The Friendship of the King – Rosh Hashanah 5783

What is the first thing that pops into your mind when I say the word “King?”

Given recent events, I imagine that the passing of Queen Elizabeth II and the coronation of King Charles III probably come to mind.

In the United States, the concept of royalty is not particularly relevant to our lives. Our nation was founded when we gained independence from a king. It is a matter of national pride that we have no royalty.

Monarchy is not a particularly common form of government these days. The British Crown, as a Constitutional Monarchy, is largely symbolic.  There are just a handful of absolute monarchies left in the world, and I am not sure that any of them are in places that you or I would want to live.

And yet, “King” is one of the dominant symbols and the primary metaphor that we use to describe God on Rosh Hashanah.

Our High Holiday liturgy is filled with pageantry. All of the ark openings. The standing. The sitting. Much of the music we sing is meant to sound like a royal procession.

We shift the beginning of the morning service so that the first word is hamelekh, the King. What is the most iconic prayer of Rosh Hashanah? Avinu Malkeinu, Our Father our King. We even braid the Challah into a round loaf resembling a crown. Rosh Hashanah is a coronation, a crowning of the King of Kings on the New Year.

This is expressed nowhere better than in a glorious piyyut which we will sing in a little while. Here is a preview. It can be found on page 150 in the mahzor. In this particular melody, the last line of the poem serves as the congregational response. The words are v’yitnu l’kha keter m’lukhah – “And they will give You a crown of kingship.”

The prayer imagines a future in which all of humanity joins in glorious unity, rejecting all forms of idolatry and recognizing God as King. Let’s practice singing it right now. I’ll sing the leader’s part without using any words. All you have to do is repeat the exact melody that I sing, using the final line v’yitnu l’kha keter m’lukhah.  After three lines, we’ll join together in the niggun, a wordless melody.

[SING]

When we talk about a human King, what qualities come to mind?

Kings are not like us. They sit far away, upon an elevated throne. They have absolute power. The King is the law. The King is male.

What does it mean when we describe God as a King? This metaphor might work for some of us. Or, maybe we try not to think too hard about what “God is King” might imply. Or, maybe the idea of God as a King turns us off.

I personally have a difficult time with it.  When teaching Avinu Malkeinu to our religious school students recently, I struggled with how to translate it and explain its meaning. I ended up using “Ruler,” which is not really the same thing. For the handout, I hedged by just writing Avinu Malkeinu in English,

What do we say in Avinu Malkeinu? “Our Father, Our King. Have mercy on us, answer us, for our deeds are insufficient; deal with us charitably and lovingly, and redeem us.”

We ask for compassion from a King who is far away. ‘We don’t deserve your mercy,’ we admit. There is no claim whatsoever that we can make. We are entirely in Your hands; we exist at Your whim. Maybe that is the appropriate way to understand our relationship with our Creator, but it does not feel very good.

Maimonides says that there are no words that can accurately define God. We can only say what God is not. All descriptions are metaphors which, if we took them literally, would make us guilty of idolatry. For the most part, our descriptions of God are really descriptions of the best qualities that we hope to see in ourselves: kindness, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, reliability, constancy, fairness, justice. We project on God those qualities to which we aspire…

…which brings us to another problem with Kings. They are, by and large, terrible. In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses tells the Israelites that there may be a time in the future when they say “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me.” When the request comes a few centuries later, in the days of the Prophet Samuel, he agrees to help the Israelites, but tells them, “You can do it, but you’re not gonna like it.”

Here are some of the rules that Moses outlines for Kings: he can’t have too many horses, he can’t send people back to Egypt to get more horses. He can’t have too many wives.  And further, the King can’t do whatever he wants. He must keep a copy of the Torah with him at all times, read it daily, and follow the commandments closely.  And, he cannot set himself above his subjects.  Basically, he does not get to do any of the fun stuff that Kings like to do. With all due respect to Mel Brooks, “It is not good to be the King.”

When the Israelites do establish a monarchy, it is essentially a disaster, with a few exceptional bright spots here and there. And let’s not even get started with the non-Israelite kings.

If human royalty is so terrible, why on earth is it the metaphor we use for God?

The Rabbis are aware that the nature of God’s Kingship is fundamentally different than an earthly King. The Talmud (BT Avodah Zarah 11a) tells the story Onkelos bar Kelonimos. According to one legend, he was the nephew of the Roman Emperor Titus. He converted to Judaism in the first century, CE, and wrote what came to be known as Targum Onkelos, the earliest Aramaic translation of the Bible.

News of Onkelos’ conversion spreads, and the Roman emperor sends a troop of soldiers to arrest him. As the soldiers approach, Onkelos starts reciting verses of Torah, as one does. He is very persuasive, and they convert.

The emperor sends in another troop of soldiers to arrest Onkelos. This time he instructs them: “Do not talk to him.”

They arrest Onkelos, and as they are walking along, he says to them: “I just have one thing I’d like to say. It is the job of the junior officer to hold the torch for the senior officer. The senior officer holds the torch for the Duke. The Duke holds the torch for the Governor. And the Governor holds the torch for the King. So,” he asks the soldiers. “Does the King hold the torch for the people?”

The soldiers, mesmerized by Onkelos, forget their orders and answer: “No. Of course not.”

Onkelos turns to them and says: “And yet, the Holy One holds a torch for the Jewish people.” Then he quotes Exodus: “The Lord went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light.” (Exodus 13:21).

Hearing this brilliant exposition, the entire second troop of soldiers converts.

Word reaches the Emperor, who he is beside himself. As he sends out the third troop, he commands them: “Do not speak with him at all. Not a word!”

The soldiers follow their orders. They arrest Onkelos and start marching. As they are walking along, Onkelos sees a mezuzah on a doorpost. He puts his hand on it and looks over at the soldiers: “What is this?”

They look at one another, thinking of the Emperor’s order. But they are curious. So one of them shrugs his shoulders and quietly whispers for Onkelos to answer his question.

So Onkelos says: “The standard practice around the world is that the king sits inside his palace, while his servants stand guard at the gates, protecting him from any threats. But when it comes to the Holy One, it is the opposite.” He points to the mezuzah. “God’s servants, the Jewish people, sit inside their homes with their mezuzahs on their doors, while God stands guard over them.” 

When the soldiers hear this, what can they do but convert on the spot? 

The Emperor does not bother sending any more soldiers.

This story is all about contrasting the human King with the Divine King. Notice how the Roman Emperor remains inside his palace while his servants, the guards, are sent outside to supposedly protect his interests. Onkelos, who has chosen to be a servant of God, is protected by verses of Torah. Even when he is out on the road, the Divine King is with him to light his way and guard him from harm.

Although calling God “King” might seem like such a given, it might be surprising to learn that God is not a King in the Torah. None of the Patriarchs or Matriarchs relate to God in that way. Moses never instructs Pharaoh to submit before the King of Kings. When the Israelites build a place of worship, they construct a Tabernacle, not a palace.

The word melekh, King, referring to God, or its related verb, occurs just three, or possibly even only two times in the entire Torah, which creates a problem for our machzor.

The Musaf service contains three special sections called Malkhuyot – Kingship, Zikhronot – Remembrances,  and Shofarot – Shofar blasts. Each of these sections are comprised of ten verses from the Hebrew Bible: three from Torah, three from Writings, three from Prophets, and a final verse from Torah. The verses conclude with a closing blessing, followed by shofar blasts.

The Talmud has no problem at all in associating Zikhronot – Remembrances –  and Shofarot – Shofar blasts – to Rosh Hashanah, or in finding appropriate verses. But it really struggles to find four verses from the Torah for Malkhuyot. Most appear in poems. The first is from the Song of the Sea: Adonai yimlokh l’olam va’ed – “The Lord will reign for ever and ever.” The second is recited by Balaam, the non-Israelite Prophet, when he utters words of blessing upon the Israelites. We’ll come back to it. The third verse, from Deuteronomy, might actually be referring to Moses instead of God. The fourth verse is Shema Yisrael, which does not even have the word melekh. None of these four verses have anything to do with Rosh Hashanah.

Now back to our verse from Balaam. Summoned by the human King Balak of Moab to curse the Israelites, Balaam instead offers words of blessing, including our verse:

No harm is in sight for Jacob, No woe in view for Israel. 

The Lord their God is with them, And the teruah of the King among them.

Numbers 23:21

Ut’ruat melekh bo. Do you hear anything familiar? The teruah of the King among them. What is teruah? It means “blasting,” probably referring to a trumpet fanfare announcing the King’s entrance. It is one of the three notes sounded by the shofar. It is a word used to refer to our holiday – zikhron teruah – a remembrance of blasting.

So maybe we can make an indirect connection.  If melekh has a connection to teruah, and teruah is associated with Rosh Hashanah, then by analogy melekh is connected to Rosh Hashanah. If A = B, and B = C, then A = C. Maybe.

Before we get too excited, let’s look again at teruah. Does it actually mean “blasting?”

Remember Onkelos? His Aramaic translation uses a curious word.  It says ush’khinat malk’hon beineihon – “The Shechinah of the king is among them.” No blasting. Instead, it is the Shechinah, the indwelling of God’s Presence. Rather than triumphant horns, the image shifts to one of intimacy and comfort.

Perhaps this is what leads the commentator Rashbam to explain the verse in this way. The word Teruah is related to the word re’ut, which means “friendship.”  On the inside of our wedding rings, Dana and I have the words Zeh dodi v’zeh re’i inscribed.  “This is my beloved, this is my friend.”

Teruah therefore means friendship.  ut’ruat melekh bo – “and the friendship of the king is among them.”

Turning to the opening words of the verse, Lo hibit aven b’ya’akov – Rashbam explains that God does not want to punish the children of Israel even when they sin.  Literally, “God cannot see sin in Jacob.”

What kind of King is this? One who is in intimate relationship with the beloved, who deliberately overlooks sin, ignoring imperfections, who is blinded by love. 

That is a very different image of a King. Instead of the majestic, male, distant Ruler seated upon a lofty throne, with trumpets blaring, this King is at our level, feminine perhaps, a loving companion who accepts us with all of our imperfections. In other words, nothing at all like a human king.

What kind of relationship do I want with my Creator? No question that there is a rather large power imbalance. But don’t I want to be seen and accepted by the universe, told that I matter?

While our High Holiday liturgy is filled with royal language and imagery, I struggle to relate to those metaphors. Maybe this other type of King, the loving companion, offers an alternative.

If it is true that God knows us better than we even know ourselves, then maybe what we want from God is to be a close friend, an intimate companion.

What do we need from our closest relationships? We need to be accepted for who we are and loved — no matter what.

We talk about the unconditional love of parents for their children. Unconditional means love without judgment, accepting our child for exactly who they are.

That is pretty difficult to achieve, because we actually judge our kids regularly. We hold them to the standards we set for ourselves – standards which we often fail to meet. We judge them by our own deficiencies.

And they feel judged by us, even when we are trying to accept them for who they are. Judgment interferes with acceptance and love.

As parents, isn’t it our jobs to try to set aside our judgment, to make sure our kids know that they are seen, accepted, and loved?

The same is true of any quality relationship with another person, whether a lover, a  family member, or a friend.

A true friend is someone with whom I am safe to be vulnerable. Someone who, when I share my deepest secrets, my shame, will not judge me. A real friend will accept me in all my imperfections. With all of my self doubt. 

We are asked each year to take account of our souls, to perform Cheshbon HaNefesh. This requires brutal honesty. And it is hard to be so open if I know that I am going to face judgment. But if I know that I am opening up to a loving companion…

This intimacy and companionship is what so many of are missing after the past two and a half years. It is starting to feel like we are getting back to normal. But we are still so divided, so quick to judge. We cannot expect God to be a loving companion in our midst unless we are also prepared to be that for each other.

The dominant depiction of God is as the King of the universe, sitting on His high and lofty throne, but perhaps what we really want is for God to be a companion in our midst, accepting and loving us for exactly who we are. 

And perhaps that loving companion is also what we want, what we need from — and to be for — each other.

The Sound of the Snake – Chukat 5782

The Israelites are reaching the end of their journey through the wilderness. Despite their destination being within reach, they still find cause to complain. As they are making their way up the Eastern side of the Jordan River, they become impatient, speaking out against God and Moses:

Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food.

Numbers 21:5

It is kind of hard to blame them. They have been eating manna for forty years now. But God does not appreciate complainers. God sends snakes which bite the people. Many die.

The story follows the typical pattern. The Israelites come to Moses, admit that they sinned when they spoke out against God and Moses. “Please intercede for us,” they plead.

Moses immediately steps in to the breach, and God offers an unusual remedy: Aseh lekha saraf – “Make a seraph figure and mount it on a standard. And anyone who was bitten who then looks at it shall recover.” (Numbers 21:8) A seraph is a fiery serpent angel-type figure.

Moses complies, and he makes what is essentially a ‘snake on a stick.’ When someone is bitten by a serpent, they look at it and recover.

The Mishnah asks the obvious question. Can this inanimate object kill or give life? Doesn’t this fly in the face of the Torah’s many prohibitions against making graven images? The answer is that there is nothing magical about it. It’s power is symbolic. When Israel would look up at this snake on a stick, their hearts would turn towards their Father in heaven. Their faith restored, God would heal them.

It is not the most convincing argument. After all, the same could be said of any graven image.

A midrash (Genesis Rabbah 31:8, Yalkut Shimoni on Nach 15:4) points out that there are four occasions in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible in which the expression  Aseh lekha, literally, “Make for yourself” appears. On three of those occasions, God gives clear instructions about how to make the item in question. The first is when God tells Noah to build an ark out of acacia wood. The second is when Moses is told to make two trumpets out of silver. The third is when Joshua has to make knives out of flint so that the Israelites can circumcise themselves. The fourth “make for yourself” appears in this morning’s Torah portion, when God tells Moses Aseh lekha saraf – “Make for yourself a seraph.”

No instructions are given regarding what raw materials to use. Moses is left to his own devices to figure it out. First, he thinks about using gold, zahav. Then he considers using silver, kesef. Rejecting those two precious metals, he settles instead on the much less valuable copper, nechoshet. Why?

According to the midrash, Moses does not like the sound of the words zahav and kesef. But nechoshet sounds like nachash, the Hebrew word for snake and nashach, the Hebrew word for bite.  And so the Torah says

Then Moses made a copper serpent (nechash nechoshet) and mounted it on a standard, and when bitten by a serpent (im-nashach hanachash), anyone who looked at the the copper serpent (nechash hanechoshet) would recover.

Numbers 21:9

In other words, Moses chose copper because he liked how the word sounded. (Notice that the Torah changes God’s word, seraf, to nachash.  Both words refer to serpents, but only one of them sounds good.) The midrash concludes that this proves that the Torah was given in Hebrew, the holy tongue. The alliteration would not work in any other language.

There is a deeper meaning at work here.

When we think about snakes, we are reminded of the infamous snake, the nachash of the Garden of Eden, the one who approached the woman with words of deception to trick her into eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. She observes the tree, sees that it is good for eating, a delight to the eyes, and desirable to contemplate. So she eats the fruit and shares it with the man who is with her.

Rabbinic texts personify the nachash as the Yetzer Hara – the evil inclination.  It is by observing the tree, really looking at it, that the yetzer hara speaks to her heart and leads her to violate God’s instructions.

Similarly, if we see the plague of snakes in today’s parashah as symbolizing the Israelites’ lack of faith in God’s providence, their succumbing to the physical discomforts of the moment, the power of the nachash nechoshet becomes more clear. It is the inverse of the Garden of Eden story, the image of the serpent has the power not just to dispel faith, but also to reinvigorate it.

In this moment, Moses does not yell at the Israelites, call them ungrateful, or try to convince them that they are wrong to complain. He takes a different approach. He uses art. Art inspires the imagination, which leads us to see the world differently. As the greatest of our Prophets, the one who reaches the highest level of spirituality and achieves the greatest mastery over the yetzer hara, Moses understands how to use art to get through to the Israelites. He makes a metal sculpture, upon which the Israelites can gaze; and, he composes a linguistic work of art, employing language in a way that penetrates the walls around the heart.

Both forms of creative expression spark an emotional reaction that grabs the Israelites’ attention, surprise them, if only for a moment. Shaken from their complacency, they take a step back and realize all that God has done for them. The Yetzer hara loosens its hold. Self-centerdness departs. They step up one spiritual level. At last, the Israelites realize: ‘We are almost at our destination. Surely God can lead us across the finish line. We can tolerate this manna for a little while longer.’

Casting Truth to the Earth – Bereshit 5782

At the end of day six of creation, all but one thing has come into existence by the word of God.  And so God declares: 

נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה אָדָ֛ם בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ כִּדְמוּתֵ֑נוּ

“Shall we make humanity according to our form and likeness?”

Who is this “we?” Does God have a design committee?  Perhaps it is the “royal we?” The text is silent. So the midrash tells a story to answer the question.

When it comes time for the Holy Blessed One to create humanity, the ministering angels break off into factions and groupings.  Some of them say yibarei! Let humanity be created!  While others declare Al yibarei!  Don’t let them be created!

A verse in Psalms alludes to this epic argument:

חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת נִפְגָּשׁוּ צֶדֶק וְשָׁלוֹם נָשָׁקוּ

“Kindness and truth met, justice and peace kissed.” (Psalm 85:11)

But this was no meeting of friends, no kiss of love.  It was combat – pure and simple, with the fate of humanity in the balance.

Chesed, kindness, stands up and proclaims “Let humanity be created, for they will perform countless acts of gemilut chasadim, of lovingkindness.”

Then Emet, Truth, rises to object, “Don’t do it!  They will all be liars!”

Tzedek, Righteousness, takes his turn and declares “Let them be created, for they will give untold sums of tzedakah!”

Finally, Shalom, peace, steps forward and laments, “Let them not be created, for they will be full of violence!”

The arguments fly back and forth between the angels.  “Let them be created!”  “Don’t let them be created!” Nobody can convince the other.

So what does the Holy Blessed One do? God grabs Emet, Truth, and casts her to the ground.

Stunned, the angels look up at God and ask, “How can you treat your seal in this way?” For Truth is the seal of God.  “Let Truth rise back up from the ground!”

And then the angels turn back to each other, and the arguing breaks out again, even louder and more heated than before.

While they are otherwise engaged, God quietly sneaks out the back and creates the first human. God returns to the angels, shows them the new creation, and says “Why are you guys still arguing. Behold: humanity.”

According to this midrash, we should not read it as Na’aseh Adam (נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה אָדָ֛ם) – “Shall we make humanity?” but rather Na’asah Adam נַֽעֲשָׂה אָדָ֛ם – Humanity has been made in our form and our likeness.  It is not a question that God asks the angels.  It is a report, after the fact. A fait accomplis.

I love this midrash on so many levels.  It expresses the moral complexity of being human. We can be wonderful to each other, left one another up with kindness and restore each other’s dignity.  But we fight and argue. We deceive one another and behave as if we are always in competition. This is our struggle, as individuals and as a species.

The midrash also depicts a fight, a stalemate – in which nobody can convince each other of their point of view.  When we cannot agree on the truth, it is impossible to see things from another point of view, to compromise, to find common ground. To break the tie sometimes requires letting go of our need to be right. So God casts truth to the earth. It can sprout again, but only if it is fed by righteousness and kindness.

Finally, the image of God sneaking out the back to go create humanity while the angels fight is just wonderful. How often does our need to win hold us back from ever moving forward in positive direction?

The Earth Doesn’t Care Whose Fault It Is – Yom Kippur 5782

Mi va’esh u’mi va’mayim.  Who by fire and who by water?

We are halfway through what is already one of the worst fire seasons around the globe. More than 2.2 million acres have burned here in California so far, exacerbated by drought. Large swaths of land around the Mediterranean burned. In July, the town of Lytton, British Columbia, in Canada, reached a record 121 degrees Fahrenheit and literally burst into flame.

Less than one month ago, Hurricane Ida wreaked devastation from Louisiana to the Northeast, leaving at least 115 people dead and causing more than fifty billion dollars in damage.

Two months ago, record rainfall in Western Europe caused massive flooding, killing at least 220 people, and washing away an entire town in Germany.

Mi va’esh u’mi va’mayim. Who by fire and who by water?

The most urgent issue facing humanity is our imbalanced relationship with the earth. It outweighs every other concern: Covid, freedom, democracy, racism, poverty, education, and Israel.

Our out of balance relationship with the earth puts our species at risk of extinction. If that happens, nothing else matters – at least from humanity’s perspective.

Every one of us must do better when it comes to the ways that we utilize the earth’s resources. And since none of us can do everything, we can direct our efforts towards those issues which seem most urgent to us and which we have the greatest capacity to influence.

There are so many ciritical issues, including for those who do not believe human beings cause climate change. Much of the western United States is in extreme drought conditions. Microplastics are everywhere, from the deepest seas to the highest mountains. Humanity’s encroachment into unoccupied areas, called WUI, the Wildland Urban Interface, puts people at greater risk from disasters like fire. The oceans are acidifying.

I plead with all of us.  Pick at least one thing that you care about and do more than you are already doing.

Who is to blame for how things have gotten to be the way they are?

You may recall a famous ad that appeared regularly on television in the 1970’s. The scene opens with a Native American man paddling down a bucolic river in a canoe. His hair is in braids and he is wearing a leather “Indian” outift. The camera turns to the water. A single piece of trash floats by.  Now we see an industrial nightmare.  Large factories, container ships, and pollution spewing smoketacks dwarf the small canoe.The Native American drags his boat to the shore, where more trash litters the ground.  As he begins walking, a voiceover proclaims:

“Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country.”

He is now at the side of a busy highway. As the traffic zooms past, a driver carelessly throws a bag of rubbish out the window. It lands, scattering garbage across our hero’s feet.  The voiceover continues:

“And some people don’t.”

As the camera zooms in on the Native American’s face, a single tear rolls down his cheek and we are admonished,

“People start pollution, and people can stop it.”

This ad, which came to be known as the “The Crying Indian,” is considered by the Ad Council to be one of the “50 greatest commercials of all time.”

By every measure, it was super effective. 

Part of a campaign by a nonprofit organization called Keep America Beautiful, it helped lead to the reduction of litter by 88% across 38 states. But that was not the real goal of “The Crying Indian.” As they say: follow the money.

The nonprofit Keep America Beautiful was not founded, as its name might suggest, by a bunch of do-gooder hippies. It was created in the 1950’s by the American Can Company and the Owens-Illiniois Glass Company, which were later joined by the likes of Coca-Cola and the Dixie Cup Company.

The goal of Keep America Beautiful was to oppose the influence of environmentalists.  Prior to its founding, packaging was typically reusable.  If you bought a Coke, you paid a deposit and then returned the bottle so that it could be sterilized and reused.  In the 1950’s, as the plastics industry was taking off, bottlers and container manufacturers began to aggressively – and successfully – push single use packaging.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s there were increasing moves to enact legislation to limit the production of throwaway containers.  So Keep America Beautiful began to sponsor ad campaigns like “The Crying Indian.”

The cynical strategy was based on the simple economics of supply and demand.  If we want to do something about litter, we basically have two options: focus on the people who make the stuff or focus on the people who use the stuff.  The suppliers, or the demanders.  Supply or demand.

“The Crying Indian,” with its final message, “People start pollution, and people can stop it,” places responsibility on the demand side of the equation.

The suppliers of all of this packaging would shrug their shoulders and say, “we are just giving our customers what they want. It’s not our fault.”

In fact, it was their fault.  Through a decades-long marketing strategy, they shifted public consciousness to center all of the blame and responsibility on the demand side. The result is that there were few limits placed on supply. The companies avoided having to pay the costs of pollution and disposal, and they earned billions and billions of dollars while the plastic accumulated.

I go to Costco and discover apples on my shopping list. Organic apples.  But those apples come in a plastic clamshell.  Now I, the consumer, am stuck with this piece of plastic that I do not want, but that is now my responsibility to deal with.Does it go in the trash or the recycling bin? Well, it’s got the triangle thing on it, but I recently heard that those triangle thingies are not reliable.  Plus, the third world countries to which we used to ship all of our plastic are starting to say, “no thank you. We don’t want your trash.” As it turns out, much of that plastic heading for recycling was just being dumped in open air landfills.

Who is the manufacturer of that plastic clamshell?  Who knows. What is their legal responsibility? Nothing whatsoever.

It is because Keep America Beautiful‘s ad campaign worked.  Our economy does not include the price of disposal in the cost of manufacturing. The suppliers are off the hook.

By the way, the Indian who appeared in the ad was an actor who went by the name “Iron Eyes Cody.”  His real name was Espera De Corti. He was a second generation Italian American. 

What is your personal carbon footprint? How much CO2 and methane do your actions put into the environment? This is a question many of us have asked ourselves in recent years.

I can easily go online and find a website that will ask me to estimate the number of square feet in my home, my annual vehicle mileage, the number of airplane flights I take per year, and so on.  Enter all the data, click next, and presto – my carbon footprint!

Where did the idea for the carbon footprint come from? Follow the money.

The ad agency Ogilvy started the campaign in 2005 on behalf of its client, British Petroleum. Just like “The Crying Indian,” BP wanted to keep the moral responsibility for oil production on the demand side rather than the supply side of the equation.

So BP encourages us to calculate our carbon footprint and then offers suggestions for how we can reduce it, knowing that we will not actually follow through in any economically substanative way.  Meanwhile, BP will be there for us to supply all of the oil that we demand.

For its part, BP has made no effort to reduce its own carbon footprint. Quite the opposite – it has continued to expand its oil drilling, including a current multi-billion dollar project called “Thunder Horse” to construct an oil platform 150 miles south of New Orleans in the Gulf of Mexico. When all eight wells are completed sometime this decade, it will produce 250,000 barrels of oil and 200 million cubic feet of gas per day.

But it is our responsibility.  After all, BP is just meeting our demand.

This strategy has been used over and over again – by the petroleum industry, tobacco companies, sugary beverage producers.  “It’s not our fault. We are just giving the people what they want.”

But it is their fault.

Or maybe not entirely.

One of the most prominent sections in our Mahzor is the Vidui, the confessional. We recite Ashamnu and Al Chet. For the sins we have committed, forgive us and pardon us. We strike our chests in contrition. 

Both of these prayers are alphabetical.  The Ashamnu lists a single verb for each letter. Al Chet is a double acrostic, with two sentences per letter. We recite a litany of sins. Some are specific actions, while others are general attitudes of selfishness or duplicity.

All of the verbs end with -nu, which is the 1st person plural.  We did all of these things. Surely not! I have definitiely screwed up a lot this past year, but I’m not that bad.  I didn’t commit every sin on the list. For example, I know with certainty that I did not charge interest to anyone in 5781. I categorically reject that characterization.

We Rabbis will often explain this expression of collective guilt as a way to provide cover, to help those of us who might actually be guilty of one of these sins to face up to it. 

Or maybe, in another sense, we actually are accountable for each other’s sins. These confessions are not personal admissions.  We, as a collective entity, take responsibility for all that has happened in the lives of our congregation.

Or perhaps we, as Jews, take collective responsibility before God for all that the Jewish people have done.

Or if we widen the lens further, perhaps humanity is in some sense collectively responsible for all that we do as a species.

After all, we cannot avoid the consequences of each others’ actions. This has been made devastatingly clear during the Covid pandemic. Maybe the language of guilt and innocence is not the most helpful paradigm. Maybe it would be more constructive if we framed it this way:

There are actions that individuals and groups take which impact the lives of others. That is an unavoidable fact. When that happens, like it or not, we become responsible.

Humanity is responsible for humanity’s relationship to the earth.

As much as we might like to assign blame, the fire and the flood certainly don’t care whose fault it is.

Whether from a theological, ethical, or self-interest perspective, we are responsible for treating the earth appropriately.

Unfortunately, traditional Jewish law is somewhat deficient as a source of practical guidance. The basic categories developed two thousand years ago, at a time when there was no awareness of an interdependent global environment. Human beings did not know about chemicals that could not be seen or that could dissipate into the upper atmosphere.

Also, Jewish law tends to focus on the actions and responsibilities of individuals, not governments or corporations. In other words, on the demand side of the economic equation.

Nevertheless, our present situation is not entirely without precedent. In his twelfth century law code, Maimonides includes a section called Hilkhot Sh’khenim, Laws of Neighbors. He addresses a situation in which a person wants to build a feature or conduct business on his property that produces pollution that would travel beyond its borders. 

If a person constructs a threshing floor in the midst of his (property), or builds an outhouse, or does work which raises dust, particles of earth, etc., he must move far enough away so that the pollution does not reach his neighbor and cause harm. Even if the pollution is carried by the wind, he is obligated to move far enough away…

Rambam, Laws of Neighbors 11:1

Jewish law deals with directly identifiable harm. And we can see from the examples that Maimonides gives that the pollution in question is all what we would characterize as “natural” byproducts.

But when the harm is indirect, such as plastic in the ocean or CO2 in the atmosphere, Jewish law has no explicit prohibition. And the earth itself has no standing to sue.

I wonder, if he was writing today, what other forms of pollution Maimonides would have included in the law.

The lack of specific legal precedents does not mean that Judaism is ambivalent. A famous midrash expresses humanity’s ideal relationship with the natural world.  

When God created the first human beings, God led them around the garden of Eden and said: ‘Look at my works! See how beautiful they are — how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.’

Midrash Kohelet Rabbah on Ecclesiastes 7:13

Notice a few details. Human beings are the purpose of creation, but the world still belongs to God.

Detail two – All of the beautiful and excellent things in the world can be destroyed, but the damaged world itself will continue to exist.

Detail three – there is nobody else to repair it. We are on our own here. God will not step in to save the earth from our mismanagement. 

Let’s take this a step further. In the Torah’s language, adam, humanity, is created in God’s image. That is a theological statement.

A scientist would ask if homo sapiens is fundamentally different than any other species. The answer is no and yes.

Every living thing is comprised of the same chemical materials, and is formed and behaves according to its DNA encoding.

We share the same survival instincts as all life forms, from the great whale to the spot of mold on a rock. We are drawn to that which helps our particular genetic material reproduce and repelled by that which puts it at risk. Most animals know instinctively that fire is dangerous and it is best to run away from it. We would call this “biological knowledge.”

On the other hand, homo sapiens is the only species that can understand how the combination of dry conditions, heat, heavy winds, and a lightning storm increases the chances of a forest fire. A philosopher or scientist would call this “explanatory knowledge” – the ability to tell stories or develop formulas or ideas that explain why things are the way they are.

Those explanations may or may not be true, but they do enable a human being to approach a choice and consider, for example, “What is the ethical thing to do?” Religion, science, the arts – these are all made possible by humanity’s capacity for explanatory knowledge.

This is what makes us unique among living creatures on earth, if not the universe. Shifting back to theological language, we might say that our capacity for explanatory knowledge is what it means to be made in God’s image.

That capacity has made it possible for us to develop civilization and technology, to learn how to live in environments in which our bodies could not survive with biological knowledge alone.

This quality has enabled us to spread out across the world, to reach a global population of nearly 8 billion people, to harness the natural resources of the planet such that humanity has thrived beyond what its mere biology would allow.

This quality is also what puts our continued survival on the planet at risk.  And it is the quality that makes us the only ones who can restore the balance and save ourselves.

Whether from a theological or a scientific perspective, we are the ones who must radically change directions. Can we do it?

This afternoon, we will read the story of Jonah, the most successful prophet ever. 

Although he tries to escape his mission, Jonah eventually realizes that there is no avoiding God. Reluctantly, he marches off to the giant metropolis of Nineveh, a city so large it takes three days to walk across. He climbs up on his soap box and proclaims, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overturned!”

The people respond immediately.  They declare a fast, and put on sackcloth and ashes. When word reaches the king, he gets off his throne and he joins them, ordering everyone to participate, humans and even animals. God sees and forgives.  Disaster is averted. 

Can you imagine?

An entire society, top to bottom: the rich, the poor, the politicians, people of all ethnicities and religions – everyone recognizes the danger, accepts responsibility, and fully commits to change – overnight.

If only.

My children are really worried about whether the planet is going to be livable when they are adults.

While it would be nice to hold the greatest polluters accountable, I am afraid that it is up to humanity collectively, and us individually.

If you are in a position to make a difference on the supply side of the equation, you are our best hope. If you can influence the decision makers in government or are in government, or if you are in a position in your company to change policies and practices to be a better environmental steward, our children and grandchildren are counting on you.

Most of us are on the demand side of the equation. Whatever you are already doing, do more. If you can, install solar panels on your roof. Get rid of your gasoline powered car. Ride your bike or take public transit more. Rip out your lawn. Buy less stuff. Eat less meat. Move into a smaller space. Protect undeveloped land from human encroachment. We each have capacity, and we know best what we are capable of. Let others know what you are doing and celebrate each other’s actions. That is how we will make a difference.

May we be worthy of the trust given us by God to take care of this beautiful world with all of its excellent creations.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah.

https://www.sinai-sj.org/rjb-sermons/the-earth-doesnt-care-whos-at-fault-yk-5782

What Happens Behind Closed Tent Flaps – Rosh Hashanah 5782

When the Sofer was here last weekend to complete our new Torah scroll, he pointed out something that I had not thought about before. He asked, when in the Torah do Abraham and Isaac talk to each other?

The answer is, only during the story of Akedat Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac, which we read this morning. 

Abraham receives the call from God, a test, to “take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.”  (Genesis 22:2)

With alacrity, Abraham sets off on the journey, a donkey, two servants, Isaac, and wood for the sacrifice.  On the third day, Abraham leaves the two servants with the donkey and continues up the mountain.  He places the wood on Isaac’s shoulders, and himself carries the knife and the flint.

We now hear Isaac’s voice for the first time.

Avi – “Father”

And Abraham responds, hineni v’ni – “Here I am, my son.”

Hinei ha’esh v’ha’etzim, v’ayeh haseh l’olah – “Here are the flint and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”

Elohim yir’eh lo ha’seh l’olah b’ni, Abraham answers – “God will see to the sheep for the burnt offering, my son.” (Genesis 22:7-8)

And they continue on together.

That’s it, the only dialogue between Abraham and Isaac in the entire Torah.  

The angel comes to stop Abraham at the last minute. Indeed, God does see to the sheep for the burnt offering. Abraham looks up and sees a ram with its horns caught in a thicket, which he offers up in place of Isaac.

In reward, God reiterates the blessing to Abraham. His descendants will be as numerous as the stars in heaven and the sand on the seashore. They will seize the gates of their foes, and the nations of the earth will bless themselves by them.

Since ancient times, Jews have read the Akedah as highly significant. Although it might seem surprising to us, it is traditionally portrayed positively, the ultimate test and proof of Abraham’s faith, a test that he passes with flying colors.

But the scene ends on an ominous note — depending on how we read it.

Abraham then returned to his servants, and they departed together for Beer-sheba; and Abraham stayed in Beer-sheba.

Where is Isaac? He is neither seen nor heard from. 

Midrashim suggest a few possibilities. Abraham thinks to himself, “Everything I have is due to my commitment to Torah and mitzvot. I must ensure thay my offspring always maintain their faith.” So he sends Isaac off to study in the Yeshiva of Shem (Noah’s son).  (Genesis Rabbah 56:11)

Another midrash claims that Abraham partially slaughtered Isaac on the altar. So Isaac goes off to the Garden of Eden to recuperate for the next three years.

Other midrashim connect the Akedah directly to Sarah’s death, which follows at the beginning of the next chapter. In one legend, Sama’el, otherwise known as Satan, frustrated that Abraham passed God’s test of faith, goes to Sarah and asks her,

“Do you know what has just happened?  Your old husband has taken the lad Isaac and sacrificed him on the altar.  He cried and and wailed but there was nobody to save him.” Hearing this, Sarah herself began to cry and wail, three long gasps like the tekiah of the shofar, and three broken howls like the shevarim.  Then her soul departed.

Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 32:8

Even though the Akedah is traditionally seen as a “win” for Abraham, we still find notes of discomfort – a recognition of its painful and potentially alienating repercussions — if not for Abraham, then for Isaac and Sarah.

But I would like to come back to our initial question? Do we really think that this was the only conversation that ever occurred between Abraham and Isaac?

Of course not. 

Yes, old Abe was surely an intense guy, but I imagine they might have gone out to throw the ball around at some point.

Maybe, just maybe, they would get together from time to time over a beer and laugh about that time when Dad almost sacrificed his son.

And while the conspicuous absence of any reference to Isaac coming down from the mountain does seem ominous, we might be overreacting.

Is it possible that Abraham and Isaac had a more normal relationship than we generally assume; that the Torah’s story of their three-day father-son camping trip might not be representative of their relationship?

After all, we know only what is shown to us on the outside.

We make a lot of assumptions about the meaning of a story like the Akedah. How much do our assumptions mirror our own concerns and viewpoints rather than describe what [quote unquote] happened? This is true as well of our relationships with one another. We do not know what happens behind closed doors, or closed tent-flaps, as the case may be.

We have spent much of the past year and a half physically-distanced.  We cannot yet understand the full impact of this isolation. But let’s acknowledge for a moment some of the difficulties we have faced behind closed doors.

Much of our interactions have been by way of a two dimensional screen. We catch only partial glimpses of one another, and reveal just a fraction of ourselves, superimposed on a fake background of a tropical beach. The ability to mute ourselves or turn the camera off at will provides a further means of creating distance. Even when we have been together, we see just half of one another’s faces. We have been unable to see out of town family and friends. People who have been ill have had to spend their time in the hospital alone. Those who have lost family members have been unable to say goodbye in person. There are those who have experienced forced isolation with a sigh of relief. The removal of the pressure of social interactions has come as a blessing. Others have found their stress and anxiety levels rising. Parents have struggled to support their children, who have had to attend school from home and stay apart from friends. Often, we have been at a lost as to what to do when we see our children falling behind in schoolwork, withdrawing from friends, and suffering. We have coped with stress in ways both healthy and self-destructive.

Human beings are often quick to judge.  Quick to come to conclusions based on what we see on the surface. But just as when we read the Akedah, our judgments of others are just as if not more likely to be a reflection of ourselves than an accurate depiction of the other. Let’s keep in mind: A person who appears confident could be terrified. A friend who seems happy could be suffering. Someone who seems normal may be experiencing abuse at home.

To really see another person requires that we set aside our ego, that we be open to learning something we did not already know and could have no way of knowing. This is difficult under normal circumstances, and even more so lately.

We do not know what goes on behind closed doors, whether the physical doors of a home, or behind the doors into the soul of another person.

What we encounter of each other is limited, but God sees what is beneath the surface, perceives that which is hidden and invisible from one another. God remembers all of the forgotten things, taking note of that which we do not see, which we fail to take into account.

This day of Rosh Hashanah is a celebration of grandeur, of Creation and renewal. But as we celebrate such grandeur, we turn inward, to the innermost parts of our selves, the parts that are hidden from each other, that may even be hidden from us.  In the poetic language of the mahzor, however, all is revealed before God, for God is fundamentally different.

Atah hu yotz’ram, v’atah yode’a yitzram, ki hem basar va’dam – It is You who are their Creator, and it is You who knows their inclination, for they are flesh and blood.

This expression comes in the context of describing how God is waiting, every day of our lives, for us to turn in teshuvah. Each one of us is imperfect and mortal, our origin is from the dust and our end is to return to the dust. And the infinite God knows our innermost thoughts and feelings. The God of the universe, who surely has bigger, more important things to worry about, pays attention to the souls of each one of us. As we pray repeatedly during these holy days, God’s nature is forgiving and understanding, always willing to give us another chance.

Perhaps that is a lesson we might take to heart. The qualities we ascribe to God are those ideal qualities that we aspire to in ourselves. 

We do not know what is going on beneath the surface.  What happens inside homes, between family members. Behind the computer or smartphone screen. But it is safe to assume that there is an entire world. Each human being is an olam katan

So before we pass judgment on what we think we see, let’s make that extra effort to be compassionate, just as we ask God to do. To try to understand, with patience. To give each other the benefit of the doubt, a second chance, a third chance.

With so much alienation and distance between us, we need each other more than ever. May this new year be a year in which we open our eyes and open our hearts to one another.

Shanah Tovah.

The Thirteen Attributes of Parenting (On the occasion of my son’s Bar Mitzvah) – Ki Tissa 5779

It is a special privilege and joy to officiate at my son’s Bar Mitzvah.  Over the past year, as we have been preparing for today, Solly and I have learned a lot about each other.  I have learned about myself.  I hope you feel the same.

This experience has made me reflect a lot on being a parent.  Specifically, how to be a better one.

The Torah is filled with stories of parents and children.  The ultimate purpose of the covenant is for parents to pass down peoplehood to their children, including: religious practices, historical memories, cultural traditions, and language.  And yet, they so often have trouble understanding each other.  

The Torah also makes us face the Ultimate parent-child relationship:  that between God and human beings.  God, the parent, wants us to just behave and do what we are told, already.  From the very first humans, Adam and Eve, we can’t seem to quite live up to those expectations.  That is what you spoke about, Solly.

God places demands on us, but we also place demands on God.  Our demand, our plea, is for God to accept us for who we are, rather than for who God wants us to be.  

As Parashat Ki Tissa begins, Moses has been up on Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights.  He has left the people at the base of the mountain under the care of his brother Aaron.  Thinking he is gone, some of the Israelites build and worship a golden calf.  God wants to wipe out the people in response to their lack of faith and start over with Moses.  Moses successfully convinces God to forgive the Israelites.  On a role, Moses goes for it.  “Hareini na et k’vodekha,” he says to God.  “Please show me your glory.”

What is he asking for?  Moses wants to know more about this unseen Being whom he represents.  He wants to understand something about the essence of Divine nature.

“Nobody can see My face and live,” says God.  “But I’ll tell you what.  Stand in the cleft of the rock.  I’ll cover you with My hand.  Then, I’ll pass all of my goodness before You.  After I have passed, I’ll remove My hand and you can see My back.”

Face, hands, back.  God sounds a lot like a person.  

Rabbi Yochanan, in the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 17b), finds it hard to believe that God could be described this way.  “Were it not written, it could not have been said.”  But it was written, so Rabbi Yochanan imagines the scene further.  The Holy One is wrapped up in a tallit like a shaliach tzibbur, a prayer leader.  God then recites the Thirteen Attributes.  They might sound familiar:

Adonai, Adonai – The Lord, the Lord.

Eil rachum v’chanun – God of mercy and compassion

Erekh apayim v’rav chesed ve’emet – Patient, full of kindness and faithfulness

Notseir chesed la’alafim – Extending love for a thousand generations

Nosei avon vafesha, v’chata’ah – Forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin

v’nakeh – and pardoning

Rabbi Yochanan continues imagining the scene:  “Whenever the Jewish people sin,” God tells Moses, “let them recite this prayer.  I will forgive them immediately.”

These qualities are all about kindness and forgiveness.  Of course the Rabbis would gravitate to these words.  They establish the recitation of these Thirteen Attributes of God on the High Holidays, when we come together to pray for forgiveness.  It was so popular that seventeenth century mystics added added it to Passover, Shavuot, and Succot, but not Shabbat.

The only problem is, the Rabbis have cut off the quote in mid-sentence, completely distorting its meaning from its original context.  Here is its continuation.  You may recall that the last word is v’nakeh – “and pardoning.”  But the following words are:

lo y’nakeh – “He does not pardon”

poked avon avot al-banim v’al b’nei vanim al-shileshim v’al ribe’im – but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.

This changes things.  While God may be kind, compassionate, and forgiving, God also holds us accountable for our actions across generations.  This is a covenantal text.  It makes sense here, as Moses has just successfully argued God down from wiping out all of Israel.  Instead, only those who are guilty will be punished, while the rest of the nation is spared.  God sticks to the covenant.  There is both compassion and justice.  Carrot and stick.

But the Rabbis don’t feel like bringing up the stick.  They cherry pick only those attributes that they want.  What gives them the right?

Well, they are not the first.  The Bible itself misquotes the attributes—frequently.  The first Temple Prophet Joel, offering comfort to the people, reassures them that God will accept them if they return, because God “is compassionate and merciful, patient and full of kindness…”  (Joel 2:13)  No punishment mentioned.

The anti-Prophet Jonah, who disobeys God’s instructions to prophesize to the sinners of Nineveh, explains his reasoning.  “This is exactly what I said would happen.  I ran away because ‘I know that you are a God who is compassionate and merciful, patient and full of kindness…’  (Jonah 4:2)”  Notice that Jonah cites the exact same Divine attributes as Joel.  Only, he is angry that God is not behaving more vengefully.  He wants the Ninevites to be punished.

Several other biblical texts treat the attributes similarly.  It is not sloppy editing.  These numerous texts simply do not want to invoke a judgmental God.  They want a God who will accept them with their imperfections.  They know that they have screwed up and probably do not deserve it, but they want forgiveness anyway.

When the Rabbis incorporate only the first thirteen attributes into our worship, leaving off the punishment, they are in good company.  Rabbi Yochanan even goes so far as to claim that God is the One who first came up with the idea of uprooting the text from its context.

The Thirteen Attributes are among the most memorable prayers in the liturgy.  Perhaps it is due to the music, or the threefold repetition in front of the open ark.  Behind all of the aesthetics of how we recite it is the message that it conveys:  we want our God to give us a second chance.  Just like we want our parents to give us a second chance, and sometimes a third, and a fourth.

Human beings have a need to be seen.  When I visit the Nursery School students, they rush over and say “Look at me.  Look at me.”  Although most of us stop being so blatant about it as we mature, the essential loneliness of “Look at me,” persists.  We all want to be seen.  Most of all, I think, by our parents.  As we mature, though, we become aware of our faults and struggles.  That knowledge can complicate our desire for acknowledgment.  What if they see my imperfections and reject me?

When we turn to God, we only mention the compassionate and forgiving qualities because we fear that God might not accept us with our imperfections.

I think children want the same thing from their parents.  A child becomes Bar and Bat Mitzvah precisely at the time when the centrifugal and centripetal forces are most intense.  They want to create distance—to differentiate from us.  But it is also a time of great vulnerability, when the need for assurance and acceptance is strong.  These forces that attract and repel us from each other can be exasperating, to both sides.

I am going to read the 13 Attributes again.  Only this time, don’t think about them as Divine qualities.  Think about them as the qualities that children want from their parents, especially when they are 13.

The Lord, the Lord, God of mercy and compassion, patient, full of kindness and faithfulness, extending love for a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and pardoning.

Solly, I don’t get it right all the time, but that is what I strive for.

One of the fun parts of being a father is watching how your kids think through problems to find solutions.

You are a person with strong opinions and convictions.  I have tried to convey that answers in the real world are typically not as straightforward as good and bad, right and wrong.

That was the problem with the first set of Tablets of the Covenant, as you explained to us earlier.  The Israelites needed a lawgiver like Moses who understood that it is possible for two people with different opinions to both have a point.  And who could look beyond simple right and wrong answers to guide imperfect people towards the right path.

That kind of patience is an important quality to cultivate.  It applies to our relationships with friends and classmates, teachers, parents and siblings, and religion.

As much as I may want to dictate to you the commitments that you are going to embrace in your life, I know that it would not be appropriate, or even possible, to do so.

Solly, as you grow into adulthood, I hope that you learn to recognize the nuances in life.  The Torah is not central to Judaism because it is true or false.  It is central because generations of Jews, going back thousands of years, have committed their lives to studying it and living by it.  By embracing that tradition, you pursue a life of meaning side by side with your ancestors.

As your father, I pray that you will find your path in Jewish life through learning, commitment to Jewish practice, and involvement in Jewish community.

Mummy and I have tried to surround you with meaningful experiences in our home and with our community.  Keep at it.

Mazel Tov.

What Does God Look Like? – Yitro 5779

What does God look like?

Can we ask such a blasphemous question?  God, after all, is not tied down by a body.  God is transcendent.  In the prayer Yigdal, which summarizes Maimonides’ thirteen attributes of faith, we sing Ein lo d’mut haguf, v’aeinu guf – “God has no form of a body, nor is God a body.”

So what does God look like?  Most of us do have some idea of what God looks like buried in the backs of our minds.  That image probably goes back to childhood, before we had a chance to build up all of our intellectual, rationalistic ideas about God being formless.

When I was a little kid, I remember my father being a news junkie.  So it is not a surprise that my earliest memory of God is in the form of an older man with white hair sitting behind a desk reading the news.  In this image, God bears a striking resemblance to Walter Cronkite.

In Parashat Yitro, we read the Ten Commandments.  But as much as we talk about the receiving of the Ten Commandments as being central to Judaism, the moment that we coalesced and joined together to form the Jewish people, there is an event that is even more significant.  This event occurs just before the commandments are given.

It is the simultaneous encounter of the entire Jewish people with God.  It is an experience that cannot be described in words, just like all mystical experiences.

The Torah tries to give us a sense of what it was like with nature terms:  “… there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the shofar; and all the people who were in the camp trembled…  Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently.  The blare of the shofar grew louder and louder.”  (Ex. 19:16-20)

This is the encounter of God: thunder… lightning… a dense cloud… the blast of a shofar… fire… smoke… and trembling.

What does this sound like to you?  To me, it seems like a massive volcanic eruption.  But is that it?  Is that the essence of what they, and really all of us, experienced during that moment of revelation?

I do not think so. While this tremendous, mind blowing event did take place, there was also a moment of deep, intimate, and personal connection.  A passage in the Book of Kings captures that moment.

The Prophet Elijah flees Jezebel’s wrath and eventually winds up at Mt. Sinai  There, he experiences God’s Presence in a way that should sound similar.  

There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind – an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake – fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire – a still small voice.  (I Kings 19:11-12)

Wind, earthquake, fire.  This sounds pretty similar to what the Israelites encounter in Parashat Terumah.  But the Elijah text explicitly states that the Essence of God is not in any of phenomena.  God is found in the still small voice, kol demamah dakah.  It takes a true Prophet like Moses, or Elijah, to hear God’s voice within, or despite, the cacophony.

After the moment ends, it is impossible to accurately describe what just happened.  So the Torah describes natural phenomena that overwhelm the senses.  Too much sound, too much light, too much noise, the ground quaking.  It is sensory overload.

Either that or a really loud rock concert.  But who can a hear a still small voice at a rock concert?  Only the Prophet.

That is why the Israelites tell Moses, “You speak to us, and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.”  The sensory overload is too much for them to handle, so they send Moses.

That is one way of looking at the Revelation at Mout Sinai.

A midrash from a medieval collection called Midrash Tanhuma takes a different approach entirely.  It embraces anthropomorphism unabashedly.  God is a person.  And not only that, but God has wardrobe changes to suit the occasion.  God appears in a different human form in each time and place in which God is needed.

At the splitting of the Red Sea, God is a heroic warrior battling on Israel’s behalf.  At Sinai, when God presents the Torah to Israel, God appears as a sofer, a scribe.  In the days of King Solomon, who tradition holds wrote the erotic love poetry of the Song of Songs, God takes the form of a strapping young man. In the days of the Prophet Daniel, God appears as a wise old man teaching Torah.  (Tanhuma Buber, Yitro 16)

The point is that God appears to the Israelites in ways that befit the needs of the moment.  Let’s extend the metaphor into the present.  When we are in the hospital being treated for cancer, maybe God takes on the appearance of a doctor, dressed in scrubs and wearing a stethoscope.  Or when our souls are lonely and in need of relief, God can look like a lover, who comforts us with an embrace.  For a young boy who looks up to his news-watching father, God takes the form of a news anchor, conveying confidence and security.

I suspect that this midrash would make Maimonides uncomfortable.  He insists throughout his writings that God cannot be described positively in any way, whatsoever.  Language, which is finite, is incapable of representing the infinite.  But what can we do?  It is the only way we have to communicate.

Maimonides insists that any anthropomorphic language of God in the Torah must be understand as metaphor.  We naturally turn to images and symbols that already carry recognizable cultural meaning when we try to convey a transformative encounter.  Maimonidew is fully aware, however, that the majority of people in his own day do not understand this.

Today, it seems to me that many of us have embraced Maimonides’ rejection of the anthropomorphic descriptions of God without taking the next step, which is to embrace them anyways, knowing full well that they are metaphors.

We are understandably not comfortable embracing the notion that God takes human forms because it sounds so similar to certain other religions, or because it does not fit in to our modern, supposedly rational way of understanding the world.  

But the drawback is that we lose a powerful way to experience the Divine and to subsequently express that experience.  Instead, we get stuck in an intellectual head-game in which we are comfortable talking about what God is not, but never able to discuss what God is.  I wish I could be more comfortable living in both worlds.

What does God look like?  I know that God is distant, invisible, and unknowable.  But God is also a warrior, a scribe, a doctor, and even a news anchor.  The challenge is to embrace the metaphors while recognizing that they are (merely) metaphors for the Indescribable.

It’s Easy to Promise Something You Don’t Have, But Hard to Deliver It When You Do – Vayetze 5779

If there is one thing that I have learned about parenting, it is this: never promise your kids anything.  They will hold you to it.  So whenever I am asked, “Do you promise?” the answer is always, “No.”

At the beginning of this morning’s Torah portion, Vayetze, Jacob is fleeing from the land of his birth, Canaan, on his way to Haran.  He is trying to escape from his brother Esau, who in his anger at Jacob for stealing the blessing that should have been his, has vowed to kill him.

When he reaches the border, Jacob stops at an unnamed place to lay down for the night.  Taking a rock for a pillow, he goes to sleep by the side of the road.  He dreams of a ladder extending from the ground up to heaven.  Angels are ascending and descending, and God stands next to him.  In the dream, God blesses Jacob, promising offspring as numerous as the dust on the earth.  They will inherit the land and be a blessing to the world.  Furthermore, God will remain with Jacob, protecting him while he is abroad, and never leaving until this promise has been fulfilled.

That’s a great dream!  Not bad for a night’s sleep.

Jacob wakes up, knowing that something amazing has transpired.  “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.  “How awesome is this place!  This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.”

He takes his stone pillow, sets it up as a pillar, anoints it with oil, and names the site Beit El—the House of God.  Then Jacob makes a vow:

If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house—the Lord shall be my God.  And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God’s abode; and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You.  (Genesis 28:20-22)

Jacob has just promised three things: 1.  The Lord shall be My God.  2.  This pillar shall be God’s abode—Beit Elohim.  3.  I will set aside a tithe—that is to, ten percent of everything he owns.

How are we to understand this vow?  It seems kind of redundant.  God has just promised to protect Jacob and return him safely to the land of Canaan.  Why does Jacob need to repeat it?

The cynic would take offense at Jacob’s audacity.  It sounds like he is bargaining with God, or even extorting God to protect him.  “You want to be my God?  You want me to worship You? Then You had better deliver!”

But remember, at this point in his life, Jacob has absolutely nothing.  He is so poor that he has to use a rock for a pillow.  He has, quite literally, nothing to give.  

So he offers God a share in future earnings.  All that he can do is make a vow:  “I don’t have anything I can give You now, but when You do what You say You are going to do, and I have become rich beyond my wildest dream, then I will promise to give You one tenth of everything I own.”

That is quite a promise.  Will Jacob deliver?

By the end of this morning’s Torah portion, twenty years have passed.  Jacob has established a large family and amassed a tremendous fortune.  The time has come for him to leave Haran and return to the land of Canaan.  The parashah ends with Jacob setting off on the return journey with his entire household.

Next week’s portion begins the long anticipated and feared reunion with Esau.  The reunion goes better than expected and Jacob moves on to Shechem with his family.  After the rape of his daughter Dina and the subsequent massacre of the men of the town, Jacob picks up and moves again.  Finally, he arrives at Beit El, the same place at which he had his dream of angels rising and descending a ladder.  This is the same place where, without a penny to his name, Jacob vowed to present a tithe to the Lord in exchange for God’s protection and blessing.

God appears to Jacob once again, blesses him, changes his name from Jacob to Israel, and promises that his descendants will inherit the land.  

God has certainly delivered God’s part.  Now it is Jacob’s turn.

Remember, Jacob promised three things:  Commitment to God, a pillar, and a tithe.  Jacob sets up a pillar on the spot to mark the occasion, pours a libation over it, and anoints it with oil.  Is this the same pillar or a different one?  Not clear, but Jacob clearly has indicated his commitment to God.  Promise one—check.  Promise two—check.  Promise three—…silence.

Did Jacob renege on his promise?  Has he broken his vow?

The Torah does not say, but let’s see if we can unpack it.  When Jacob returns to the land of Canaan twenty years later, he brings with him a large family and a significant fortune.  Ten percent would amount to quite a sum – made up largely of livestock.

Who is to be the recipient of Jacob’s tithe?  Tithe giving was a well-known, widespread practice in the Ancient Near East.  A worshipper would typically bring the tithe to the priests officiating at a temple or to the King in his royal court.  The problem for Jacob is that all of the temples in his day are idolatrous, and there is certainly no royal personage deserving of his loyalty.  There is no obvious person to whom he can give ten percent of his wealth.

Perhaps he could offer it up directly to God as a burnt offering?  That is what the commentator Rashbam suggests, but he does not seem to be bothered by the extraordinary number of animals that would have been slaughtered and burned to ash.  

Rabbi David Kimchi, known by the acronym Radak, is a medieval Bible commentator from Provence, France.  Radak interprets Jacob’s promise to set aside a tithe as a promise to give tzedakah to people in need who fear and worship God.  Feeding the hungry, he says, is a gift to God.

Radak cites another possibility from a midrash (Genesis Rabbah 70:7).  Jacob tithes his children.  He sets aside one tenth of his sons.  Who is the lucky lad?  Levi, whose descendants will spend more time than their brother tribes in service to God.  The Priests and Levites, who officiate in the Temple, both come from the tribe of Levi.  Radak suggests that Jacob dedicated extra time imparting to Levi the esoteric wisdom and teachings of the Torah.

Radak’s two answers offer important insight that suggests two ways that we can express gratitude for the blessings that we receive.  In the first answer, the tithe is a gift of wealth.  In the second answer, the tithe is a gift of service.  Both are accepted by God.  

It is easy to promise to do something tomorrow that I do not have the capacity to do today.  When tomorrow arrives, what is the likelihood that I will actually follow through?

Our elected officials do this all the time.  

It is for this reason that the Rabbis do not approve of vows.  They know that we have a hard time standing by our word, so they discourage us from making the commitment unless we are fully prepared to follow through.

To this day, many Jews use the expression b’li neder—meaning “without a vow.”  It is a way of saying, I intend to do something, but I am not promising, because something might get in the way that is out of my control.

As a totally hypothetical example, a person might tell a spouse, “B’li neder, I’ll clean out the garage over the Thanksgiving weekend, when I have all of that free time.”  Meaning, “I know you want me to clean out the garage, and it would make me really happy if I were to do that for you when I have all of that free time next week, but there is a really good chance that something else is going to come up that I want to do more.”

Jacob wants to do the right thing.  His vow is sincere.  But without a penny to his name, he’ll promise anything.  He is desperate.  The real test is going to come later, when he is wealthy.  Will he remember his earlier promise?  When he has made his fortune, will he be willing to part from it?

I’ll speak for myself.  I have never been in Jacob’s shoes.  I have never found myself in a situation in which I had nothing, and did not have anyone to whom I could turn.  So I am in no position to judge Jacob for his vow.  

I grew up in an upper-middle class family that could provide for my needs, including paying the majority of my college expenses.  I hope to be able to do the same for my children.

While it might not seem this way in wealthy Silicon Valley, this is not the reality for the majority of Americans, and certainly for most of the inhabitants of the planet.

I read just this morning about 3,000 migrants from Central America who are currently in Tijuana, Mexicot.  Their numbers are expected to swell to ten thousand in the coming months.  As I read about them, I began to consider, “what would it take for a person to uproot his children, leave his native land, and travel over 1,000 miles by foot to an unknown country?  How bad would things have to be?”  I cannot even begin to imagine.

I imagine that many of those who have chosen to make that journey have made promises to God, offering promises in exchange for blessing and protection.  I bet Jacob’s desperate promise, made on his journey leaving the only home he has ever known, might seem familiar to some of these migrants.  

Maybe we should try to put ourselves in Jacob’s shoes.  Each of us has been the recipient of enormous blessings to get to where we are today.  What should we give back?

Who in our community needs help?  Who in the global community?  What of our wealth can we give, and what service can we offer that can begin to repay all of the incredible advantages and privileges that we enjoy?

Perhaps the Torah’s silence on whether Jacob fulfilled his vow suggests that for those who have experienced blessing, it is easy to forget about those who still struggle.

We owe it to God to not forget, and we serve God when we use the blessings we have received to be the blessing that lifts up another person.

Uncontrolled Anger and its Remedy – Shelakh Lekha 5778

Anger is powerful.  It is a core emotion, one we all experience.  It is a natural part of being human.

When we feel angry, we should pay attention, because it indicates when something is not right.  Anger is what alerts us to injustice.  It is how we prepare emotionally to respond to a perceived threat.

Uncontrolled anger, however, makes us forget important details, overrides our moral training, and makes us generally unpleasant to be around.  It causes us lose our ability to self-monitor and maintain objectivity.  Uncontrolled anger, with its partner, irrational fear, is responsible for much of the polarizing behavior in America today.

Anger will lead to Moses being banned from the Promised Land in a few weeks’ Torah portions.

To illustrate this point, the Torah depicts even God slipping into uncontrolled anger.  This morning’s reading, Parashat Shelach Lekha, describes the infamous story of the spies, who are sent to scout out the land of Canaan and bring back an advance report.

We enter the story at the moment when God is furious.  The Israelites have panicked after listening to the spies’ depressing assessment of their chances against the inhabitants of Canaan.

God is incredulous about the Israelites’ lack of faith.  He is frustrated beyond imagination.  “Let me strike them down with pestilence and start over with you, Moses!”

This is when Moses shows his true mettle.  In his prophetic role, he steps into the breach.  “But think about what the other nations will say,” Moses warns.  “‘This God of the Israelites did not have the power to finish the job.  Since he could not bring them into the land that He promised, He just killed them off in the wilderness.’  Is that how You want to be known?”

That is argument number one for Moses.  Argument number two is more personal.

Here it is in Hebrew:  וְעַתָּה יִגְדַּל־נָא כֹּחַ אֲדֹנָי כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ לֵאמֹר  “And now, let the strength of my Lord increase, as you have spoken.”  (Numbers 14:17)  What is this koach, or strength, that Moses mentions?  And when did God speak about it?

Moses continues:

ה’ אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב־חֶסֶד נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן וָפָשַׁע וְנַקֵּה לֹא יְנַקֶּה פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל־בָּנִים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִים:

“Adonai, patient and full of lovingkindness, bearing iniquity and transgression, yet clearing, not clearing, calling-to-account the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons to the third and to the fourth [generation].”  (Numbers 14:18)  

Does this sound familiar?  Partially.  When is the last time that God threatened to wipe out the Israelites and start over with Moses?  At Mount Sinai, during the incident with the Golden Calf.  Moses talks God down at that time as well, using similar arguments.  While he is on a roll, Moses asks to behold God’s glory.  God agrees, and hides Moses in a cleft in a rock and passes the Divine Glory next to him.  While passing, God proclaims the thirteen attributes.

In this deja vu moment, Moses repeats God’s words back to Him.  He quotes some, but not all, of those attributes.  Maybe it will remind God, he thinks, of the last time when really really wanted to kill the Israelites but changed His mind.

Most of the commentators connect the koach, the strength that Moses wants God to increase with the term erekh apayim.  Literally, it means, long-nosed.  In Hebrew, this is a euphemism for patient.  The opposite is charon af, which means the burning nose, or flaring nostrils, a euphemism for anger.

So Moses is appealing for an increase in the relative strength of God’s patience.  Or, as Ibn Ezra puts it, that “the attribute of mercy should be victorious over the attribute of judgment to conquer Your anger.”

Anger has led God to forget about His own nature.  Moses is trying to awaken Divine compassion, which has become blocked.

Citing a midrash, the commentator Rashi takes it a step further. 

When Moses goes up Mount Sinai to get the Torah, he finds God writing down the Divine attributes.  Erekh apayim, Moses sees.  Long-nosed, patient.  Moses asks: “that is just for the righteous, right?

God corrects him, “Nope, it is for the wicked as well.”

“But should not the wicked be punished?” Moses asks.

“By your life,” God responds, “you are going to need these words one day.”

Today is the day.  The entire nation of Israel sins by listening to the ten spies.  God wants to obliterate them.

“But God,” Moses pleads.  “Didn’t you say that you are erekh apayim, patient?”

The Holy One replies, “I thought you wanted that to be just for the righteous.”

“No, no, no” Moses shakes his head.  “You said that it would also be for the wicked.”

Moses concludes his appeal by asking God to forgive the nation’s sin in accordance with the greatness of God’s love.  

God responds: סָלַחְתִּי כִּדְבָרֶךָ – “I forgive just as you have spoken.”

What a wonderful parallel.  Moses uses God’s words to remind God to be His best self.  And God responds by forgiving, according to Moses’ words.

So was God actually angry?  The midrash suggests that the story might have been told this way to teach a lesson about the danger of uncontrolled anger, and to offer a remedy.

The danger is that anger can cause me to forget who I am.  What are the values and principles that govern my life, that lead me to be me best self?  When I allow myself to be consumed by anger, I lose my way.

The remedy is another person.  Moses is the courageous prophet who has the nerve to confront God during God’s moment of rage.  To His credit, God accepts the intervention and snaps back, forgiving the Israelites.

I need to have people in my life who I can trust to step into the breach and tell me when I have lost my way.  And I should have the courage to be that person for someone else.  And most importantly, I should be receptive to hearing the voice of someone who has the courage to tell me, with love, when I am being an idiot.

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.