Opposing Antisemitism After Pittsburgh

I am indebted to this powerful Rosh Hashanah sermon by Rabbi Angela Buchdahl at New York’s Central Synagogue, from which I borrowed some ideas and several sources.

I have stated, on more than one occasion, that this is the best time and place to be Jewish in human history.  We have never enjoyed so much freedom, success, safety, and acceptance by the wider society than we do today.  I still believe that.

But last week, we were reminded that antisemitism is very real, and it is not going away any time soon.

Last Shabbat at the Tree of Life synagogue, eleven Jews, men and women between 54 and 97 years old, were murdered while praying.  These are their names:

Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfrie, Rose Mallinger—97 years old, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, along with his brother—David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, Irving Younger.  May their memories be a blessing.

These were the most dedicated members of their community, the ones who, week after week, showed up at the beginning of services to ensure that there would be a minyan.  They are martyrs: Jews who died for the sanctification of God’s name.  

Their murderer, whose name I will not mention, shouted “All Jews must die” as he slaughtered them.

He did not care if his victims were Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox.  It did not matter to him whether they were Democrats or Republicans, or whether they leaned to the right or to the left.

All that mattered was that they were Jews.

While the shooter seems to have been working alone, his beliefs were consistent with views embraced by those who identify as part of White Power, Neo Nazi, or Alt-Right movements.  In an article in the The Atlantic last December, journalist Luke O’Brian summarizes White Nationalists’ fears of Jewish influence.

The Holohoax, as it is known, gives its adherents an excuse to blame everything they hate on a cabal of Jews: Feminism. Immigration. Globalization. Liberalism. Egalitarianism. The media. Science. Facts. Video-game addiction. Romantic failure. The NBA being 74.4 percent black. According to the Holohoax, it’s all a plot to undermine traditional white patriarchy so Jews can maintain a parasitic dominion over the Earth.

They see Jews as the top of the pyramid, the ultimate cause of everything that they consider bad.  

Saturday’s murderer had been railing against HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which is one of several agencies that partners with the Federal Government to settle refugees – legal refugees, by the way.  HIAS had sponsored National Refugee Shabbat the week before, and Tree of Life Synagogue had participated proudly.

In one of his final online posts, the shooter wrote: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people, I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”  

Who is to blame for letting immigrants in the country?  The Jews.  The ultimate Other.

Antisemitism has a long and terrible two thousand year history.  We have suffered countless persecutions: expulsions, forced conversions, torture, massacres during the Crusades, the blood libel, blame for the Black Death, the Inquisition, ghettos, the Chmielnitzki Massacres, pogroms, and of course the Holocaust.  

All of these and more were driven by hateful, antisemitic lies and stereotypes.  Jews are responsible for Jesus’ death, Jews are usurers, they are greedy, they have big noses and ears, they run the media, there is a secret organization of Jews that is controlling the world.

While these stereotypes originated in Christendom, they eventually spread into Muslim lands, where blood libels persist to this day and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is still in print.

While we seem to have made great progress after the horrors of the Holocaust, the old antisemitism is still very much with us.  

Anyone who has traveled to Europe and tried to visit a Jewish community knows that synagogues there are fortresses.  To attend services on Shabbat in many communities, you have to first send a picture of your passport.  I attended Tisha B’av services in Trieste, Italy, a few years ago.  We barely had a minyan, but we were protected by an Israeli security guard at the door, two machine gun wielding Italian carabinieri, and two undercover police officers.

A synagogue is supposed to be a welcoming place.  It is a House of Worship, a sanctuary, a place of peace.  Sadly, antisemitism prevents this.  But not in America.

Yes, there are some very large, mainly urban synagogues that employ security, but we take for granted that our shuls are open places.  We take pride in it.  As Sinai’s Rabbi, I am constantly inviting people to join us on Shabbat for services, and to stay for lunch afterwards.  I insist, with 100% sincerity, that we love having guests.

In the last week, we have been questioning this sense of safety and security.  We have learned most painfully that antisemitism in not just words and rhetoric.

While Jews in America are trusted and seen positively by higher percentages than ever, we are also seeing increasingly nasty antisemitism on the fringes of both the right and the left.  Let me give a few examples.  As I do, pay close attention to your emotions.  How do you feel as I describe the following examples?

First, the right.

A Republican candidate for State Senate in Connecticut sent out a campaign mailer this week attacking his opponent, Democratic State Representative Matthew Lesser, who happens to be Jewish.  The ad depicts a photoshopped picture of Lesser with bulging eyes, a maniacal grin, hands clutching wads of cash — not dissimilar to other antisemitic caricatures of Jews that have appeared over the past centuries.

Last year, White Nationalists held their Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, which resulted in the murder of Heather Heyer.  President Trump infamously told reporters, “I think there is blame on both sides…  You had some very bad people in that group… but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”  The Alt-Right took his words as an endorsement.

Just last week, the President proudly declared himself to be a “nationalist.”  And at a rally Saturday night, just hours after the massacre in Pittsburgh, he railed against immigrants, referring to this coming Tuesday as the “election of the caravan.”

Many have drawn connections between the President’s frequent anti-immigrant, anti-Other language and the hate-driven violence that we have recently witnessed, including the shooting of two African Americans in Kentucky, and the mailing of 14 pipe bombs to targets that the President has verbally attacked repeatedly.

That’s on the right.  How about the left?

Traditionally, the Jews of Great Britain have been strong supporters of the Labour Party.  But its current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has tolerated and even encouraged antisemitic rhetoric and actions within the party for years.  In 2012, Corbyn hosted a panel comprised of a number of Hamas members.  In 2013, he suggested that “Zionists don’t understand English irony.”  In 2014, he attended a memorial ceremony and placed a wreath for the terrorists who murdered Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.  Just recently, the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee refused to accept the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism.

Ilhan Omar is a Democratic representative in Minnesota’s House of Representatives.  This past August, she won the primary for the Democratic nomination for the House of Representatives in Minnesota’s 5th District, meaning she is all but certain to win the general election this Tuesday.  In 2012, she tweeted, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.”

Liberal Jews should be natural allies for the Women’s March.  And yet, three of the Co-Chairs, most notably Tamika Mallory, have refused to denounce the march’s association with Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, who has a long history of blatantly antisemitic rhetoric, including praise of Hitler.

Just last Spring, Mallory attended the Nation of Islam’s annual gathering, at which Farrakhan praised her and declared “the powerful Jews are my enemy… the Jews have control of those agencies of government” like the FBI.  The Jews are “the mother and father of apartheid,” and they are responsible for “degenerate behavior in Hollywood turning men into women and women into men.”  When confronted with this, Mallory refused to disassociate herself or the Women’s March from him.  Quite the opposite, she has often praised and appeared in photographs with Farrakhan.

So let me ask a question.  Over the last four minutes, I spoke about antisemitism on the right and antisemitism on the left:  A Republican ad depicting a Jewish opponent with classic antisemitic imagery; President Trump’s divisive rhetoric encouraging right wing extremists.  I spoke about the leader of the British Labour Party’s tolerance, and even encouragement of antisemitic behavior.  I mentioned a soon to be elected Democratic Congresswoman who made references to global Zionist conspiracies.  And I spoke about an organizer of the Women’s March who has refused to renounce Louis Farrakhan.

Which made you more angry?  Be honest.  Who did you find yourself trying to excuse in some way?  

My guess is that those who consider themselves to be politically liberal got angrier about the antisemitism on the right, while those who consider themselves to be conservative got angrier about the antisemitism of the left.  And both sides probably found themselves minimizing, dismissing, or even rejecting the antisemitism on their own ideological side, or getting mad at me for even suggesting it.

I have been looking at myself this past week, and I have found that I have done all of these things.

On the Conservative Rabbis’ listserv, less than 24 hours had passed, and there were already arguments raging over who was to blame for the rhetoric that encouraged the shooter.  Of course, there were those who placed responsibility on President Trump for fanning the flames of hatred.  But in response, there were accusations that it was in fact President Obama who started the divisive language that led to Trump’s election and Saturday’s tragedy.

Here is what I have observed about how Jews react to antisemitism.  We blame the antisemitism of the other side.  It makes us so mad.  “Why don’t other Jews see it?” we ask in exasperation.

And then we ignore, excuse, or minimize the antisemitism on our own side.  “Those are just a few fringe elements,” we tell ourselves.  “They don’t really matter.”

What is the result?  A few things.  No antisemites change their minds.  Jews on the right and Jews on the left get angrier at each other.  We widen the rifts within the Jewish community. 

Right now, there is a small window of cooperation in our grief.  I was impressed by a joint editorial written by the ideologically opposed Editors-in-Chief of the Forward and The Algemeiner, and signed by a dozen leaders in Jewish journalism.  It was titled #WeAreAllJews.

We […] join together to unequivocally condemn this brutal act of antisemitism and all deadly acts of hate. We also condemn the climate of hate that has been building for some time now, especially on college campuses and on social media, where the veneer of anonymity has allowed antisemitic cesspools to flourish, and from irresponsible political leaders who engage in hateful speech and who are abetted by the silence of others.

I think we can all agree on the following:  Antisemitism is evil, whether it comes from the right or the left.  I can accept that you have a different opinion than me about taxes, or health care, or immigration policies.  But if there is one thing that ought to unite us, it ought to be our Judaism.  We have got to be united in opposing anyone who expresses hatred against the Jewish people, or who stokes that hatred.

What is more important?  Being a Democrat or Republican, a Conservative or a Liberal, or being Jewish?  Why would we ever let political affiliation to drive a wedge in the Jewish community?

Don’t just blame the other side.  From now on, I want all of us to commit to calling out the antisemitism that persists on the fringes of our own political perspectives.  Those who are active in progressive causes need to stay engaged.  And similarly with those involved in conservative causes.  Do not allow the organizations and movements that you care about to get hijacked by antisemitism.  Do not allow antisemitic—or any hateful language—to go unchecked.  

Racism and hatred should not have a place in our politics.  If we do not call it out, then we are responsible for allowing it to grow.

This past week, our wider Jewish community gathered together on two occasions.  The first was a service of mourning on Sunday night.  It was attended by more than 400 people who felt an urgent need to come together to express grief and offer each other comfort.

The second gathering was an Interfaith Vigil of Solidarity Against Hate, which took place on Tuesday.

It was a special event.  More than 600 people assembled at the plaza in front of San Jose City Hall.  Mayor Sam Liccardo and the entire City Council attended, along with Joe Simitian, President of the Santa Clara Country Board of Supervisors, Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, and many of our other local elected officials.

There were also dozens of clergy, and laypeople of many faiths and ethnic backgrounds.  Protestant Ministers and Pastors, Catholic, Episcopalian, and Greek Orthodox Priests, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs. These religious leaders brought their congregants with them.

We came together to say that we will not succumb to hatred.  Despite many differences, we are united as human beings, and as Americans.  While the need that brought us together was tragic, the experience of standing shoulder to shoulder was so reassuring. 

How did such a diverse crowd come together?

On Saturday, as soon as news about the shooting emerged, I started receiving personal emails from interfaith colleagues and friends.  They expressed their sorrow to me and offered condolences to our community.  They said that they would be reciting prayers and lighting memorial candles during their worship services the next day.  They offered to help our community in any way possible, including standing outside our entrances during service so that we would feel safe while we prayed.

Who was it that sent these messages?  Some were members of a small interfaith group of which I am a member.  We have met every month for the past couple of years to study and learn from each other.

One email came from a representative of the Evergreen Mosque.  Last year, when that community received a bomb threat, I was one of several dozen people of different faiths who stood outside the entrance to support their community during its Friday prayers.  

Another came from a leader in the local Hindu community, who I have gotten to know through a different interfaith organization.

When we decided to hold the Interfaith Vigil, I immediately sent out the notification to my interfaith colleagues, and many of them came, on very short notice.

All of my local Rabbinic Colleagues had the same experiences.  And this is true of the countless other interfaith vigils, services, and rallies which have taken place around the country this past week.

A threat, or God forbid an attack, is uniquely personal to the community that experiences it.  Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bazeh.  All Jews are interconnected with one another.  At the same, how remarkable it is that people from extraordinarily different traditions feel such profound empathy for one another.

Can you imagine this happening in any other time or place in history?

I suspect that many of you had experiences this week in which non-Jewish friends, acquaintances, or co-workers reached out to express their condolences and sorrow.  Why do you think they did that?

Because they see you as a whole person, and they know that being Jewish is an important part of who you are.  And they value you for that.  That is what makes America so special.  And that is why I do not think we are facing the same situation as Germany in the 1930’s, or even contemporary Europe.

Antisemitism will certainly continue to exist.  It may even turn violent.  But I have faith in the goodness of most people.  

I was reminded this week of a letter that President George Washington wrote to the Hebrew Congregations of Newport, Road Island in 1790.  While his address is specifically addressed to the American Jewish community, it really expresses the best of what pluralism and religious freedom is supposed to be in America – for people of all faiths.  I would like to conclude with these words by our Founding Father.

The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation.  All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship…

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.

Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Unclaimed Crown – Terumah 5778

Parashat Terumah is the first of two parashiyot that describes the design of the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle that the Israelites build and then carry with them throughout their time in the wilderness.  It also describes the furnishings that resided within the Mishkan.

The Mishkan becomes a somewhat “permanent” temporary structure.  Even after the Israelites enter the Promised Land, it will take several centuries before the Beit Hamikdash, the Temple, to be built by King Solomon in Jerusalem, using the Mishkan as a model.

V’asu li mikdash v’shakhanti b’tokham.  “Build for me a Sanctuary that I may dwell in your midst,” God instructs Israel through Moses.  The Mishkan is the place where God’s Transcendent Presence becomes immanent.  The people can simply look to the center of the camp, see the clouds of incense hovering over the Tent, and know that God was there to protect them, bless them, and bring them prosperity.

Everything pertaining to the Mishkan, and later the Beit Hamikdash, is deeply symbolic.

In the ancient world, the belief was that when people sin, impurity becomes attached to the Mishkan, and specifically to the altar.  God’s Presence cannot remain in an impure Sanctuary.

That is where the priests come in.  By conducting the rituals, they cleanse the Mishkan and the altar of impurity, allowing God’s Presence to return, bringing blessings to the people.

This is true for the Mishkan in the wilderness, and later for the Beit Hamikdash in Jerusalem.

But something begins to change when the Rabbis come on the scene about two thousand years ago.

They take over from the biblical prophetic tradition, which tends to be skeptical of the automatic nature of the Temple rituals.  Prophets like Isaiah, Micah, and Amos recognize that while the priests conducted all of the Temple rituals with care and precision, people continues to behave with greed and callousness.  There must be more to being a people of God than merely offering sacrifices.

The Rabbis inherit and replace this countercultural prophetic tradition.  They interpret the Mishkan and Beit Hamikdash symbolically, deriving universal moral lessons from the specific rituals that were once conducted only by the priests.  Even before the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE, certain Jewish circles are starting to imagine a decentralized Judaism.  They embrace the ancient Temple symbols, but add them new layers of meaning that make them accessible to any Jew, in any place.

Three of the important pieces of furniture in the Mishkan are described in Parashat Terumah – the altar, the ark, and the table.  The altar, the mizbeaḥ, is where the sacrifices are performed.  The Ark, the aron, houses the tablets of the Ten Commandments and serves as God’s footstool in the Holy of Holies.  The table, the shulḥan, is where twelve loaves of bread are placed every week on Shabbat.

In describing each of these items, the Torah indicates that they are to have a zer of gold encircling the top.  It is not clear what a zer is.  Our English translation uses the word “molding.”  It is some sort of decorative gold rim around the top of the altar, ark, and table.  The Talmud (Yoma 72b) describes this zer as a crown, with symbolic meaning that extends way beyond mere aesthetics.

Rabbi Yoḥanan teaches: “There were three crowns on the sacred vessels in the Temple: The crown of the altar, and of the Ark, and of the table.”  Each of these crowns is available to be claimed by someone who is deserving.  For the crown of the altar, it is Aaron who is deserving.  He takes it, becomes the High Priest, and passes on the crown of priesthood to his sons after him.  The crown on the table is understood to represent kingship.  David is the deserving one.  He takes it for himself and passes it on to his children after him.  What about the third crown – the crown of the ark?  It still sits unclaimed, says Rabbi Yoḥanan.  Kol ha-rotzeh likaḥ, yavo v’yikaḥ.  Anyone who wishes to take it may come and take it.  What is this crown of the ark?  It is the crown of Torah.  Anyone is allowed to come and wear the crown of Torah.

The midrash continues: You might think that this third, unclaimed, crown is inferior to the crowns of kingship and of priesthood.  After all, nobody has taken it.  This is not the case.  It is in fact greater than both of them.  The Book of Proverbs states, “Through me kings will reign”  (Pr. 8:15).  The strength of the crowns of priesthood and kingship is derived from the crown of Torah, which is greater than them all.

This midrash undermines the old system.  Torah, that is to say, learning, has replaced the old dynastic systems of religious leadership.  This is one of the great legacies that the Rabbis have left to us: a meritocracy based on learning that is accessible to anyone who chooses to embrace it, regardless of lineage, wealth, or background.

This idea is developed further.  What does it mean to take the crown of Torah?  The Talmud again derives its answer through a creative analysis of the Mishkan.  We have already identified the ark as representing Torah.  It contains, after all, the Ten Commandments.  This ark, we read in the this morning’s Parashah, is constructed preciselt.  It is kind of like one of those Russian nesting dolls, with three compartments.  The middle compartment is a box made out of acacia wood.  It is sandwiched between an inner compartment and an outer compartment, each of which are made out of gold.

In other words, the exterior part, that is visible to the outside world, is gold.  But so is the inner part, the part that nobody sees.  In the Talmud, Rava teaches kol talmid ḥakham she’ein tokho k’voro eino talmud ḥakham.  “Any Torah scholar whose inside is not like his outside is not a Torah scholar.”

Torah is not meant to be merely an intellectual pursuit.  It is a living document, one that must transform the behavior of the one who studies it.

Reading – and Speaking – About Sexuality on Yom Kippur Afternoon – Parashat Acharei Mot/Kedoshim 5777

Our Mahzor Lev Shalem offers two possible readings for the afternoon of Yom Kippur.  The Traditional one from Leviticus, chapter 18, or an Alternate reading from Leviticus, chapter 19.

Leviticus 18 describes what are commonly referred to as the arayot – forbidden sexual relationships, mainly incest.  Also included  are adultery and the now infamous Leviticus 18:22, which describes male homosexuality as an “abomination.“

Leviticus 19 is known as “The Holiness Code.”  It opens with the instruction Kedoshim tih’yu ki kadosh Ani adonai Eloheikhem – “You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy.”  It then lists a variety of commandments that constitute a guide to a life of holiness.  The diverse subjects of these commandments include interpersonal relationships, business practices, ritual behavior, criminal law, and more.

Neither Leviticus 18 nor Leviticus 19 contain a single reference to Yom Kippur or any of its themes.

This morning,  as luck would have it, we read the double portion of Acharei Mot and Kedoshim.  In years when these parashiyot are combined, it creates a juxtaposition of the 18th and 19th chapters of Leviticus, the Traditional and Alternate Torah readings that appear in our High Holiday Mahzor.  In fact, parts of both chapters are even read in the same aliyah.

When they chose to add a second possible reading to Mahzor Lev Shalem, the Editors forced communities to ask themselves a question that they might otherwise never have considered: which portion should we read?  This year, our congregation has been addressing this question.

As the Rabbi of Congregation Sinai, I am the Mara D’Atra, Aramaic for “Master of the Place.”  This means that I am entrusted with the responsibility for making halakhic decisions for the community.

As you may recall, I wrote an article about it in the January Voice.  That month, there was an open meeting of the Ritual Committee to learn about the issues and hear from each other.  Personally, I have spent countless hours researching and consulting with members, colleagues, and teachers.

I am enormously uncomfortable being the decider.  When a decision is made to abandon or change a practice, there usually is no going back.  As a Rabbi, I think about that a lot.  Who am I to change thousands of years of tradition?  Sometimes, of course, change is necessary.  But when does the need for change outweigh the demands of history?  I don’t take that dilemma lightly.

For some people, this is a serious, emotional issue.  Whatever the outcome is, someone is going to be upset.  I lose sleep knowing this.  Please understand that I have attempted to reach a conclusion in good faith.  I take the sacred role that you have entrusted with me seriously.  I am strengthened by knowing that, whatever the outcome, you have my back.

Before I share my decision, let me clarify a few things.  We read the entire Torah every year.  We do not skip over any troubling passages because we do not like them.  And there is plenty in the Torah that is troubling.  This is not a question about eliminating a Torah reading.  We will continue to chant Torah on the afternoon of Yom Kippur.

Let’s be honest about Minchah on Yom Kippur.  When the service begins, around 5:00 in the afternoon, there are typically about 75 people in the room.  At that point in the day, they are weak from the fast, and a bit spacey.  Of those 75 people, how many of them are paying close attention to the Torah reading, and really pondering its message for their lives?  Our sanctuary is not exactly filled with kavanah – religious intension.  From that perspective, it does not matter which of the two readings we select.

I hope that by addressing this question, we can transform a relatively lazy part of Yom Kippur into a meaningful, kavannah-infused moment.

So why would a congregation choose to read the Traditional or the Alternate portions?  Mahzor Lev Shalem includes meaningful commentaries and explanations for both readings.  It does not, however, explain why the Alternate reading was included, nor does it suggest any reasons for why a community might choose to replace the Traditional reading.

I consulted with Rabbi Elliot Dorff, the Chair of the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards, which issues halakhic rulings for the Conservative Movement.  He responded to my inquiry that the particular selection of readings for the holidays is custom rather than law.  Rabbi Dorff explained that “the authors of Mahzor Lev Shalem were concerned with bringing up the prohibition of homosexual relations in Leviticus 18, given what we have done with that halakhically.”  He was referring to the CJLS’s decision in 2006 to overturn Judaism’s traditional ban on homosexuality.  He added that “Leviticus 19 is much more uplifting and much more connected to the theme of Yom Kippur than Leviticus 18 is.”

In other words, the Alternative reading was added because a lot of Conservative Jews are troubled by Leviticus 18:22, which states “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination.”

The question comes down to: do we change a long-established custom because we are offended by a particular verse?

Where did the Yom Kippur afternoon Torah reading come from? Even though it makes no mention of Yom Kippur and does not deal with any of the basic themes of the holiday, at some point, a person or community thought it would be a good idea to read about forbidden sexual relationships on the afternoon of Yom Kippur.

The earliest mention of it occurs in the Talmud, in Tractate Megillah (30b-31a).  A second century text from the land of Israel states “At minhah [on Yom Kippur] we read the section of forbidden sexual relationships (that is to say, Leviticus 18) and for haftarah the book of Jonah.”

The Talmud records numerous variant practices for which portions are read at the various holidays.  There were significant discrepancies between Israel and Babylonia.  But with regard to the Yom Kippur minchah reading, there are no differences.  We can say with a high degree of certainty that Jews have been reading Leviticus 18 on Yom Kippur afternoon since at least the second century, making it a 1,900 year old custom.

But why this reading?  The Talmud offers no answers.  In his commentary, Adin Steinsaltz writes:  “Given the solemnity and holiness of the day, this choice of Torah portion is quite surprising.  Various suggestions for the choice have been offered…”

One possible reason is suggested a Mishnah in Tractate Ta’anit that describes a custom that took place during Second Temple times.

There were never happier days for the Jews like the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur, for on those days the daughters of Jerusalem would go out wearing borrowed white clothing so that they should not embarrass those who did not own such… The daughters of Jerusalem would go and dance in the vineyards and say, ‘young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose. Do not look for beauty, look for family…’

With all of this matchmaking taking place on Yom Kippur afternoon, it would have been especially important to remind all of the single people who is and is not eligible to them.  This might explain why Leviticus 18 was chosen.  It should be noted, however, that the Talmud itself does not make this connection.

Rashi, in the eleventh century, points out that sins having to do with sexual relationships are ever-present, and a person’s desires and inclinations can be overwhelming.  They also tend to be secret.  And so, on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, reading about prohibited sexual relationships is meant to awaken a person to teshuvah about something which is so difficult to resist.

Tosafot, in Rashi’s grandchildren’s generation, adds that women are often dressed up fancy on Yom Kippur.  The Torah reading, therefore, serves as a reminder to worshippers not to stumble.

Turei Zahav, a seventeenth century commentator on the Shulchan Arukh by Rabbi David ha-Levy Segal captures it succinctly:

In my opinion, since a person’s soul thirsts for forbidden sexual relationships more than all [other] sins, we are warned about it on Yom Kippur, which is an awe-some day that is inscribed upon the human heart more than all the other days of the year.

Human nature has not changed much over the centuries in that regard.  Would anyone suggest that we, in our “enlightened” twenty first century, do a better job of controlling our sexual urges than in previous generations?

I think not.

Leviticus 18 certainly has something to tell us today.  It might not be quite as uplifting as Leviticus 19’s “You shall be holy…,” but it is a message we need to hear.

Judith Plaskow wrote an influential article in 1997 called “Sexuality and Teshuvah: Leviticus 18.”  In it, she writes:

As someone who has long been disturbed by the content of Leviticus 18, I had always applauded the substitution of an alternative Torah reading—until a particular incident made me reconsider the link between sex and Yom Kippur. After a lecture I delivered in the spring of 1995 on rethinking Jewish attitudes toward sexuality, a woman approached me very distressed. She belonged to a Conservative synagogue that had abandoned the practice of reading Leviticus 18 on Yom Kippur, and as a victim of childhood sexual abuse by her grandfather, she felt betrayed by that decision.  While she was not necessarily committed to the understanding of sexual holiness contained in Leviticus, she felt that in quietly changing the reading without communal discussion, her congregation had avoided issues of sexual responsibility altogether.

Our failure in the past has not been that we have continued to read a passage that is offensive to gay men.  Our failure has been that we have not openly addressed issues of sexual abuse and impropriety.  To cease reading the traditional Torah portion would be just as problematic as if we kept on reading the words while ignoring their meaning.

We cannot expand understanding, tolerance, and acceptance of GLBTQ individuals if we refuse to acknowledge that there is an issue.

If, instead, we maintain the traditional reading and address the issues that it raises, our kavanah will improve.

This is why I have decided, as Sinai’s Rabbi, that we will continue the traditional practice of reading Leviticus 18 during the afternoon of Yom Kippur – with an addition.  There will be a D’var Torah delivered by a Sinai member to introduce the Torah reading.  The purpose will be to reflect on themes raised by the portion so as to draw us into the reading, and provoke us to respond to it in some way.  Torah is not supposed to make us feel good.  It is supposed to challenge us.  If Torah makes us feel good, it is not doing its job.

Reading and speaking about Leviticus 18, on the holiest day of the year, will give us an opportunity to reflect on the most intimate aspects of our lives, rather than pretend they do not exist.  It will also allow us to recognize the pain and exclusion that our GLBTQ friends and relatives have faced over the millennia because of Judaism’s, and society’s, past intolerance.

In this ruling for our community, both aspects are equally important.  Our members will be called upon to consider how Leviticus 18 speaks to us today.  I hope you will consider giving a D’var Torah on Yom Kippur afternoon.  Of course, I am here to help.

It is important to recognize that this approach – dealing with a difficult text by speaking about it – has been embraced by numerous communities in every denomination: Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Orthodox.  This solution puts Sinai in good company.

One of the sidebar commentaries in our Mahzor is by Judith Plaskow.  She writes: “Leviticus 18 seeks to implement [its] ideas in its own time and place.  But we need to find ways to express those insights in the context of an ethic of sexual holiness appropriate for the 21st century.”

May Torah inspire us to holiness in all aspects of our lives.

 

Bibliography

Rabbi Jeffrey Brown, “Preaching Against the Text: An Argument in Favor of restoring Leviticus 18 to Yom Kippur Afternoon” – This is an important article by a Reform rabbi that argues why it is important for communities to continue reading Leviticus 18.

Keshet is a national organization that works for full LGBTQ equality and inclusion in Jewish life.  Its website contains a wealth of information, including numerous sermons and kavanot  on Levitucs 18.

Judaism and Science Need Each Other

Shabbat, April 22, 2017, 26 Nisan 5777

 

At this moment, in Washington D.C. and in cities around the country, Marches for Science are taking place.  This movement identifies itself as a “diverse, nonpartisan group [that] …champions robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity.”  It “call[s] for science that upholds the common good and for political leaders and policy makers to enact evidence based policies in the public interest.”

The march offers us an opportunity to consider the relationship between science and religion.

I find that people make a lot of assumptions about Judaism’s position vis a vis science, and draw certain conclusions regarding what I must believe as a Rabbi.

It is not a secret that, for the past century or so, Jews have been drawn to study the world around us.  Our people has been awarded a vastly disproportionate share of Nobel Prizes in science-related fields, including 41% of Nobel Prize winners in economics, 28% in medicine, 26% in physics, and 19% in chemistry.  This, despite comprising less than .2% of the world’s population.

It is safe to say that Jews have an affinity for science.

When I was in middle school in the 1980’s, the Orthodox Jewish Day school that I attended sponsored a Shabbaton one weekend.  I remember a conversation that I had with one of the Rabbis from the school.  Looking back, I suspect he was the product of an earlier generation of education.  He insisted that the world was a bit less than six thousand years old.  So I asked the obvious question.  “What about dinosaur fossils?”

“God put them in the earth to test us,” he responded.

I was not convinced.

While there may be some corners in the Jewish world in whcih science is shunned, the vast majority of Jews, from secular to Orthodox, enthusiastically embrace the mutual compatibility of religion and science.

But it has not always been the case.  Rabbis in ancient times expressed conflicting attitudes about science.  They often criticize the Roman Empire.  Despite its sophisticated culture, architecture, roads, bridges, and aqueducts, it is morally rotten and ethically hypocritical.

They even express discomfort with medicine.  The Talmud (BT Berachot 10b) praised the Biblical King Hezekiah’s for suppressing a book called Sefer Refuot, the Book of Remedies.

A disagreement between medieval commentators captures our tradition’s ambivalence.  Rashi explains that the Book of Remedies was full of prescriptions for medications that effectively treated all sorts of maladies.  Because they were healed, people were no longer turning to God in prayer.  Efficacious medicine was causing people to lose their faith.  So King Hezekiah hid it away.  And the Rabbis praise him for it.

Maimonides understands the passage differently.  He (who it should be noted, was a physician) explains that the Book of Remedies was quackery.  It was full of false charms that had no healing potential.  So King Hezekiah suppressed it to protect the people from nonsense, possibly even idolatrous, beliefs.  That is why the Rabbis of the Talmud praise him.

For thousands of years, Jewish culture has placed a tremendous focus on the mind.  Education is one of our most important values.  For thousands of years, knowledge and wisdom have been valued more highly than physical strength.

But up until the modern era, that did not, for the most part, include science.  There are a number of literary genres that developed over the centuries: halakhah – legal writings, aggadah – exegesis, mysticism, commentaries,  liturgy, poetry – both secular and religious.  But there never developed a tradition of Jewish scientific writing.  Until the Enlightenment, there were barely any original works of science written by Jews.

There were certainly some outliers, Maimonides being the most well-known of them.  A Rabbi, doctor, philosopher, and community leader, Maimonides voraciously consumed every kind of learning he could get his hands on.  It goes without saying that he received the best Torah education available.  But he also wanted to learn Greek wisdom and science.  This kind of learning was not available within the walls of the Jewish academy, so he had to seek it elsewhere.  Maimonides went through the typical program for an educated person of the twelfth century.  As a teen-ager, he studied mathematics, astronomy, logic, and physics.  He then went on to metaphysics, ethics, politics, theology, and medicine.  Throughout his life, he studied Arabic philosophy, theology, and legal writings.  He regularly corresponded with the great thinkers of his day.

This kind of embrace of all forms of knowledge was looked down upon by mainstream religious thinkers.  It eroded faith and took students away from the study of Torah, they feared.  But Maimonides was enamored with rationalism.  He sought to combine the study of the natural world with the study of Torah.  He tried to explain Torah using the metaphysics of Aristotle, seeking to reconcile them as much as possible.  Knowledge of the world and its Creator are to be found in nature no less than in Sacred writings.

There was one major Aristotelian principle that Maimonides rejects: Aristotle’s belief in the eternity of the universe.  But in his Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides writes that he is open to being convinced otherwise, if someone can bring him empirical evidence.  If a scientific proof is found to contradict Torah in some way, he explains, it means one of two things.  Either the scientific proof is incorrect and needs to be revised, or our understanding of Torah is incorrect and needs to be revised.

What is the purpose of studying the world around us?  What should human beings do with our scientific discoveries?  There are a number of possibilities.

We can employ science to make life more pleasurable.  This is a sort of utilitarian argument.  We harness and manipulate our world in order to enhance human pleasure.

We could study science purely for its own sake.  The conceptual joy of learning, without applying our discoveries.

Or, we can turn science into a religion.  Ethics are expressed by Natural Law itself.  Society should imitate nature.  This can lead to outcomes which most of us would find horrifying.  Nazi ideology saw itself as implementing Darwinian survival of the fittest.  Its warped pseudo-science led to the Holocaust.

At the end of the day, Maimonides feels that science ought to be subservient to Torah.  Learning about the natural world should lead a person to greater knowledge of God, and greater piety.  The Torah concerns itself, ultimately, with truths that are higher than science.

While there were some Jewish thinkers who followed Maimonides’ embrace of philosophy and science, Jews for the most part did not pay much attention to it.

In Europe, it was the Church which expanded the study of empirical science.  Why did Judaism not embrace science during this time period?  First of all, Jews were kept out of the universities.  As an exiled people living an often precarious existence, there were not too many opportunities for precocious students to embrace secular studies.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when modern science began, increased antisemitism turned Jews inward.  Mysticism had also become hugely popular throughout the Jewish world.  It emphasized that the fundamental truths about God and the cosmos are not to be found in empirical reality.

It was in the late nineteenth century that a radical shift took place.  The universities were opened up.  Jews began to write our own history.  Zionism emerged, awakening the prospect of Jewish self-determination.   Jewish interest in the world around us exploded.  After prizing knowledge and wisdom for millennia, and developing tools for critical thinking in every generation, Jews were ready to study the sciences – with fervor.

Science and Torah should never be seen as mutually incompatible.  Quite the opposite.  They need each other.  Science’s purpose is to explain what is.  Torah’s purpose is to tell us what ought to be.

Science cannot tell us what to do with knowledge.  It is morally neutral.

The study of of nuclear physics tells us how to capture the energy contained within an atom.  But it can’t tell us what we should do with it.

If Darwin is concerned with “the Origin of the Species,” than Torah is concerned with “the purpose of the species.”

For thousands of years, we have been developing answers to that question.  As human beings, we are here to be stewards of the earth.  We are here to recognize the image of God that is inherent in every person.  We are here to care for one another.  As Jews, we are here to follow the mitzvot.

Learning more about God’s creation creates more tools with which to fulfill our purpose.  That means we must embrace science, and direct the knowledge we gain to solving the problems in our world.

Just last month, the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling for full funding for research on climate change, as well as scientific and medical research.  In addition, the resolution called “upon all governments to …utilize only science-based evidence for environmental and energy policies.”

This is certainly consistent with Jewish thinkers since Maimonides, and reflects the vast preponderance of Jewish religious thinkers today, spanning every movement in Judaism.

 

Bibliography

Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds, by Joel L. Kraemer.

“Rethinking Ethics in the Light of Jewish Thought and the Life Sciences,” by Norbert M. Samuelson, The Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol. 29, No. 2 (Summer, 2001), pp. 209-233.

“Science,” by Hillel Levine, in Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, ed. by Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, pp. 855-861.

 

Sharing Passover – Shabbat HaChodesh 5777

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Returning the Blessing – Vayishlach 5777

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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