A Natural Family with a Supernatural Mandate – Lekh L’kha 5779

The Silicon Valley Introduction to Judaism class began this past week.  It is a wonderful example of collaboration in our Jewish community.  I, along with Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist colleagues, teach this class every year.

Adult students have an opportunity to learn from Rabbis of different denominations.  Classes rotate, depending on who is teaching that night, between the Jewish Community Center, Congregation Sinai, Congregation Beth David, Congregation Shir Hadash, and Temple Emanu-El.

At the first Introduction to Judaism session, students are invited to introduce themselves and share their reasons for taking the class.  Every year, there are a variety of reasons given.

Some students are Jewish adults who either never received a Jewish education, or who feel that they want to learn about Judaism in a more sophisticated way, as compared to the child-focused education they received years ago.  Some are members of synagogues.  Some are not.

There are also non-Jewish students who are lifelong learners.  Their spiritual and intellectual journeys have led them to learn about different faiths and traditions.

Some class participants are interested in converting to Judaism.  This can include those who have a Jewish partner, as well as those who have decided to explore Judaism on their own.

Finally, some non-Jewish students do not intend to convert, but are committed to supporting their Jewish partners in building a Jewish home and raising Jewish children.

As students describe the journeys that led them to the Introduction to Judaism class, there are often incredible stories.

Some share strange, mysterious family traditions.  Often they involve lighting candles at particular times during the year, or avoiding certain kinds of foods. In some families, there are secrets that are known only to the older members from earlier generations, who hush up in seeming embarrassment whenever the topic arises.

Usually, these suspicions of a Jewish past point to a possible Sephardic family connection.  But not always.

With the growing popularity and availability of DNA testing, it is now possible to confirm long-held suspicions of Jewish ancestry.  That is increasingly serving as the impetus for people to explore Judaism as a way to regain a lost family heritage.

Also at the first session, we divide students into small groups and give them an assignment: Write a one sentence definition of Judaism that is grammatically and syntactically correct – no run-ons.  It is a very difficult assignment which students have a tough time completing.  That is kind of the point.

Judaism is not a religion in the way that we typically think of religion.  Simply by being born to a Jewish mother,  a person is Jewish regardless of what he or she believes.  Don’t learn from this, however, that Judaism does not have particular beliefs.  It does.

So does this make Judaism a race?  Not at all.  For if Judaism was a race, it would be impossible to convert.  And yet Judaism has always welcomed converts, as we will see shortly.

Professor Jon Levenson expresses the difficulty in defining Judaism succinctly in his book, Inheriting Abraham.

The people Israel is neither a nationality in the conventional sense nor a church-like body composed of like-minded believers or practitioners of a common set of norms.  Having something in common with both of these more familiar identities, it reduces to neither of them.

Levenson has stated the difficulty of coming up with a definition.  Then he offers us one:

Rather, as the call and commission of Abram already indicate, it is a natural family with a supernatural mandate.

“A natural family with a supernatural mandate.”  We are family, and we strive to rise above our base nature as human beings to embrace a set of divinely-given, shared practices and values.

This morning’s parashah, Lekh L’kha, opens with God instructing Abram to leave behind his home and his father’s household and travel to the land that God will show him.  Without asking any questions, Abram packs up his household and begins the journey.

וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָם אֶת־שָׂרַי אִשְׁתּוֹ וְאֶת־לוֹט בֶּן־אָחִיו וְאֶת־כָּל־רְכוּשָׁם אֲשֶׁר רָכָשׁוּ וְאֶת־הַנֶּפֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר־עָשׂוּ בְחָרָן וַיֵּצְאוּ לָלֶכֶת אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן וַיָּבֹאוּ אַרְצָה כְּנָעַן:

Then Avram took Sarai his wife and Lot his nephew and all of their property which they had acquired and the persons that they acquired in Haran, and they went towards Canaan and they came to the land of Canaan.  (Genesis 12:5)

A midrash focuses on a peculiar phrase in this sentence.  v’et ha’nefesh asher asu.  Many translations say “the persons that they acquired,” which refers to the many servants that had joined their household.  Abram had done quite well for himself in Haran, apparently. 

An often-cited midrash (Genesis Rabbah 39:14) understands it a bit more creatively.  Literally, I might translate v’et ha’nefesh asher asu as “the soul that they had made.”  Is it possible to create life?

Rabbi Eleazar ben Zimra explains that if all of the people of the world were gathered together, we could not even make a fly, much less a human being.  The Torah says that the soul that was made refers to all the people that Abram and Sarai converted.  We learn that whoever brings idolaters into the fold is considered to have created them.

In other words, Abraham and Sarah were busy in Haran.  They were teaching their neighbors about God, and leading them away from idolatry.

In Levenson’s terms, they were joining the family.  This family is comprised not of people who are related by blood, but by those who share beliefs and values.  That is who Abraham and Sarah brought with them to Canaan.

Rambam, the great 12th century Rabbi, physician, philosopher, and community leader was the leading authority in his day.  People would write to him from all over the world for advice and legal rulings.

A question was once asked of him by a man named Ovadiah, a convert to Judaism.  Ovadiah notes that the language in many of the prayers uses us or we, in reference to events that occurred to previous generations.

Eloheinu v’Elohei avoteinu — “Our God and God of our ancestors”

Asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav — “You who have sanctified us through Your commandments”

She’asah nissim la’avoteinu — “You who performed miracles for our ancestors”

Ovadiah asks Rambam if he, as a proselyte, whose ancestors were not part of the Jewish people, is allowed to recite all of these words.  We can only imagine what experiences Ovadiah might have had that led him to ask this question.

Rambam, in his answer, does not mince words.  He wants to make sure that Ovadiah, and anyone else who might think to raise a similar objection, gets the point.  His answer begins: “You must recite it all in its prescribed order and should not change it in the least.”

In his explanation, Rambam refers to Abraham, who taught people about God and urged them to reject idolatry.  Abraham instructed everyone in his household to follow God’s ways by engaging in righteousness and justice.

For this reason, anyone who converts to Judaism, throughout the ages, is considered to be a student of Abraham and a member of his household.  In other words, part of the family.

Not only that, Abraham is considered to be the father of all converts.  Jews-by-choice, when taking on a Jewish name, are considered to be the children of Abraham and Sarah, and are therefore referred to as ben or bat Avraham Avinu v’Sarah Imeinu—“the son/daughter of Abraham our Father and Sarah our Mother.”

Therefore, when a Jew by choice recites “our God and God of our ancestors,” it is a true statement.

While discovering Jewish roots in a DNA test may lead a person to explore their roots, it is not a determining factor, at least from a religious point of view.  Halakhah, Jewish law, does not tend to operate on the microscopic level.  

A few years ago, there was a young American woman from a Russian-speaking family who wanted to participate in a birthright trip.  She was asked to take a DNA test to prove that she was eligible.  She was ultimately denied.

This is unfortunate, and is certainly inconsistent with Jewish law.  I hope it is not a precedent.

Jewish identity is not in the blood.  It is in the family stories that are passed down from our grandparents.  It is in the moral lessons that parents impart to their children.  Jewish identity is also something that can be chosen by those who seek to be part of the Jewish family.

Does this mean that there will sometimes be questions and arguments about who is in and who is out?  Absolutely.  But we are a family, after all.  And families are messy.

Yes on Proposition 62 – Abolish the death penalty in California

In arguing against the death penalty, I must represent our Jewish teachings honestly.

The Torah does not categorically oppose capital punishment.  After the flood, God instructs the children of Noah, “He who sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.”  Human beings must build societies governed by fairly-enforced laws.  This includes legal execution for the most heinous crimes.image003

At the same time, Jewish tradition has been so concerned with fairness and equity in administering the death penalty, that it developed extremely stringent standards.

For a guilty verdict, two valid witnesses must first warn a person that he is liable to be executed if he carries out the act.  He must next verbally acknowledge his understanding and then carry out the crime regardless!  With these requirements, it is nearly impossible to get a capital conviction.

The Torah recognizes that humans are by nature imperfect, and that we are influenced by deeply-held biases.  The Book of Leviticus warns us:

לֹא־תַעֲשׂוּ עָוֶל בַּמִּשְׁפָּט

לֹא־תִשָּׂא פְנֵי־דָל וְלֹא תֶהְדַּר פְּנֵי גָדוֹל

בְּצֶדֶק תִּשְׁפֹּט עֲמִיתֶךָ:

You shall not render an unfair decision:

do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich;

judge your kinsman fairly.  (Leviticus 19:15)

To exercise the death penalty, we Californians have an obligation to ensure that it is done with justice and equity: without discriminating based on the location of the crime, the skin color of the victim, or the income of the accused.  Unless we can rise to this responsibility, it is a punishment method that we should forego.

Two of our greatest Sages, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon, worried so much that they might accidentally execute an innocent person that they famously declared: “if we had been members of the [court], no person would ever have been put to death.”  (Mishnah Makkot 1:10)

We have had decades to figure this out in California, without success.  The time has come to acknowledge the eternal imperfection of human justice.  The best way to pursue righteousness and equity is by banning the death penalty.

image005On behalf of the Cantors and Rabbis of Greater San Jose, I urge us to approve Proposition 62 and reject Proposition 66.

May we have the wisdom to always see the Divine in each other.  Amen.

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?

Who Will Set Up The Mishkan? – Pekudei 5776

Parashat Pekudei is the final portion in Sefer Shemot, the Book of Exodus.  It describes the final touches put on the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, its furnishings, and the uniforms of the Priests who serve in it.  The Israelites have done a marvelous job.  They stayed within their budget.  They finished on time.  Nobody fought.  The time has now come for them to put it up.  But for this they need Moses.  The Torah describes the scene.  And please forgive me. I am going to read the entire passage for dramatic effect.

Then they brought the Tabernacle to Moses, with the Tent and all its furnishings: its clasps, its planks, its poles, its posts, and its sockets; the covering of tanned ram skins, the covering of dolphin skins, and the curtain for the screen; the Ark of the Pact and its poles, and the cover; the table and all its utensils, and the bread of display; the pure lampstand, its lamps—lamps in due order—and all its fittings, and the oil for lighting; the altar of gold, the oil for anointing, the aromatic incense, and the screen for the entrance of the Tent; the copper altar with its copper grating, its poles and all its utensils, and the laver and its stand; the hangings of the enclosure, its posts and its sockets, the screen for the gate of the enclosure, its cords and its pegs—all the furnishings for the service of the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting; the service vestments for officiating in the sanctuary, the sacral vestments of Aaron the priest, and the vestments of his sons for priestly service. Just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so the Israelites had done all the work. (Exodus 39:33-41)

A midrash describes what really happened.  (Tanhuma, Pekudei 11)

When they had completed all of the work of building the parts of the Mishkan, they sat down and wondered when the Shekhinah, God’s Presence, would come and align upon it.  (You see, they had all of the parts, they just had not put them together yet.)  So they went to some of the craftspeople, and said to them.  “Why are you just sitting around?!  Set up the Mishkan so that the Shekhinah can dwell among us!”

[The craftspeople] investigated how to set it up, but they did not know how and they could not do it.  And when they tried to do it anyways, it fell down.

So they went to Betzalel and Aholiav, (the Chief Builders) and said to them, “You come and set up the Mishkan whose construction you have directed.  Maybe it will stand up for you.”  They immediately began to set it up, but they were unable.

Then everyone began to mumble and complain, saying, “Look what the son of Amram has done to us!  He spent all of our money on this Mishkan and put us to all of this trouble, promising us that the Holy One would come down from the Upper Worlds and reside inside a goat skin tent!”

Why were they unable to set it up?  Because Moses was bothered that he had not had the opportunity to take part with them in the work of the Mishkan.  The donations were brought by the Israelites, and the work was done by Betzalel, Aholiav, and the craftsmen.  (Moses had thought that they would not bring enough donations, but they actually brought too much and he had to tell them to stop.  And then he thought that they would be lazy and that he would have to finish the work, but they were eager from start to finish.  What a disappointing bunch!)  But because Moses was troubled, the Holy One left [the Israelites] and they were unable to set it up.

Since they had tried all other options and were unable to set it up, all of Israel appeared before Moses and said, “Moshe Rabeinu, We did everything you told us.  All that you commanded us to donate and bring, we gave.  All of the work is before you.  Perhaps we missed something or we neglected a task that you assigned us.  Look, it is all before you!”

And then they [started] showed him all of the items.  They said to him, “Did you not tell us to do such and such?”

He said to them, “Yes.”

And so on for each and every item.

[When they got through the entire list,] they said to him, “If so, then why does it not stand up?  Betzalel and Aholiav and all of the craftsmen tried to set it up but they failed.”

Moses was very concerned about this matter.  But then the Holy One said to him, “Because you were troubled that you did not get to do any work or participate in any of the labor of the Mishkan, that is why these wise men were not able to set it up.  For you.  So that all of Israel would know, that if it does not stand up for you, then it will never stand up.  I will not give credit in writing for the setting up of the Mishkan to anyone but you.”

Moses said, “But, Ribono shel Olam!  Ruler of the Universe!  I don’t know how to set it up!”

God said to him, “Move your hands about, and it will look like you are setting it up, but really, it will stand up by itself.  And I will write about you that you set it up.”

On a technical level, this midrash explains some peculiar details in the Parashah.  First of all, it says that the Israelites bring the Mishkan to Moses, and then it lists all of the parts individually.  That is what I read earlier.  Later, on two occasion, the Torah indicates that Moses sets up the Mishkan – in the singular (Exodus 40:2,18).  A third passage passage describes it passively, “the Mishkan was set up.”  (Exodus 40:17)

Weaving all of these elements together, Midrash Tanhuma imagines the Mishkan as a kind of Ikea project for which the instructions have been lost.  Nobody knows where all of the pieces go.  They bring in the experts, who give it their best shot, but it just collapses.  Finally, they lay out all of the pieces neatly on the ground and ask Moses.  He doesn’t know how to put it together either, so God tells him, “Just look like you’re busy, I’ll take care of it.”

I love it.

In this midrash, everyone has a distinct motivation.  The Israelites are eager to have God’s Presence among them.  If you think back to the episode of the Golden Calf, this makes perfect sense.

Moses wishes that he had been able to take part in the construction.  Sometimes it is nice to get your hands dirty, rather than just give instructions all day long.  He sees great honor in being able to physically take part in building the mishkan.

God has a different priority.  God wants everyone to know that this structure is unlike any other structure in history.  After everybody tries and fails to put it up, Moses, God’s chosen prophet, is the only one who appears to succeed.  Thanks to the midrash, we know the truth.  Not even Moses is capable of setting up this building, which serves as the nexus where the Upper and Lower worlds come together.  A similar midrash says that Solomon’s Temple was set up by God.  It is also said that the Third Temple will descend miraculously from above in the days of the Mashiach.

Moses in this story reminds me of our Executive Director, Joelle.  As a leader, she is a fantastic recruiter of talent to strengthen and grow our community.  An impressively large proportion of our membership gets involved in putting together the many programs and activities that take place at Sinai.  This is so important for us.  Not only because we need volunteers to get things done, but perhaps more importantly because people find great meaning in working on behalf of the community.  The Israelites approached the project of building the Mishkan with such excitement because it was meaningful to them.  That is why Moses was jealous.  We have long lists of people who are thanked in every edition of the monthly Voice.  What is not printed is that most of them were recruited by Joelle.

Joelle, like Moses, is also a good fundraiser.  I cannot put a precise number on it (although she probably could), but I can state with certainty that Sinai is significantly better off financially because of her.

And finally, like Moses, Joelle is not content to just be the Executive Director.  She is part of our community in a very special way.  Fortunately for her, there is plenty of work that the rest of us are not able to accomplish, so she gets lots of opportunities to find meaning by getting her hands dirty.

Joelle, you and your family have been part of our community for almost eight years.  You are a very special person, and you and I both know that our relationship as Rabbi and Executive Director is not a typical one, and I am very grateful for that.  I feel so blessed to have you as a partner.  We are blessed to have you in our community.  On behalf of all of us, Todah Rabbah.

The Women’s Mirrors – Vayakhel 5776

In this morning’s Torah portion, we read of the Israelites’ building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, along with all of its furnishings and the special clothing of the Priests.  This is one of two parashiyot that describe this.  And, this is after God has communicated all of these instructions to Moses on Mt. Sinai over the course of two previous parashiyot.  That the Torah takes so much time to describe the details not once, but two separate times is an indication of the important role of the mishkan in ancient Israelite religion.  The mishkan, the portable Temple that the Israelites carried with them for forty years in the wilderness, symbolically represents the permanent Temple that stood in Jerusalem for nearly one thousand years and served as the center of Jewish religious life.

Once the mishkan, and later the Temple, was put into service, there were very specific regulations about who could enter its precincts, as well as how close to the innermost chamber one could go.  Only the kohanim, the priests, could enter the inner sancta, and only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies, and just once a year.  Common Israelite males were allowed inside up to a certain point from which they could watch some of the rituals, but the furthest into the interior that women were allowed did not even provide a few of the priestly service.

It was believed that if a person transgressed the furthest boundary permitted to him or her, that person risked being struck down by heavenly fire.  This included, by the way, a priest who entered while not in a state of ritual purity.

With such rigid, restrictive access to the Temple, it is somewhat surprising that the construction of the mishkan was so democratic.  The Torah regularly emphasizes the involvement of all of the Israelites.  They brought voluntary donations of precious metals, stones, cloth, leather, and wood.  A half shekel tax was required of every Israelite male.  Most significantly, everyone was given the opportunity to be involved in the craftsmanship.  It was a meritocracy.  Whoever had the skills in weaving, building, metalwork, etc., was invited to participate, regardless of tribe, pedigree, or gender.

What stands out in particular are the numerous mentions of women’s contributions to the mishkan.  Over and over, the Torah makes sure to tell us about women’s involvement in the construction of the mishkan.  And not simply general statements.  We know about specific contributions that they made.

Because the texts that we have inherited reflect more patriarchal times, whenever the Torah does say something about a woman, either individually or as a class, we ought to pay close attention.  Sometimes, stories involving women are more fully developed.  On other occasions, we find oblique references which might hint at a more complete oral tradition that has been lost to us.

Towards the end of Parashat Vayakhel, we read about the kiyor nechoshet.  The bronze laver, or washing fountain.

וַיַּעַשׂ אֵת הַכִּיּוֹר נְחשֶׁת וְאֵת כַּנּוֹ נְחֹשֶׁת בְּמַרְאֹת הַצֹּבְאֹת אֲשֶׁר צָבְאוּ פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד.

“He made the laver of bronze and its stand of bronze from the mirrors of the women who flocked to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.”  (Exodus 38:8)

The fountain was used by the priests to ritually wash their hands and feet before entering the holy precincts and performing the rituals.  For some reason, the Torah wants us to take note that the metal used for constructing this laver came from melted down women’s mirrors.  In ancient times, a hand mirror was made out of a highly polished piece of bronze or other metal and was quite valuable.  Glass was not available.

Why this detail?  To further confuse matters, when Moses received instructions for how to build the fountain back in chapter 30, there was no indication of the source of the metal.  That detail appears only here.  We are left with questions.  Why was the fountain made out of these melted down mirrors?  Why are the women described in this unusual way:

הַצֹּבְאֹת אֲשֶׁר צָבְאוּ פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד

– depending on the translation “the women who flocked / performed tasks / gathered together at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting?”  This expression appears here and in only one other place in the Bible.

The contemporary Bible scholar Nahum Sarna claims that these were women who “performed menial work” and that they were “at the bottom of the occupational and social scale.”  The Torah goes out of its way to record their donation of these personal items because they “displayed unselfish generosity and sacrificial devotion.” (JPS Bible Commentary, Exodus, p. 230)  Even the lowliest women gave up their most precious possessions to build the mishkan.

The thirteenth century Spanish commentator Ramban offers an explanation of the p’shat, the plain sense meaning, of the verse.  The women were so eager to participate in the building of the mishkan that they voluntary offered a very valuable, personal belonging.  The word tzov’ot is used because the women assembled like an army with their mirrors.  Tzava means army or host.  Tzov’ot conveys a sense of enthusiasm and excitement.  They rushed, like soldiers assembling for a muster.

The commentator Ibn Ezra offers a sober explanation.  (*You might not like this.)  The way of women, he says, is make themselves appear pretty by looking at their faces in metal or glass mirrors in order to arrange the hats on their heads.  There were some Israelite women who abandoned the vanities of the world, giving up their mirrors which they no longer needed.  They would come every day to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting to pray and hear the words of the mitzvot.

In a slight variation, the commentator Hizkuni says that the women assembled there daily to hear the praises and singing of the kohanim and leviim.  Another commentator, Sforno, claims that they came to hear the words of the Living God.

All three of these explanations set up a dichotomy between concern with female attention to physical appearance, on the one hand, and piety, on the other.

Rashi cites a midrash that offers a more colorful explanation.  When the Israelite women showed up with all of their mirrors, Moses was disgusted.  These objects that women use to adorn themselves serve the purposes of the yetzer hara, the evil inclination.  Moses wants to reject the gift.  But the Holy One sees something different.  God says to Moses: Accept them.  These mirrors are more precious to me than anything else!  When the Israelites were in Egypt, the men would be off working in the fields, too exhausted to even come home after work.  So their wives would bring food and drink out to them in the fields and feed them.  And they would bring their mirrors.  They would entice their men, looking together at their reflections and exclaiming, “look how much prettier I am than you.”  And they would awaken their husbands’ desires.  That is how the Israelite population flourished in Egypt.

The Torah describes the mirrors with the words b’marot hatzov’ot.  The Israelite women used these mirrors to create a host – an army – of children in Egypt.  The Talmud cites this midrash as one of several supports for the claim that the redemption of the Israelites from slavery took place due to the righteousness of women.

Why were these mirrors used specifically to make the bronze fountain?  Rashi explain that the fountain played a central role in subduing a jealous husband and restoring peace to the home.  The ritual of the sotah, the suspected adulteress, involved the use of water drawn from the bronze fountain.  A woman whose husband suspected her of cheating with another man would drink the water in order to prove her innocence.

In contrast to Ibn Ezra and the others, Rashi’s explanation integrates sexuality with pious intent.  In the midrash, Moses acts like a prude, but God sees something holy and life-affirming in these mirrors.

Yet all of these explanations reflect the age-old stereotype that women are vain and focused on their looks and must use their sexuality to succeed.  For Ibn Ezra and the others, it is a rejection of the mirror, a denial of their sexuality, that leads to piety.  For Rashi, it is the wives’ embrace of sexual desire during a particularly dark and depressing time in our history that prompts God’s praise.  For all of them, the fountain made from the women’s mirrors is the primary item in the Temple that restores the relationship between husband and wife when she is suspected of sexual impropriety.

Because our traditional texts so rarely describe women’s experiences, we must try to celebrate them where they occur, even though they may reflect a patriarchal worldview.  As society has become more egalitarian over the past two centuries, we have tried to include women in traditionally male aspects of religious life.  Perhaps we ought to consider seeing men in light of women’s traditional roles as well.

Even today, in 2016, in Northern California, we still fall into traditional patterns of gender stereotypes in so many ways.

I like the idea of God rebuking Moses, almost playfully, for his negative reaction to the women’s mirrors.  There is a wisdom and a piety expressed in the ability to integrate the physical with the spiritual.  It is the women who are aware of this.  It is Moses, and by extension the men, who are in the dark.  It seems that God wants to bring us into the light.

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.

Be An Organ Donor – Terumah 5776

This past Tuesday, I was on the panel for a program sponsored by our local Maimonides and Cardozo Societies – made up of Jewish physicians and lawyers, respectively.  I was the “Jewish Expert” on the panel.  The subject was based on a book written a few years ago called Larry’s Kidney: Being the True Story of How I Found Myself in China with My Black Sheep Cousin and His Mail-Order Bride, Skirting the Law to Get Him a Transplant–and Save His Life, by Daniel Asa Rose.  The author spoke for the first half of the program, so I was only able to touch the surface of the topic from a Jewish perspective.  It is a vitally important topic of life-and-death, and there are many misconceptions, so I would like to spend time this morning going into more depth.

In the United States, an average of 79 people receive an organ transplant every day.  Sounds good, right?  Also, on average, 22 people die every day waiting for a transplant.  That is more than 8,000 people per year whose lives could have potentially been saved if more organs had been available.  If more people in this country were registered organ donors, many more lives could be saved.

There are numerous complicated issues, both ethical and medical, when it comes to organ donation.  Let me try to summarize a few of them.

We can divide organ donation into four categories.  The first is live organ donations for which there is minimal risk to the donor.  Examples include blood, bone marrow, skin, and even kidney donations.  The second category is live organ donations for which there is risk to the donor.  Examples include liver lobe and lung lobe donations.  The third category is cadaver donations in which the organs can be harvested after the donor’s heart stops beating.  An example is a cornea.  The final category is a cadaver donation for which the cardiovascular system has to be kept working by artificial means until shortly before the organs are removed.  This is the case for heart, lung, and pancreas donations.

For each of these categories, the ethical and medical considerations are different.  How much risk is tolerable?  What is the definition of death?  At what point after the withdrawal of life support can organs be harvested?  What factors should be considered when determining which of multiple candidates should receive an organ?  Can live donors be paid for their donations?  Each of these questions is extremely complicated.  There is a vast body of writing from the perspective of medical and religious ethics that deals with every one of these issues.

Until fairly recently, Israel had an organ donation rate that was far below other developed countries.  Because there were so few Israelis willing to donate their own or their loved ones’ organs, “transplant tourism” became very popular.  Organ brokers would advertise their services on the radio and in newspapers.  Not only were there not any laws prohibiting Israelis from going abroad for organ transplants, but the national health insurance would even reimburse patients for their expenses.  So Israelis would travel to China, Brazil, and other countries to receive life-saving organ transplants.

Is there anything wrong with this?

The problem is that in many countries, there is little regulation and no transparency.  China, for example, has become a major center for organ transplants over the past twenty years, advertising their services to wealthy patients around the world.  Where do the organs come from?  China does not maintain a national organ donor database – so nobody really knows.

Over the years, there have been numerous allegations and investigations claiming that Chinese prisoners are being executed for their organs – and not just those imprisoned for violent crimes.  Also included are political prisoners, as well as tens of thousands of member of the Falun Gong religious sect.  With the vast amounts of money to be made, and the lack of oversight and transparency, it is no wonder that Chinese politicians, judges, and medical workers  up and down the system allow this to happen.

From the perspective of Judaism, this is absolutely wrong and immoral.  While I do not have to sacrifice myself to save another person, and I am permitted to protect myself if I am being attacked, under no circumstances can I kill another person to save my own life.

Which is why it is such a chilul hashem – a desecration of God’s name – that there have been numerous cases of Jews convicted for organ trafficking, in Israel and in the United States.  One of the factors contributing to this embarrassment is the low organ donor rate in Israel.

Why are so few Israelis willing to be organ donors?

There are several assumptions that people make about Jewish law.  First of all, we know that the body is considered to be sacred in Judaism.  When a person passes away, we treat the body with the utmost respect, cleaning and dressing it quickly, and returning it to the ground from which it came.  Autopsies are generally prohibited, as well as embalming.  The proper care of a body before burial is considered to be one of the greatest mitzvot that we can perform.

The removal of organs before burial, therefore, would seem to be a violation of Jewish law and custom.  Another complicating factor is the traditional belief in a future resurrection in the days of the Messiah.  If a person is buried without all of his or her organs, will he or she be resurrected whole in body?

Because of these beliefs, many Jews have been reluctant to register themselves or agree to donate their loved ones’ organs.  That is why the organ donor rates are so low in Israel.

But there is a competing principle which most halakhic authorities across denominations consider to be even more significant.  Pikuach nefesh, the saving of a life, is such an important value that it trumps even the special sanctity of the body.

The Torah states, lo ta’amod al dam re’echa.  Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.  This means that if we have the ability to save the life of another person, we have an obligation to do so.  Halakhic codes stretch this concept to require us to spend our money, or even endure personal discomfort, to save the life of another person.

While organ donation was not a possibility at the time these laws developed, the principle is relevant.  So rather than ask “are Jews permitted to donate their organs?” the question really ought to be “Are there ever circumstances in which a Jew is not required to donate his or her organs?”

While some modern poskim, including Orthodox ones, today use the term mitzvah to refer to organ donation, it seems clear that they mean it not as an obligation, but rather as a midat chasidut, a particular pious act that is lifnim mishurat hadin – beyond the strict letter of the law.

So what can be done to increase organ donor rates and save more lives?

In the United States, we have an opt-in system.  Most states, including California, have recruited the DMV to register donors.  If you have a license you are probably familiar with this.  When you go to get your license, the DMV clerk asks you if you want to be an organ donor.  To be registered, you have to say yes.  An opt-out system automatically assumes that everyone is an organ donor except for those who explicitly state that they do not want to be.  Some countries have been successful with this.

While an opt-out system might seem to many Americans like a gross invasion of personal autonomy, it is defensible and maybe even preferable from a Jewish perspective.

In Judaism, there is a concept that I can perform an act or make a decision on behalf of another person without his or her knowledge, and potentially even against his or her will, if it causes that person benefit.  Some authorities apply that concept to organ donation.  Let’s say that my loved one is in a coma and is determined by doctors to be brain dead.  When I agree to donate the organs, my loved one gains the benefit of saving a life.

So a Jewish argument could definitely be made in favor of an opt-out organ donor system.

Another possibility is the solution that Israel enacted in 2008.  It made it illegal to travel abroad for an organ transplant, or to engage in organ trafficking.  It defined death as “brain death,” clarifying the circumstances under which cadaver donations can take place.  And it created an incentive system to encourage more donors.  Donors now receive reimbursement for all medical expenses related to the donation, as well as for lost work.  Live donors also receive preference if at some later time they find themselves in need of an organ.  In addition, if two people on a transplant waiting list are at the same tier of eligibility, the one who has been a registered organ donor will receive preference.  Finally, the immediate family members of a deceased person whose organs were donated will also receive preference.

The law is controversial, as it introduces non-medical factors for determining eligibility.  But it has caused organ donor rates to increase in Israel.

This morning’s Torah portion, parashat Terumah, offers us a fitting model for how we might understand organ donation.  In the opening statment, God instructs Moses:

 דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ־לִי תְּרוּמָה מֵאֵת כָּל־אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ תִּקְחוּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִי.

Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.  (Exodus 25:2)

The Hebrew word for donation is terumah.  The Israelites are being instructed to bring their donations for the construction of the mishkan, the Tabernacle.  Rashi asks, why does God specify v’yikchu li terumah.  “Take for me a donation?”  After all, God certainly does not have any physical needs.  Rashi answers with the word lishmi – for my sake.  In other words, these are to be purely selfless, altruistic donations.  There should be no personal motive.

But a passage in the Talmud states the opposite:  “If a person declares ‘this coin is for tzedakah so that my child should live, or so that I can earn a place in the world to come’ – such a person is a tzadik gamur – a totally righteous individual.”  (BT Rosh Hashanah 4a)  Commenting on this, Rashi explains im ragil b’kach – if the person is in the habit of giving tzedakah regularly.

So which is it, Rashi?  Are we supposed to give altruistically, without hope of personal benefit, or is a donor just as righteous if or she receives some advantage?

Is it the American system, which relies solely on altruistic donations, or the new Israeli system, which seeks to create positive incentives that cannot be harmfully manipulated?

Maybe the point is that it doesn’t matter.  Whatever the motivation, the end result of more organ donors is that more lives will be saved.  So if you are not already a registered organ donor, get on the list.  If, God forbid, we should ever find ourselves in the situation of having to make a decision about our own or a love one’s organs, let us please remember that Judaism has something to say about it.

And in so doing, in making the ultimate gift of saving the life of a human being made in God’s image, the terumah can surely be said to be lishmi, for God’s sake.