The Earth Doesn’t Care Whose Fault It Is – Yom Kippur 5782

Mi va’esh u’mi va’mayim.  Who by fire and who by water?

We are halfway through what is already one of the worst fire seasons around the globe. More than 2.2 million acres have burned here in California so far, exacerbated by drought. Large swaths of land around the Mediterranean burned. In July, the town of Lytton, British Columbia, in Canada, reached a record 121 degrees Fahrenheit and literally burst into flame.

Less than one month ago, Hurricane Ida wreaked devastation from Louisiana to the Northeast, leaving at least 115 people dead and causing more than fifty billion dollars in damage.

Two months ago, record rainfall in Western Europe caused massive flooding, killing at least 220 people, and washing away an entire town in Germany.

Mi va’esh u’mi va’mayim. Who by fire and who by water?

The most urgent issue facing humanity is our imbalanced relationship with the earth. It outweighs every other concern: Covid, freedom, democracy, racism, poverty, education, and Israel.

Our out of balance relationship with the earth puts our species at risk of extinction. If that happens, nothing else matters – at least from humanity’s perspective.

Every one of us must do better when it comes to the ways that we utilize the earth’s resources. And since none of us can do everything, we can direct our efforts towards those issues which seem most urgent to us and which we have the greatest capacity to influence.

There are so many ciritical issues, including for those who do not believe human beings cause climate change. Much of the western United States is in extreme drought conditions. Microplastics are everywhere, from the deepest seas to the highest mountains. Humanity’s encroachment into unoccupied areas, called WUI, the Wildland Urban Interface, puts people at greater risk from disasters like fire. The oceans are acidifying.

I plead with all of us.  Pick at least one thing that you care about and do more than you are already doing.

Who is to blame for how things have gotten to be the way they are?

You may recall a famous ad that appeared regularly on television in the 1970’s. The scene opens with a Native American man paddling down a bucolic river in a canoe. His hair is in braids and he is wearing a leather “Indian” outift. The camera turns to the water. A single piece of trash floats by.  Now we see an industrial nightmare.  Large factories, container ships, and pollution spewing smoketacks dwarf the small canoe.The Native American drags his boat to the shore, where more trash litters the ground.  As he begins walking, a voiceover proclaims:

“Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country.”

He is now at the side of a busy highway. As the traffic zooms past, a driver carelessly throws a bag of rubbish out the window. It lands, scattering garbage across our hero’s feet.  The voiceover continues:

“And some people don’t.”

As the camera zooms in on the Native American’s face, a single tear rolls down his cheek and we are admonished,

“People start pollution, and people can stop it.”

This ad, which came to be known as the “The Crying Indian,” is considered by the Ad Council to be one of the “50 greatest commercials of all time.”

By every measure, it was super effective. 

Part of a campaign by a nonprofit organization called Keep America Beautiful, it helped lead to the reduction of litter by 88% across 38 states. But that was not the real goal of “The Crying Indian.” As they say: follow the money.

The nonprofit Keep America Beautiful was not founded, as its name might suggest, by a bunch of do-gooder hippies. It was created in the 1950’s by the American Can Company and the Owens-Illiniois Glass Company, which were later joined by the likes of Coca-Cola and the Dixie Cup Company.

The goal of Keep America Beautiful was to oppose the influence of environmentalists.  Prior to its founding, packaging was typically reusable.  If you bought a Coke, you paid a deposit and then returned the bottle so that it could be sterilized and reused.  In the 1950’s, as the plastics industry was taking off, bottlers and container manufacturers began to aggressively – and successfully – push single use packaging.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s there were increasing moves to enact legislation to limit the production of throwaway containers.  So Keep America Beautiful began to sponsor ad campaigns like “The Crying Indian.”

The cynical strategy was based on the simple economics of supply and demand.  If we want to do something about litter, we basically have two options: focus on the people who make the stuff or focus on the people who use the stuff.  The suppliers, or the demanders.  Supply or demand.

“The Crying Indian,” with its final message, “People start pollution, and people can stop it,” places responsibility on the demand side of the equation.

The suppliers of all of this packaging would shrug their shoulders and say, “we are just giving our customers what they want. It’s not our fault.”

In fact, it was their fault.  Through a decades-long marketing strategy, they shifted public consciousness to center all of the blame and responsibility on the demand side. The result is that there were few limits placed on supply. The companies avoided having to pay the costs of pollution and disposal, and they earned billions and billions of dollars while the plastic accumulated.

I go to Costco and discover apples on my shopping list. Organic apples.  But those apples come in a plastic clamshell.  Now I, the consumer, am stuck with this piece of plastic that I do not want, but that is now my responsibility to deal with.Does it go in the trash or the recycling bin? Well, it’s got the triangle thing on it, but I recently heard that those triangle thingies are not reliable.  Plus, the third world countries to which we used to ship all of our plastic are starting to say, “no thank you. We don’t want your trash.” As it turns out, much of that plastic heading for recycling was just being dumped in open air landfills.

Who is the manufacturer of that plastic clamshell?  Who knows. What is their legal responsibility? Nothing whatsoever.

It is because Keep America Beautiful‘s ad campaign worked.  Our economy does not include the price of disposal in the cost of manufacturing. The suppliers are off the hook.

By the way, the Indian who appeared in the ad was an actor who went by the name “Iron Eyes Cody.”  His real name was Espera De Corti. He was a second generation Italian American. 

What is your personal carbon footprint? How much CO2 and methane do your actions put into the environment? This is a question many of us have asked ourselves in recent years.

I can easily go online and find a website that will ask me to estimate the number of square feet in my home, my annual vehicle mileage, the number of airplane flights I take per year, and so on.  Enter all the data, click next, and presto – my carbon footprint!

Where did the idea for the carbon footprint come from? Follow the money.

The ad agency Ogilvy started the campaign in 2005 on behalf of its client, British Petroleum. Just like “The Crying Indian,” BP wanted to keep the moral responsibility for oil production on the demand side rather than the supply side of the equation.

So BP encourages us to calculate our carbon footprint and then offers suggestions for how we can reduce it, knowing that we will not actually follow through in any economically substanative way.  Meanwhile, BP will be there for us to supply all of the oil that we demand.

For its part, BP has made no effort to reduce its own carbon footprint. Quite the opposite – it has continued to expand its oil drilling, including a current multi-billion dollar project called “Thunder Horse” to construct an oil platform 150 miles south of New Orleans in the Gulf of Mexico. When all eight wells are completed sometime this decade, it will produce 250,000 barrels of oil and 200 million cubic feet of gas per day.

But it is our responsibility.  After all, BP is just meeting our demand.

This strategy has been used over and over again – by the petroleum industry, tobacco companies, sugary beverage producers.  “It’s not our fault. We are just giving the people what they want.”

But it is their fault.

Or maybe not entirely.

One of the most prominent sections in our Mahzor is the Vidui, the confessional. We recite Ashamnu and Al Chet. For the sins we have committed, forgive us and pardon us. We strike our chests in contrition. 

Both of these prayers are alphabetical.  The Ashamnu lists a single verb for each letter. Al Chet is a double acrostic, with two sentences per letter. We recite a litany of sins. Some are specific actions, while others are general attitudes of selfishness or duplicity.

All of the verbs end with -nu, which is the 1st person plural.  We did all of these things. Surely not! I have definitiely screwed up a lot this past year, but I’m not that bad.  I didn’t commit every sin on the list. For example, I know with certainty that I did not charge interest to anyone in 5781. I categorically reject that characterization.

We Rabbis will often explain this expression of collective guilt as a way to provide cover, to help those of us who might actually be guilty of one of these sins to face up to it. 

Or maybe, in another sense, we actually are accountable for each other’s sins. These confessions are not personal admissions.  We, as a collective entity, take responsibility for all that has happened in the lives of our congregation.

Or perhaps we, as Jews, take collective responsibility before God for all that the Jewish people have done.

Or if we widen the lens further, perhaps humanity is in some sense collectively responsible for all that we do as a species.

After all, we cannot avoid the consequences of each others’ actions. This has been made devastatingly clear during the Covid pandemic. Maybe the language of guilt and innocence is not the most helpful paradigm. Maybe it would be more constructive if we framed it this way:

There are actions that individuals and groups take which impact the lives of others. That is an unavoidable fact. When that happens, like it or not, we become responsible.

Humanity is responsible for humanity’s relationship to the earth.

As much as we might like to assign blame, the fire and the flood certainly don’t care whose fault it is.

Whether from a theological, ethical, or self-interest perspective, we are responsible for treating the earth appropriately.

Unfortunately, traditional Jewish law is somewhat deficient as a source of practical guidance. The basic categories developed two thousand years ago, at a time when there was no awareness of an interdependent global environment. Human beings did not know about chemicals that could not be seen or that could dissipate into the upper atmosphere.

Also, Jewish law tends to focus on the actions and responsibilities of individuals, not governments or corporations. In other words, on the demand side of the economic equation.

Nevertheless, our present situation is not entirely without precedent. In his twelfth century law code, Maimonides includes a section called Hilkhot Sh’khenim, Laws of Neighbors. He addresses a situation in which a person wants to build a feature or conduct business on his property that produces pollution that would travel beyond its borders. 

If a person constructs a threshing floor in the midst of his (property), or builds an outhouse, or does work which raises dust, particles of earth, etc., he must move far enough away so that the pollution does not reach his neighbor and cause harm. Even if the pollution is carried by the wind, he is obligated to move far enough away…

Rambam, Laws of Neighbors 11:1

Jewish law deals with directly identifiable harm. And we can see from the examples that Maimonides gives that the pollution in question is all what we would characterize as “natural” byproducts.

But when the harm is indirect, such as plastic in the ocean or CO2 in the atmosphere, Jewish law has no explicit prohibition. And the earth itself has no standing to sue.

I wonder, if he was writing today, what other forms of pollution Maimonides would have included in the law.

The lack of specific legal precedents does not mean that Judaism is ambivalent. A famous midrash expresses humanity’s ideal relationship with the natural world.  

When God created the first human beings, God led them around the garden of Eden and said: ‘Look at my works! See how beautiful they are — how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.’

Midrash Kohelet Rabbah on Ecclesiastes 7:13

Notice a few details. Human beings are the purpose of creation, but the world still belongs to God.

Detail two – All of the beautiful and excellent things in the world can be destroyed, but the damaged world itself will continue to exist.

Detail three – there is nobody else to repair it. We are on our own here. God will not step in to save the earth from our mismanagement. 

Let’s take this a step further. In the Torah’s language, adam, humanity, is created in God’s image. That is a theological statement.

A scientist would ask if homo sapiens is fundamentally different than any other species. The answer is no and yes.

Every living thing is comprised of the same chemical materials, and is formed and behaves according to its DNA encoding.

We share the same survival instincts as all life forms, from the great whale to the spot of mold on a rock. We are drawn to that which helps our particular genetic material reproduce and repelled by that which puts it at risk. Most animals know instinctively that fire is dangerous and it is best to run away from it. We would call this “biological knowledge.”

On the other hand, homo sapiens is the only species that can understand how the combination of dry conditions, heat, heavy winds, and a lightning storm increases the chances of a forest fire. A philosopher or scientist would call this “explanatory knowledge” – the ability to tell stories or develop formulas or ideas that explain why things are the way they are.

Those explanations may or may not be true, but they do enable a human being to approach a choice and consider, for example, “What is the ethical thing to do?” Religion, science, the arts – these are all made possible by humanity’s capacity for explanatory knowledge.

This is what makes us unique among living creatures on earth, if not the universe. Shifting back to theological language, we might say that our capacity for explanatory knowledge is what it means to be made in God’s image.

That capacity has made it possible for us to develop civilization and technology, to learn how to live in environments in which our bodies could not survive with biological knowledge alone.

This quality has enabled us to spread out across the world, to reach a global population of nearly 8 billion people, to harness the natural resources of the planet such that humanity has thrived beyond what its mere biology would allow.

This quality is also what puts our continued survival on the planet at risk.  And it is the quality that makes us the only ones who can restore the balance and save ourselves.

Whether from a theological or a scientific perspective, we are the ones who must radically change directions. Can we do it?

This afternoon, we will read the story of Jonah, the most successful prophet ever. 

Although he tries to escape his mission, Jonah eventually realizes that there is no avoiding God. Reluctantly, he marches off to the giant metropolis of Nineveh, a city so large it takes three days to walk across. He climbs up on his soap box and proclaims, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overturned!”

The people respond immediately.  They declare a fast, and put on sackcloth and ashes. When word reaches the king, he gets off his throne and he joins them, ordering everyone to participate, humans and even animals. God sees and forgives.  Disaster is averted. 

Can you imagine?

An entire society, top to bottom: the rich, the poor, the politicians, people of all ethnicities and religions – everyone recognizes the danger, accepts responsibility, and fully commits to change – overnight.

If only.

My children are really worried about whether the planet is going to be livable when they are adults.

While it would be nice to hold the greatest polluters accountable, I am afraid that it is up to humanity collectively, and us individually.

If you are in a position to make a difference on the supply side of the equation, you are our best hope. If you can influence the decision makers in government or are in government, or if you are in a position in your company to change policies and practices to be a better environmental steward, our children and grandchildren are counting on you.

Most of us are on the demand side of the equation. Whatever you are already doing, do more. If you can, install solar panels on your roof. Get rid of your gasoline powered car. Ride your bike or take public transit more. Rip out your lawn. Buy less stuff. Eat less meat. Move into a smaller space. Protect undeveloped land from human encroachment. We each have capacity, and we know best what we are capable of. Let others know what you are doing and celebrate each other’s actions. That is how we will make a difference.

May we be worthy of the trust given us by God to take care of this beautiful world with all of its excellent creations.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah.

https://www.sinai-sj.org/rjb-sermons/the-earth-doesnt-care-whos-at-fault-yk-5782

What Happens Behind Closed Tent Flaps – Rosh Hashanah 5782

When the Sofer was here last weekend to complete our new Torah scroll, he pointed out something that I had not thought about before. He asked, when in the Torah do Abraham and Isaac talk to each other?

The answer is, only during the story of Akedat Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac, which we read this morning. 

Abraham receives the call from God, a test, to “take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.”  (Genesis 22:2)

With alacrity, Abraham sets off on the journey, a donkey, two servants, Isaac, and wood for the sacrifice.  On the third day, Abraham leaves the two servants with the donkey and continues up the mountain.  He places the wood on Isaac’s shoulders, and himself carries the knife and the flint.

We now hear Isaac’s voice for the first time.

Avi – “Father”

And Abraham responds, hineni v’ni – “Here I am, my son.”

Hinei ha’esh v’ha’etzim, v’ayeh haseh l’olah – “Here are the flint and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”

Elohim yir’eh lo ha’seh l’olah b’ni, Abraham answers – “God will see to the sheep for the burnt offering, my son.” (Genesis 22:7-8)

And they continue on together.

That’s it, the only dialogue between Abraham and Isaac in the entire Torah.  

The angel comes to stop Abraham at the last minute. Indeed, God does see to the sheep for the burnt offering. Abraham looks up and sees a ram with its horns caught in a thicket, which he offers up in place of Isaac.

In reward, God reiterates the blessing to Abraham. His descendants will be as numerous as the stars in heaven and the sand on the seashore. They will seize the gates of their foes, and the nations of the earth will bless themselves by them.

Since ancient times, Jews have read the Akedah as highly significant. Although it might seem surprising to us, it is traditionally portrayed positively, the ultimate test and proof of Abraham’s faith, a test that he passes with flying colors.

But the scene ends on an ominous note — depending on how we read it.

Abraham then returned to his servants, and they departed together for Beer-sheba; and Abraham stayed in Beer-sheba.

Where is Isaac? He is neither seen nor heard from. 

Midrashim suggest a few possibilities. Abraham thinks to himself, “Everything I have is due to my commitment to Torah and mitzvot. I must ensure thay my offspring always maintain their faith.” So he sends Isaac off to study in the Yeshiva of Shem (Noah’s son).  (Genesis Rabbah 56:11)

Another midrash claims that Abraham partially slaughtered Isaac on the altar. So Isaac goes off to the Garden of Eden to recuperate for the next three years.

Other midrashim connect the Akedah directly to Sarah’s death, which follows at the beginning of the next chapter. In one legend, Sama’el, otherwise known as Satan, frustrated that Abraham passed God’s test of faith, goes to Sarah and asks her,

“Do you know what has just happened?  Your old husband has taken the lad Isaac and sacrificed him on the altar.  He cried and and wailed but there was nobody to save him.” Hearing this, Sarah herself began to cry and wail, three long gasps like the tekiah of the shofar, and three broken howls like the shevarim.  Then her soul departed.

Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 32:8

Even though the Akedah is traditionally seen as a “win” for Abraham, we still find notes of discomfort – a recognition of its painful and potentially alienating repercussions — if not for Abraham, then for Isaac and Sarah.

But I would like to come back to our initial question? Do we really think that this was the only conversation that ever occurred between Abraham and Isaac?

Of course not. 

Yes, old Abe was surely an intense guy, but I imagine they might have gone out to throw the ball around at some point.

Maybe, just maybe, they would get together from time to time over a beer and laugh about that time when Dad almost sacrificed his son.

And while the conspicuous absence of any reference to Isaac coming down from the mountain does seem ominous, we might be overreacting.

Is it possible that Abraham and Isaac had a more normal relationship than we generally assume; that the Torah’s story of their three-day father-son camping trip might not be representative of their relationship?

After all, we know only what is shown to us on the outside.

We make a lot of assumptions about the meaning of a story like the Akedah. How much do our assumptions mirror our own concerns and viewpoints rather than describe what [quote unquote] happened? This is true as well of our relationships with one another. We do not know what happens behind closed doors, or closed tent-flaps, as the case may be.

We have spent much of the past year and a half physically-distanced.  We cannot yet understand the full impact of this isolation. But let’s acknowledge for a moment some of the difficulties we have faced behind closed doors.

Much of our interactions have been by way of a two dimensional screen. We catch only partial glimpses of one another, and reveal just a fraction of ourselves, superimposed on a fake background of a tropical beach. The ability to mute ourselves or turn the camera off at will provides a further means of creating distance. Even when we have been together, we see just half of one another’s faces. We have been unable to see out of town family and friends. People who have been ill have had to spend their time in the hospital alone. Those who have lost family members have been unable to say goodbye in person. There are those who have experienced forced isolation with a sigh of relief. The removal of the pressure of social interactions has come as a blessing. Others have found their stress and anxiety levels rising. Parents have struggled to support their children, who have had to attend school from home and stay apart from friends. Often, we have been at a lost as to what to do when we see our children falling behind in schoolwork, withdrawing from friends, and suffering. We have coped with stress in ways both healthy and self-destructive.

Human beings are often quick to judge.  Quick to come to conclusions based on what we see on the surface. But just as when we read the Akedah, our judgments of others are just as if not more likely to be a reflection of ourselves than an accurate depiction of the other. Let’s keep in mind: A person who appears confident could be terrified. A friend who seems happy could be suffering. Someone who seems normal may be experiencing abuse at home.

To really see another person requires that we set aside our ego, that we be open to learning something we did not already know and could have no way of knowing. This is difficult under normal circumstances, and even more so lately.

We do not know what goes on behind closed doors, whether the physical doors of a home, or behind the doors into the soul of another person.

What we encounter of each other is limited, but God sees what is beneath the surface, perceives that which is hidden and invisible from one another. God remembers all of the forgotten things, taking note of that which we do not see, which we fail to take into account.

This day of Rosh Hashanah is a celebration of grandeur, of Creation and renewal. But as we celebrate such grandeur, we turn inward, to the innermost parts of our selves, the parts that are hidden from each other, that may even be hidden from us.  In the poetic language of the mahzor, however, all is revealed before God, for God is fundamentally different.

Atah hu yotz’ram, v’atah yode’a yitzram, ki hem basar va’dam – It is You who are their Creator, and it is You who knows their inclination, for they are flesh and blood.

This expression comes in the context of describing how God is waiting, every day of our lives, for us to turn in teshuvah. Each one of us is imperfect and mortal, our origin is from the dust and our end is to return to the dust. And the infinite God knows our innermost thoughts and feelings. The God of the universe, who surely has bigger, more important things to worry about, pays attention to the souls of each one of us. As we pray repeatedly during these holy days, God’s nature is forgiving and understanding, always willing to give us another chance.

Perhaps that is a lesson we might take to heart. The qualities we ascribe to God are those ideal qualities that we aspire to in ourselves. 

We do not know what is going on beneath the surface.  What happens inside homes, between family members. Behind the computer or smartphone screen. But it is safe to assume that there is an entire world. Each human being is an olam katan

So before we pass judgment on what we think we see, let’s make that extra effort to be compassionate, just as we ask God to do. To try to understand, with patience. To give each other the benefit of the doubt, a second chance, a third chance.

With so much alienation and distance between us, we need each other more than ever. May this new year be a year in which we open our eyes and open our hearts to one another.

Shanah Tovah.

Joseph’s Identity – Miketz 5781

As this morning’s Torah portion, Miketz, begins, Joseph has languished in jail for a while. If you recall from last week, Joseph’s brothers had sold him into slavery when he was seventeen years old. Eventually winding up in the home of an Egyptian courtier named Potiphar, Joseph becomes head of the household, second only to his master.

That all comes crashing down when Potiphar’s wife, frustrated that Joseph will not respond to her attempts to seduce him, instead accuses him of trying to rape her. Furious, Potiphar sends Joseph to the king’s prison, where he resides for more than two years.

As before, Joseph rises up in the prison hierarchy until he is placed in charge of all the other prisoners. This puts Joseph in the position of being sought out for advice by the other prisoners. After some time, the royal baker and wine steward approach Joseph with their disturbing dreams.

Joseph correctly interprets them to predict that the baker is scheduled to be exectuted while the stewared will be restored to his former position.

Miketz opens with Pharaoh’s fateful dreams.  The steward, having completely forgotten about Joseph, suddenly remembers the time when he was in prison and a Hebrew youth, a na’ar ivri, correctly unravelled the meaning of his dream. 

Joseph, still seen as a Hebrew, is brought to Pharaoh’s court, where he again solves the somnolescent condundraum. Once again, Joseph’s natural skills lead to his promotion to Pharaoh’s Hand, the second most powerful person in Egypt. Notice the pattern?

Pharaoh gives Joseph his signet ring, dresses him in fine clothes and a gold chain, and parades him through the streets on the royal chariot, proclaiming Avrekh to the onlookers as he passes by.

Does this ring any bells?  (Sounds like Mordechai in the Book of Esther)

Pharaoh then renames Joseph Tzafenat Paneach and gives him an Egyptian wife. Her name is Asenat, and she is the daughter of a man named Poti-Phera, Priest of On. If that name sounds familiar, it is. It is remarkably close to Joseph’s former master, Potiphar.

Is this the same person? Impossible to say, but one commentator suggests that Pharaoh is making a calculated, strategic move here. (Iturei Torah, Vol. 2, pp. 370-371.)  Who is the person most able to bring Joseph down in scandal? Potiphar, who knows all about Joseph’s past sins, alleged or real. That could mean trouble. But if Joseph becomes family by marrying Potiphar’s daughter, the skeletons are more likely to remain in the closet. 

Joseph immediately sets out to educate himself for his new position by embarking on a tour throughout Egypt.

This all occurs when Joseph is thirty years old. He has spent forty three percent of his life so far away from his family and homeland.

In his new position, he quickly enacts his policy proposals, collecting vast stores of grain for Pharaoh. Towards the end of the seven years of plenty, Joseph and Asenat start a family. They have two sons, Menashe and Ephraim.

By this point, Joseph has spent his adult life, and more than half of his entire life, outside of the land of Canaan, away from his family. How does he feel about his identity?

Joseph’s brothers totally rejected him, sending him into slavery and exile. He now has an Egyptian name, wife, and children. His father in law is Egyptian clergy. He has money, honor, and power in Egyptian society. He dresses and speaks like an Egyptian. He even walks like an Egyptian.

If you were Joseph, how would you see yourself?

He tells us. Listen closely to the explanations that Joseph offers for his sons’ names. Both explanations are positive. Joseph acknowledges God for granting him some sort of respite from his earlier miserable situation.

The firstborn is Menashe — כִּי־נַשַּׁ֤נִי אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־כָּל־עֲמָלִ֔י וְאֵ֖ת כָּל־בֵּ֥ית אָבִי —”for God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home.” 

Next is Ephraim — כִּי־הִפְרַ֥נִי אֱלֹהִ֖ים בְּאֶ֥רֶץ עָנְיִי — “for God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.” 

 Notice that for his firstborn, Joseph refers to his parental home as a place of hardship — amali. For his second born, Joseph refers to his new home as a place of affliction – oni. Both places have been difficult for him—Canaan because of his family troubles and Egypt because of his enslavement and imprisonment.

Joseph sees in Menashe an opportunity to finally move on from the hardship of his childhood. His son’s birth symbolically enables him to “forget.” In Ephraim, Joseph sees fertility, the ultimate sign of blessing.

What is the message? Joseph has shed his Hebrew past and embraced his new Egyptian identity. Interesting, however, that he continues to acknowledge God as the source of his good fortune.

The famine strikes, and it is global. Jacob sends the ten brothers who had sold Joseph into slavery down to Egypt to purchase food. The text is very clear that Joseph recognizes them immediately but they do not recognize him – neither his appearance nor his voice. Joseph, by all accounts, is completely Egyptian.

Seeing his brothers show up in his chambers for food must have come as a shock to Joseph. Despite his embrace of Egyptian life, he realizes that he cannot forget his father’s house.

There are a few hints in Parashat Miketz that Joseph still harbors elements of his earlier identity: faith and food. Throughout events, Joseph credits God for his success. It is God who enables him to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams and it is God who blesses him with forgetfulness and fertility.

When he accuses his brothers of being spies and nevertheless grants them permission to return home as long as they leave one of their number behind as his prisoner, Joseph states et ha-Elohim ani yarei – “I am a God-fearing man.” A strange statement in the land of Horus and Ra, Isis and Osiris.

A bit later in the story, when the brothers have returned to Egypt for more food, Joseph hosts them for a meal. The Egyptian servants refuse to eat with the Hebrews, as to do so would be an abomination. Joseph, on the other hand, stays in the room to dine with them. He even offers portions of food from his own table, extra portions going to his full brother Benjamin.

Through these interactions, Joseph, overcome with emotion, occasionally leaves the room to weep.

Over the next two Torah portions, as Joseph pushes his brothers harder and harder to ascertain the extant of their repentance, he opens up more and more to his past. By the end of the Book, Joseph fully reconciles with his family.

Jacob, now in Egypt, blesses the sons whose births once symbolized abandoning the land of his father and building a home in a new land.

Although he never returns to the land of Canaan, Joseph makes his surviving relatives swear that they will bring his bones back when they eventually return to the Promised Land. Many generations later, Moses fulfills that promise.

The theme of fate is strong throughout this story. Joseph’s teen-age dreams that his brothers will one day bow down before him are always in the back of our minds. We know that there will be a reunion, but the characters themselves do not.

We just finished celebrating Chanukah. The Maccabees launched their rebellion to protect their right to continue to follow the Torah in the land of their ancestors. Not only were there Jews who were actively assimilating, and trying to assimilate the rest of Judean society. The Greek authorities had actually outlawed some of the core practices of Judaism like Torah study and circumcision. The Maccabees fought to prevent the active, intentional cultural eradication of Jewish life in the Promised Land.

Ever since, Chanukah has symbolized the Jewish people’s struggle to maintain our identity, especially as we find ourselves living among larger non-Jewish cultures. America has been good to the Jews. Never in our history have we been more free to practice our religion outwardly and proudly, without fear of persecution. Ironically, it has never been easier to leave our ancient heritage behind and assimilate into the surrounding culture.

Joseph’s struggles predate the Maccabees. Only for Joseph, the struggles were personal and emotional. They were wrapped up in the difficult dynamics of his family. And the rising and falling of his fortunes in non-Hebrew society.

An Egyptian name, language, marriage and culture—despite embracing all of these things, Joseph still comes back to family.

Whose story most closely resembles our experience – Joseph or the Maccabees?

Birthdays and Yahrzeits – Yom Kippur 5781

In 1888, Ludvig Nobel died in France from a heart attack. The story is told that a French newspaper mistakenly reported that it was, in fact, Ludvig’s brother, Alfred, who had passed away. The obituary called Alfred a “merchant of death” who had made his fortune developing new ways to “mutilate and kill.”

Alfred Nobel was indeed an arms developer and manufacturer. He invented dynamite, and over the course of his career filed 355 patents for various explosives components. Alfred owned nearly 100 munitions factories.

When he read the mistaken obituary, Alfred Nobel came face to face with his legacy. He could not bear to be remembered for causing death and destruction.

In 1895, Alfred Nobel signed his last will and testament. In it, he devoted his fortune, worth around $265 million today, to a series of annual prizes that would be awarded to individuals from around the world “who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” The categories included physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace. Economics was added in 1968.

Alfred Nobel died the following year. The first Nobel prizes were awarded in 1901, and have since been granted to more than 500 people, including Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Winston Churchill, and Martin Luther King, Jr. When we think of Alfred Nobel today, we think of the prize that bears his name.

Did Nobel’s late-in-life awakening serve as atonement for his earlier actions?  That is for God to say, but the good that he did at the end of his life is surely meaningful in its own right. It leaves Alfred Nobel with a complicated legacy.

The Nobel prizes are announced every year on December 10, the anniversary of Alfred’s death. Interesting that his birthday was not the date selected.

In America, we tend to celebrate great people on their birthdays. Presidents Day is sandwiched between George Washington’s birthday on February 22 and Abraham Lincoln’s on February 12. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day occurs on the third Monday of January to mark his birthday on January 15. Cesar Chavez Day occurs on March 31, also his birthday.

What is the difference between the date of birth and the date of death? What is a birthday? What does it represent?

It is fundamentally arbitrary. A birthday has significance because we say so.

It marks some multiple of 365 days since the day on which a person was born. Put another way, it is when the earth is in the exact same position in its orbit relative to the sun as it was when that person entered the world. 

One week from today, on October 5, the earth and sun will be aligned exactly as when my wife was born, for the 46th time. So happy birthday Dana.

The birth of a baby is just about the happiest thing in life. But why? The kid has not done anything yet.

All of the joy that we feel is for the potential that this child embodies. At a bris, and sometimes at a Simchat Bat, the baby is placed in Elijah’s Chair as if to say, this child could potentially be the mashiach, could be the one to make the world worthy of redemption.

Birthdays are about hope. By celebrating them, we suggest that having been born was a good thing. According to “celebration industry analysts” in 2018, the Children’s Birthday Party industry in the United states was worth $38 billion. That’s a lot of hope.

On the other hand, each successive birthday celebration reminds us that the time since our birth is increasing and the corresponding time to our inevitable end is shrinking.

Perhaps that is why some people become sensitive about their birthday and their age as they get older, as in when someone, only partially in jest, announces that they are celebrating their 29th birthday for the fortieth time.

Judaism does not traditionally celebrate birthdays. Instead, we observe the yahrzeits of those who have passed.

Yahrzeit is a Yiddish word that literally means “time of year.” It is the anniversary of a person’s date of death, according to the Hebrew calendar. While there are terms that reflect similar practices for Sephardic Jews, the word yahrzeit has migrated into Ladino as well.

We mark a yahrzeit in a few significant ways. Mourners light a memorial candle to burn for the entire day. The flame is seen as a symbol for the soul, and is inspired by the verse in Proverbs (20:27): Ner Adonai nishmat adam.  “The light of Adonai is the soul of a human.”

Mourners go our of their way to find or even assemble a minyan so that they can recite the Kaddish.

In synagogue, on the preceding Shabbat, we read all the names of those whose yahrzeit will occur in the upcoming week. While this technically serves simply as a reminder to mourners to light the candle and recite the Kaddish, the recitation and hearing of the name has become a ritual in and of itself. Relatives attend services on the preceding Shabbat to hear the name of their loved one being read.

Other customs to mark a yahrzeit include giving tzedakah, studying Jewish texts, and visiting a grave. Of course, telling stories about our loved one is central.

Where the birthday marks the potential, still unrealized future actions of a person, the yahrzeit marks the impact and legacy that a person has already made. It honors a life in its entirety. Birthdays look to the future. Yahrzeits look to the past.

Judaism evaluates a life based on the sum total of a person’s accomplishments – the good and the bad. As long as I have breath, my legacy is still incomplete. It is not yet time to celebrate.

Later this afternoon, we will observe Yizkor, a service in which we remember our loved ones who are no longer with us. Yizkor is about remembering what they meant to us and how they impacted us. We recognize that, even in death, the souls of the dead are bound with the souls of the living. 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away a week ago Friday, on September 18. It was the 29th of Elul, 5780, Erev Rosh Hashanah. Over the past week, the tributes have poured in as people around the nation have honored her life and legacy.

Joan Ruth Bader was born on March 15, 1933 in Brooklyn, New York. She was a pioneer and a fighter throughout her career. She was one of only a few woman in law school at Harvard. She transferred to Columbia and graduated first in her class. RBG was the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court and its sixth—and longest serving—Jewis Justice. In death, she was the first woman and the first Jew to ever lie in state at the US Capitol.

From the beginning of her career, Ginsburg fought for gender equality and women’s rights. She argued, and won, many cases before the Supreme Court. She joined the Court in 1993 as a moderate consensus builder and later became the leader of its liberal wing. Notably in the last decade, she became a defender of voting rights.

Her chambers were decorated with the passage form Deuteronomy, Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” 

RBG was always outspoken. She made a point of writing and reading her dissenting opinions from the bench when she had a point to make. She gave great interviews and could sometimes be a bit hasty in her comments – a testament to her freshness.

Her best friend on the court was her ideological opposite, the late Antonin Scalia, with whom she would dine and go to the opera. They were an example to the rest of us that it should be possible to have close relationships with those with whom we disagree.

Over the past decade and a half, the Notorious RBG became a pop icon and an inspiration to younger generations – which came as a total surprise to the petite Jewish grandmother from Brooklyn.

I do not know if we will remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s birthday, but I am pretty sure that we will remember her yahrzeit. The date of her passing on Erev Rosh Hashanah has special significance to Jews. She got to live every day of 5780, which feels so appropriate for a woman who pursued justice every day of her life, even when she was lying in her hospital bed.

RBG was a pioneer in life. Now that she is no longer with us, she continues to inspire us as someone who made every day of her life count. Usually we say, “May her memory be a blessing.”  For her, we can say “Her memory is a blessing.”

Of course, there are few people who achieve her level of greatness. Most of us will not have such far-reaching impact. But we do not have to compare her accomplishments to our own.

That is the force of the story about Alfred Nobel. It was when confronted with his own life’s legacy that he decided to change course. 

Yom Kippur is the day on which we face our mortality. It is the day when we consider our life as if it is at the end. If The Mercury News screwed up and printed our obituary, what would it say? Would we be pleased with the report?

There are two unique parts of the Yom Kippur service that occur in every Amidah over the course of the fast: Selichot and Vidui.

Selichot are the penitential prayers. We chant the thirteeen attributes of God, emphasizing God’s forgiving, patient nature. We know we have made mistakes. We want to be better, and so we are asking for another chance.

The Vidui is the confession. This is when we collectively list all of the ways in which humans miss the mark. We pound on our chests for each of them. While none of us has violated every sin on the alphabetical lists, we know in our hearts which ones apply to us.

Selichot always precede the Vidui. We want to make sure that God hears our confessions from the side of compassion. S’lakh lanu, m’khal lanu, kaper lanu, we sing. “Forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.” Atonement is essentially the opportunity for a new start.

Yom Kippur includes elements of both the Yahrzeit and the birthday. When we get through the day, we experience a kind of rebirth. While nothing from our past is erased, we now have another chance to add to our story.

What a wonderful blessing and charged opportunity.

Earlier in the Covid crisis, I heard a piece of advice for high school students that stuck with me. Imagine, when all this is over, when a college admissions officer asks you the following question: “What did you do during Covid?” how will you answer?

I don’t think that is a question for just high schoolers. It is for all of us.

How have I spent this time? 

RBG, who fought cancer for the past four years, continued her life’s work of pursuing justice, issuing Supreme Court decisions from her hospital bed.

Our lives have been inhibited in so many ways. I do not need to list them. But that should not be an excuse to give up. It should be an opportunity to do something in a different way.

When we come out of Yom Kippur, the world around us will be the same. The question that we must ask ourselves is, will I?

“Racist / Not Racist” – It’s Not a Check Box

Since police officers murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis last week, our nation has been torn asunder.  Largely peaceful protests in cities all across America, and even abroad, are unlike anything I have witnessed in my life.  It feels like we have been building to this moment.  What happens next will be determined by how well we can listen to each other and whether we are willing to look honestly at ourselves and our institutions.

Speaking about race is so difficult.  It is deeply personal.  It is tragically polarizing.  

While our congregation is diverse, the majority of Congregation Sinai’s members have white skin. As someone who is not black, I am cautious to speak about the Black Lives Matter movement.  I do not want to condescend or claim to understand someone else’s experience.  I come to this as a man with white skin, as a Jew, and as a Rabbi.  

I am not a racist.

I wish it were as simple as that, but racism is not a binary question.  There is no check box that says “I am a racist” or “I am not a racist.”  If there was, I would hope that all of us would check the “I am not a racist” box.  But that would be too easy.

This is a really touchy subject for white people.  Many of us reject the idea that we are complicit in racism.  Why should I be blamed for somebody else’s hate?  At that point, the conversation about race is over.  We have to be able to get past the racist/not racist – check the box approach.

Every system contains inherent biases.  Every person is permeated by them.  I see a human, and my mind immediately makes assumptions based on what I perceive: the color of someone’s skin, the shape of their eyes, their name, their accent, their gender.  These biases come from our family, our society, our community. We cannot eliminate these biases, but we can strive to become aware of them.  

In 1619, the first ship filled with African slaves arrived in Virginia.  400 years later, our society is still infected with the virus of racism.  It permeates all of our social institutions: law enforcement, the justice system, healthcare, education, and housing.  Talking about “a few bad apples” misses the point.

Terms like systemic racism and inherent bias have become part of the national conversation.  Major corporations, organizations, schools, and religious institutions are rushing to look at how their own policies and practices, whether intentional or not, have discriminated unfairly against black people and perpetuated racism in our society.

My email inbox is flooded with official position statements issued by nonprofit organizations, institutions, and companies – including a local sporting goods store.  I am sure yours is as well.

Both schools my children will attend next year sent out emails yesterday announcing multi-step plans to better support students of color.  These emails were sent after alumni publicly shared their experiences of racism when they attended those institutions.

Congregation Sinai has a great relationship with the San Jose Police Department.  When we have a concern, we get a quick response.  Joelle and I have direct cell phone numbers of the officers who are tasked with counterterrorism.  Officers join us every year for our Emergency Preparedness Shabbat evacuation drill.  They proactively call us to warn us of potential areas of concern.

Personally, I have never been afraid of the police.  I have never been pulled over for any reason that was not legitimate.  When I have felt the need to call the police, I have never hesitated.  I have never felt that I was being followed around in a store.  I have never had a random stranger cross the street to get further away from me.  I have never been considered for a job on anything other than my merit.  I have always lived within a short distance of vast quantities of healthy, affordable groceries.  I have always known that if I got sick, I would be able to see a doctor who would take my concerns seriously.

None of this should be remarkable.  This is exactly how it should be.  For everyone.

But we know that it is not.  Forget the studies and the statistics.  Just listen to black people.  When a black person in this country says they are scared of being shot by the police; that they do not think the justice system will give them a fair trial, that they were followed around in a store while shopping; that they were pulled over while driving the speed limit; that they were not given pain medication while they were giving birth in the hospital – I don’t have the right to tell them they are wrong.

After all, we hate it when people do that to us.  As Jews, when someone who is not Jewish denies or belittles our history of suffering persecution and genocide, we get furious.  You don’t get to tell me that, as the grandson of Holocaust survivors, that part of my identity is invalid.  It is patronizing and anti-semitic.

If we are going to accuse those who were silent while Jews were being slaughtered, what does it say about how we should act when our neighbors are being mistreated?

When African Americans say “I can’t breathe,” both literally and figuratively, we have to listen and act.

As living creatures, we are hard-wired, biologically, to discriminate.  We are essentially tribal in our social behavior.  I favor those who are part of my group over those who are not.  That is the animal part of us – our survival instinct.

As human beings made in the image of God, our essential task is to rise above that instinct.  The Torah’s challenge to us, to humanity, is to answer Cain’s fundamental question to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” with an emphatic “Yes!”

This does not come naturally or easily.  We Jews, of all people, should know that.

It should not come as a surprise to learn that all three major Jewish movements issued statements this week.  I am going to read a section from each, without identifying its author. 

“The national rage expressed about the murder of Mr. Floyd reflects the depth of pain over the injustice that People of Color – and particularly Black men – have been subjected to throughout the generations. In recent months we have seen, yet again, too many devastating examples of persistent systemic racism, leading to the deaths not only of Mr. Floyd but of other precious souls, including Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.”

“We call upon those in government and law enforcement not only to preserve the law, but also to restore justice, fairness and a sense of compassion to all. Inciteful language must cease, and efforts must be expended which will educate our society away from racism and towards a better understanding each for the other.”

“We join in the collective call for peace and reflection during civil unrest, but understand that to achieve this end we must act. For these reasons, [we] call on legislators at the national, state, and local levels to fundamentally change their approach to law enforcement and the justice system so that they serve and protect all Americans, regardless of race or ethnicity. We encourage our own members to reach out to other communities, to Jews of Color, as well as to local law enforcement to help lead and shape these endeavors within the community.”

That was from all three movements, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox, although not necessarily in that order. You probably could not tell which statement came from which.  The point should be obvious.  Institutional racism exists at all levels of society.  Continuing to go about our lives, with the “I am not a racist” box checked is insufficient.  Every major Jewish institution in America agrees with that.

Elected leaders, law enforcement, civil servants, and the rest of us have an active role to play. My wife pointed out an inspiring passage from one of the Psalms that we sang together during this morning’s services.

Who is the person who desires life, who loves long years discovering goodness?

Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies

Turn away from evil and do good, demand peace and pursue it.

Psalm 34:13-15

If we want to see goodness and peace in the world; if we truly love life—we cannot be passive. We have to actively demand and pursue it. This moment surely calls for such action.

So what can we do?

First of all, we need to go out of our way to listen, without judgment, to Black people.  Before jumping in with solutions, we have got to listen to those who are suffering.  Reach out, with sensitivity, to black friends and acquaintances.  Hear their stories

Donate money.  Whether you care about education, health care, justice, poverty, job training, or political action.  There are plenty of ways to put money to work.

Get involved with justice efforts led by Black organizers.  It is not for non African Americans to set the agenda.

We have to take an honest look at ourselves.  How do issues of race play a role in our lives, with friends, neighbors, coworkers, and classmates?

We also need to look at our own institutions.  I have been thinking a lot this week about how inclusive we are at Congregation Sinai.

One of our core values, which we developed with our Vision Statement a few years ago, is:  We welcome all types of families and individuals into our community.

Are we living up to that value?  To answer that, we need to hear from all of our members, listening especially to the voices of Jews of color.

It will take time, but I pray that we are reaching a turning point.  Our nation is desperately in need of healing.  

I would like to recite a prayer that we know well.  The Prayer for Our Country.  We have said it many times during Shabbat services, so many times that we tend not to pay attention to what it means.  Like many of our prayers, it strikes a discordant tension between the world as it is and the world as it should be. 

Our God and God of our ancestors: We ask your blessings for our country, for its government, for its leaders and advisors, and for all who exercise just and rightful authority. Teach them the insights of Your Torah, that they may administer all affairs of state fairly, that peace and security, happiness and prosperity, justice and freedom may once again abide in our midst.

Creator of all flesh, bless all the inhabitants of our country with Your spirit. May citizens of all races and creeds forge a common bond in true harmony to banish all hatred and bigotry and to safeguard the ideals and free institutions which are the pride and glory of our country.

May this land under Your providence be an influence for good throughout the world, uniting all people in peace and freedom and helping them to fulfill the vision of Your prophet: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they experience war any more.”  And let us say: Amen.

What is Judaism? – Legacy Shabbat 5780

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.