What is Judaism? – Legacy Shabbat 5780

What a difficult week it has been!  I would like to begin by remembering our brothers and sister who were murdered al kiddush hashem on Tuesday this week in the shooting at the Jewish grocery store in Jersey City. We remember veteran police officer Detective Joseph Seals, who bravely laid down his life in the line of duty, when he tried to stop the attackers.  He leaves behind a wife and five children. We mourn the deaths of 32 year old Mindy Ferencz, who co-owned the grocery store with her husband.  She leaves behind three children.  Moshe Deutsch was a 24 year old rabbinical student from Brooklyn.  Douglas Miguel Rodriguez was an employee at the grocery store.  49 years old, he immigrated from Ecuador and leaves behind a wife and two children.  These innocent civilians, may their memory be a blessing, were targeted for no reason other than that they were in a Jewish grocery store.

Sadly, these antisemitic acts of violence are becoming all too common.  This most recent attack reminds us that antisemitism exists in many different elements in society.  It is real, growing, and becoming more violent.  

Although the timing is coincidental, the next day, the President signed an Executive Order instructing federal agencies to apply the same prohibitions “against…forms of discrimination rooted in anti-Semitism” as it does to discrimination based on race, color or national origin.  The Executive Order is based on the bipartisan Anti-Semitism Awareness Act of 2019, which is still going through Congress.  There has been some confusion around what the Executive Order means, so I will try to explain what it actually says.  

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits any program or activity that receives Federal funding from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin.  Federal funds can be withheld if such discrimination is found to exist.  Title VI explicitly excludes religion from its list of protections.  The new Executive Order says that discrimination against Jews is to be included along with race, color, or national origin as a reason for withdrawing funding.

In other words, being Jewish is understood to be not just a religious identity.  This is pretty much the same approach that the Obama Administration used, by the way.  The new Executive Order differs substantively in just one way.  It orders the consideration of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism.  Both the E.U. and the U.N. have called upon all member nations to adopt this definition, and fourteen countries already have.

Criticism of Israel, of course, is not inherently antisemitic.  The IHRA definition of Antisemitism includes the specification of ways in which criticism of Israel crosses the line.  Examples include: the accusation that Jews have a dual loyalty, the use of classic antisemitic symbols to characterize Israel or Israelis, and “claiming that the existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”  These can be considered by federal agencies when investigating a Title VI complaint.  Pretty technical, and not clear whether it will result in any change in approach.   

The particular focus of the Order is to protect Jewish students on many college campuses, who are tragically on the front lines of antisemitism in America.  Those of us living in the suburbs are largely insulated.  The opening section of the Order notes:

the rise of anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic incidents in the United States and around the world. Anti-Semitic incidents have increased since 2013, and students, in particular, continue to face anti-Semitic harassment in schools and on university and college campuses.

https://www.scribd.com/document/439372691/Combating-Anti-Semitism-2019-Executive-Order#from_embed

The main purpose of the Executive Order is to enable federal funds to be withheld from colleges and universities that are not addressing antisemitism on campus.

What does it mean for Jewish identity to be included in the same category as “race, color, or national origin?”  It feels like it could result in unintended consequences, but I do not know how else secular law could define it

I am not going to get into all of the explosive questions that are raised. What I would like to share is that, whenever I am asked to make a presentation to non-Jewish groups about Judaism, there is a particular point that I always try to make.

Judaism is not a religion in the way that we typically think of religions.  If we polled our congregation, we would find significant numbers of members who would claim to be agnostic or atheist.  These are proud Jews; Jews who attend synagogue regularly; Jews who enthusiastically participate in the Passover Seder and tell the story of the Exodus as their personal story. I am not aware of any religion in which someone who explicitly denies the existence of  God can be considered to be a member.  Judaism is clearly more than just a religion.

Judaism is not a race or a skin color.  There are Jews from countries all over the world.  We welcome converts as full members of the Jewish community, no matter their origins. Judaism has aspects of ethnicity and national identity, but the level of diversity in Judaism far exceeds that of any other ethnic or national group.

The truth is, Jewish identity is unique, which is why it is so difficult to describe.  

Jews everywhere have shared history, embracing the same set of origin stories and myths.  We all look to the Torah as our Sacred Text, although it means different things to different people.  The religion of Judaism is an important part of Jewish identity, but not the only part.

The land of Israel has been a central focus for the Jewish people since Abraham, although its exact significance has always been open to interpretation.  History, beliefs, texts, land: all of these are woven together to create the Jewish people. It is such a strong identity that we feel kinship with Jews everywhere.  They are our brothers and sisters.  When something happens to a Jew, it is personal.  Whether in our own community, in New Jersey, in Israel, France, Russia, Argentina, or Uganda.  Jews are family.  

This is what I try to convey when I present Judaism 101.

Today, we are marking Legacy Shabbat.  I want to state, clearly, that I am uncomfortable with using fear to encourage financial support.  I prefer to focus on the countless positive reasons that make our institutions worthy of support.

I have tried to share how excited I get about the complicated question of how to define Judaism.  Being Jewish involves so many dimensions.  Both Sinai and Hillel are actively engaged in all aspects of Jewish identity on a daily basis.  We serve diverse populations of people from many different backgrounds who share a common Jewish identity.  

We are committed to embracing our shared history, providing for religious commitment and growth, deepening our connection to Israel, and cultivating solidarity with our Jewish brothers and sisters around the world.

We are here to make Judaism thrive.  That is why the Silicon Valley Jewish Community Legacy Project is so important.  It is a cooperative program among synagogues and Jewish agencies in the South Bay, including Congregation Sinai and Hillel of Silicon Valley.  This is how the program works.

First of all, let me say, “We should have good health and live to be 120.  Pooh, pooh, pooh.”

When the end comes, we are likely to leave assets behind.  The Legacy Project is a commitment to leave some portion of your estate to Congregation Sinai, Hillel, or any of the other Jewish institutions in the area.

There are a number of ways that you could set this up.

You could name Sinai as a beneficiary in your Will, Living Trust, IRA, Retirement Plan, or Life Insurance policy.  You could set it up so that Sinai would receive a specified amount of money, or a certain percentage.  You could bequest a real estate holding to Congregation Sinai.

The Silicon Valley Jewish Community Legacy Project is organized through the Federation.  All that it involves is filling out a single piece of paper—a “Declaration of Intent.”  This lets Sinai, Hillel, and any other organization that you have designated know that it has been named as a beneficiary.

Then, it is up to you to make the arrangements in your own Estate planning.

When Congregation Sinai or Hillel receives funds from a Legacy Gift—and it should be many years from now—it will add them to its Endowment Fund.  The principal will remain intact, and the interest will provide financial support every single year, indefinitely.  This will serve as your legacy to future generations.

Legacy giving by members and friends of Sinai is going to be the most important source of funds to cover the increasing costs of operating the synagogue.

If you want Congregation Sinai to be a place of worship, learning, and gathering for future generations, joining the Sinai Legacy Project is the single most effective thing that you can do. It is really quite simple, and will not cost you anything.

To those who have already made a Legacy commitment, “Todah Rabbah.” To those who have not, I am asking you straight up: “Will you make a Legacy Commitment to Congregation Sinai and to Hillel of Silicon Valley?  Will you do it in the next two and half weeks, before the end of 2019?”

I hope you will join Dana and I in making that commitment.  

Sharing Passover – Shabbat HaChodesh 5777

As we just announced, Rosh Chodesh Nisan occurs this Tuesday.  In other words, the two week countdown until the first Seder begins in just three days.  (Aaaah!)

I am sure you noticed that we took out two Torah scrolls this morning.  That is because this Shabbat is Shabbat HaChodesh, the Shabbat before the beginning of the month of Nisan.

In the special reading that we chanted from the second Sefer Torah, God makes a similar announcement to Moses and Aaron.  It is the first day of the month of Nisan.

God gives them instructions on how to prepare.  This is the first recorded observance of Passover.  Here are the basics:  On the tenth day of the month, each household must select an unblemished, one-year-old male sheep or goat.  They must then watch over it for three days, making sure that it does not acquire any new blemishes, which would render it unfit for the offering.

On the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, they are to slaughter it.  They take the blood and paint it on the doorposts and lintels of their homes.  This signals to the Angel of Death that this is a Jewish home.  In his wreaking destruction over all the first born of Egypt, he will know to pass over these houses.

Each household then roasts its selected animal over a fire, and eats it that night with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.  They are not allowed to have any leftovers the next day.  Whatever is not consumed that night must be burned up.

The Israelites are supposed to eat in their traveling clothes – loins girded, staff in hand, and sandals on feet.

Then, God switches gears, explaining that the people of Israel will continue to observe this holiday as a seven day festival for all time – in remembrance of being rescued from slavery in Egypt.

More than three thousand years later, our seders, and our observance of Passover, still look back to this moment.

A detail in this first Seder stands out.  The instructions are not directed to the priests, or to the tribal leaders, or to just the men, or even to individual Israelites.  The laws of Passover are directed to households.  People have to come together and share.

Remember the details – no leftover are allowed.  Given those restrictions, a lamb or sheep is way too much for one person to eat alone.  So it has got to be eaten by an entire household.  But what if a whole lamb is still too much for an entire household? The Torah takes it into consideration: “But if the household is too small for a lamb, let him share one with a neighbor who dwells nearby, in proportion to the number of persons: you shall contribute for the lamb according to what each household will eat…”  (Exodus 12:4)

Imagine the setting in Egypt.  Israelites are rushing around, trying to get ready to leave Egypt.  They are packing their things.  But in the midst of all their preparations, they have to plan for one final meal.  They pick out the lucky animal, and take special care of it for three days, amidst all the hustle and bustle.

Then, the night before departure – one final feast, a barbecue.  Children, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, servants – all come together to share.  Those without large families meet up with their neighbors.  Nobody is left out.  Why?  Because there cannot be any leftovers.

Nowadays, there are surely lots of leftovers after the seder.  At our house, by the time we get to the main course, it is so late, and we have already eaten so much, that nobody has any appetite left.

But the legacy of making sure everyone is included in the celebration of Pesach, in the celebration of freedom, is still with us in two significant ways.

The first is through the practice of maot chittin.  Literally, “coins for wheat.”  Since the time of the Talmud, it has been customary to give kosher for Passover flour to the poor prior to the holiday.  This enables them to bake their own unleavened bread.  Keep in mind, this tradition developed in the days before Manischewitz invented factory-baked matzah.

Giving flour, or money for flour, was considered to be ideal, as it is more dignified when a person can bake his or her own matzah.  Alternatively, a person could give matzah.

In some communities, local Jewish authorities would actually compel miserly residents to contribute towards Maot Chittin.  

A story is told of a woman who once went to her Rabbi with a strange question:  “Rabbi, is it permissible to drink four cups of milk at the seder instead of four cups of wine?

Shocked by the question, the Rabbi asked her why she would want to use milk.

“I am very poor.  I cannot afford wine.”

So the Rabbi gave her a large sum of money, and told her to go buy wine for her seder.

The Rabbi’s wife overheard this exchange, and when the women left, she asked her husband why he gave her so much money.

“Anyone who is intending to drink milk at the seder certainly does not have enough money to serve meat.  So I gave her enough money to purchase both.”

Every year at Sinai, members contribute money towards Maot Chittin.  It enables us, as a congregation, to help feed people.  I am privileged, as Sinai’s Rabbi, to send hundreds of dollars each year to our local Jewish Family Service’s No One Abandoned Here project, as well as to Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger.

The other way in which we make sure everyone is included in Pesach is captured in the opening lines of the Maggid section of the Haggadah.  Ha lachma anya…  “This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are needy come and celebrate the Passover.”

While reciting these words, it is customary to open our doors to look outside to see if anyone is wandering around, looking for a seder to attend.  Not likely, so this action is largely symbolic.

But many of us try to fulfill this ideal by inviting guests to our seder tables.  Just as the first seder involved entire households, extended families, and neighbors joining together, seders today can be big affairs.  We invite relatives and friends.  For many seders, it is basically the same guest list year after year.  And that is wonderful.  We trace this tradition all the way back to our Israelite ancestors in Egypt.

I wonder, though, if we could do better.  Back in the shtetl, everyone knew everyone else’s business.  If a neighbor did not have a seder to attend, word would get out pretty quickly – and an invitation would follow.  But in our days, when we are dispersed and no longer dwell in tight-knit Jewish neighborhoods, we have no clue about each other’s plans.  We should not make any assumptions.

I assure you that there are plenty of Jews who do not have a seder to attend.

It is one of the reasons that I am proud of Sinai’s Second Night community seder.  It gives us a chance to celebrate together.  It also gives some people a seder who would not otherwise have one to go to.  We are so grateful to Rina Katzen for generously underwriting the seder to help keep the expense down.  Even so, it is still a lot of money for some people.

This year, let us give ourselves a challenge.  For those who are hosting, think about everyone you know.  Is there an individual or a family who might not have a seder to attend?  Invite them.  You do not have to know them well, or even at all.  According to Ha lachma anya we are supposed to literally bring strangers in off the street.

We shouldn’t worry about not having enough space or enough food.  I know from experience that it is always possible to squeeze in one extra person, or even four extra people.  I promise, there will still be plenty of leftovers.

By embracing the spirit of ha lachma anya, we get back to an important part of the first seder in Egypt.  Everyone is included.  Let’s make it happen this year.

Returning the Blessing – Vayishlach 5777

Most, but not all, of the midrashim and commentaries describing the interactions of Jacob and Esau apologize for the former and castigate the latter.  They find ways to excuse and justify Jacob’s theft of the blessing that was meant for Esau.

Jacob is portrayed as the pious, righteous, innocent Torah observer, while Esau is described as the personification of all that is evil.

There is some, limited, support in the text for this reading.  By creating a polarized, black and white account of these fractious twins’ relationship, however, the commentaries miss the rich psychological depth in the text.  This is a multi-layered story that offers a window into human emotions and relationships.  Like Jacob, we only become complete when we learn to face ourselves with honesty.  This may not result in a tranquil life, but it will result in a life of meaning and purpose.

As Parashat Vayishlach opens, Jacob is preparing to return to the land of Canaan after more than twenty years in Haran.  Vayishlach means, “then he sent,” referring to the messengers that Jacob sends ahead to his brother Esau, announcing his return as the head of a wealthy household.

To be clear, Esau does not live in the land of Canaan.  He has settled in Seir, located southeast of the Jordan River.  Jacob does not have to announce his return.  He could simply continue on to Canaan and avoid Esau completely.  But Jacob is aware that he will need to make contact before he can go back home.  Jacob knows that he will not be complete until he faces his brother again.

It is like how Luke Skywalker’s training is not complete until he faces Darth Vader one final time in Return of the Jedi.

Jacob’s messengers return with the news that Esau has gathered four hundred men with whom he is marching to meet his brother.

What does the text tell us about Jacob’s reaction?  “And Jacob was greatly afraid, and he was distressed…” (32:8)  Four hundred men is not a force to be trifled with.  It looks like Esau is coming for war, and Jacob understands this well.

He employs several strategies to deal with the coming crisis.  First, Jacob divides his household and his flocks into two separate camps, figuring “should Esau come to the one camp and strike it, the remaining camp will escape.”  (32:9)

Second, Jacob prays.  Some details of his prayer are notable.  He recalls the promise that God has made to his predecessors Abraham and Isaac, and then declares himself unworthy of all the kindness that God has bestowed upon him.  katonti mi-kol hachasadim u-mikol ha-emet asher asita et avdekha…  Literally, “too small am I for all the faithfulness and trust that you have shown your servant…”  (32:11, Fox)  His prayer concludes with a panicked plea.  Jacob begs God to save him from Esau.  He fears that his brother is going to murder him, his wives, and all of his children.

Third, he sends a gift – a rather significant one, to be precise.  200 she-goats and 20 he-goats, 200 ewes and 20 rams, and so on.  He sends the gifts in waves, with each servant instructed to present them to Esau as a gift from “your servant Jacob.”  He is repeatedly humbling himself before his brother.  Jacob figures that if he can butter up his brother in advance, Esau might react to him more favorably.

These are the preparations of someone who is terrified of what could happen, but not immobilized by his fear.  He has done everything possible to ensure his survival through the impending encounter.

That night, something unexpected transpires.  Jacob is isolated on the banks of the Jabbok River.  There, he is confronted by a mysterious stranger who wrestles with him all night long.  We do not have time this morning to delve into the many possible meanings of this evocative episode except to say that Jacob’s encounter is that of someone whose mind is not at ease.

It is the night before the biggest day of Jacob’s life.  His soul is in turmoil.  He does not sleep.  His entire past, with all of its’ sins and mistakes, comes crashing into him.  Esau reminds Jacob of the worst parts of himself: Jacob knows that he has committed a serious sin against his brother.

He emerges from the experience with a new name, courtesy of his assailant, now revealed to be an angel: Yisrael – “for you have striven with beings Divine and human and prevailed.”  But has anything really changed?  After all, Jacob still has to meet his brother.

Let’s try to imagine what that meeting must have been like for Jacob.  Off in the distance, he sees Esau and his four hundred men approaching.  Jacob gathers his household together.

The picture in my mind is like what we see in those period war movies, where the two opposing armies are lined up across the battlefield from each other.  Before the fighting starts, each side sends an emissary to the middle for a parlay.

Jacob sends the maidservants and their sons first.  The second contingent is Leah and her sons.  Next, he sends Rachel and Joseph.  Finally, he himself sets off.  He is limping from his struggle with the angel.  He has not slept.  He pauses in his approach seven times, bowing down to the ground.

Suddenly, Esau starts running towards him.  He is big, hairy, and full of muscles.  Jacob is no match for him in a fight, and he knows it.  What is Jacob thinking and feeling in this moment?

Terror.  He is about to pay the debt on his past mistakes.  Perhaps he even welcomes the anticipated violence to balance his guilt.

Then Esau hugs Jacob, buries his head in his neck, and kisses him.  Not what Jacob is expecting.

There is a wonderful midrash that teaches that it is not a kiss – a neshikah – but rather a bite – a neshikhah.  The nineteenth century Chassidic Rebbe, the Sefat Emet, understands this midrash metaphorically.  In reality, it is a legitimate kiss.  But what Esau intends to be a kiss is experienced by Jacob as a bite; and it is the bite that is most threatening.

Jacob is expecting a beating.  He wants Esau to just get it over with.  It will make him feel better.  It will even the score between the brothers.

But when Esau responds with graciousness and love, Jacob is “bitten” to his core.  He cannot run away from his sin any longer.

The text says that “they cry,” in the plural.  They are crying for different reasons: Esau is crying out of genuine happiness to be reunited with his brother; Jacob is crying out of guilt.

Then Jacob offers Esau all of the gifts, and Esau declines them.  Jacob will not be able to pay off his guilt.  He begs Esau to accept his offering, “for to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”  He confesses to the wrong that he has committed.

Kakh-na et birkhati, he then says – “Please accept my blessing which has been brought to you.”  (33:11)

Jacob refers to the gift as his berakhah, his blessing.  This is not just any gift.  Jacob is giving back the blessing which he stole twenty two years earlier.   At last, Esau agrees.

Now, at last, Jacob can be free of his brother.

What was this blessing that Jacob gave back, the one that he had stolen?  It was a blessing of material wealth and physical power.  “May God give you of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, abundance of grain and wine.  Let peoples serve you, and nations bow to you…” (27:28-29)

This is precisely what Jacob has returned to Esau.  He has given him his wealth, and has humbled himself before his more powerful brother.  Jacob realizes that he should have never taken this blessing.  It was not meant for him, and it was not fitting for who he is.

There was a second blessing that Jacob received from his father before he left many years earlier.  That blessing was given out in the open.  Isaac called upon God to bless Jacob with progeny.  “May [God] grant the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which God assigned to Abraham.”  (28:4)

That is the blessing that had been meant for Jacob all along.  It just took many years, and much travail, to recognize it.

But perhaps the journey is necessary.  As we grow older, we (hopefully) become more wise.  The rashness and impulsivity of youth is gradually replaced by thoughtfulness and patience.  How often have we thought to ourselves, “If I only knew then what I know now…”

The story ends vayavo Ya’akov shalem.  “Then Jacob arrived complete.”  (33:18)

It is not to say that Jacob’s life will be hunky dory from now on.  Far from it.  God never promises Jacob a life of tranquility.  In fact, his new name, Yisrael, is fitting.  You have striven with beings Divine and human and prevailed.  That is Jacob’s fate.  That is who he is.

That is also the fate of his children, b’nei Yisrael.  The children of Israel.  That is our fate.

Shimon Peres, z”l: Did I bring more good to the world today, or bad? – Nitzavim 5776

The entire world this week mourns the passing of Shimon Peres, alav hashalom, who died Wednesday at 93 years of age.  Many obituaries have been written in the past few days about him, which I encourage all of us to read.

Peres was involved in the creation, building and flourishing of the State of Israel more than any other person.  As a young man, Peres was active in the Haganah and became a close advisor and protege to David Ben Gurion.  He was responsible for breaking the siege and acquiring military equipment in the War of Independence.  Peres built up the military during the early years of the state.  He led behind the scenes diplomacy with France leading up to the 1956 Suez war.  Then, he was in charge of creating Israel’s nuclear program in the 1960’s.

In the years after the Six Day War, Peres encouraged Jewish settlement in the West Bank, although he eventually came to see it as an obstacle to peace.  He, along with Yitzchak Rabin, was an architect of the Oslo Accords, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.

Peres was an early and constant promoter of technology.  He saw economic growth and cooperation as the path towards closer relations and eventual peace with other nations, including Israel’s enemies.

Shimon Peres served in the Knesset for nearly five decades, and held every major position in government, including Prime Minister and President.

In his last public interview, conducted on August 31, Peres spoke about the exercise of power.

You have to decide either to be a giver or a taker. The biggest mistake is if you’ll use the power to take. The greatest wisdom is if you give.

That, he explains, has been the secret to America’s great success.  And it is has driven his approach to building stronger connections between Israel and other nations.  Peres shared a story in which he was recently meeting with Vladimir Putin, whom he described as a very good friend.  Peres rebuked him for being a taker rather than a giver.

“You behave like a czar,” [he] said…

“What did the czars do? They developed two cities, St. Petersburg and Moscow, as a showcase. Whatever you want, you will find there. The rest of Russia is like Nigeria covered with snow. Your people are dying. You don’t give them life. You think they’ll forgive you?”

“Why is America great?” I asked him. “Because they were givers. Why is Europe in trouble? Because they are takers. America is giving; people think it’s because they are generous. I think it’s because they are wise. If you give, you create friends. The most beneficial investment is making friends.”

“America had the guts to take the Marshall Plan, a huge piece of their GNP that they gave to this dying Europe. And in this way, they have shown that this is the best investment in the world.”

A cultural Zionist, Shimon Peres nevertheless believed strongly that Zionism had to be rooted in timeless Jewish values, and felt that the current generation had gone off track from that ideal.

But Peres was always an optimist.  Respected by everyone across the political spectrum, he has been Israel’s chief visionary for peace for the last two decades.  It was a hope that he never gave up.

Peres recently reached out to meet with Micah Goodman, a philosopher and teacher at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.  Goodman is the most prominent writer on Jewish philosophy in Israel today.  A few years ago, he wrote a best-seller entitled The Secrets of the Guide for the Perplexed about Moses Maimonides.  (Only in Israel would a book like that be a best seller.)  It was recently translated into English as Maimonides and the Book that Changed Judaism.

Peres wanted to meet with Goodman, whom he described as his teacher, to discuss Maimonides.

“I find myself in his apartment in Tel Aviv,” Mr. Goodman recalled. “He is wearing his jeans. He wants to understand Maimonides.

“He told me that before he goes to sleep he thinks to himself, ‘Did I bring more good to the world today, or bad?’ He kept a balance sheet. He was like a 16-year-old idealist. At 93.”

That question, “Did I bring more good to the world today, or bad?” summarizes the entire theme of the High Holidays.  For a 93 year old man to retain that sense of mission and responsibility is incredible.  Shimon Peres’ entire life is evidence that this question has always driven him, from earlier times when he was building up Israel’s capacity to survive and thrive, to more recent times when it had achieved power and found itself in a position from which it could strive for peace.

I suspect that the teaching by Maimonides to which Peres is referring is from the Mishneh Torah, in his section on Teshuvah.  (Hilchot Teshuvah 2:1,3-4) Maimonides writes:

Each and every person has merits and sins. A person whose merits exceed his sins is [termed] righteous. A person whose sins exceed his merits is [termed] wicked. If [his sins and merits] are equal, he is termed a Beinoni.

The same applies to an entire country. If the merits of all its inhabitants exceed their sins, it is [termed] righteous. If their sins are greater, it is [termed] wicked. The same applies to the entire world.

Just as a person’s merits and sins are weighed at the time of his death, so, too, the sins of every inhabitant of the world together with his merits are weighed on the festival of Rosh HaShanah. If one is found righteous, his [verdict] is sealed for life. If one is found wicked, his [verdict] is sealed for death. A Beinoni’s verdict remains tentative until Yom Kippur. If he repents, his [verdict] is sealed for life. If not, his [verdict] is sealed for death…

And this is the teaching which I believe Peres found so inspirational:

…Accordingly, throughout the entire year, a person should always look at himself as equally balanced between merit and sin and the world as equally balanced between merit and sin. If he performs one sin, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of guilt and brings destruction upon himself.

And so Peres, to his dying day, asked himself, “Did I bring more good to the world today, or bad?”

Is this a question that each of us can ask ourselves?  Maybe it is only a question for great individuals.  The rest of us can be free to go about our lives day by day, just trying to get by.

This morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Nitzavim, would suggest otherwise.  It opens with Moses leading the Israelites through a covenant ceremony.  He begins:

Atem nitzavim hayom kulkhem lifnei Adonai Eloheikhem.  You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord you God

It is important to note that Moses begins with the general – “all of you.”

He then specifies the leaders: “your tribal heads, your elders and your officials.”

But then, to underscore the point that this message is not reserved for the elites in society, Moses continues: “all the men of Israel, your children, your wives.”

Finally, even those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder are included: “even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer.”  (29:9-11)

Moses goes on to specify that it is not just the generation about to enter the Promised Land that stands there.  Rather, all of their descendants, up to and including us, are present to affirm the Jewish people’s covenant with God.

Parashat Nitzavim is always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah.  It is no accident.  We are meant to hear this opening line.  The word that stands out is hayom.  Today.  Moses’ instruction is delivered in the second person, in the present tense.  He is addressing us, in this moment.

He then tells a story of sin, punishment, exile, and then return, invoking the word teshuvah seven times.  The parashah ends with Moses’ exhortation to us: “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse.  Choose life…”  (30:19)

The question that guided Shimon Peres’ life, “Did I bring more good to the world today, or bad?” can be traced back to Maimonides, and even further back to Moses in the Torah itself.  It is a question not just for the great among us.  But truly, it is a question that each of us must ask ourselves.

And not only as we approach the new year.  It is a question for hayom.  Today.

I wonder if we might take this lesson from the great Shimon Peres and make this a regular question that each one of us reflects on at the end of every day.  “Did I bring more good to the world today, or bad?”  Did I tip the scales of my own life towards merit, and thus save the world?  When presented with the choice, did I choose life?

Shanah Tovah.

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?

Living With Hope – Haftarah for Parashat Behar 5776

Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar me’od.

V’ha-ikar lo lefached k’lal.

The whole world is a very narrow bridge, a very narrow bridge, a very narrow bridge…

But the main thing to recall, is to have no, have no fear at all.

This is possibly the most famous teaching of the great Hassidic Rebbe, Nachman of Bratslov.  It is so famous that Baruch Chait turned it into a song which any Jewish child who goes to summer camp or youth group learns by heart.

To be honest, until this week I never really thought about what it means.  “The whole world is a very narrow bridge.”  Ok.  I get that.  It is a metaphor for the precariousness of life.  It is difficult to know what the best path is, and we are constantly forced to choose between options that could plunge us over the side, not necessarily to literal destruction, but perhaps to spiritual oblivion.  A bit dramatic, but I can accept that.

“But the main thing to recall is to have no fear at all.”  Stop.  That is ridiculous.  Despite the constant danger we face, we are supposed to banish all fear?  Is that really what Rebbe Nachman is saying?  Not only is it a virtually impossible ideal for most human beings, fear is a good thing.  Fear saves lives.  Come on, any ten year old who saw Inside Out knows that.

What is Rebbe Nachman talking about?

The problem is that the person who translated the song into English wanted to make sure that it would rhyme – “the main thing to recall is to have no hear at all.”

Conveniently, it also rhymes with the Hebrew.  Lo l’fached k’lal.  What does k’lal mean?  To be fair, it can mean “at all.”  But I don’t think that is what it means here.

The Hebrew of the verse is quite clever.  The word is repeated three times.  Listen carefully:  Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar me’od.  V’ha-ikar lo lefached k’lalKol, Kulo, and K’lal are all from the same root.

Let me suggest a more accurate translation: “The whole world in its entirety is a very narrow bridge.  And the main principle is not to be afraid…”

It could have ended right here.  But then we add the final word.  K’lal.

What is a k’lal?  A k’lal is an all-inclusive principal.  It is a synonym for ikar.  Here, I think it means “And the main principle is not to be afraid entirely.”  We should not be overwhelmed by fear.  Because fear can overwhelm us.

Fear can prevent us from taking action.  It can cloud our vision and prevent us from seeing things as they truly are.  Fear, if we are “entirely” afraid, destroys hope.

But fear also leads us to take risks.  It causes us to reach out to each other.  It inspires religious yearning.  Many of us respond to fear by turning to God.

This morning’s Haftarah, from the Book of Jeremiah, takes place during an extremely fearful time.  Jeremiah is a Prophet who lives during the final years of the Kingdom of Judah, through the reigns of its last four monarchs.  He witnesses the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple and ultimately flees to Egypt with some of the other refugees.  He prophesizes a seventy year period of exile, followed by a return to the Holy Land and a restoration of Israel.

Throughout his career, Jeremiah is a reluctant Prophet.  The people hate him for his pronouncements of doom and destruction and his critique of their behavior, but they are never able to witness the deep love and compassion he feels for them.  The other Prophets ridicule Jeremiah, and the King cannot not stand him.  Along with his external challenges, Jeremiah lives with constant internal struggles.  He argues with God continually, lamenting his plight.  His is a truly tormented soul, but he is unable to prevent the Prophetic message from bursting forth.

As the reading begins, Jeremiah is languishing in prison in Jerusalem.  He is there for speaking truth to power.  Unlike the other court prophets, who are all “yes men,” telling King Zedekiah exactly what he wants to hear, Jeremiah speaks the word of God.

At the time, Jerusalem is under siege by the Babylonians.  Jeremiah issues a pronouncement that God intends to deliver the city into the enemy’s hands.  King Zedekiah himself will be taken captive and sent to Babylon, where King Nebuchadnezzar will triumph over him in person.

Needless to say, the Judean King does not like the message.  He expresses his displeasure by “shooting the messenger,” so to speak.  Jeremiah is thrown into prison.

Jeremiah’s cousin Hanamel comes to visit him in prison, as Jeremiah has prophetically foreseen.  Hanamel, it seems, has fallen upon hard times and is no longer able to keep possession of the land that has been his ancestors’ since ancient times.

As we read about in the Torah portion, in ancient Israel, land is supposed to remain in the family.  If property must be sold off temporarily, it will be restored every half century during the Jubilee year.  Until the Jubilee year, however, other members of the family have the right to redeem the land themselves.  In fact, if they have the means to do so, it is an obligation to buy it back.  That is what Hanamel is asking Jeremiah, his heir, to do.  Hanamel cannot keep the land, so he asks his goel, his redeemer, to buy it from him.

It is not really a good time for Jeremiah.

First of all, he is in jail.  His future is uncertain.  Second, the property in question is in Anatot, which is a few kilometers north of Jerusalem.  By this point, the entire country has been ravaged by the Babylonians.  Many Israelites have already been sent into exile, and Jerusalem is under siege.  Finally, Jeremiah knows that he is going to personally go into exile.

Generally speaking, these are not good conditions for real estate speculation.

Nevertheless, Jeremiah purchases the land for seventeen shekels of silver.  He weighs out the money, writes up a contract, and has it witnessed and signed.  Next, he deposits the contract with his personal secretary, Barukh ben Neriah in front of his cousin and the witnesses.  He instructs Barukh to place the document in an earthen vessel so that it will remain safe and unharmed for many years.

Is Jeremiah crazy?  Or is he just a terrible businessman?

Perhaps his statement at the conclusion of the business transaction explains what is going through Jeremiah’s mind.  He declares, “For thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: ‘Houses, fields, and vineyards shall again be purchased in this land.'”  (Jer. 32:15)

What could possibly explain Jeremiah’s decision?  In a single word: hope.  Tikvah.

Jeremiah knows, better than anyone, the direness of the situation.  He knows that God has chosen the Babylonians as a Divine instrument to punish Israel for its sinfulness.  He knows that he and many of his brothers and sisters will be forced to leave their land.  He also knows that they will remain in exile for generations – seventy years in all.  But in those seventy years, the Babylonian Empire will fall.  The descendants of the exiles, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, will be restored.

Jeremiah’s hopeful realism contrasts with the foolishness of the rest of the nation.  The people, the prophets, and the King do not want to hear Jeremiah’s truth.  Instead, they would rather hear false assurances that things are about to turn around.  The Babylonians will fall and Israel will be made great again.  This is not hope, but wishful thinking.  This is fear blinding the masses from the reality of their situation.

In the second half of the Haftarah, Jeremiah offers a prayer to God.  He recounts God’s power as the Creator of the world, extols God’s compassion, and recalls how God freed the Israelites from slavery and brought them to the Land of Milk and Honey.  Then Jeremiah acknowledges that the people have persisted in not following God’s instructions, leading to the current  crisis.  Jeremiah ends his prayer with a statement that is either a question or a challenge.  “Yet you, Lord God, said to me: Buy the land for money and call in witnesses-when the city is at the mercy of the Chaldeans!”

God’s response:  “Behold I am the Lord, the God of all flesh.  Is anything too wondrous for Me?”  The Haftarah ends here, but God’s response to Jeremiah continues, explaining how the people will eventually return and the land will flourish once again.

While the present situation is bleak, Jeremiah has not given up hope.  He redeems his family’s property now, knowing that he will never personally set foot on it.  But he has hope that his descendants will, one day, make their return.

We are a people that has lived with hope for thousands of years.  Israel’s national anthem Hatikvah, “The Hope,” expresses it beautifully.

Od lo avda tikvateinu, Hatikvah bat sh’not alfayim.  “Our hope is still not lost, the hope of two thousand years.”  Through thousands of years of exile, during some very bleak times, the Jewish people has always had hope.

This is what Rebbe Nachman, living in his difficult times, might have been thinking about.  Despite the darkness, despite the narrowness, the seeming lack of options, we must not be overwhelmed by fear.  We must keep hope.

This is a powerful message for us not only as a nation, but as individual human beings.

We each face a lot of difficulties over the course of our lives.  Sickness, mental illness, abuse, broken relationships, deaths of loved ones.  Some of us have lived through war and persecution.  We have faced financial struggles.  The difficulties we experience sometimes persist for many years.  And some people seem to face more than their share.

Do we have the ability, like Jeremiah, to redeem land in the face of despair.  Can we maintain our hope during dark times?

Can we heed the encouragement of Rebbe Nachman?  Even though the world is a narrow bridge, sometimes vanishingly narrow, can we avoid being consumed by fear?

 

Just One Shabbat – Ki Tissa 5776

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, in his Torah commentary Kedushat Levi, cites a Talmudic midrash.  “If only Israel would keep two Sabbaths according to their laws – they would be redeemed immediately.” (BT Shabbat 118b) But then, Levi Yitchak cites a second midrash, which appears in Exodus Rabbah, as well as in the Palestinian Talmud.  “If Israel would keep the Sabbath properly, even for one day, the son of David would come.”  (Exodus Rabbah 25:12)  So which is it, one Shabbat or two?

By observing one Shabbat correctly, Levi Yitzchak suggests that a person gains spiritual strength and Divine influence that helps him or her to continue serving God through the subsequent week.  After six days of the week serving God, it becomes quite easy to observe the following Shabbat properly.  And so there is kind of domino effect, catalyzed by the observance of that first Shabbat.  Each religious act inspires the next, eventually leading to redemption.

Levi Yitzchak then points to a hint that appears in this morning’s Torah portion.  It is a passage that might sound familiar:  V’shamru v’nei Yisrael et haShabbat, la’asot et ha Shabbat l’dorotam b’rit olam.  “The Israelite people shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time.”  (Exodus 31:16)  Why does the verse mention the observance of Shabbat twice?  The first reference – V’shamru v’nei Yisrael et haShabbat – refers to the first Shabbat.  When Israel observes it properly, it leads to the second reference – la’asot et ha Shabbat – the following week.

In these two midrashim and his analysis of them, Levi Yitzchak puts habit formation into spiritual terms.  It is not only that the experience of Shabbat is so compelling that a single proper observance of the Day of Rest leads to a lasting commitment, but also that a spiritual transformation takes place.

He explains how the observance of only 14% of the week as a Sabbath can elevate our experience of the other 86% of the week.  It reminds me of another passage in the Talmud that describes how the great Sages, Shammai and Hillel, used to prepare for Shabbat.  (BT Beitzah 16)  Shammai was wealthy.  He did not struggle to make ends meet.  Every day of the week, he would keep his eyes open for things that he could purchase to make the observance of the upcoming Shabbat more special.  If he was walking through the marketplace and saw a nice-looking animal that would make a great main course for his Shabbat dinner, he would buy it on the spot.  If, the next day, he saw an even nicer-looking animal, he would buy the new one and eats the previous day’s purchase for dinner that night.  In so doing Shammai ate in honor of Shabbat every day of his life.  Inspired by his example, the School of Shammai used to say “From the first day of the week [prepare] for the Sabbath.”

Hillel was different.  He was not a man of wealth.  He could not afford daily upgrades.  Hillel did not scour the marketplace searching for the nicest-looking treats – probably because he could not afford it.  Instead, according to Rashi, he had faith in God that by the end of the week, something would turn up that would enable him to properly honor Shabbat.  In the meantime, he treated each day as an opportunity to honor God.  Later, his students would repeat his saying, “Blessed be the Lord, day by day.”

I do not think that one approach is necessarily better than the other.  They each emphasize different qualities and probably the expression of different personality traits.  Shammai liked to plan ahead.  As the week progressed, his excitement and anticipation for Shabbat must have grown tremendously.  The accumulation of material goods over the course of the week were matched by a gradual increase in his spiritual and emotional anticipation.  For Shammai, Shabbat was the day to honor God and achieve communion with his Creator.

In contrast, Hillel was a man who lived in the moment.  Reflecting both his poverty and his personality, he did not allow the uncertainty of tomorrow interfere with his ability to appreciate today.  It is quite a remarkable quality.  Shabbat is a day when we focus on the sanctity of time rather than space, of relationships rather than things.  Heschel calls Shabbat a “palace in time.”  It is a day when we can be focused on the present, and set aside our baggage from the past and our concerns for the future.  Hillel seems to have been able to extend this orientation to the world to the other six days of the week as well.

Prior to the modern age, most Jews were quite poor.  Shabbat dinner was by far the fanciest meal of the week.  Meat was prohibitively expensive, so most people ate vegetables for the majority of their meals.  It was only on Shabbat, if they could afford it, that Jews might be able to serve a little bit of meat or fish for dinner, along with wine and challah.  My grandmother, growing up in Ukraine, told stories of her family not being able to afford eggs.  To give the challah its golden color, her mother would use used teabags.

Contrast this with our experience today.  While we may make the effort to prepare a nice meal on Shabbat, with gourmet food, wine, and challah, served on a tablecloth and china if we have it, the reality is that it is not a financial stretch for most of us.  If we wanted to have a similarly fancy dinner on Monday or Tuesday night, we could probably do it without difficulty.

How would our experience of Shabbat be different if it were more of a struggle?  If, at the beginning of the week on Sunday, we were not sure whether we would be able to afford meat or fish by Friday night?

Look at the photograph from 1890 of a Jewish man on Ludlow Street in New York City preparing for Shabbat in a coal cellar.  Observe his tattered clothing, the grime on the walls and on his face.  Look at the crooked tablecloth.  And now look at the challah.  Even though it is a 1200black and white photograph, the challah appears almost golden in contrast to its surroundings.  How does this man experience Shabbat?  When the stars come out on Saturday night and he prepares for another week, what aspects of his experience stay with him, and how does he anticipate the day of rest that awaits him in six more days?

Imagine being of the school of Shammai.  Despite daily struggles, we constantly look ahead and plan for a glorious end of the week.  Even though it is the seventh day that is singularly holy, our anticipation of it causes its quality to spread to each of the other days.  As a result, each meal becomes like a Shabbat dinner, regardless of what is on the menu.

Or imagine being of the school of Hillel.  Each day, in and of itself, is a gift and an opportunity to serve God.  The special holiness of Shabbat can be experienced on each of the other days as well.  But Shabbat serves as the paradigm for living with an awareness of God’s Presence in our lives.

Both approaches capture the connection between one Shabbat, the workweek that follows, and the next Shabbat, as Levi Yitzchak describes.

Speaking personally, I have a bit of Shammai and Hillel in me.  My week is colored by a memory of last Shabbat and an anticipation of the Shabbat to come.  Each week is certainly a build-up to Shabbat.  As a Rabbi, it is probably easier for me to orient my life towards the Day of Rest than for other careers.  On the other hand, I have professional responsibilities on Shabbat.  Nevertheless, I look forward to the moment just before lighting candles when I power off my laptop and cell phone.  If my sermon that week is not especially polished, it does not matter because there is nothing else I can do about it.  As soon as the candles are lit, I truly do experience the peace of Shabbat.

I strive to take that experience of Shabbat’s holiness with me into the week.  Shabbat is a day on which I have uninterrupted time with my family.  There are no screens tempting me away from being present with my children or my spouse.  We have, quite literally, hours of focused time together.   That holiness of relationship, the slowing down and appreciation of the life I am living right now, is something that I try to bring to the other days of the week, no doubt with difficulty.

The midrash suggests that if every Jew observed Shabbat properly – either once or twice – Mashiach would come immediately and bring redemption to the world.  I am not in favor of trying to guess when Mashiach will get here, but I can imagine the effect on our world if more of us found a way to observe Shabbat properly.  To recognize, like Shammai, that the holiest day of the week is the one on which we take a break from exercising our mastery and dominance of the physical world around us.  To strive, like Hillel, to bring the awareness of God that we gain on Shabbat to the other six days of the week.

If we could do that, I suspect that our world would be a little bit closer to redemption.