getting fed up, so she turned to her pious husband and demanded, “My darling husband, I was fine when you told me we couldn’t use the eggs.  But this is getting ridiculous.  You must do something about all of these chickens!”

So Rabbi Hanina took all of the fowl to the the marketplace, where he sold them.  With the proceeds, he bought two baby goats, which he brought back to his house.

The goats grew.  The goats begat more goats.  Eventually, the Ben Dosa house became even more crowded, smelly, and loud than ever before.  But Hanina insisted that they could not slaughter any of the goats, or drink any of the milk.

When she could not take it any more, Mrs. Ben Dosa stamped her foot and ordered her husband to do something about the goats.

So Hanina gathered up all of the animals and led them to the marketplace.  He sold them, and with the proceeds, he bought a calf.  The calf grew and grew until it had become a cow.

Some time later, there was a knock on the door.  A man asked, “Hi.  Some time back, I was coming home from the market with a sack of chickens.  I set it down somewhere, but I forgot where.  As I was passing by your home, it seemed familiar to me.  I’m curious.  Do you perhaps know what happened to the sack of chickens?”

Rabbi Hanina asked the man to describe the sack, which he did.  “Wait here one second,” Rabbi Hanina told the man, and then went inside the house.  “Here is your chicken,” Hanina declared, leading a healthy, full grown milk cow, “we tried to take care of it for you.”

“But, this is a cow!” the man declared.

Rabbi Hanina explained what happened, how the chickens became goats, which became a cow.

Overjoyed, the man exclaimed, “Rabbi Hanina, you are so kind.  I have never met someone so careful about returning lost things.  Thank you.”

When the man left, Hanina ducked his head back inside the house and shouted to his wife, “Honey, the guy came back for his chickens!”

“Thank God,” she declared, “but did he recognize them?”  (from BT Taanit 25a and The Family Book of Midrash, by Barbara Diamond Goldin)

This is a story from the Talmud about how far a person might go to fulfill the mitzvah of hashevat aveidah, returning lost objects.  The origin of this mitzvah appears in this morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki Teitzei.

If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow.  If your fellow does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him.  You shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent.  (Deut. 22:1-3)

Jewish law has a lot to say about this mitzvah.  If we find a lost object, our tradition teaches us that we are supposed to care for it, that we may not profit from  it, and that we owe any earnings that accrue to the owner once it is restored.

As we might imagine, the tradition unpacks the issue, taking into account where an object is found, what constitutes an identifying mark, the reimbursement due to the finder for expenses incurred caring for the lost item, how long the item must be cared for before the finder can claim it, and so on.

On its surface, this mitzvah is about property.  But the final phrase that the Torah uses suggests that there is something more at stake.  Lo tukhal l’hit’alem.  “You may not remain indifferent.”  Or perhaps a better translation would be, “You may not hide yourself.”

Why does the Torah, which never uses superfluous language, add this extra phrase?

Bahya ibn Paquda, a medieval Spanish philosopher, suggests that the mitzvah of returning lost objects is related to the principle v’ahavta l’re’ekha kamokha – “love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Lev. 19:18)  Property is an extension of the person.  So to care for another person’s lost possession is to care for that person.

There is a similar passage in Sefer Shemot, the Book of Exodus, but with a notable difference.  Instead of instructing us to return our “fellow’s” lost item, we are told we must return even our “enemy’s” lost item.

Perhaps this might help us understand the significant of “You may not hide yourself.”  It is so easy, when seeing another person experiencing hardship, to avert our eyes.  To not step in to help.  Getting involved takes time and effort.  It distracts us from our own interests, and keeps us away from taking care of our own needs.

For many people, the natural instinct is to turn away.  So the Torah tells us that when we find something that is lost, we can’t ignore it.  Even if it belongs to our enemy.  Keep in mind that if it is lost, the owner is not around.  It is so easy to hide ourselves, or to simply claim the item as our own.  Finders Keepers.  After all, no one will know.  But God will know.  And we, ourselves, will know.

Rabbi Aharon of Barcelona, the author of Sefer HaChinuch, says that the mitzvah of returning lost objects benefits everyone in society, and indeed the social order itself.  After all, we all lose things from time to time.  Goats, donkeys, chickens, car keys, cell phones.

Wouldn’t it be great to live in a society in which we knew that our fellows, even those whom we don’t get along so well with, took care of one another’s things, and one another, as an expression of love?