Just One Shabbat – Ki Tissa 5776

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be An Organ Donor – Terumah 5776

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there anything wrong with this?

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

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

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

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

Why are so few Israelis willing to be organ donors?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pesach or Granola Bars – Bo 5776

Imagine that you are an Israelite in Egypt.  You were born a slave.  Your parents and their parents were also slaves.  But that is about to change.

This man, Moses, has recently appeared with his brother Aaron insisting that God remembers the promise made to your ancestors long ago, and that the time has come for to go free from Egypt and travel to the land of Canaan to fulfill your destiny.

With a healthy dose of skepticism, you tentatively go along with the prediction.  But after Moses and Aaron come back from their first trip to the palace, the Egyptians double your workload.  Thus begins a series of plagues that strike the Egyptians but miraculously leave you and your fellow Israelites alone.

Nine plagues pass: blood, frogs, lice, and so on, all the way to darkness.  The Egyptian people are beaten down.  Rumors abound that Pharaoh’s court is in an uproar, with his closest advisors begging him to finally give in to Moses’ demands.  But Pharaoh persists in his stubbornness.

Finally, Moses enters the Israelite slums and instructs you to get ready.  There is going to be one more plague, and it is going to be a nasty one.  God will release the Angel of Destruction against Egypt, and it is going to kill every first born creature, from the lowliest slave to the heir to Pharaoh himself.  The Angel will strike at night, and you will be on your way out of Egypt the next morning.

He tells you how to get ready.  On the tenth day of the month, each Israelite household must select an unblemished one-year-old lamb.  Four days later, you have got to slaughter and roast it whole.  You must collect the blood and use it to paint the doorposts and lintels of your homes.  That way, God will protect your own first born from the Angel of Destruction, who tends to get carried away whenever he is released.

You’ve got until sunrise the next morning to eat the roast lamb.  No leftovers are allowed.  Anything you cannot manage to finish must be burnt up.  That is why, for those of you with small households, Moses tells you to join together with other households to share.

By the way, you’ve got to eat it in your traveling clothes, loins girded and staff in hand.  This is a Pesach to God.

And to make sure that you remember what is about to happen, you’ve got to celebrate this festival every year going forward throughout the generations.

Everything happens as Moses has said.  Early the next morning, you are on your way out of Egypt, and you realize that you have not managed to gather any provisions for the journey.  Other than the unleavened bread that you are carrying on your back, you and your fellow Israelites have not even packed a lunch!

What are you thinking about now?  Possibly something along the lines of: “Should not Moses have given us more practical instructions instead of a ritual barbecue?  Our time might have been better spent packing some granola bars.”

Rashi sees their lack of preparedness as exceedingly praiseworthy.  Israel’s faith in God is so complete that they are willing to embark on a journey into the desert with no supplies whatsoever.

Rashi’s grandson Rashbam, always a practical commentator, disagrees.  They did not prepare any provisions for themselves, he says, and consequently, they ended up complaining about the lack of food and water.

Given that Moses insisted they not spend their final night packing supplies for a trip into the desert, we have to assume that this final meal in Egypt was pretty important.

A midrash (Shemot Rabbah 16:2) explains that the Israelites, living for centuries in Egypt, have been influenced by the dominant culture and have begun worshipping the local gods.  As the time for the Exodus approaches, God turns to Moses and says, “As long as they continue to worship idols, they cannot be redeemed.  You’ve got to tell them to change their evil ways and atone for their idolatry.”

So Moses instructs the Israelites to offer a lamb on the night before the redemption is to take place.  Why a lamb?  According to the midrash, the lamb is venerated and worshipped by the Egyptians.  By offering it as a sacrifice to God and personally eating it themselves, the Israelites make a formal symbolic break with the practices of Egypt and make themselves worthy of redemption.

The medieval Spanish commentator, Nachmanides, believed in the power of astrology to both predict the future and to intervene in worldly events.  It was forbidden for Jews to do so, but it worked.  To the midrash, Nachmanides adds that the 10th of Nisan, when the Israelites are instructed to select the lamb, coincides with the ascension of the astrological sign of Aries, whose symbol is a ram.  By offering a young ram as a sacrifice, the Israelites symbolically declare that their redemption is not due to the influence of any astrological phenomena, celestial beings, or other gods.  God, the Lord of the Cosmos, who set all of the heavenly hosts in their places, is the One who personally redeemed Israel from Egypt.

This final meal is important psychologically for the Israelites.  They need to make a break from their past enslavement to Pharaoh, so that they can embrace their future as a free people in service to God.

It is especially poignant that while they are conducting their sacred meal, the Angel of Destruction is being let loose upon the  rest of Egypt, demonstrating once and for all that God is God and Pharaoh is not.

It is also significant that the Israelites share the meal together.  Entire families sit down to eat the special food.  Children ask their parents about the significance of what is happening.  Those without large families, or who cannot afford their own lamb, are invited to join the households that are larger and more prosperous.  Nobody is left out.

It must have been an incredibly emotional night, which is why the Torah instructs us to continue observing it throughout the generations.  It describes that night as leil shimurim, “a night of vigil” for both God and the children of Israel.  A night on which God protected the homes of our ancestors, God’s people, the Israelites.

Should the Israelites have spent their final night packing supplies for their journey?  If they had, they would have left Egypt still slaves, still immersed in the corrupt culture that surrounded them.  Their bellies might have been full for a while, but their spirits would not have been free.  The Israelites needed a powerful symbolic action to begin the process of becoming the Jewish people.  The first seder, conducted on the night before our ancestors left Egypt, was that action.  It is an action that, to this day, we continue to reenact each year.

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.

Migrations – Lekh L’kha 5776

Lekh L’kha  Go forth!  Parashat Lekh Lekha is a parashah of migrations.  From beginning to end, its characters leave behind their past and set out for the unknown.  They are driven to do so by the same causes that lead people today to become immigrants: religion, culture, economic opportunity, famine, war, and persecution.

The story actually begins at the end of last week’s parashah, when we first encounter Avram.  (He has not yet had his name changed to Avraham).  His family hails from a place called Ur Kasdim.  We are not exactly sure where it is.  It is either the major city of Ur which is located in Southern Iraq on the coast of the Persian Gulf, or it is a smaller town in Upper Mesopotamia.

Avram’s father, Terach, moves the entire household – including Avram, his two brothers, and their respective households – intending to eventually settle in the Land of Canaan.  For some reason, they stop in a place called Haran.

Haran was a major station along the caravan route between Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean Sea.  It is located about ten miles North of the present border between Syria and Turkey.  The Torah does not tell us what prompted Terach to move the family from Ur Kasdim, nor do we know why they interrupt their migration in Haran.  We do know that the rest of Avram’s family remains in Haran.  Only he completes the journey that his father had begun.

This morning’s parashah begins with God’s revelation to seventy five year old Avram.  Lekh L’kha – “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”  God has big plans for Avram.

Avram responds with alacrity, setting out with his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all of their possessions, and a rather large but unnamed retinue of followers that they managed to acquire while in Haran.  It is not a short journey, and Avram does not stop when he reaches the border.  Rather, he continues his migration until he arrives in Shechem (known today as Nablus).  This is the physical center of the land that God has promised his descendants as an inheritance.

Soon after arriving in Shechem and building an altar to God, Avram continues moving south for another 20 miles, pitching his tent in the hill country east of Beit El, where he builds another altar.  He then continues south by stages until he reaches the Negev, probably near Beer-Sheva.  By now, Avram has traversed the entire length of the Promised Land, from North to South.

How might we describe this migration?  What is Avram abandoning, and what is he hoping to find when he reaches his destination?  The Torah’s emphasis on leaving behind his native land and his father’s house suggests that there is something culturally or morally unsavory about his birthplace.  Although we know nothing about Avram’s first seventy five years of life in Haran, many midrashim fill in the gaps.  Legends abound describing Terach’s idolatry, the deviousness of the local King Nimrod, and the rampant idolatry of Babylonian culture.

Remaining in Haran will subject Avram and his progeny to bad influences which will prevent the realization of God’s blessing that his descendants will become a great nation.  To fulfill his destiny, Avram needs to make a clean break with his culture of origin.

We might describe this move as a religious migration.  But perhaps it also might be akin to moving to a better neighborhood, where Avram’s family will have access to higher quality schools, less crime, and a more cohesive communal environment.

It does not take long for a new situation to arise which will force Avram to pack up his tent and move his household once again.  The land is struck by a famine.  Israel is dependent on seasonal rains.  Several years of poor rainfall, therefore, are disastrous and result in famine.  In contrast, Egypt receives its water from the annual flooding of the Nile River, which is a much more reliable source.  While the text only mentions Avram, it is safe to assume that his household is just one of a deluge of refugees fleeing south to Egypt for food.

The typical experience of refugees is not a pleasant one.  They usually find discrimination in their host countries.  If refugees end up settling permanently in their new countries, it often takes several generations before full assimilation and acceptance is reached.

Avram somehow defies the usual pattern and acquires great wealth during his time in Egypt. In 1848, a Potato Famine prompted the massive immigration of nearly one million Irish to the United States.  In the mid 1980’s a massive famine and war in Ethiopia caused the deaths of over one million people.  Six hundred thousand fled Ethiopia for Sudan, where they remained in refugee camps for several years before finally returning home.

One of the factors in the current Syrian refugee crisis is a famine that has been exacerbated, or even perhaps caused by war.

When the famine ends, Avram returns with his family to his former home east of Beit El.  There, his situation seems to stabilize for a short time.  At this point, Avram has huge flocks.  His nephew Lot has also managed to become wealthy.  Both of them send their herds out into the surrounding fields each day.  Soon, their respective shepherds are quarreling with one another over access to grazing land.

Avram recognizes that the status quo cannot continue, so he offers his nephew a choice.  “This is a fertile land, with plenty of room for both of us.  We just can’t stay here in the same place.  Pick where you want to go,” he says.  “If you go right, I’ll go left.  If you go left, I’ll go right.”  Lot chooses to settle in Sodom, where he has access to the lush Jordan River plain.  Avram stays put.

This migration is not the result of a crisis.  Quite the opposite.  Avram and Lot have become too wealthy, and they need to expand their markets.  Lot moves so that he can have access to better economic opportunities.

God appears once again to Avram, reiterating the blessing.  Afterwards, Avram moves his tent to the terebinths of Mamre, near Hebron.  Again, the Torah does not give us a specific reason for Avram’s move, but like his original journey into the Land of Canaan, it seems to be a religious migration.

Lot, meanwhile, gets caught up in a war when the cities of the Jordan Valley, including Sodom, rebel against their vassal overlords to the east.  The rebel cities are defeated and the conquering armies plunder them and take their residents as spoils of war.  When Avram hears that Lot has been taken captive, he assembles a small army and launches a rescue mission.  His risky venture takes him all the way to Dan, which is located at the far northern point of the Land of Israel, on the slopes of Mount Hermon.  He then goes on a night raid to a location north of Damascus.

The mission is successful, and Avram manages to defeat the enemy armies and rescue his nephew, along with all of the other prisoners who have been forcibly removed from their homes.

We see in this story another kind of migration – one prompted by war.  In this case, residents are taken and enslaved by their conquerors.  As we are seeing vividly right now with the millions of Syrian refugees, people tend to flee from war-torn areas.

The final migration occurs towards the end of the parashahSarai is unable to get pregnant, and so she gives her handmaiden Hagar to Avram to bear a child in her name.  When Hagar gets pregnant, tensions rise in the household, and Sarai begins to treat Hagar harshly.  We don’t know how bad the mistreatment was, but it was enough to cause Hagar to flee.  She heads south, embarking on the Road to Shur, which leads eventually to Egypt.  Along the way, an angel of God appears to Hagar and reassures her that God will bless her son.  In the meantime, she should go back to Sarai and “submit to her harsh treatment.”

This is not an optimistic text, but it illustrates another cause of migration: persecution.  How many millions of Americans came to this country fleeing religious persecution?!  It is what brought the original Pilgrims.  The rise of modern Zionism came about when Theodore Herzl and the other early leaders realized that the persecution of the Jewish people in the Diaspora was not going to go away.  The Jewish people needed a homeland where Jews could immigrate.  Sadly, Herzl’s prediction that the reestablishment of Jewish autonomy in the land of Israel would eliminate antisemitism in the Diaspora has proved to be incorrect, and Jews continue to immigrate to Israel because of persecution.

The reasons that compel a person to leave his or her home and move to a strange new place have not changed in four thousand years.  We immigrate because we want better lives for ourselves and our families.  We want to provide our children with safer environments in which to learn and play.  We move to find better economic opportunities.  Sometimes, we flee dangerous situations like war and famine.  And we leave places in which we face discrimination in favor of communities that will accept us as we are.

All of these factors lead the characters in Parashat Lekh L’kha to become immigrants, just as they lead people in our world today to seek better lives in new lands.

While the reasons to immigrate may be the same, in our world, some of the barriers have changed.

Globalization and technology have made it much easier to travel from one place to another.  A journey that once might have taken an entire year can be accomplished in less than a day.  Images of drowned children vividly demonstrate how dangerous the world can be for someone who is fleeing their homeland in desperation.

While antagonism towards immigrants is certainly still with us, multicultural attitudes in many countries in the world allow for an easier welcome and integration than in earlier centuries.

And yet, legal bureaucracies and quotas place significant obstacles before immigrants.  I doubt Avram was asked to produce his passport and visa when he crossed the border into the Land of Canaan.

Let us each think about our own family history.  How did we get to this country?  On my father’s side, my family immigrated to the United States after surviving World War Two and the Holocaust.  My mother’s ancestors arrived a generation or two earlier with millions of other Jews from Eastern Europe who were fleeing persecution.  My parents migrated from Southern California to the Bay Area, to Atlanta, and finally to Seattle as they sought better economic opportunities and a healthy environment to raise my brother and I.

Illegal immigration is a serious challenge in our world.  There are currently over eleven million undocumented people in the United States.  European countries are facing hundred of thousands of Syrians crossing their borders.  Millions of Syrians have been displaced and are living in refugee camps in Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon.  Huge influxes of immigrants has the potential to be destabilizing for a country, especially when that country does not do a good job of assimilating the newcomers.  I don’t have answers to these challenges, but as a people whose founders are immigrants, we ought to approach the issue with compassion and understanding.

Please Let It Not Be Another Intifada – Noach 5776

The violence in Israel right now leaves me feeling worried and confused.  Everyone seems to be throwing up their hands trying to understand what is going on.

It would be one thing if it was a terrorist organization like Hamas, Islamic Jihad or the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade that was planning and carrying out these attacks.  Then, we could point to a particular group with its own ideology, and hold it accountable.  But that is not what has been happening.

What we are seeing is scarier.  Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Hebron, Afula… These attacks have not been coordinated.  They are being carried out by boys and girls, men and women with knives and meat cleavers.  People with families.  People whom we would not expect to be violent.  A young girl.  A thirteen year old boy.  A perversion is taking place that is producing a kind of collective insanity, a national blood-lust.  What else could explain why two teenage cousins would go out into the street, and randomly stab a thirteen year old on a bicycle?

When a society goes astray like this, it is the leaders of that society that must step up and take responsibility for setting it back on course.  But there have been too few voices calling for calm.

What ostensibly set off this violence were claims by some Palestinians that Israel was planning to take the Temple Mount away from Muslims.  It is not true.

When Israel captured the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six Day War in 1967, an Israeli flag was quickly installed on top of the Dome of the Rock.  As soon as he found out about it, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan immediately ordered it removed.  Soon later, he gave authority over the site to the Muslim Waqf, which is charged with maintaining Muslim holy sites.  Jews were forbidden from praying on the Temple Mount.  That has been the status quo arrangement ever since.

Recently, rumors started spreading that Israel was planning to take over the Temple Mount.  Prime Minister Netanyahu immediately denied the rumors, and affirmed that the status quo would remain as it has been for nearly fifty years.

But nobody listened.  Even those who ought to know better have been fanning the flames of violence.  As the rumors were spreading last month, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said: “Every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem is pure, every martyr will reach paradise, and every injured person will be rewarded by God.”  Then he declared that Jews “have no right to desecrate the mosque with their dirty feet.”  This week he also accused Israel of “executing” Palestinian children.

What does he think he is doing?

As Jeffrey Goldberg writes in The Atlantic, this is not the first time that false rumors of an impending Jewish takeover of the Temple Mount have led to widespread violence.  In 1928, Jews brought a wooden bench up to the Western Wall for elderly worshippers to sit along with a partition to separate men and women for prayer.  Local Muslim leaders stirred up popular anger by declaring that the Jews were planning to take over the Temple Mount.  Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, used the incident – the placement of a bench – as proof of a plot against Islam.  He incited Jerusalem Arabs to riot against the Jewish community.  Doctored photographs showing a defaced Dome of the Rock were distributed in Hebron to rile up the community.  In riots the following year, 133 Jews were murdered.

In 2000, the Second Intifada was launched when Ariel Sharon went up to the Temple Mount.  Granted, he took a large military presence with him.  But he had cleared it with Palestinian security officials in advance, who assured him that the situation would remain calm.  And he certainly did not go to pray.

After the visit, Palestinians began protesting, and the leader of the Waqf, on a loudspeaker, called on Palestinians to defend the Al Aqsa Mosque, which Sharon had not even entered.  The protests became violent, and it soon grew into the Second Intifada.  It later turned out that the uprising had been planned in advance by Arafat and other Palestinian leaders, but it was Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount which was used as the pretext to incite Muslims to defend their holy place.

Today, there are many Arab leaders who are fanning the flames of violence, many even more blatantly than Abbas, but it does not seem to be a coordinated strategy.

And to be clear, it is not everyone.  Just three days ago, the Bedouin village of Zarzir, which my children passed through every day on their way to school, organized a public rally for peace.  They called it “We refuse to be Enemies.”  Many of our friends from Kibbutz Hanaton participated.  There were signs and posters in Hebrew, Arabic, and English.  Village leaders, wearing kafiyyehs and holding Israeli flags, spoke against violence and in support of the State of Israel.  But I did not read any news reports about it except for an article by Rabbi Yoav Ende, of Kibbutz Chanaton.

I saw a news clip of Arab news reporter, Lucy Aharish, speaking about as forcefully as a person could in condemning the violence and declaring that there is no justification whatsoever for committing terror.  She blasted Arab leaders for failing to come out and strongly condemn the violence.  That is where she placed the responsibility.

I do not claim that Israel has been perfect.  As you know, I have a lot of disagreements with decisions of the Israeli government over the years.  I think that Israel’s policies have contributed in part to feelings of hopelessness within Palestinian society.

While Israelis are understandably feeling scared, I think it is awful that some have responded to the terror with their own violence and discrimination.  It is inexcusable.

But nothing justifies stabbing a random stranger with a knife, or driving a car into a crowd of people waiting at a bus stop.  There is no moral equivalency when police, soldiers, or even civilians respond with violence to defend against a terrorist who is actively trying to kill an innocent person.  There is no excuse when the leaders of a society glorify a teen-ager who has committed a terrorist act, or fail to do everything they can to stop violence.

I do not have any suggestions for how to solve the chaos that ensues when a society that is not mine has lost its way.

In this morning’s Torah portion, Noach, we read of another society that has lost its way.

“The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness (chamas).  When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth (hishchit kol basar et darko), God said to Noach, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness (chamas) because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.”

Ironically, the word that the Torah uses for “lawlessness” is chamas.  It is just a coincidence, but an ironic one.  Nahum Sarna defines chamas as the “flagrant subversion of the ordered processes of law.”    (JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, p. 51)  There was no rule of law.  No respect for communal standards.

Then the Torah says ki hishchit kol basar et darko – “for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth.”

God’s response is not to give them a warning, or a punishment, or to send a Prophet to urge them to change their ways.  God regrets having created humanity, and decides to wipe out all life on earth, saving only representative male and female samples of each species.

After the flood, humanity is just as wicked as before.  It is the same DNA.

But God makes two significant changes.

He tells Noach and his offspring that they must punish those who murder.  “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.”  This is retributive justice.  According to the theory of evolution, the strongest, most violent people ought to survive.  But God introduces an element to counter the morality of “survival of the fittest.”  Simply put, whatever you do to harm the body of another shall be done to you.  This is the basic premise of retributive justice.  Human societies have to protect their members by punishing those who commit violence.

The second change is a counter to the first.  God declares:  “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done.”

God knows that human nature has not changed.  People will continue to have an urge to cross boundaries.  But retributive justice alone is not enough.  Forgiveness is also needed.  So even though God know that yetzer lev ha-adam ra mine’urav – “the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth,” God promises to not wipe out all life again – even though they may deserve it.  There are times when justice must be set aside in favor of mercy.

This is the challenge that God presents to the children of Noah.  Build societies that are anchored by justice and forgiveness.

Although it seems perpetually elusive, that is my prayer for Israel and Palestine.  One day, both societies will have leaders who take responsibility for their own actions, as well as for their respective people’s actions.  Neither society will tolerate the dehumanization of the other.  Both will recognize that justice cannot be administered selectively.  The two peoples will recognize and protect each others’ sacred places without feeling threatened.  And Israelis and Palestinians will one day be able to hear one another’s stories with a sense of compassion and forgiveness.

For now, as our brothers and sisters are living under the daily threat of terror, we can turn to God in prayer.

Shomer Yisrael — Guardian of Israel,

We pray not to wipe out haters but to banish hatred.

Not to destroy sinners but to lessen sin.

Our prayers are not for a perfect world but a better one

Where parents are not bereaved by the savagery of sudden attacks

Or children orphaned by blades glinting in a noonday sun.

Help us dear God, to have the courage to remain strong, to stand fast.

Spread your light on the dark hearts of the slayers

And your comfort to the bereaved hearts of families of the slain.

Let calm return Your city Jerusalem, and to Israel, Your blessed land.

We grieve with those wounded in body and spirit,

Pray for the fortitude of our sisters and brothers,

And ask you to awaken the world to our struggle and help us bring peace.

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.