Jacob and Pharaoh – Vayigash 5776

Something that I have tried to emphasize about the Book of Genesis is the moral ambivalence of its narrator.  The text rarely passes judgment on its characters.  Instead, it allows them to speak for themselves, without judgment.  It is one of things I love about the book.

In the various troubled relationships between siblings, parents, neighbors, enemies, and even God, the text never tells us that one of them is right and the other wrong.  Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers – the Torah lets their actions, their words, sometimes even their inner thoughts, speak for themselves.

We bring our own predilections to the text.  It is important for us, as readers, to recognize our biases.  We might have a tendency to favor the underdog, to always suspect the motives of the winner, or to favor the “heroes” and whitewash their mistakes.

Traditional religious biases lead many, but not all, of our commentaries to see Jacob, for example, as pious, morally justified, and honorable.  On the other hand, biases of moral indignancy lead many contemporary readers to view Jacob as a lying, cheating manipulator.  But the Book of Genesis does not present him either way.  It is non-judgmental.  He is a flawed protagonist certainly, but a hero nonetheless.  That is what makes him so human, and makes our emotional reactions to him so strong.  After all, he is the father of the Jewish people.

When we have strong emotional responses to biblical characters, it should prompt us to ask ourselves why we are reacting with such intensity.  The stories can be seen as a kind of literary Rorschach Test, with our reactions telling us who we are and what concerns us.

In Parashat Vayigash, Jacob our Patriarch nears the end of his life.  It offers a natural opportunity to conduct a grand analysis of his life.  But rather than projecting ourselves into the text, this morning let us instead allow Jacob to speak in his own words.  First, let’s set the scene.

Upon revealing himself to his brothers, Joseph invites them to bring the entire family down to Egypt.  After many years apart, Jacob is finally reunited with his beloved son.  Joseph helps the family get settled in the land of Goshen, where they will be able to pasture their flocks in peace and prosperity.  Finally, Joseph arranges to have his father meet his boss.

Imagine, for a moment, what that meeting must have been like for each of them.

Pharaoh is about to meet the father of his Viceroy Joseph.  I bet Pharaoh felt a certain degree of awe towards Joseph – a foreigner, brought out from prison.  He has strange and powerful abilities to interpret dreams which are supplied by his equally strange God.  Not only that, but he has single-handedly predicted and solved a famine that would have otherwise been catastrophic and could possibly have led to Pharaoh’s ouster.  And now, Pharaoh is about to meet this guy’s father.  When Jacob walks into the room, Pharaoh is immediately struck by the extreme age of the old man.  He has never seen someone so old.  What unnatural powers must he have?!

How about from Jacob’s perspective?  He is about to meet the most powerful man in the world.  This man has taken in his favorite son, long-presumed dead, and made him his second in command.  Jacob could be feeling grateful, or perhaps he is jealous and resentful.  Has Pharaoh replaced Jacob as Joseph’s father?

Now listen to the Torah’s description of their meeting.

And Joseph brought Jacob his father and stood him before Pharaoh, and Jacob blessed Pharaoh.  And Pharaoh said to Jacob, “How many are the days of the years of your life?”  And Jacob said to Pharaoh, “The days of the years of my sojournings are a hundred and thirty years.  Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained the days of the years of my fathers in their days of sojournings.”  And Jacob blessed Pharaoh and went out from Pharaoh’s presence.  (Genesis 47:7-10, translation by Robert Alter)

Jacob’s blessings of Pharaoh bookend a single question and answer exchange between these two figures.  And it is a strange exchange which prompts many subsequent questions.

First of all, what are these “blessings” which Jacob bestows upon Pharaoh?

Rashi, along with several other commentators, suggests that in this context, the word va-y’varekh does not mean “then he blessed”, but rather “then he greeted” – she-ilat shalom, “inquiring into well-being,” as he calls it.

Ramban disagrees, claiming that it is improper to greet a king.  Rather, he argues, it is customary for elderly and pious people to bless kings with wealth, property, glory, and the advancement of their reign.  Upon departing from Pharaoh’s presence, Jacob blesses him as well.  According to the Midrash, Jacob prays that “the Nile should rise up to his feet.”  (Tanhuma, Naso 26)

The central part of their interaction is comprised of Pharaoh’s question and Jacob’s answer.  “How many are the days of the years of your life?”  Pharaoh asks.

According to Ramban, Pharaoh is immediately struck by Jacob’s appearance.  He has never seen someone so old in all the years of his rule.  Nahum Sarna explains that the ideal lifespan in Egypt at that time was 110 years, which turns out to be the length of Joseph’s life.  Jacob appears much older, prompting Pharaoh’s question.  It sounds almost like he is blurting it out.  He can’t help himself.  Consider, is this the question that we would expect Pharaoh to ask of the man who raised his Viceroy, the person responsible for saving Egypt?  How old are you?!

Jacob’s response is equally surprising.  “The days of the years of my sojournings are a hundred and thirty years.  Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained the days of the years of my fathers in their days of sojournings.”

Jacob’s response sounds so bitter and angry.  He is filled with regret and disappointment.

The commentator Ramban throws his hands up in bewilderment:  “I do not understand the meaning of our forefather’s words,” he admits.   “For what reason would he complain to the king?”

Jacob compares himself to his father Isaac and grandfather Abraham.  He is currently 130 years old, and already is convinced that he will not live as long as his predecessors.  Radak explains that he has experienced so much suffering that it has weakened him and he can feel death creeping up.  How he knows this is a mystery.  He is not exactly on death’s door.  After all, he does live another seventeen years.

Our commentators read Jacob’s response closely and unpack it.  “Few and evil – me-at v’ra-im – have been the days of the years of my life.”  Rashbam explains that Jacob appears even older than he is because of all of the suffering he has been through.  It has caused him to age prematurely.  (Although how someone who is 130 old could be prematurely aged is something of a mystery.)  In describing himself as a sojourner, Jacob is claiming to be a stranger.  Everywhere he has lived, he has been unsettled, dwelling as an alien amidst local populations.  Sforno adds that Jacob claims that his father and grandfather did not have to deal with the same tzuris, troubles, that he had, which is why they lived longer.

The 13th century French commentator, Hizkuni, has a more critical take on Jacob.  Essentially, he calls him ungrateful.  He notes that Jacob’s final lifespan of 147 is 33 years short of Isaac’s 180.  Why 33?

God notes that: “I saved you from Lavan, and Esau, and Shechem, and I restored Dinah and Joseph to you, and you [have the gall to] say ‘few and evil’ your life has been.  By your life, I will take from you the number of words that you have spoken.”  By this, Hizkuni means the number of words in verses 8 and 9, which constitute the verbal exchange between Pharaoh and Jacob – the former’s question and the latter’s answer.

I love Hizkuni’s insight.  Jacob is a bitter man, and God does not let him off the hook.  Looking back on his life, Jacob sees only disappointment and regret.  He is blind to the fact that he has survived all this time, that his children are all alive, and with him.  He has managed to acquire everything he ever set his mind to: the birthright, the blessing, his beloved Rachel, he’s gotten Joseph back.  He has become wealthy, and now finds himself in Egypt with a household numbering 70 souls, not including the wives!  This is a man who has been supremely blessed in life.

But when he looks in the mirror, what does he see?  Struggle, going all the way back to his uterine striving with his brother Esau.  His success at acquiring the birthright and blessing has been accompanied by fear of retribution and probably guilt.  He gets his beloved Rachel, but at the “expense” of being first tricked into marrying Leah.  He builds a large household, but one that has been mired in scheming, distrust, and discord.  He receives a new name, Israel, but walks away with a limp to serve as a reminder for the rest of his life.  He has twelve sons and one daughter, but has to grieve for 22 years over the presumed death of his favorite, knowing that his playing favorites makes him at least partially responsible.

While everything, in the end, has worked out to Jacob’s advantage, the road, from Jacob’s perspective, has been torturous, and that is all that he is able to see.

What do we see when we look at Jacob?  Each of us has to answer that on our own.  But I would urge us to remember that we are our own worst – and potentially best – critics.  And what we see in Jacob probably ought to tell us something about ourselves.

Know the Genre – Bereishit 5776

Imagine a space alien landing on earth and reading the headline of an article that I saw posted on Facebook earlier this week.  “Texas: 14-Year Old Virgin Falls Pregnant After Flu Shot.”  Our alien visitor, reading this article in an official sounding publication called World News Daily Report, might take it as accurate news reporting rather than satire.  A bit of digging would hopefully lead the alien to the truth.

One of the most important aspects that a reader must understand about what he or she is reading is its genre.  Usually, we understand genre inherently without needing to spend any time consciously considering the type of literature that we are reading.

If I open the front section of the newspaper, I know that I am reading current events articles about something going on right now in the world.  If I open up a book written by John Grisham, I know that I am probably reading a fictional novel that is in the sub-genre of legal thriller.  We run into trouble with genre sometimes online with fake news articles that are forwarded or posted on Facebook.  If I peruse an article published by the Onion, for example, hopefully I know that I am reading satire.  Otherwise, I could get into trouble.

Generally speaking, our brains know how to classify the various kinds of writing that we encounter on a daily basis.  We do this by comparing what we read to what is already familiar.

When we read literature from far away places and long ago times, however, we are at a similar, if not even a greater, disadvantage as our alien friend.

In high school, I had opportunity to read Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War as well as Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey.  To properly understand these masterpieces, it is essential to be aware of their genre.  In the case of Thucydides, his book is one of the earliest examples of historical writing.  A political philosopher and general, he writes of the war between Athens and Sparta in the 5th century BCE.  He takes great effort to stick to facts, and his explanations do not include maneuverings and interventions by the gods in human affairs.  Someone who wants to learn about military history, or study that time period, must read this classic first-hand description.

In contrast, Homer’s telling of the Trojan War and the wanderings of Odysseus are not historical accounts.  Rather, human beings are mere tools manipulated by the gods in their grand feuds and struggles.  The Iliad and The Odyssey are epic poems containing myth and legend.  One should not read them to find out “what happened,” but one should look to them to understand the beliefs and values of Ancient Greece, to understand something about the human condition, as well as enjoy two of the most beautiful epic poems ever written.

Which author’s works are more “true” – Thucydides are Homer?  It is an absurd question.  Both are true, but in different ways.  Understanding genre is essential for knowing this.

The same is true when we read our Sacred Texts.  Today, we begin our annual cycle of weekly Torah reading and study.  Parashat Bereishit – the beginning.  The beginning of what?  Let’s leave that question aside for now and say simply that it is the beginning of the Torah.

So let’s talk about genre.  Our Bible, the Tanakh, is a huge, composite book composed over a span of about one thousand years by many people, with different life experiences, values, and concerns.  Within the Bible, and within the Torah specifically, there are many genres and sub-genres represented.  Let us name a few:

Law codes.  History.  Legend.  Satire.  Prophecy.  Poetry.  Prayer.  Theology.  Wisdom literature.  Mythology.  Propaganda.

If we are going to begin to understand our Bible, we have got to make an effort to understand what kind of literature it is that we are reading.

As our Sacred Scripture, we consider the text to be universal and timeless.  That does not mean that we can ignore the central questions about what the text is, or that we can ignore the cultural context in which it first appeared.

The first three chapters of the Torah tell the story of creation.  How does the Torah itself want us to read these stories?  How would someone living in the land of Israel nearly three thousand years ago have understood them?

A close reading of these three chapters reveals inconsistencies.  Chapter one through chapter two, verse 4a seems to tell one version of the creation story.  Chapter two, verse 4b through chapter three tells a different version.  The language in each version is different.  The character of God, as well as the nature of humanity and order of creation are also contradictory.  God even has a different name in these two narrativez.

Version one tells the story of six days of creation.  It is highly structured and organized.  God, referred to as Elohim, creates each element of the world at a specific time.  Human beings are created last, in the image of God, both male and female.  Then God rests on the seventh day.

In version two, God, referred to as Adonai Elohim, creates a man named Adam and then places him in the Garden of Eden.  Eventually, after lonely Adam cannot find a suitable companion amongst the animals, God removes one of Adam’s ribs and makes a woman.  Then, we read the story of the woman, the snake, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  The story results in humans being banished from the Garden of Eden and being forced to wander the earth, earning their living and bearing children through hard work and struggle.

Our interpretive tradition is typically uncomfortable with contradictions in the Sacred Text.  So it tries to find ways to settle those contradictions.  To explain what, on the surface, seems like alternative versions of creation, it describes the events in the Garden of Eden described in chapters two and three as all taking place on the sixth day.  But these explanations ignore many of the details.

In the twenty first century, many of us get stuck on what seems, on the surface, to be an incompatibility between Torah and science.  We are trained to be skeptical readers, to question the historical accuracy of what we hear, and to demand evidence and facts before we accept a proposition.

This comes up a lot for children, sometimes as early as second or third grade.  How do we respond to our kids when they say to us: “I don’t think that ever happened,” which sometimes leads to “I don’t want to be Jewish”?

First of all, I have no argument with someone who says that the Earth cannot have been created in six days.  I agree.  By the way, I do have an argument with someone who tries to fit the latest scientific theories of evolution or the Big Bang into the words of the Torah.  The Torah is not a science book.  We should not be tempted to turn it into one.

Just because it did not happen that way does not mean it is not true.  An answer, I believe, comes down to understanding the concept of genre.

This is not simply a postmodern approach to our Sacred Texts.  Although they used different terms, some of our greatest scholars understood the importance of recognizing genre and accepting the limitations of what the text is able to tell us.

The great thirteenth century Spanish Rabbi, Moshe ben Nachman, known as Nachmanides, was a great Torah scholar, philosopher, legalist, and kabbalist.  He wrote a commentary on the Torah.  In his opening comment, he explains that the process of creation is a deep mystery that cannot be understood from the verses, and it can only be known through the oral tradition going back to Moses, who received it from God on Mt. Sinai.  Then he adds that those who know it are obligated to keep it secret.

Nachmanides goes on to explain that all of the descriptions of creation: day one, day two etc., as well as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and the accounts of the generations leading up to the flood, the Tower of Babel, and so on – none of these events can actually be understood from the verses in the Torah.  Basically, he is saying that the first eleven chapters of Genesis are not reporting historical facts.

What, therefore, is the Torah’s purpose in describing the six days of creation?  Nachmanides offers the same answer as Rashi, which is based on a midrash (Genesis Rabbah 1:2).  According to the midrash, the Torah’s description of creation establishes the entire earth as belonging to God, its Creator.  Thus, God has the authority to grant land to one people, and then subsequently take it away and give it to another.

In reading Nachmanides’ commentary, we need to understand that he himself is writing in a particular time and place, with his own unique perspectives, assumptions, and interests.  His worldview does not necessarily align with our own, seven hundred years later.

What we call “science” today was not familiar to Nachmanides.  He did not know about the Big Bang Theory, evolution, or radio carbon dating.  We can only speculate how he would have reacted to those concepts, and how that knowledge might have affected his commentaries.  As someone who studied medicine and philosophy, he might have been open to science.  On the other hand, he opposed the extreme rationalism of Maimonides that downplayed the Torah’s descriptions of miracles by explaining them as metaphors, and he was a practicing kabbalist who accepted many of our tradition’s supernatural stories as historically true.

I find it reassuring to know that Nachmanides acknowledged that the Torah’s account of Creation is not science.  For him, the purpose is theological and political.  It justifies Israel’s claim to the land of Israel and counters charges by other nations that the Jews stole it unjustly.  (Sound familiar?)

While the secrets of how God actually created the universe are known to some, that knowledge is in the realm of mysticism, and is not intended for popular dissemination.  The concepts are either too esoteric, or difficult, or perhaps even dangerous to share with the general public, and so the Torah tells us nothing about how creation historically took place.

So let us take a step back and look at these stories with new eyes.  Or rather, let us try to look at them through the eyes of an Israelite nearly three thousand years ago.

What is the genre?  Both stories speak about origins.  The origin of the earth and the seas, the sun, moon, and stars, plants and trees, sea and land animals, birds, insects, and humans.

In today’s terms, what would we call a text that speaks about the origins of these things?  We would call it science.  So there is an inclination when we read the Torah to think that we are reading a scientific, historical account of how the world and life came into existence.

But that is an incorrect reading.  In science, when there are contradictions in the evidence, it generally means that there is something wrong with the theory.  The problem with reading the Torah as science or even history is that the text is not internally consistent, and it is often not consistent with what we know from extrenal sources.  As science, and often as history, the Bible is terrible literature.

But the Torah is neither a science nor a history book.  Science and history, as we know them, did not even exist when the Torah was written.  That is the wrong genre.

A better term to describe these stories is “myth.”  Confusingly, “myth” has two main definitions which are diametrically opposed to one another.

For decades, a book has been published every few years called Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict.  I do not bring it up to talk about politics, but to illustrate how, colloquially, the word “myth” means the opposite of facts.  If something is a myth, it is not true, and might even be a deliberate lie.

But that is not the definition of myth that is used by anthropologists and sociologists.  Quite the opposite, a myth conveys something that is of ultimate truth, even if it is not historically accurate.  One classicist writes that myth is “a traditional tale with […] reference to something of collective importance.”  (Walter Burkett, Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual, as quoted in Marc Zvi Bressler, How to Read the Jewish Bible, p. 39.)  Myths reveal the core beliefs of a people and help to explain the human condition.  Most cultures have a creation myth that explains how the world came into existence and how human beings fit into that existence.

Both of the Torah’s creation narratives fit that definition, although they convey different messages.

The first version is about God’s taming of the forces of chaos and evil.  In systematic fashion, God pushes aside the already-existing primordial waters to separate earth from sky, and land from water.  Each creative act of order is declared to be “good,” with humans, the final creation, described by God as “very good.”  Holding the forces of chaos at bay has been God’s preoccupation ever since.  The narrative ends with God observing Shabbat on the seventh day.

The second story has a different focus.  It is a far more anthropocentric story.  God first creates Adam and then makes the Garden of Eden, introducing plants and animals to serve the human.  As an origin story, it tells of the loss of human immortality and the gaining of sexual knowledge.  It describes the roles of men and women vis a vis each other in the ancient world.  It explains why it is so hard to earn a living, and why childbirth is so painful and dangerous.  Then, and now, these are some of the central aspects of human existence.

So while God did not create the earth in six days, and while two people named Adam and Eve never walked around naked in the Garden of Eden, each of these creation stories is true in a profound way.  Understanding how they are true makes them relevant and alive for us.

As we begin a new year of Torah study, let us come to these texts with open eyes and open hearts, with the presumption that Torah has something profound to teach us.  It is our task, through engaging with Torah, to discover what it is.

Saying Kaddish Reluctantly – Ha’azinu 5776

One of the most uncomfortable things that I do as a Rabbi is to lead the Kaddish Yatom, the Mourner’s Kaddish, during services.

The Mourner’s Kaddish is one of several variations on this ancient prayer.  There is also the Chatzi Kaddish – the Half Kaddish, the Kaddish Shalem – The Full Kaddish, the Kaddish D’Rabbanan – Rabbis’ Kaddish, and the less familiar Kaddish D’Itchadeta – Kaddish of the Unification of the Divine Name, which is recited at funerals and at a siyyum marking the completion of study of a Tractate of Talmud.

While these variations developed over many hundreds of years, the core section of the Kaddish is one of the most ancient non-biblical prayers in our liturgy.  It has its origins in the Second Temple, before the prayer service as we know it took shape.

In numerous places, the Talmud heaps praises on the person or community that responds appropriately and with kavanah – spiritual intention – with the words: Amen.  Y’hei sh’mei raba m’vorakh l’alam ul’almeh al’mayah – “Amen.  May [God’s] great name be praised for ever and ever and ever.”  It does not specify the words that prompt this response, but it most likely resembles what we know today as the Chatzi Kaddish.

The central line is quite simple.  It proclaims the sanctity of the Divine name for all Eternity.  It is a simple statement of faith.

It is not clear in which contexts Jews would recite the Kaddish.  Most likely, it was recited after Torah lessons.  The teacher would proclaim God’s holiness, and the assembled would respond appropriately.  Thus, the Kaddish was a kind of prayer of dismissal.

The Kaddish is in Aramaic, which was the language that Jews spoke in their daily interactions.  This means that whoever instituted this prayer wanted to be sure that people understood what they were saying.

A midrash collection on Deuteoronomy called Sifrei Devarim connects this congregational response to a verse in this morning’s Torah portion, Ha’azinu.  (Sifrei Devarim 306)  In his poem to the Israelites, Moshe exclaims: Ki shem Adonai ekra,” – For the name of the Lord do I call.  Havu godel l’eloheinu – “Hail greatness for our God.”  (Deuteronomy 32:3)  When we hear someone extolling the Divine Name, we must affirm it with the appropriate response, according to the midrash.

The Talmud considers it extremely meritorious for us to do so.  One Rabbi declares that a person who responds with the words: y’hei sh’mei raba…  is assured of a place in the World to Come.  Another Rabbi claims that the evil decree against such a person is canceled.  A third Rabbi says that one should interrupt whatever one is doing in order to respond Y’hei sh’mei… – even if one is in the middle of praying the silent Amidah.  A story in the Talmud describes how pleased and honored God feels whenever the words of a congregation reciting Y’hei sh;mei raba… the Heavenly court.

But nowhere in the Talmud or in other writings of the era is there a single reference to the Kaddish as a mourners’ prayer.

The earliest oblique mention appears in a story from a text called Masekhet Kallah, “Tractate Bride.”  It is part of what are known as the Minor Tractates of the Talmud, which were actually composed several centuries afterwards but eventually came to be published together.  Masekhet Kallah, from the seventh or eighth century in Babylonia, deals with rules for brides and for conjugal relations.  It contains the earliest known version of the following story:

Rabbi Akiva was once in a cemetery where he came upon a “man” (actually, a ghost) who was carrying a heavy burden on his shoulders and was having difficulty walking.  He was crying and sighing.  [Akiva] said to him: “What did you do?”

He said to him: “There was not a single prohibition that I did not violate in this world.  Now there are guards set upon me who do not leave me alone for a single sigh.”

Rabbi Akiva asked him:  “Did you leave behind a son?”

He said to him: “Don’t ask me.  I am afraid of the angels who are whipping me with lashes of fire and demanding me ‘Why don’t you walk faster?’  Don’t tell me ‘you should rest!'”

[But Rabbi Akiva insisted, so] he said to him: “I left behind a pregnant wife.”

Rabbi Akiva went to that land.  He asked [the locals], “Where is the son of so-and-so?”

They said to him: “May the memory be uprooted of that one who deserves for his bones to be ground up!”

He said to them: “Why?”

They said to him:  “That robber stole from people and caused many to suffer, and furthermore, he had relations with a girl who was betrothed to another on Yom Kippur.”

[Rabbi Akiva] went to [the man’s] home and found his pregnant wife.  He stayed with her until she gave birth.  Then he circumcised [the baby boy].  When [the lad] grew up, [Akiva] brought him to the synagogue to recite the blessing before the congregation.

After some time, Rabbi Akiva went back to [the cemetery].  He saw [the spirit of the wicked man] which said [to Akiva]: “May your mind be at ease for you have set my mind at ease.”  (Masekhet Kallah 2:9)

The story reveals several important beliefs and practices: first, the concept that the soul of a sinner is doomed to punishment; second, that the son of a sinner can do something to earn merit for his deceased father’s soul, thereby saving him from such punishments; and third, that those merits can be earned by leading a community in prayer.

Later versions in subsequent centuries expand the story and specify that the son recited bar’khu and y’hei sh’mei raba m’vorakh l’alam ul’almeh al’mayah.  

It seems that, over time, the recitation of the Kaddish came to be associated with mourning.  At first, it was recited at the end of the seven days of shiva that was observed for a Torah scholar.  On the seventh day, a learned discourse would take place in the home of the deceased.  This learning would culminate with a recitation of the Kaddish.

Apparently, some people felt left out.  Maybe there was someone whose family thought he was more of a Torah scholar than he actually was.  Maybe there was an outcry from the non-scholars who wanted equal treatment.  It is hard to tell, but the practice gradually expanded to include all deceased.

Similarly, a practice developed for sons who were mourning the loss of a parent to lead evening services on Saturday night after the conclusion of Shabbat.  I can only imagine the disputes that arose: opposing mourners fight over the right to lead, those who do not have the skill to lead but still want the opportunity to earn merits for their parents’ souls.  The need arose to provide more opportunities.

These various beliefs and practices eventually came together.  Instead of leading the entire service, a mourner could just recite the Kaddish at the end of the service, and it would be “as if” he had led the entire thing.  Plus, multiple mourners could have the opportunity to recite the Kaddish.  Finally, the practice spread from just the Saturday night service to every service.

In many traditional synagogues today, mourners do not all recite the Kaddish in unison.  Rather, each individual mourner stands up and says the words independently from his or her seat.  Other congregants respond with Y’hei sh’mei rabah… to the person who is closest to them.  The result is a cacophony of voices reciting these ancient words at different volumes and speeds.

The standard Jewish belief about what happens when we die goes like this:

The soul of a person who lived a totally righteous life goes straight to the Garden of Eden/the World to Come/God.  The soul of a person who lived a totally wicked life goes to hell/Sheol/non-existence.  For the in-between souls – which is pretty much all of us – our souls go to Gei Hinnom, or Gehenna.  This is what Christians refer to as Purgatory or Limbo.  It is assumed that our souls will have the residue of at least some sins still clinging to them.  This residue is removed while in Gehenna over the course of up to a year, and the soul is cleansed.  Then, it can move on to wherever it is that souls go.

Mourners recite the Kaddish as a way to earn merits on behalf of the soul of the deceased, shortening its period of purification before it returns to its Source.  That was the initial motivation for reciting Kaddish on behalf of one’s parent.  There are other things that we do to help our loved ones’ souls move on.  People learn Torah, give tzedakah, and perform other mitzvot with this specific intention.  It is a way of saying that our loved ones’ positive attributes are still alive and making an impact in this world.

The Kaddish has gained added significance as a way to ritually mark a person’s period of mourning, to offer the mourner something to do in the supportive presence of the community, and to identify the mourner to the community so that it can come to offer comfort.  People who recite Kaddish for a loved one often find it to be a deeply cathartic activity which helps them move through the stages of grieving at a time when their loss is still raw.

According to Jewish law, children recite Kaddish for a parent for eleven months.  Why eleven, and not twelve?  It is a mark of respect, a way of saying, “even though it can take up to a full year to purify a person’s soul, my parent only needed eleven months.”  Someone who has lost a spouse, sibling, or child recites Kaddish for thirty days.

Kaddish is then recited on the yahrzeit (anniversary) of the death of an immediate family member.  Those who are not in their periods of mourning or observing yarzheit, generally speaking, should not recite the Mourners’ Kaddish.

I am blessed to have both of my parents living and in good health.  Many of you have met them, as they visit our community several times a year.  They were just here for Rosh Hashanah.

While it is pretty standard in Conservative synagogues for the Rabbi to lead the Mourners’ Kaddish, every time I do, I feel a powerful dissonance between the words I am saying and the reality that it is not the time for me personally to be saying them.

As a Rabbi, I have justified saying the Kaddish for two reasons.  1. It is important for someone to provide leadership so that numerous mourners in the congregation can recite the words together at the same pace.  2. Some people find it difficult to recite the words of the Kaddish.  The Aramaic can be very difficult.  It is much easier when there is a leader reciting them loudly and at a steady pace.

I feel that the time has come for an adjustment to the way that we recite the Mourners’ Kaddish at Congregation Sinai so that I no longer have to say it.  Some communities invite all mourners to assemble at the front of the sanctuary to recite the Kaddish together.  If someone prefers to remain at his/her seat, it is, of course, perfectly acceptable for them to do so.  Other communities invite an individual mourner to step up to the podium to set the pace for all those who are in mourning or observing a yahrzeit.  These are both possibilities for us.  I will be engaging the Ritual Committee to identify a solution that works for Congregation Sinai and helps me to feel more comfortable.

This adjustment might feel awkward at first, but I believe it will ultimately strengthen the bonds between those who are in mourning and the rest of our community.  I appreciate that Sinai is a community that is open to change.  It means a lot to me to be the Rabbi of a community whose members are always supporting each other’s efforts to increase in our knowledge of Torah and our commitment to Judaism.

Who Shall I Say Is Calling – Kol Nidrei 5776

Who By Fire

By Leonard Cohen

And who by fire, who by water,

Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,

Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,

Who in your merry merry month of may,

Who by very slow decay,

And who shall I say is calling?

And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate,

Who in these realms of love, who by something blunt,

And who by avalanche, who by powder,

Who for his greed, who for his hunger,

And who shall I say is calling?

And who by brave assent, who by accident,

Who in solitude, who in this mirror,

Who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand,

Who in mortal chains, who in power,

And who shall I say is calling?

Leonard Cohen recorded this song in 1974.  The words are based on the prayer in Unetaneh Tokef, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live, and who shall die…”  The music is based upon the melody that he heard as a boy on Yom Kippur in Montreal.

In a 1979 interview, Leonard Cohen is asked about the last line:  “Who shall I say is calling?”  The interviewer asks:  “So who is calling?”

The artist answers: “Well, that is what makes the song into a prayer for me in my terms which is Who is it or What is it that determines who will live and who will die?”

In his ambiguity, Leonard Cohen captures many of our reactions to this prayer.

Who is calling?  God?  The Angel of Death?  Or is it we who determine who lives and who dies?

Maybe it is a cry of injustice, a rejection of a God who callously passes judgment on human beings like they are sheep.

Or maybe the answer is that no one is calling.  We are here all alone.

Is this not the fundamental question that humans have always asked – who shall I say is calling?  Is there someone or something out there?  Is there an order or purpose to the universe?  Are human beings, am I, here for any particular reason, or is it all just a random roll of the dice?  And if there is some Force or Being behind all of this, is there any rhyme or reason to the vicissitudes of life? Or is everything essentially arbitrary, and Divine justice a joke?

Today, more than any other day of the year, these are questions that come to the forefront of our consciousness.  Yom Kippur is the day when we face our own lives, our own mortality, face to face.  It is the day when, after a forty day process of teshuvah that began a month before Rosh Hashanah, our final fate for the coming year is locked in place.  It is the day, more than any other, when God takes interest in each of our lives, and resets our relationship for one more year.  And so it is a day of enormous tension, as our fates hang in the balance.

So who shall I say is calling?  Who is this God – if He or She or It even exists?

As we might expect, our tradition does not speak in a unified voice.  Dr. Ruth Calderon, of the Hartman Institute, points to three images of God that appear in our Yom Kippur texts, three radically different depictions of Who is calling and what is expected from us.  Usually, I refrain from using gendered pronouns to refer to God.  For these images, I need to use them to do them justice.

The first is from our mahzor.  It is the prayer that inspired Leonard Cohen’s song.  Unetaneh Tokef.  God is the Judge, presiding over the courtroom on the Day of Judgment.  He is the Prosecutor, the Expert, and the Witness.  God brings the case against us, listing all of the charges.  All evidence is on the table, written in the Book of Remembrance and sealed by our own hands.  There is no escape.

Then the Shofar sounds, and even the angels tremble in fear and terror, for they know that they too will be judged on this awesome day.

God then becomes a shepherd, inspecting each and every sheep.  Although softer than the judge metaphor, with the Shepherd taking interest in His flock, we are still very small.  As all of creation passes under His staff, the Divine Shepherd issues a verdict for the coming year.

Who will live, and who will die; who will live out his days, and whose days will be cut short; who by fire, and who by water, and so on.

This is a petrifying vision of God, and a scary depiction of Yom Kippur.  And, it is the dominant image in our mahzor.  A God of justice Who gives us exactly what we have coming to us, Who cannot be dissuaded, and to top it all off, Who does not even share the verdict with us.

How many of us have been terrified of this God, or allowed ourselves to be driven away by such a horrifying metaphor?

Who shall I say is calling?

The next image of God appears in the Mishnah for Yom Kippur (Yoma 8:8-9).  It begins with the standard theology of teshuvah.  Atonement is granted when we have conducted the proper steps of repentance.   Sincerity counts.  We seek forgiveness from each other for the wrongs we do to each other, and from God for the sins we commit against God.  That is the part of the Mishnah that Rabbis usually like to quote (including yours truly).

But then the Mishnah continues:

Rabbi Akiva said:  Happy are you, O Israel!  Before Whom are you made pure?  Who purifies you?  It is your Father who is in heaven, as it says: And I will sprinkle pure water on you and you will be purified. (Ezekiel 36:25)  And it says, Mikveh Yisrael Adonai.  God is the hope of Israel. (Jeremiah 17:13)

Mikveh in the passage means hope, but Akiva reads it differently.  He reads it as mikvah, a Jewish ritual immersion bath.  God is the mikvah of Israel.  “Just as the immersion bath purifies the impure, so the Holy One, blessed be He, purifies Israel.”

To go into a mikvah, a person must first prepare.  All clothes are taken off.  Nails are trimmed.  Hair is combed so that loose strands can be removed.  Makeup and jewelry are taken off.  Nothing can get between an immersant and the living waters of the mikvah.  In a spiritual sense, the person who emerges from the mikvah is not the same as the person who entered.

But in Akiva’s metaphor, it is not a physical bath, but rather a Transcendent God Who purifies us.  God is both distant and close.  By jumping in to the water, so to speak, our sins are washed from our souls.  We are completely surrounded by holiness.

It is an intimate, deeply personal relationship, strongly counterposed to the Divine Judge and Shepherd Who dominates the pages of our Mahzor.

Who shall I say is calling?

The third image of God appears in a story from the Talmud (BT Berachot 7a).  Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha is a former High Priest.  He recounts what happened one year during Yom Kippur.

Once I entered into the Kodesh HaKodashim, the Holy of Holies, to burn incense in the Inner Innermost sanctum.  I saw Akatriel Yah Lord of Hosts sitting on a high and lofty throne of compassion.

He said to me:  ‘Yishmael my son, bless me!’

I said to him:  ‘Master of the Universe!  May it be Your will that Your mercy conquer Your anger, that Your mercy overcome Your sterner attributes, that You behave toward Your children with the attribute of mercy, and that for their sake, You go beyond the boundary of judgment.’

He nodded to me with His head.

The Talmud then derives a summary lesson from Yishmael’s story.

What does this come to teach us?  It teaches us never to underestimate the blessing offered by an ordinary person.

When we think about family members blessing one another, it is usually parents who are blessing their children.  But in this story, it is the child who blesses his Father.  What does this say about God?  If you were Yishmael, and God asked you for a blessing on Yom Kippur.  What would you say?  How would you bless your own flesh and blood parent?

In this story, God is Immanent.  Yishmael actually sees Him when he enters the Holy of Holies.  He is revealed as a parent in need of blessing – lonely, possibly insecure, and scared of what He might do.

When Yishmael offers his blessing for God’s kinder, gentler qualities to dominate, God nods in approval.  God wants that too, because He is scared that His stern, angry side will rule.  God is a lonely parent that needs our blessing, our help to become the God He wants to be.

Somehow, Yishmael knows exactly the right words to say.

These are three totally unique depictions of God on Yom Kippur.  Who shall I say is calling?  God is a stern, cold judge passing sentence on all of creation.  God is a purifying mikvah, able to cleanse the soul of any who approaches God with honesty.  God is a lonely, scared Parent who needs our help to be kind.

The Torah describes humans as created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of the Divine.  Something about us resembles God.  But maybe it is the other way around.  Maybe it is we human beings who have created God in our image.

Most of the language that we use to talk about God is in human terms.  God feels anger, joy, sadness, and regret.  God speaks, forgives, goes to war, and remembers.  These are all finite, human terms that cannot capture that which is infinite.  The only way that we imperfect human beings can even attempt to understand God is from the vantage point of our own experience.  We use what we know as metaphors to convey that which we cannot fully understand.  When we speak about God, we are really talking about ourselves.

Let us explore these three Yom Kippur descriptions of God from the perspective of what we really want for ourselves.

God is a Judge and Shepherd, carrying out justice and issuing decrees that will determine our fate in the coming year.  We want to know that our actions matter.  We want to live in a moral universe in which those who do good are rewarded with long life, health, and prosperity, and those who do evil have their lives taken away from them.

This is the life that parents try to shape for their children.  We strive to maintain the illusion of a just world for as long as we can, but there inevitably comes a time when we have to admit to our kids that life is indeed not fair.

Even though it may not correspond to the world we experience, the idea of a God who is a King, Judge, and Shepherd is comforting.  It is how most of us wish the world operated.

At other times, what we want is not justice, but comfort.  We are lonely, and our souls are restless.  We want to know that God will be available to us if we seek Him, that when we strip off the exterior layers and lay bare our souls, a comforting Presence is there waiting for us.

Finally, we want to know that we matter to God.  That God needs us, is waiting for us.  That we make a difference to the world and will play a part in its redemption.

At the moment that the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies to plead for mercy, he finds instead of the terrifying Power that instantly strikes dead any human who risks a glance, a waiting Parent who needs His child’s help.

Perhaps when Yishmael blesses God with mercy overcoming strict justice, we are really blessing ourselves with the same message – that our world needs more compassion from us.  Just as God needs a blessing to be His best self, perhaps we do as well.

Yom Kippur has just begun.  We will spend the next twenty four hours in prayer and contemplation, hoping that by the end God will have accepted us and cleansed our souls for another year of blessing.

What kind of God are we seeking – a God of justice, a God of purifying waters, or a Lonely Parent Who is waiting for our blessing?

Who shall I say is calling?

Pursuing Righteousness at Hanaton – Shoftim 5775

It is not possible for me to cover everything that I would like to share about the past five months in the next few minutes.  Expect it to come out in dribs and drabs over the course of the coming year.

This morning, I would like to describe a bit about the community in which my family and I lived for the majority of our time on sabbatical.

When trying to figure out where we would live, we initially thought of Jerusalem.  It soon became apparent that finding a school that would accept our children for only three months would pose a challenge.  So we started to think of alternatives.  In the course of asking around for suggestions, several people said, “Why don’t you check out Kibbutz Hanaton?”

Hanaton is located on a hill in the Lower Gallilee, about 30 minutes East of Haifa, a few kilometers from the Movil interchange.  It overlooks the Eshkol Reservoir, the major water reservoir serving the North.  It lies between the Bedouin village of Bir al-Mahsur and the Arab town of K’far Manda.

Dana and I had heard about Hanaton.  We knew that it was a Masorti kibbutz in the North.  Masorti is the name of the Conservative Movement in Israel.  It has a guest house that some USY Pilgrimage groups used to stay at for a few days, although neither of us had been there.  But we did not know anything beyond that.

So we started to inquire, including sending an email to a friend who had a friend who lived  part-time on Hanaton.  That friend of a friend sent an email to the Hanaton listserve, and before we knew it, people that we had never met were reaching out to us, offering to answer questions about life on Hanaton, school options, and living opportunities.

We lucked out in finding a basement apartment for rent, and then we started making our plans.

But let’s back up.  Eight years ago, Kibbutz Hanaton, which was founded in 1983 by a group of Olim from North America, was down to about three members, and had hundreds of thousands of shekels worth of debt.  It was on the verge of collapse.

Rabbi Yoav Ende was a recently ordained Masorti Rabbi who had a vision of building an inclusive, open, pluralistic religious community.  He recruited a small cohort of young families who were ready to take a risk and try something new.  In 2008, they moved to Hanaton and transformed it into a kibbutz mitchadesh – a revitalized kibbutz.

Hanaton is not what you are thinking of when you hear the word “kibbutz.”  Kids live with their parents.  Each family lives in its own home, owns its own belongings, and has its own car.  There is no community dining hall.

Collectively, the kibbutz owns a few businesses, the largest being a refet, or dairy farm, which is wisely located at the top of the hill, upwind from the housing area.  This ensures that kibbutz members have a constant olfactory reminder of the shared enterprise which is the kibbutz’s most profitable endeavor.  I like to call that reminder eau de refet.

There is a fantastic boutique winery called Jezreel Valley Winery, a hydroponic lettuce farm called Yarok al HaYam, a ceramics studio, and a horse therapy center.  Most kibbutz members work outside of the kibbutz in just about any profession you could imagine.  There are several nursery schools, and a group is actively trying to establish a grade school on Hanaton.

So in what way is Hanaton actually a kibbutz?  It’s collective in the sense that the people who live there have joined together to build a community founded on shared values of Judaism, pluralism, democracy, and egalitarianism.  Members come from diverse backgrounds: Masorti, Reform, Secular, and Orthodox.  They come from diverse political persuasions.  There are all sorts of family configurations living at Hanaton, including single parents and same sex families.

On Shabbat, the central streets of the kibbutz are closed to automobiles, although not every kibbutz member keeps Shabbat or kashrut.  If someone wants to use their car, they just park it outside the gate.  Friends who identify as secular explained to us that they want their children to grow up with a deep knowledge, learned from lived experience, of what it means to be a Jew.  Friends who identify as religious talk about wanting to raise their children in a pluralistic community.  There are nine Rabbis living on Hanaton, hailing from every single major movement in Judaism.

There is no Mara D’atra, or person who is in charge of making religious decision on behalf of the community.  Questions are dealt with somewhat collectively.

Tefilah on Shabbat feels a lot like here at Sinai – informal, participatory, child friendly, and non-judgmental.  Each week, a different family or group takes responsibility for Shabbat services, assigning services leaders and Torah readers, preparing the D’var Torah, and sponsoring the kiddush.

Now at 70 families and growing, Hanaton recently closed its debt and is continuing to attract members, construct new homes, and build new community facilities.  Because just about everyone there has moved in within the last seven years, the community is comprised mostly of young families, meaning there are kids everywhere.  They are free to roam unsupervised.  That took a little bit of adjustment for our family.  We knew our kids would be safe, because we knew that there would be an entire kibbutz of adults looking out for them.  Needless to say, it was great for them.

The Hanaton Educational Center, led by Rabbi Ende, is also doing fantastic things.  It just graduated its third Mechinah cohort.  Mechinah is kind of like a gap year for Israeli high school graduates before they begin their army or national service.  The Mechinistim come from all over the country.  Like the members of the kibbutz, they arrive from diverse backgrounds.  They take classes in which they discuss Judaism, philosophy, Israel, and Zionism.  They volunteer in the surrounding area.  They build connections with neighboring Arab communities.  And they are adopted by families from the kibbutz.  It is really touching to see how past graduates came back to be with their kibbutz families for Shavuot.

This year, the Educational Center is starting a gap year program for North American students as well.  Having lived there, and knowing Rabbi Ende and the other people who are running the program, I can tell you that it will be an incredible experience.  Let me know if you are interested.

And they have more plans for expansion as well.

Rabbi Ende explained to me that his motivation for rebuilding Hanaton and its Educational Center is Zionistic.  He wants to make a positive contribution to Israeli society, and he knows that the best way he can do this is by focusing not on national or international policy, but rather, on his own community.  He is trying to build a kibbutz that embraces values of Judaism, pluralism, and democracy, and that teaches those values to young Israelis before they begin their army service.  That way, they will bring their increased understanding with them when they defend their country.  The Educational Center also tries to pursue those values in the wider community through programming with neighboring villages, especially some of the nearby Arab communities.

Of course, as everywhere, Hanaton struggles over some decisions, and as a young community, is still figuring out how best to talk about controversial topics without dividing people.

So let me tell you about our first days in Israel, back in March.  We arrive at Ben Gurion Airport, spend our first couple of nights with Motti, Sinai’s High Holiday Cantor, and his family, and then drive up to the kibbutz.  We cannot get into our apartment, so we drop our bags off on the porch of someone who until now we have only met by email.  Then, we do what everyone around the world does when they move into a new home – we go to IKEA.

Wandering around IKEA, our phones start ringing and buzzing with calls and texts.  Apparently, there is a gaggle of third graders outside of our locked apartment, eager to meet the new boy and show him around the kibbutz.  What a welcome!  And that pretty much characterizes our experience for the next three and a half months.

Congregation Sinai is a really friendly community.  When someone new shows up in services, our members go out of their way to welcome them and help them settle in.  We found Hanaton to be very familiar in this regard.

This was not our experience at other synagogues we visited in Israel.  When we entered other communities, people did not generally come up to introduce themselves and find out who we were.  But the members of Hanaton went above and beyond.  People offered us furniture and cooking supplies.  Our kids were welcomed into after school chugim, activities.  We were invited to Shabbat meals.

Dana and I tried to help out wherever we could.  When they found out I played guitar, I was recruited to help out with tefilah in “Shishi Yehudi,” a supplementary religious school program that takes place on Friday mornings.  Dana helped prepare food for the Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration and chaperoned several class trips as the medic.  We helped out with Shabbat services.  It was great for us to be able to participate in community life.  It was also kind of nice, I have to admit, to arrive a little bit late to shul, and fall asleep in the back row.

At the end of our time, the same friend on whose porch we left our luggage hosted a goodbye party for us.  We are so grateful to the members of Kibbutz Hanaton for opening up their hearts to us when they knew that we were only going to be there for a limited time.

In Parashat Shoftim, Moshe presents detailed instructions about how the Israelites are to form functioning, thriving communities once they have entered the Promised Land.  As the opening words suggest, shoftim v’shotrim titen l’kha b’khol she’arekha.  “Judges and officers you shall appoint in all of your gates” – the overall emphasis is on justice, or righteousness.  Indeed, a few verses later, we read the famous words, tzedek, tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice shall you pursue.  From the appointment of judges, officials, and leaders, to the conduct of court cases, to rooting out immorality, to waging war against enemies, Parashat Shoftim  recognizes justice as a goal that must constantly pursued, even as absolute justice remains perpetually out of reach.  It also emphasizes that justice can only emerge when members of a society work together to make these ideals a reality in the messy real world.

This is what we found at Hanaton – a group of people who have moved their entire families into a community in order to pursue this vision of tzedek.  I often found myself thinking that Hanaton is what Sinai would be like if we all lived together in a small community.  It is a nice thought.  We are a community made of members who have come together to pursue righteousness.

Sinai has always been lay led, but it is not easy for a synagogue to function without its rabbi for five months.  From everything I have heard and seen, the Sinai community has thrived.  I am not surprised.  We have an incredible community of knowledgeable, talented, and dedicated members.  There was someone to deliver a d’rash, lead services, and chant Torah every week.  Education programs continued while I was gone.  A group of musicians worked together to lead Kabbalat Shabbat services.  Mourners received the care and comfort that they needed.

I am not going to list the names of the many volunteers and staff members who stepped up these past five months, but I do want to let you know how much my sabbatical enriched me.  It deepened my connection to Israel, and my Jewish identity.  And it was a great experience for my family.  Thank you for making it possible.

Todah Rabah.

Melakhah and Avodah: Work of the Hands and Work of the Heart – Vayakhel – P’kudei 5775

Finally, the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that the Israelites build so that God’s Presence can be with them in the wilderness, is finished.  After all of the Torah’s detailed descriptions of the building project, the time has come for a final inspection.  The workers bring each of the various parts of the Mishkan forward for Moses’ approval.

Imagine the scene:  One by one, each of the parts of the Tabernacle appears: the planks, the posts, the coverings, the furnishing, the menorah, the clothing of the priests.  All of it must pass inspection.  Each work crew waits its turn.  When called, the foreman steps up in front of everyone to present the result of his team’s labor to the boss.

That must have been a tense moment.  After all, this is not just any building.  This is the mishkan, a dwelling place for God.  Did all of the work crews pull their weight?  Did anyone cut corners, or get lazy?  How is the Chief Building Inspector, Moses, going to react?

The Torah tells us:

“Just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so the Israelites had done all the work (avodah).  And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks (melakhah) – as the Lord had commanded, so they had done – Moses blessed them.”  (Exodus 43:38-39)

This is probably not the reaction they are expecting.

I get the impression that this blessing is kind of spontaneous.  Moses is so overjoyed with what he sees, that he cannot contain himself.  He bursts out in praise.

But what does he say?  What is the blessing?

According to a midrash, Moses pronounces these words:  Yehi ratzon she-tishreh shekhinah b’ma-aseh y’deikhem.  “May it be his will that the Shekhinah will rest on the work of your hands.”  (Tanhuma P’kudei 11)

What a wonderful blessing!  The entire nation has been occupied in this project for many months.  Our commentators teach that every single person had a part to play – some as designers, others as builders, craftsmen, weavers, and yes, some as donors.  Each person is invested.

It is conceivable that after expending so much effort to build a building, one might be tempted to focus on its physical aspects – such as it’s beauty and sturdiness – and pay less attention to its spiritual function.

And so Moses’ blessing reminds the people of the Mishkan‘s purpose – to be a dwelling place for God’s Presence, the Shekhinah.  “May the Shekhinah rest on the work of your hands.”  Use this beautiful edifice for holy purposes.  Don’t let it feed your ego, or symbolize greed.

But what is it that triggers Moses to offer this blessing?  Why is he so inspired?

The Chatam Sofer, an Ashkenazi Rabbi from the early nineteenth century, suggests an answer.  He notices that the Torah seems to be repeating itself.  The Torah states:  “Just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so the Israelites had done all the work (avodah).”

And then immediately afterwards says “And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks (melakhah)…”

They did all the work, they performed all the tasks.  Why does the Torah need to say it twice, but with different words?  Those two words, avodah and melakhah, says the Chatam Sofer, are two different things.

The second term, melakhah, refers to physical work.  The work of our hands.  It is the same word that is used at the end of the creation of the world to describe the work that God had done.  Melakhah is also the word that the Torah uses to describe the kinds of activities that are prohibited on Shabbat.  Melakhah is “creative and destructive labor.”  It is the activities we perform which demonstrate our conquering, or mastery, of the physical world.  It is what we do during the six days of the week.

Avodah is a different kind of work.  It is internal.  Nidvat halev, says the Chatam Sofer.  “Generosity of the heart” without any concrete action.

“What is the avodah that is performed in the heart?” asks the Talmud (BT Taanit 2a)  “Prayer.”  And so, the term avodah is used to describe the worship of God in the Temple through the sacrificial system, and later to prayer as we understand it today.

In fact, the Chatam Sofer explains, the Torah is not repeating itself at all.  The melakhah that the Israelites perform – the physical work that they do in building the Mishkan – is infused with avodah, with generosity of heart and spirit and with a desire to carry out God’s will.

But how could Moses have known this?  How can he see into the hearts of every single Israelite?

Moses knows what is in their hearts because he has seen the final product that their hands have produced.  He sees that it is pristine, without a single mistake or blemish.  Moses knows that such a perfect result can only be achieved from pure hearts.  The love and purity that the Israelites bring to their work infuses the very fabric of its creation.  It is both melakhah and avodah.

When Moses sees this, he is overcome with emotion.  Proud of these people whom he leads, he prays that the spirit which has motivated their efforts up to this point will remain with them so that the Mishkan can fulfill its function as a dwelling place for the Shekhinah.

It was eight years ago almost to the day that I first came to Congregation Sinai.  At the time, I was here to interview to become its Rabbi.  The synagogue still had that “new shul smell.”  The building was brand new, having been constructed within the previous year.

I remember a story that was told to me during that interview weekend.  Barry, our congregant who generously gave a year of his time to become the contractor for this wonderful building, stood before the synagogue and told the Sinai membership: “I have built it, now go and fill it.”

He knew that, as beautiful and well-designed a structure as this is, unless we infuse it with spirit, it is simply walls and a roof.  Our community collectively makes it worthy of being a beit k’nesset, a house of gathering, a synagogue.

I would say that we have filled out these walls nicely.  Congregation Sinai is a place in which we celebrate life’s joys and mourn its sorrows together, in which we express our connection to Israel and to Jews around the world.  It is a sanctuary in which we come together to worship God.  It is a center in which learning takes place by students of all ages.  It is a shul in which the ancient values and practices of our people are lived and made relevant to modern life on a daily basis.

Our community has grown larger, with more people attending Shabbat services, more children in our Nursery School and Religious School, more programming, and more classes.

The reason for all of this is because we have so many people in our community who are willing and eager to work on behalf of this congregation.  And I mean both kinds of work:  melakhah and avodah.  The physical work that has to be done, and the generosity of heart that is an expression of the love we have for each other and for God.

I feel so blessed to be the Rabbi of this community.  And I am so grateful to have the opportunity to begin a shabbaton, a sabbatical, tomorrow.  As this date has approached, people have been nervous – and that is understandable.  What are we going to do without our Rabbi?

I am confident, however that Sinai will thrive in my five-month absence.  We have worked hard to plan for all of the various contingencies that may arise, and to cover all of the responsibilities that generally call for a Rabbi.

Our religious services will continue.  Limmud La-ad classes will take place.  Celebrations will occur.  There will even be some new initiatives, such as the Kabbalat Shabbat musical ensemble that will be leading services this coming Friday night.  We are so blessed to have a community with so many knowledgeable and talented members who are willing and eager to give of themselves.  That is why I am not especially worried.  And it is why I am really looking forward to seeing all the ways in which we have grown when I come back at the end of the summer.

I really cannot fully express how grateful I am to everyone who has already stepped forward to plan for the next five months.  I am especially appreciative of Joelle and the rest of the Sinai staff, who will be taking on numerous additional tasks during the time that I am away.

I can think of no better words to say than Moses’ blessing to the Israelites after they presented the completed Mishkan to him after months and months of melakhah and avodah, work of the hands and labors of the heart.

Yehi ratzon she-tishreh Shekhinah b’ma-aseh y’deikhem.

“May it be God’s will that the Shekhinah will rest on the work of your hands.”

It’s Impossible To Be Present Through A Lens – Ki Tissa 5775

I love going into the Nursery School.  It is always such a breath of fresh air.  These little human beings express themselves so honestly, without the inhibitions which they will acquire soon enough.

Every year, the nursery school celebrates the morning of Purim, and I get to join them for a visit.  I usually tell them the abridged story of the Megillah, and then join them in a Purim parade.  Loads of fun.

By the time I got to them this week though, they were out of control.  I walked into the social hall and they all jumped up and swarmed around me, announcing themselves and their costumes.

“Look at me!  Look at me!  I’m a firefighter.  I’m a princess.  I’m Darth Vader!  I’m Batman!  I’m Elsa!  I’m Elsa!  I’m Batman!  I’m Elsa!  I’m Batman!  I’m Elsa!”  There were a lot of Elsa’s and Batman’s this year.

I was really struck by their desire to be seen and recognized.  It was contagious.  Once one of them announced herself, the rest soon followed, and I was soon surrounded by a gaggle of screaming preschoolers.

In just a few years, they will not be shouting out “Look at me!  I’m Elsa!”  But that innate need to be acknowledged will not go away.  These kids will find other ways to call out for recognition, some constructive, some destructive.

It is a core human trait.  We want to know that we matter.  We want assurance that the people in our lives see us.  In religious terms, we want to know that God cares about us.

The Israelites want the same thing.  They want to know that they matter.  They want to know that Moses, their leader, sees them, and is not going to abandon them.  They want to know that God is with them.

As this morning’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, opens, Moses has been up on Mt. Sinai for approximately forty days – depending on who is counting.  The children of Israel, encamped at the bottom, have been waiting patiently for their leader to finish talking to God, come back to them, and tell them what to do next.

But something goes wrong.  Day follows day.  Week follows week.  Still no Moses.  The people grow impatient.  Rashi explains that when Moses told the Israelites that he would be gone for forty days, he meant that they should start counting that night.  But the Israelites started counting right away, and so they were a day off.

In any event, the Israelites gather in front Aaron and ask him to make them a god to go before them, because “that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt – we do not know what has happened to him.”  (Exodus 32:1)

Aaron gathers gold, melts it, and casts it into a mold, producing a golden calf.  The people, overjoyed, announce “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4) and then plan a celebration for the next day.

This episode, the Sin of the Golden Calf, is usually depicted as one of the worst catastrophes in the Torah.  Right after leaving Egypt amidst signs and wonders and receiving the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai, the Israelites have already violated the fundamental mitzvah of not worshipping idols.

But let’s think about it from their perspective for a moment.  The Israelites do not know where they stand.  Moses is gone.  He had been unclear about precisely how long he would be away.  When he does not show up after the allotted time has passed, the Israelites feel abandoned.

And God?  God is terrifying.  Brings plagues, splits seas, and drowns armies.  Creates earthquakes and thunderstorms.  Invisible.

So it is understandable that the Israelites are feeling a bit lost by now.  They want something tangible that they can see and interact with to lead them on in their journey.  They want to know that they matter, and that they have not been forgotten and abandoned in this wasteland.

What better thing to reassure them than a shiny gold cute little baby cow.  Remember what they say after it comes out of the fire: “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”  They are not worshipping another god.  To the Israelites, this is the Lord and Moses all rolled up into one.

But God is not sympathetic to the Israelites’ fears.  For making a statue, God wants to destroy them in an instant.  Moses talks God down, and then hurries to see what is going on.

Moses’ reaction to the Israelites seems almost feigned.  He already knows what they have done and has even spoken up on their behalf.  He waits until he is actually within sight of the Golden Calf before he turns on the anger and shatters the Tablets of the Covenant.

Perhaps Moses recognizes what the Israelites are going through at that moment.  Consider what he says to God afterwards when God threatens to wipe out all of the Israelites and start over with Moses.  Moses refuses point blank, instead delivering God an ultimatum:  “If you don’t forgive them, then You can erase me from Your book!”  Why would Moses go to bat for these people unless he empathizes with them?

What God does not seem to understand yet is that the Israelites are emotionally fragile.  They really do need to be reassured.  Moses gets it.  He understands that, as a Prophet, the intermediary between the Israelites and the Lord, it is up to him to teach God how to relate to the people.

After a bit of negotiating, Moses makes two important requests.  One, he asks God to reveal God’s self to Moses.  Moses wants to have a better understanding of with Whom he is dealing.  The second request is on behalf of the people.  “Unless You go in the lead,” Moses instructs God, “do not make us leave this place.”  (Exodus 33:15)  Moses knows that the Israelites need more recognition than God has given them so far.

God, scolded, agrees to both of Moses’ demands.

While no human can be exposed to God’s Presence and survive, God makes an accommodation.  God summons Moses up to Mt. Sinai once again, and instructs him to hide in the cleft of a rock.  The Divine Glory passes by, and Moses is able to see God’s back (whatever that means).

From then on, the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, travels with the Israelites through the wilderness as a cloud of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night.

Thanks to Moses’ insight and boldness, the Israelites finally have the reassurance they seek.  They know that God is with them, because they see signs of God’s Presence.  They know that God speaks to their leader, Moses, on a regular basis, because Moses himself has been permanently changed by the experience.  Plus, God’s Presence descends upon the Tent of Meeting whenever Moses goes inside to commune.

In our world that is full of distractions, it can be difficult to be fully present.  Gone are the times when families and friends would have to talk with one another because there was literally nothing else to do.

Nowadays, we are surrounded by electronic devices, guaranteeing that we are never bored, and offering us excuses so that we never have to be fully present with another person.

But the need to be seen and acknowledged is buried deep inside of us.  It is a need that is not replaced by technology.  Indeed, technology provides a lot of distractions that interfere with our ability to see one another and to interact with the world.

As I prepare to depart with my family on my sabbatical in a little over a week, I have been thinking a lot about a particular electronic device which I expect will feature prominently in my experiences – a camera.  Nowadays, pretty much everybody has a camera in their pockets at all times.  We have the ability to record every moment of our lives – in high definition.

Think back to a vacation you once took.  Try and remember what happened.  The people you were with.  The sites you visited.  If you are like me, you have photographs of most of those memories.  It is because the photograph itself reinforces the experience.  We are far less likely to remember vacation experiences for which we do not have the pictures.

Why is that?  Is it that those experiences are less real, or less significant?

Not at all.  Cameras have changed our brains.  They have altered the ways that we store memories.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am a camera person.  I like to take pictures.  I think I have taken some pretty good ones.  The most practical class I took in high school was photography.

But for me, a camera often interferes with the experience itself.  I find it difficult, if not impossible, to be fully present through a camera lens.

I suppose that for some really talented photographers, a camera can actually become an extension of oneself.  When such an artist looks through the lens, he or she is indeed fully present with the subject.

But when I look through the lens, I am thinking about other things:  Do I have enough light?  What image do I want to focus on?  How much do I want to zoom in.  Is my subject backlit, or washed out?  The camera then becomes a barrier to being fully present and in the moment.

This is true if I am out in nature somewhere, looking out at a gorgeous valley.  It’s also true when I am with my kids.  I can interact with them, roll around on the floor, cheer them on at a sports game.  Or I can create a permanent record and view the experience through a glass lens.

While the camera may create a lasting image, it often comes at the forfeiture of genuine experience.

As I prepare to live in Israel for the next four months, I expect to take a lot of pictures.  But I also am reminding myself that the experiences that really matter in life are the ones in which we are fully present with our environment, and the people in it.

Judaism offers us many opportunities to be Present.  Right now, we are here together celebrating Shabbat.  One of the blessings of Shabbat is that it forces us to pay attention to one another.  To be Present, in this moment, and to not let the distractions of the week get in the way of our relationships.

Because whether it is Nursery School students clamoring for the Rabbi to acknowledge them in their Purim costumes, Israelites longing for a sign of God’s Presence to reassure them that they have not been abandoned, or our own quests for meaning in life, we human beings are hard-wired to seek opportunities to be Present.

It is those intangible moments when we truly connect with the essence of the other which matter most.  May we have the courage, and the privilege to see and be seen clearly.

Where is God? – Terumah 5775

Where is God?

I learned the answer when I went to Camp Gan Izzy, the Chabad Day Camp, in the summer before third grade.  Sing along if you know this one:

Hashem is here, Hashem is there,

Hashem is truly everywhere!

Up!  Up!  Down!  Down!

Right!  Left!  And all around!

Here!  There!  And everywhere!

That’s where He can be found!

Up!  Up!  Down!  Down!

Right!  Left!  And all around!

Here!  There!  And everywhere!

That’s where He can be found!

So there is the answer.  God is everywhere.

Once, Rabbi Menahem Mendl of Kotzk, the Kotzker Rebbe, walked up to a group of scholars and asked them a simple question:  Where is the dwelling of God?”

They laughed at him.  “What a silly question!  Is not the whole world filled with God’s glory?!”

To which the Kotzker answered his own question:  “God dwells wherever we let God in.”

Two diametrically opposed answers to the question of where God is:

The first answer:  Everywhere.  God is big!  Nothing can contain God’s Presence.  God fills all of Creation, and then some!

The second answer:  God is small and lonely.  God is outside, knocking on the doors of our hearts, waiting to be invited in.

The first King of Israel is Saul.  When he loses God’s favor, Samuel the Prophet is called upon to anoint his replacement, and so God sends him to Beit Lechem to find a man named Jesse, one of whose sons will be anointed as the next King of Israel.

Samuel arrives, and sees Eliav.  Tall, strong, and handsome, he is Jesse’s eldest.  Samuel takes one look at him and says to himself, “Surely this is the Lord’s anointed.”

But God has other plans.  “Pay no attention to his appearance or his stature, for I have rejected him.  For not as man sees [does the Lord see]; man sees only what is visible, but the Lord sees into the heart.”  (I Samuel 16:7)

So Jesse brings up his next son, Avinadav.  “Nope,” says the Lord.  Shammah.  “Next!”  And so on, down the line.

After rejecting seven sons, Samuel asks him, “You got any more?”

Jesse looks at him, shrugs, and says, “Well, there is my youngest son.  He’s out tending the flock.”

“Well hurry up, man” Samuel urges, “bring him to me.”

Samuel takes one look at the kid and hears the Divine voice saying “This is the one.”  So Samuel anoints David as the next king of Israel.

Where is God?

God peers into young David’s heart, and finds an opening.  We are told that after Samuel anointed him, “the spirt of the Lord gripped David from that day on.”  (I Samuel 16:13)

As this morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Terumah, opens, Moses is on top of Mount Sinai and the Israelites are encamped below.  God instructs Moses to launch a capital campaign to raise money for a new building.  This is in the days before money, so they are going to have to collect raw materials:  gold, silver, copper, wool, fabric. precious woods, animal skins, and so on.  The gifts start pouring in.  The people respond so enthusiastically to the fundraising campaign, that Moses has to end it early – before the big donors can even come forward.  The first – and last – time in history that has happened.

They are going to use all of these materials to build the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle or Sanctuary, that the Israelites will take with them throughout their wanderings in the wilderness.

This and next week’s Torah portions are filled with detailed descriptions of how to build all of the furniture, make the clothing, and construct the building.  At the end of the Book of Exodus, the final two portions will repeat much of these details as Moses passes on the instructions and the Israelites build it.

This Mishkan will enable them to install the Priests who will perform all of the special sacrifices and rituals, thereby maintaining the relationship between God and the Israelites in its proper balance.  Moses will confer with God in the inner precincts of the Mishkan.  It will also serve as a physical location for God’s Presence among the Israelites – a cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night hovering to let the Israelites know that God is with them.

So where is God?

In the Mishkan, it would seem.

But, wait a second.  I thought God was everywhere, or waiting for hearts to open to be let in!  Now we are describing God’s Presence materializing in a physical location.

The truth is, God has no need whatsoever for a house.  God is way too big for that.  To suggest otherwise, that God’s Presence can somehow be contained in a physical space, is blasphemy bordering on idolatry.

It is we who need a Sanctuary.  Sefer Hachinukh teaches that it is the act of building the Mishkan which is transformative, not the building itself.  It is the journey, not the destination, which matters.

But why a Mishkan?  Why is it so important for the Israelites to build this thing in the first place?

Nachmanides, the 13th century Spanish Rabbi, connects the Mishkan to the Israelites’ encounter with God at Mount Sinai.  The Revelation at Sinai was a glorious, indescribable moment.  The challenge for the Israelites after such a supremely spiritual experience is what to do the day after, and the day after that, for the rest of their lives.  Everything else will be a let down after Mt. Sinai.  Nachmanides notices that there are a number of similarities between the Torah’s description of the Mishkan and the Revelation at Sinai.

God speaks to Israel through Moses from inside the Holy of Holies just as God spoke to Israel through Moses on top of the mountain.

The Tablet of the Covenant that the Israelites carry with them in the Mishkan was given on Mt. Sinai as a symbol of the covenant that was struck there.

The cloud of smoke created by the incense offering in the Tabernacle recalls the cloud that covered Mt. Sinai.

Similarly, the fire on the altar symbolizes the fire that descended on Mt. Sinai from the heavens.

The building of the Mishkan is meant to capture the essence of what happened to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai and enable them to take it with them on the road.  The Mishkan will serve as a kind of portable Mt. Sinai.

A Talmudic teaching (BT Sanhedrin 16b) takes it a step further.  The building of the Mishkan is not a one time project.  It is timeless.  We are to constantly build a Tabernacle in every generation.

So does that mean that we should launch another capital campaign tomorrow?  I think we might be able to get it to fit in the parking lot.

Just kidding.  Our tradition understands the Mishkan as a metaphor in and of itself.

God tells Moses, v’asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham.  These words appear in many, if not most synagogue, usually on donor plaques.  We have it in a beautiful mosaic right there in the foyer above the names of those who contributed significantly to the building of this sanctuary.

V’asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham.  “Make for me a Tabernacle, and I will dwell in… ” – finish the sentence. It should say b’tokho, “in it.”  But it doesn’t.  It says b’tokham, “in them.”

“Make for me a Tabernacle so that I can dwell within them.”  The Israelites build this beautiful, expensive building, and now God is not going to even move in?!

This leads many commentators to suggest that each human being corresponds to the Mishkan.  The eternal command to build the Tabernacle is as relevant to us in this moment as it was to our ancestors in the wilderness thousands of years ago.

The purpose of building the Mishkan is to transform those who are building it.

The 19th century commentary, the Malbim, teaches that “each one of us needs to build God a Tabernacle in the recesses of our hearts, by preparing to become a Sanctuary for God and a place for the dwelling of God’s glory.”

How do we transform ourselves into holy vessels worthy of God’s Presence?

The answer is quite straightforward: by doing mitzvot, we not only alter the world around us, we also transform our inner selves.  And then, God has a place in which to reside.

So where is God?

Everywhere? Waiting outside the door? Or in the mishkan?

The three answers merge.  The potential for God’s Presence to enter the mishkan of our hearts is with us at all time and in all places.  We return to the Kotzker Rebbe:  “God dwells wherever we let God in.”

But when we look inward, do we truly see ourselves in this way?  Are our hearts capable of becoming holy vessels that can house the Divine?  While these concepts are embraced in our tradition, notably by some of the Great Hassidic Masters, it seems to me that many of us struggle to see ourselves in this way, if we even consider it at all.

Our lives are so busy, our society and economy so material-driven, that the inner life is easily silenced and ignored.

Transforming the self into a holy vessel, a sanctuary for God, a Mishkan, requires kavannah, the intention to do so.

We approach an act with the mindset that its performance can open up our hearts, draw in sparks of holiness, and possibly even let God in.

We can introduce this kind of kavannah into our lives at any moment.  We just have to slow down, alter our perspective, and consider that our actions can have cosmic ripples beyond the physical world that we see around us.

The next time we give tzedakah, say a blessing before eating a meal, or study something, let us consider that what we are doing can transform our hearts in a profound way.

Right now, we are all here together in this physical sanctuary.  This is an opportune moment.  Let’s push the distractions aside, and make this an opportunity for holiness.  What better time and place is there than right here and right now?

Distance Yourself From Lying Words – Mishpatim 5775

In one of my favorite scenes from Seinfeld, Jerry claims to have never watched a single episode of Melrose Place.  He is called on it, and is being forced to take a lie detector test to prove it.  So he turns to the expert for advice.

Jerry: So George, how do I beat this lie detector?

George: I’m sorry, Jerry I can’t help you.

Jerry: Come on, you’ve got the gift. You’re the only one that can help me.

George: Jerry, I can’t. It’s like saying to Pavorotti, “Teach me to sing like you.”

Jerry: All right, well I’ve got to go take this test. I can’t believe I’m doing this.

George: Jerry, just remember. It’s not a lie… if you believe it.

How true.  How true.

A study published about fifteen years ago found that people say things that they do not know to be factually true up to about two hundred times per day.  Men tend to lie about 20% more often than women.  Women, it turns out, are much better at it than men.

The study’s author, a social psychologist from the University of Budapest named Peter Steignitz, found that 41% of lies are to cover up some sort of misbehavior, 14% are “white lies” that “make social life possible,” and 6% of lies are sheer laziness.  In most cases, Steignitz concluded, lies are harmless.  In fact, he claimed, if nobody on earth lied anymore, “then this planet would end up completely deserted.  There would be 100 wars.”  His advice:  “Let us be honest about our lies.”

So, how about some honesty?  Someone comes up to you and says, excitedly: “how do you like my new haircut.”  It’s hideous.  But what do you say?

Your friend skips out on a dinner that you are both invited to.  You know that he is at a hockey game, but he asks you to tell the host that he is home sick.  What do you tell the host?

There are many everyday situations in which the simple telling of a white lie could save embarrassment, smooth over social interactions, or even get us out of trouble.  Innocuous, right?

The social science notwithstanding, perhaps we should not be so flippant about the harmlessness of most lies.  The truth is, being truthful is considered by most religious and ethical traditions to be the morally correct path.

Indeed, the Torah insists on our honesty on numerous occasions, in numerous contexts.  On the other hand, the Bible’s stories are filled with people, including our greatest biblical heroes, lying themselves silly.

Both Abraham and Isaac lie about their wives, passing them off as their sisters, in order to not be killed.  Jacob lies to his father Isaac, claiming to be his brother Esau in order to steal the blessing.  In return, everybody lies to Jacob.  After Jacob dies, Joseph’s brothers lie to him about their father’s desire for them to make peace.  And all this is just in the book of Genesis!

There seems to be a discrepancy between the ideals of truthfulness contained in the Torah’s law codes, and the real-life experiences of human beings.  Of course, this is entirely consistent with our experiences as well.  We may, in theory, express our commitment to the principle of honesty, and yet, if we are truly honest with ourselves, most of us will probably have to admit that we lie on a daily basis.

The Torah includes many mitzvot that regulate our interactions with each other.  A significant portion of those mitzvot have to do with behaviors that are forbidden.  You shall not murder.  You shall not steal.  You shall not subvert the rights of the needy, and so on.  This morning’s Torah portion presents a particular behavior in a unique way.  מִדְּבַר שֶׁקֶר תִּרְחָק.  “From a lying word stay far away.”  (Exodus 23:7)

It does not say, “you shall not lie,” or “he who lies shall be punished in the following manner.”  It tells us, instead, to distance ourself from lies.  Lying is the only behavior in the entire Torah from which we are commanded to stay away.

Many commentators understand this requirement to be directed specifically at judges.  The commentator Rashbam explains that in a case in which a judgment seems contrived and the witnesses false, but in which we are unable to provide an effective refutation, it is best to stay as far away as possible.  A judge should stay clear of anything which could create the impression that he or she has dealings with something that is corrupt.  (Sforno)

But our sources also understand this injunction to distance ourselves from lying words more broadly.  The Maggid from Kelm claims that a liar is worse than a thief or a robber.  The thief steals when no one is watching, and at night.  The robber will steal at any time, but only from an individual person.  A liar, on the other hand, will lie day or night, to individuals and groups.  Our tradition has many other pithy statements like this extolling the importance of truth.

The truth is, honesty does not come naturally to us.  It is something that must be taught.  Any parent knows this.  The most indiscriminate liars in the world are toddlers.  “I didn’t do it.  It fell by itself.”  Our natural instinct for self-preservation pushes us to lie.

It falls on parents, teachers, and the community to educate children about the importance of truthfulness.  In our family, we try to emphasize that the absolute most important rule is being honest with each other.  Of course, to convey this with any success whatsoever, we have to be honest ourselves, because kids can sniff out dishonesty a mile away.

Perhaps that is what Rabbi Zeira, one of our Sages from the Talmud, is getting at when he teaches that “a person should not tell a child, I will give you something – and then not give it, because this teaches the child falsehood.”  (BT Succah 46b)

The Talmud (BT Yevamot 63a) tells a story about a Sage named Rav, whose wife would constantly mess with him, and it drove him crazy.  If he asked her to make lentils for dinner, she would make peas.  If he asked for peas, she would cook lentils.

When their son Chiyya got older, Rav would send him into the kitchen to pass along his requests for dinner.  Chiyya, a bright child, would switch the requests around.  If his father asked for lentils, he would tell his mother that he wanted peas, and she would then cook lentils, and vice versa.  That way, Rav got exactly what he wanted for dinner every night, and his parents’ fighting improved.

This went on for some time, until one day, Rav commented to his son, “Your mother has gotten better.”

Chiyya then confessed that he had been switching the messages around.

Rav was impressed with his son’s wisdom, acknowledging the popular saying “From your own children you learn reason.”  Nevertheless, he recalled the Bible’s warnings about dishonesty, and told Chiyya not to lie anymore.  Rav recognized that his parental obligation to teach truthfulness to his son overrode any short-term benefit this little white lie may have had.  He and his wife would have to deal with their issues on their own.

Jewish law emphatically emphasizes the importance of truth-telling in certain areas.  When it comes to business, for example, both business owners and customers must be honest at all times.

However, our tradition does not hold truth-telling to be an absolute.  There are circumstances in which it might be appropriate, or possibly even necessary, to say something that is not true.

The Talmud (BT Yevamot 65b) teaches that one may tell a lie in the interests of peace.  Various examples are given.  The question is asked regarding what one should say to an ugly bride on her wedding day.  Beit Shammai insists that one must always tell the truth, while Beit Hillel says that we must praise her as beautiful and full of grace.  Our tradition fallows Beit Hillel.

Other examples are given about when it is permissible to lie, including when life is in danger and when it would bring about peace.  Husbands and wives are not supposed to tell the truth to others about what goes on in the bedroom.  A person who is particularly knowledgeable on a subject should not claim to be an expert.  To do so would be immodest, or could lead to embarrassment if he is then asked a question that he cannot answer.  Finally, a person who has been graciously hosted is not supposed to go around telling people about it, because it could lead to disreputable individuals calling upon the wealthy host.

It would appear that our tradition does not define truth and lies as a straightforward reporting of factually accurate or inaccurate information.

Truth, considered to be one of the pillars of the world, is more complicated.  In Michtav M’Eliyahu (Vol. I, p. 94) Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler explains:  We had better define truth as that which is conducive to good and which conforms with the Will of the Creator, and falsehood as that which furthers the scheme of the yetzer harah, the power of evil in the world.

When the Torah urges us to distance ourselves from lying words, it is really setting an ideal for us to build families and communities that are rooted in honesty.  While little white lies may sometimes be called for, they do take their toll on us.

As the Talmud states (BT Sanhedrin 89b), “this is the punishment of the liar, that even if he speaks the truth – nobody listens to him.”

Our tradition recognizes that reality is complicated,  and that absolutes are often unrealistic.  Nevertheless, we can imagine what a community built on truth looks like, and we can strive to create it.

The Origin of the Hebrew Calendar – Bo 5775

Parashat Bo continues the story of Moses and Aaron confronting Pharaoh, demanding that the King of Egypt allow the Israelites to go out into the wilderness to worship God.  As he refuses, they announce each calamity that God is about to bring upon the Egyptians.  The devastation wrought by the plagues on Egypt worsens, and Pharaoh’s stubbornness begins to show cracks.  He offers to let just the men go, but then he changes his mind.  Then he agrees that the children and the elderly can go as well, but he backtracks once again.  Finally, Moses announces that the entire nation is simply going to leave with all of their belongings.  Furthermore, Pharaoh himself will supply the cattle that will be used as offerings to God.

Moses declares the upcoming tenth plague, the death of all first born humans and animals in the land of Egypt, and then the Torah takes a break.

God speaks to Moses and Aaron, saying the following:

Hachodesh hazeh lakhem rosh chodashim, rishon hu lakhem l’chodshei hashanah

This chodesh shall be for you the head of the chodashim, it shall be first for you of the chodashim of the year.  (Exodus 12:2)

Our tradition understands this to be the first of the Torah’s 613 mitzvot.  Because of its position as number one, and because it interrupts this dramatic story, we can assume that it is telling us something highly significant.

Indeed, this verse is the origin of the Hebrew calendar.  The Rabbis do some very close reading to explain how the Hebrew calendar, which came into existence long before they came along, is rooted in the Torah.

Moses and Aaron are told that this chodesh will serve as the first chodesh of the year.  But what is a chodesh?

Chodesh is from the same root as chadash, meaning new.  The chodesh is something that is mitchadesh, that experiences renewal.

The appearance of the moon changes from one day to the next, such that it renews itself once per month.  The sun, on the other hand, appears the same each day.  Thus, the Rabbis of the Talmud (BT Megillah 5a) explain that we count the year by months, rather than by days.  The term chodshei hashanah, the months of the year, illustrate this requirement.  This is why our calendar is a lunar calendar, rather than a solar calendar.

But this leads to several problems.

A lunar month is 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes, and 2.976 seconds, approximately.  Twelve months is 354 days and a fraction.  This would make a lunar year about 11 days shorter than a solar year.  If we were to follow just a lunar system, the months, and the Jewish holidays, would float across the seasons, taking about 33 years to return full-circle to the season in which they started.  That is, in fact, how the Muslim calendar works.

Deuteronomy states shamor et chodesh ha-Aviv v’asita Pesach.  “Observe the month of Aviv and offer a passover sacrifice to the Lord your God, for it was in the month of Aviv, at night, that the Lord your God freed you from Egypt.”  (Deuteronomy 16:1).  Aviv is the only named month in the Torah.  It literally means “new ears of grain” because it is the month in which the ears of grain first appear.  If the calendar were to float over the course of the seasons, then we would not be observing Passover during Aviv.

Furthermore, with regard to Succot, the Torah says b’asaf’cha et ma’asecha min hasadeh – “when you bring in your produce from the field.”  This means that Succot must always take place at the time of the fall harvest.  Therefore, the Rabbis of the Talmud explain, we have to occasionally make an adjustment by adding a thirteenth month.  (BT Rosh Hashanah 7a)  In this way, we will be able to celebrate Passover and Succot in the appropriate seasons.

In ancient times, the adjustments would be made based on the observance of spring-like changes.  If the trees had not yet begun to blossom or barley had not yet started ripening, then the Sanhedrin, the ancient Jewish court that met in the Temple, would delay the beginning of the year by adding a thirteenth month.  The additional month, following Adar, we now refer to as Adar Bet.

Now that we have a fixed calendar, the addition of the extra month happens on a predetermined schedule, seven times out of every nineteen years.

But there is another problem.  When is the Jewish new year?

In the Mishnah, we read that there are actually four, or maybe even five new years, each marking something different.  Nisan is the New Year for counting holidays and for kings.  Tishrei is the new year for counting years, sabbatical and jubilee years, and for several other agricultural purposes. (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1)

The Talmud records an argument between two rabbis about when the creation of the world occurred.  One Rabbi says that it happened in Nisan.  The other says it happened in Tishrei.  So we seem to have some ambiguity.

In the Torah, the new year occurs on the first day of the month we know as Nisan.  This is the same month as the month of Aviv I just mentioned.  The Torah, indeed most of the Bible, does not have names for any of the months.  Instead, it references the month number, always referring back to the month in which the Israelites went out of Egypt.

For example, what we refer to as Rosh Hashanah, occurring on the first of Tishrei, is instead name Yom Teruah, a Day of Blasting, and takes place on the first day of the seventh month.  When the Israelites get to Mount Sinai and camp out around the base, preparing to receive the Ten Commandments, the Torah states:

On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt, on that very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai.  (Exodus 19:1)

The Book of Numbers begins as follows:

On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai…  (Number 1:1)

Centuries later, the Bible continues to look back to this moment.

In the four hundred and eightieth year after the Israelites left the land of Egypt, in the month of Ziv―that is, the second month―in the fourth year of his reign over Israel, Solomon began to build the House of the Lord.  (I Kings 6:1)

Throughout the Bible, whenever dates are referenced, it is by a number counting back to the first of Nisan in the year in which the Israelites left Egypt.

What we know as the Hebrew months (Tishrei, Cheshvan, Kislev, Tevet…) do not appear until later books of the Bible, such as Esther.  In fact, the “Hebrew months” are in fact Persian names which were assimilated into the Jewish calendar at some point late in the Biblical era.

Why is all of this important?  Couldn’t the Israelites haves simply taken the Egyptian calendar with them, or adopted the Canaanite calendar?  Why did our ancient ancestors need to have a different calendar?  Why is it important for us to continue to keep a different calendar?

How we measure time is extremely important.  Having a Jewish calendar, and marking our years according to it, distinguishes us, especially when we are living in a society that counts time differently.

The twelfth century Torah commentator Rashbam explains that the calendar is oriented in this way so that we always have the Exodus from Egypt in our consciousness.  The Exodus is the formative moment of the Jewish people.  Its memory is supposed to have a profound effect on our lives, both individually and collectively.

As we read in the Haggadah for Passover, we are instructed to recall the Exodus all the days of our lives, and even the nights.  We mention it in our daily prayers.  We connect it to Shabbat by calling it zekher liztziat mitzrayim, a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt, when we recite Kiddush.  And, our calendar itself also reminds us of that formative event.

Nachmanides points out that when the Torah states “this month shall be for you…” it puts things into a relative context that is particular to the Jewish people.  While Tishrei might be the universal month of creation, and the month from which we count the earth itself, we are also to think of time in its relationship to our particular story.  Our story began when our ancestors first became free.

Being conscious of Jewish time offers great meaning for our lives.  We count our week from Yom Rishon, the first day, up to Yom Shishi, the sixth day, keeping ourselves oriented towards the day of rest throughout the week.  We mark our months by the waxing and waning of the moon, and experience renewal every 29 or 30 days.  We remember our exodus from Egypt, and express our gratitude for freedom by caring for those who are suffering.  And we mark the yearly birthday of the world, marveling at the miracle of Creation and committing ourselves to do better and be more.

That is what it means to live in Jewish time.