Rise, O Daughters of Priests and Levites – Emor 5782

As you know, Congregation Sinai is a traditional, egalitarian, Conservative synagogue. There are a range of religious practices within the Conservative movement. Sinai, from a liturgical perspective, tends to be on the more traditional side.  Our service is entirely in Hebrew. We chant the full Torah reading, rather than using the triennial system. We do not abbreviate our service in many of the ways that one might find in other Conservative synagogues.

Like almost every Conservative synagogue, we are egalitarian. Any Jew above the age of B’nei Mitzvah counts towards making a minyan. There is no distinction by gender in leadership roles during services. We have the same expectations, and teach the same skills and knowledge, to all our children. Every child in the religious school wears a head covering, and all B’nei Mitzvah wear a tallit. For many years, our practice has been to accept, without judgment, any Jew according to their preferred gender identity.

I am aware of only one way in which our practice has not been fully egalitarian, and that is our treatment of kohanim and leviim — of priests and Levites.

According to tradition, Kohanim are descendants of the first High Priest, Aaron, and Leviim come from the ancient tribe of Levi. They officiated in the Tabernacle when the Israelites were in the wilderness, and in the first and second Temples. This morning’s Torah portion, Emor, addresses specifically the laws governing the kohanim, including restrictions they had to follow, as well as privileges that they enjoyed.

While Jewish identity is passed on matrilineally, one’s status as a kohen or levi is determined by patrilineal descent.

In keeping with Jewish tradition, Sinai’s practice until now has been to call up the son of a kohen for the first aliyah and the son of a levi for the second aliyah. I have been clear and open over the years to anyone who has asked that we would not consider changing this practice until someone to whom it affects comes forward with this request; in other words, someone with “standing.”

It has taken many years, but that person has finally come forward. In the interest of full transparency, that person is my daughter, Noa.

I speak today wearing several hats.  I am the Rabbi of Congregation Sinai. I am a kohen. And, I am the father of a daughter.

As the Rabbi of the congregation, I serve as mara d’atra, literally “master of the place.” I have the responsibility to decide on questions of Jewish law and ritual practice. The Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards, the CJLS, is a Conservative institution that addresses questions of halakhah, Jewish law. A local mara d’atra can rely upon a decision of the CJLS for their own community.

The CJLS, in a 1989 teshuvah written by Rabbi Joel Roth, approved extending the first and second aliyot to daughters of kohanim and leviim. I will explain the reasoning behind that decision in a few minutes.

I should add as well that there are CJLS teshuvot that allow for a congregation to dispense entirely with the kohen, levi, yisrael system. Many Conservative synagogues follow that practice.

As a kohen, I have had many significant religious experiences over the years in synagogues and communities around the world. It is an important part of my family identity, passed down by my father. Needless to say, I am called up to the Torah a lot, probably receiving more than 50% of all first aliyot at Sinai.

As for the answer to whether Sinai will call up a bat kohen for the first aliyah, I will have to be able to look my daughter in the eye and explain my decision.

You already know my answer. We are expanding our practice to call for the first and second aliyah anyone, regardless of gender, whose father is a kohen or a levi.

Before I start to explain why, I want to be clear about a few points. We are talking only about being called up for the first two aliyot. Questions around women’s involvement in Jewish ritual are not a single halakhic issue. Counting in a minyan, leading services, chanting Torah and Haftarah – each of these has been dealt with independently. Further, the priestly and levitical lines are passed only through the father. This decision does not apply to birkat kohanim, the Priestly Blessing. That is a separate issue which could potentially be dealt with at another time.

I would like to make one additional comment. Ritual is extremely personal. The prayers we recite, the melodies we sing, how we conduct services— these evoke strong feelings.

A change in any long-held practice can be difficult. Let’s keep in mind that every ritual that feels to us like it is mi-sinai – going all the way back to Mt. Sinai, actually started in a particular place by a specific person.

There was once a first Shabbat when someone thought it would be a good idea to read the Torah in public. There was a first time when someone said a blessing before that reading. There was one Shabbat when a person decided to divide the reading up into seven parts. Someone once thought it would be a good idea to honor people in the community with each of those readings.

There was a first time when a woman was called up to the Torah, which, by the way, occurred many centuries ago. There was a first Shabbat here at Congregation Sinai when a woman was called to the Torah.

Every time such an innovation occurred, it replaced a practice that preceded it. And you can be sure that there was always someone who was uncomfortable with that change.

The other thing I would like to mention is that some practices which might seem to be quite ancient are actually relatively recent innovations in Judaism.

So, why do the first and second aliyot go to Kohanim and Leviim?

The Mishnah, dating from the second century in the land of Israel, states the following:

These are the matters [that the Sages] instituted on account of the ways of peace: a priest reads first, and after him a Levite, and after him an Israelite, on account of the ways of peace…

Mishnah Gittin 5:8

This is the earliest description of the practice of kohen, levi, yisrael. A few questions arise. First of all, why? This tradition almost certainly reflects an innovation that developed after the destruction of the Second Temple, when kohanim and leviim were unable to perform their sacred responsibilities.

Second, what does the expression “on account of the ways of peace” — mipnei darkhei shalom — mean?

The Gemara addresses the first question by offering several alternative biblical verses as the imputed origin of the practice. The fourth verse suggested is by Rabbi Chiya bar Abba, who posits a verse from this morning’s Torah portion, parashat Emor

and you must treat him as holy, since he offers the food of your God; he shall be holy to you, for I, the Lord, who sanctify you am holy.

According to Rabbi Chiya, this means that in any matter of sanctity, a kohen should go first.

A Sage from the school of Rabbi Yishmael derives from this instruction to treat the kohen as holy that he should be accorded with the honor of speaking first in the study hall, leading the birkat hamazon, the grace after meals, and serving himself first at a meal.

What is the nature of this holiness which merits such special treament? There are essentially two possibilities. Either, they derive from the special sacrificial responsibilities of a kohen. Or, kohanim have a general sanctity independent of their duties in the Temple.

If it is based on their ritual duties, than we would expect that a kohen who was unable to perform those duties would not be eligible to receive these special honors. Specifically, this morning’s parashah states that kohen who has a physical defect, such as someone who is blind, or lame, or has a limb that is too short or too long, or a broken arm or leg, or a hunchback, a growth in his eye, and so on. A kohen with any of these physical disabilities is unqualified to participate in the Temple rituals. To even enter the sacred precincts would profane them.

If the privileges specified in the Talmud, such as receiving the first aliyah, derive from the kohen’s eligibility to perform the Temple service, than we would expect a physical disability to disqualify him from receiving the first aliyah as well.

But the Torah specifies that he is able to eat from kodashim, from sanctified food which is a perquisite of the kohanim. So he would seem to have some degree of inherent kedushah that is independent of his fitness to serve.

Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, a mid-twentieth century Orthodox Rabbi, ruled in the case of a kohen who received a disfiguring injury in the Holocaust was eligible to receive the first aliyah. He concludes that

the elements of priestly prerogative are not contingent upon his serving at the altar at all, and even where a priest is not entitled to serve at the altar, as a [disfigured priest], he nonetheless retains the sanctity of the priesthood, and the verse “he shall be holy” applies to him.

Rabbi Oshry concludes that kohanim receive the first aliyah due to their inherent sanctity.

Now back to the Mishnah. It indicates that the kohen should read from the Torah first “on account of the ways of peace.” What are these “ways of peace?”

Originally a kohen could forego his right to the first aliyah in favor of it going to a great sage or other dignified person. What you could imagine happening happened. People started to quarrel over who merited receiving the kohen‘s giving up the first aliyah. “Why did he allow this guy and not me?”

So the Sages enacted a ruling to prohibit a kohen from ever giving it up. The first aliyah must go to a kohen to prevent fights from breaking out in shul. (Incidentally, there were many times over the centuries when Rabbis agreed to find a way around this requirement – often for fundraising purposes.)

Finally, we come to b’not kohen – daughters of priests.

Do daughters of kohanim have any sanctity, and if so, what is the nature of that sanctity? While there was no ritual role played by the daughters of kohanim in the Temple, perhaps they have some degree of inherent sanctity. And if so, does that sanctity accrue to them only when they are in their father’s household, or does it remain with them after they are married?

In his teshuvah, Rabbi Roth points to three areas in Jewish law in which daughters of kohanim retain their rights even when they are no longer living in their fathers’ households. In other words, does a kohen’s daughter become a regular Israelite after she gets married?

One of the perquisites of the priesthood was the right to eat Terumah, a kind of Temple tax that Israelites gave. Remember, kohanim could not own land, so they relied upon farmers for their sustenance. Terumah is in a status called hekdesh, sanctified, and can only be eaten by kohanim and their households. If someone else consumes hekdesh, they have to pay for what they ate, plus a penalty.

When a bat kohen marries an Israelite, she loses her right to eat Terumah. If she does so inadvertently, however, the Mishnah clarifies that she does not pay the penalty that an Israelite would have to pay. Why not? This morning’s Torah portion states “no stranger may eat the sacred food.” Since she is not a ‘stranger’ to Terumah, she does not have to pay the penalty. (Sifra Emor 6:2)

Another perquisite of kohanim were the matanot kehunah, the gifts for the priests. According to the Talmud, a bat kohen retains her rights to eat these gifts even after she gets married and leaves her father’s household. (Rashi on BT CHullin 131b)

The final case speaks of both daughters of kohanim and leviim. According to the Torah, a first-born male child belongs to God. It must, therefore, be bought back, or redeemed, by God’s representative, a kohen. This occurs during a ceremony called pidyon haben. Parents give five silver shekels to a priest on the thirtieth day if their first-born child is a boy. There are exceptions. The son of a kohen, a levi, a bat kohen, and a bat levi do not have to be redeemed.

A Talmudic Sage explicitly ties this exemption to the actual womb of the mother. Exodus states, “whatever opens the womb among the children Israel.” In other words, there is something inherently holy about the womb of a bat levi and a bat kohen.

On a related note, a Talmudic anecdote refers to the Israelite husband of a bat kohen who regularly accepted the five silver coins for pidyon haben on account of his wife’s status. (Tosafot on BT Pesachim 49a)

These are three examples of ways in which a bat kohen has inherent sanctity that is not limited to when she is under her father’s household.

So if the approximately two thousand year old tradition of the first aliyah going to a kohen is based on the inherent sanctity of a kohen, independent of his service in the Temple, and if a bat kohen also has a measure of inherent sanctity, there are grounds for an egalitarian service to include any child of a kohen for the first aliyah.

But should we?

Historically, questions such as these have been difficult for Congregation Sinai. I arrived here shortly after the community decided to become egalitarian. Part of that decision, as many of you know, involved a compromise whereby our liturgy retained many of the elements of a traditional service while including women in the minyan and in leadership. The resulting traditional egalitarian service was one of the things that drew me to Congregation Sinai.

These are important values for me. Sometimes, a conflict arises between values. 

There have been incredible advances in gender equity. While not all the way there, we do not tolerate, by law or by accepted social norms, discrimination on the basis of gender in the workplace, in politics, or in society. Denying a person a job or advancement because of their gender is not only illegal, we now understand it to be wrong and immoral.

Today, a religion that does not give women the same opportunities as men must deal with a dilemma: Why do we accept something in our house of worship that would be intolerable out in the world? Any community that holds on to non-egalitarian practices must have an answer to that question.

That answer will be acceptable for some folks, and will most certainly be disappointing to others.

In the context of our practices at Congregation Sinai, the question of calling up the daughter of a kohen or levi for the first two aliyot is a really minor issue. It affects an incredibly small portion of our membership, and does not involve any change in our liturgy. It is now many years that we have called up men and women equally to the Torah.  

That is why I have decided, as the Rabbi of Congregation Sinai, that we will begin to call up daughters of kohanim and leviim for the first two aliyot during services. This brings us in line with the practices in a majority of Conservative synagogues.

This ruling applies to any person born Jewish whose father is a kohen. Like b’nei kohanim, A bat kohen cannot received aliyot two through seven, and like b’nei leviim, a bat Levi cannot receive the first aliyah, nor aliyot three through seven.

1200 Years of Jews in Ukraine

I have been thinking a lot about my grandmother this week. Baba Fania, zikhra livracha, was born in a city called Kamenets-Podolsk, in Ukraine.  She moved with her family to Kremenchug when she was a girl.

Her father died when she was young, so she and her sisters were left to be raised by her mother, my great grandmother, Chana. It was the 1930’s and so she received a good Soviet education, in Yiddish. She came home one day and told her mother that there was no God. Her mother smacked her, and declared emphatically, “I don’t care what they are telling you out there.  In this house, there is a God.”

As I was eating challah last night, I was thinking of a story that she told.  At times, they could not get any eggs. In order to get the golden color, they would take used tea bags and brush them over the dough.

My Baba escaped from Ukraine in 1941, just before the Nazis came into town. Her sisters and mother did not make it out, and were murdered along with the rest of her family. Dana and I named our son after my grandmother’s cousin, who died in the Holocaust.

Over the last several days, as we have observed the tragedy unfolding in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I have been thinking a lot about my Baba Fania. I have never been to Ukraine, but it is has felt very personal to me. I know that I must have distant relatives there, who are surely fearing for their lives.  I do not know how far back my own family’s history extends, but for sure it is many centuries. 

The history of Jews in Ukraine is a long one, and has gone through dramatic ups and downs, often at the same time.

Jews first arrived in Ukraine in the eighth century as refugees fleeing from the Byzantine Empire, Persia, and Mesopotamia. The earliest written reference to Jews in Galicia, Western Ukraine, is from 1030 CE.

Some time in the centuries that followed, the territory that is today modern Ukraine was taken over by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. As part of their administration, they would settle wealthy Polish Catholic nobles in Ukraine, and then encourage Jews to immigrate and serve as merchants. Jewish life prospered financially and culturally, and the population grew.

As might be expected, the local Ukrainian population, which was Eastern Orthodox, was kept in serfdom.

Resentment grew until, in 1648, as the Kingdom faced growing internal and external threats, Bogdan Chmelnytsky launched a Cossack rebellion. This led in 1651 to the incorporation of Ukraine by the Russian Tsar as a protectorate.

The Chmelnytsky revolt was devastating. Blaming the Poles for selling them “as slaves into the hands of the accursed Jews,” the Ukrainian Cossacks and Crimean Tatars murdered between fifteen and thirty thousand Jews and destroyed three hundred Jewish communities. The population declined dramatically, as many more Jews fled as refugees or died of disease and starvation.

But within a few decades, the tide would turn. The early 18th century saw the birth of Yisrael ben Eliezer, otherwise known as the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism. Heavily influenced by Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, Chasidism was incredibly popular and spread through much of Eastern Europe, making a huge and lasting impact on Ashkenazi Jewry.

By the end of the 18th century, the Russian Empire had completely annexed Ukraine, which created a problem, as Jews were not permitted to live in Russia. This led Catherine the Great to create the Pale of Settlement, which encompassed, among other areas, all of present day Ukraine.

Jewish life thrived through the eighteen hundreds, with the population growing and Jewish religious and cultural life expanding. At the same time, antisemitism was brutal. In 1881, Jews were falsely blamed for the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. With the encouragement of the authorities, pogroms were launched against Jewish communities throughout the Pale of Settlement, including in Ukraine. 

Tsar Alexander III introduced the May Laws in 1882 that imposed systematic discrimination against Jews, establishing quotas for educational and professional positions. This led to even more widespread poverty and mass emigration. The 1886 edict of Expulsion forced the removal of Jews living in Kyiv.

Another intense wave of pogroms in 1905 led to another wave of emigration. Multiple blood libels cases occurred between 1911 and 1913.

For context, this is the time period of Fiddler on the Roof. A lot of new ideas were spreading through Europe at this time, and Jews were attracted to some of the new ideologies that suggested an answer to the problems they were facing, that seemed to never go away. Jewish thinkers and revolutionaries were attracted to ideals of the enlightenment and internationalism. Jewish revolutionaries embraced socialism and became Communists. Others embraced Zionism, with many making aliyah to Palestine.

After World War One, during a short time period of 1917 to 1921, while the Russian Revloution was taking place, the Ukrainian People’s Republic presented a hopeful, albeit short-lived, moment for Jews. It was an independent socialist state that emerged in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution.  Yiddish was an official language, even appearing on currency. All government posts and institutions had Jewish members and all rights of Jewish culture were guaranteed. It was the first government to establish a Ministry for Jewish Affairs.

But the backlash was severe. Anti-communist Ukrainian nationalists went to war against the Soviets, and in the process killed approximately one hundred thousand Jews in pogroms between 1918 and 1921.

By 1921, Ukraine had been conquered by the Soviets, becoming one of its republics. The 1920’s saw brutal efforts to eliminate Jewish religion and leave it with only a secular cultural identity, explaining why my grandmother learned in Yiddish that there was no God.

The Holocaust was devastating. More than one million Jews were murdered by the Nazis and many Ukrainian collaborators.

In 1941, there were 2.7 million Jews living in Ukraine. In 1959, that number was 840,000. By 1989, there were less than 500,000 Jews living in Ukraine.

Ukraine gained its independence in 1991, and this led to continued changes in the situation for Jews living there. Hundreds of thousands of Jews emigrated, most making aliyah to Israel.

At the same time, throughout the 1990’s, Jewish life began to reemerge. There was a lot of interest from Jewish communities in Israel and the West to support Ukrainian Jews and help them come back. The government has returned dozens of old synagogues and other buildings to the Jewish community which had been confiscated by the Nazis and the Soviets.

While antisemitism seems to have declined in the past thirty years, there have certainly been many instances of antisemitic attacks.  A far right Ukrainian nationalist party gained more than ten percent of the popular vote in 2012. On the other hand, last year, in 2021, the Ukrainian Parliament adopted a new law defining antisemitism and providing compensation for victims.

Attempts to determine the number of Jews currently living in Ukraine are wildly varying. Questions of Jewish identity, after 70 years of Soviet suppression, make it difficult. A 2020 census estimated 43,000 self-identifying Jews, but 200,000 would qualify for aliyah under the Law of Return. The European Jewish Congress claims that there could be as many as four hundred thousand people with Jewish ancestry in Ukraine.

Most Jews live in the cities Kyiv, Dnipro, Kharkiv, and Odessa. Those who live in villages tend to be elderly, and extremely poor. There are multiple synagogues, Hebrew schools, day schools, mikvaot, kosher restaurants, and six Jewish community centers. There are Jewish summer camps, which were able to resume this past summer after closing for Covid restrictions.

Ten Jewish newspapers are published in Kyiv alone, four of which have circulations of more than ten thousand. A weekly television program, Yahad, is shown on state television.

Most of these Jewish institutions are run by Chabad-Lubavitch. The Reform movement is active in 20 cities.

The Conservative movement has also been active in Ukraine since independence. Through Masorti Olami, the global branch of the Conservative Movement, Ramah, and the Shechter Institute in Jerusalem, it runs programs supporting communities in multiple cities. It sponsors youth groups, and has been operated a Camp Ramah since the early 1990’s. There are several Masorti Rabbis serving Ukrainian communities.

Right now, some members of the Ukrainian Jewish community are fleeing to the West.  Others are staying where they are, praying for peace and trying to survive. Not surprisingly, the Jewish Agency is receiving many inquiries lately about making aliyah.

And of course, we must mention Volodymyr Zelensky, who was elected President of Ukraine in 2019 with 73% of the vote. Zelensky is Jewish and the descendant of Holocaust survivors. At the time of his election, the Prime Minister of Ukraine happened to be Volodymyr Groysman, who is also Jewish. For a few months, Ukraine was the only country in the world other than Israel with a Jewish President and Prime Minister.

I encourage you to watch President Zelensky’s passionate appeal for peace to the people of Russia right before the invasion. I also encourage you to watch the forty second selfie video that he took with other members of his government on the streets of Kyiv Friday night as the city was preparing for being attacked. He insisted that they are not going anywhere. If you have not seen them, I encourage you to do so. And keep in mind the long history of Jews in Ukraine. To see the Jewish President of Ukraine speaking so courageously on behalf of all Ukrainians is astounding. It gave me chills to watch it. After over a thousand years, with all of its ups and downs, to see this, someone courageously standing up in the face of brutality and such danger is incredible.

If you have the capacity to do so, there are organizations that are trying to support people in Ukraine who are fleeing, and there will certainly be a tremendous need to support refugees in the months ahead.

I made a donation yesterday to Masorti Olami. The immediate cause they were trying to support was a group of one hundred fifty children who had fled to Lviv, in Western Ukraine.

I would like to close with a prayer for peace that was delivered at a service hosted by the Masorti movement on Thursday night. 

An Eye for an Eye and Our Shared Humanity – Mishpatim 5782

For the past few months, I have participated in an interfaith Bible study group, with several other Rabbis, Pastors, Priests and Teachers.

Our learning is based on a book called The Bible with and without Jesus, by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler. The basic premise is that both Judaism and Christianity rely upon the same sacred Hebrew Scriptures, but interpret and implement them very differently.

These differing interpretations have led to deep misunderstandings over the centuries and have served as the basis for many of the classic antisemitic tropes of the past millenia.

As luck would have it, it was my turn to co-facilitate our discussion this past week, with the chapter in the book that we discussed coming from this morning’s Torah portion.

Before I get to that, I’d like to share a conversation I had with my daughter Noa a few days ago.  We were discussing the term the “Judeo-Christian Tradition” and trying to understand what it actually meant. From her perspective, whenever she heard the term, it did not really reflect her own experience and understanding of Judaism; and I have to say that I agreed with her.

What does it mean? It implies that there is a core set of shared values introduced by Judaism and then extended by Christianity. These values serve as the foundation of Western ethics.

But I had no clue where the expression comes from.

Enter Rabbi Wikipedia.

The first ever reference appeared in an 1821 letter and referred to Jews who had converted to Christianity. An 1829 reference used it to descrive a Church that had deliberately embraced some Jewish rituals so that it would better appeal to Jews. That’s not very good for us.

The earliest reference in something like the way we understand it today seems to have been in 1939. George Orwell referred to “the Judaeo-Christian scheme of morals.” This followed a lot of work that had taken place in the 1930’s to emphasize common ground between Christians and Jews so as to combat antisemitism and anti-Catholicism in the United States. 

The term gradually morphed into political use during the Cold War to contrast the ethics-based system of Western democracies with Communism. 

In 1952, President Eisenhower, one month before his inauguration, became the first President to invoke the term when he said, extemporaneously,

[The Founding Fathers said] ‘we hold that all men are endowed by their Creator … ‘ In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion with all men created equal.

One of my problems with the term is that it tends to over-emphasize shared values without recognizing that, in fact, there are some pretty profound differences. For example, it might focus on shared central texts like the Ten Commandments without acknowledging how differently each of our traditions might consider them.

In our group, we are learning how our respective traditions understand the same texts through completely different lenses.  Often, the Christian interpretation and the Rabbinic interpretations of central passages in the Hebrew Bible are in direct contradiction of one another.

Learning together, and openly addressing some of the passages that have historically been kind of thorny, has been a great way to increase mutual understanding as well as learn more about our own tradition.

Now we turn to this week’s Torah portion.  Among the many laws presented in Parashat Mishpatim, we encounter this one. Don’t get distracted by the first part.

When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

Exodus 21:22-26

This is a strange combination of legal principles. We start with a discussion of an accidentally, but violently, induced miscarriage. Then, we are suddenly talking about “life for life, eye for eye,” and so on.

There are two other occasions in the Torah in which the “eye for an eye” principle appears.  Once in Leviticus, and again in Deuteronomy. Both of them appear in different contexts. This leads us to assume that, when it came to personal injury cases, this was a governing legal principle in ancient Israel.

This legal principle is referred to in Latin as Lex Talionis, which means “law of retaliation.” talionis – retaliation

At first glance, to modern readers, this might seem bloodthirsty and vengeful. Indeed, it has been used as justification for antisemitism for millenia. Jews are overly focused on law rather than mercy. Think of the character of Shylock in the Merchant of Venice demanding his pound of flesh. 

But the truth is quite the opposite.

To gain some understanding of what this principle meant, we need to consider the society in which it came to be, and also consider how Jewish tradition has understood and applied it.

The oldest human record we have dates back to the 18th century BCE Babylonian Code of Hammurabi.  Hammurabi establishes an underlying principle of proportionality, the purpose of which was to ensure, first of all, that retaliation did not get out of hand, and secondly, that a higher class perpetrator did not get off scot-free. The innovation here is that the state took upon itself the authority to regulate and standardize payments for injuries.

In a world in which the blood feud is so tempting—think the Montagues vs. the Capulets—an “eye for an eye” limits retaliation to only an “eye for an eye.”

Here are a few examples from the Code of Hammurabi:

If an awilu, an upper-class free person should blind the eye of another awilu, they shall blind his eye.

If he should break the bone of another awilu, they shall break his bone.

If he should blind the eye of a commoner or break the bone of a commoner, he shall weigh an deliver one-half of his value (in silver).

The Torah takes this a step further.  It does not draw any distinction between the poor and the wealthy.  In Leviticus, it is clear that it applies to Israelite citizens and resident aliens alike. The law of proportionality applies equally to all. This is consistent with the Torah’s general concern with the dignity of the human being, made in God’s image.

Think of the numerous times in which the Torah forbids favoring one side over the other in a court case, or warnings against judges taking bribes, or having a single law that is administered fairly to everyone.

An eye for an eye was an incredibly egalitarian innovation—we could say improvement—over the Code of Hammurabi.

What we do not know is how an “eye for an eye” was actually practiced in ancient Israel. Was it taken literally, as in if I poked your eye out than you would poke my eye out; or was it figurative, as in if I poked your eye out, I had to pay you the value of your eye in compensation?

We just do not have any evidence, and the Bible does not include any examples of it being implemented in practice. For a religion that put such a high value on human dignity, emphasizing that every human being was created in God’s image, it does seem hard to believe that the legal system would intentionally cause the defacement of the human form.

The Rabbis of the Talmud, however, tell us exactly how they understand an “eye for an eye”: it means monetary payment. 

The Talmud goes to great lengths to demonstrate that the Torah itself, when it requires an eye for an eye, means the value of an eye rather than the actual eye itself.

It goes through many creative midrashic attempts to prove it, but then finds cause to reject each of them in turn.  In the end, there is no conclusive proof, but of course that does not prevent the Rabbis of the Talmud from interpreting it in this way.

In the course of their discussions, they raise numerous practical and ethical problems with a literal interpretation. For example, they imagine a case in which someone who is blind causes another person to become blind. Or someone missing a limb causes another person to lose a limb. How could we then fulfill the Torah’s literal principle of “an eye for an eye?”

Furthermore, what good does it do the injured party to have their attacker lose and eye or a limb?  It does not help the victim’s situation at all other than possibly satisfying some urge for vengeance.

The Mishnah establishes, again based on close, creative textual reading, that a person who injures another is liable for five categories of damages:

  1. the injury itself
  2. pain and suffering
  3. medical costs
  4. loss of income
  5. the indignity or embarrassment that the injury caused

Because the injury cannot be taken back, monetary compensation is the best that can be done. For better or for worse, it is how human beings assign value. 

Rather than being an overly legalistic, merciless application of justice, “an eye for an eye” was a major step forward, in practice, of upholding the equal dignity of every human being.

The Rabbis’ wisdom was in understanding that every person’s situation is different, and we must do the best we can to pursue justice at every opportunity, recognizing that we are imperfect, but faithful in the belief that, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, whose birthday we celebrated a couple of weeks ago, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Being able to speak with each other honestly about where our differences in interpretation are might lead us to find, not necessarily common ground in how we understand these texts, but common ground in our shared humanity.

Iron in the Shul (After Colleyville) – Yitro 5782

I had the opportunity to learn, earlier this week, from other Conservative Rabbis, which helped me process last week’s hostage taking at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. Some of what I am going to say this morning was inspired by what I learned from my colleagues.

One thing that I want to say from the outset is that there are a lot of really smart and insightful people who have a lot to say about these specific attack, as well as larger trends in antisemitism here in the United States and around the world. I am sure that you have read and heard a lot that you have found to be educational and meaningful.

I cannot hope to match the expertise of others in our Jewish community who specialize in these areas, nor is that my goal. All I can do is speak from my one particular vantage point as the Rabbi of Congregation Sinai.

A hostage crisis during Shabbat services is just about the scariest thing that I can imagine. It is a horrible scenario that has occupied my mind on many occasions over the years. To hear about it happening last weekend, especially with the prominent, courageous role played by Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, really hit home for me.

It makes me sad, scared, and angry that we have to deal with such things. I don’t think there are any faith groups in the United States that have had to institute such stringent security measures at their houses of worship. It is not something that we should have to do. Simply put, it is not fair, and the need to do so directly contradicts the purpose of a synagogue.

At the end of Parashat Yitro, God delivers a few more commandments to the Israelites through Moses. One stands out. Here is the translation from our Etz Hayim Chumash:

If you make for me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones;

כִּי חַרְבְּךָ הֵנַפְתָּ עָלֶיהָ וַתְּחַלְלֶהָ

for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned them.

Exodus 20:22

The actual Hebrew word that has been translated “tool” is charb’kha, which actually means “your sword.”

The Mekhilta, an ancient midrash collection, quotes Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar.

The altar was created to lengthen a person’s years, but iron to shorten them. [Iron is the material of weaponry and killing.] It is not appropriate for that which shortens life to be wielded upon that which lengthens life!

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai then draws a connection between the altar and peace.   In a passage parallel to our verse, Deuteronomy instructs

אֲבָנִ֤ים שְׁלֵמוֹת֙ תִּבְנֶ֔ה אֶת־מִזְבַּ֖ח ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶ֑יךָ

With whole stones shall you build the altar of the Lord your God.

Deuteronomy 27:6

Noting the word sheleimot – “whole,” Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai states that these stones of the altar produce shalom – “peace.”  Then he takes it a step further. 

If these stones of the altar, which neither see, nor hear, nor speak, can create peace between the Jewish people and the Holy Blessed One, what about a person who fosters peace between a husband and wife, between one city and the next, between one nation and another, between one government and another government, between one family and another family – how much the more so will such a person not suffer adversity.

Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 20:22:1-2

It was during Yohanan ben Zakai’s lifetime that the synagogue replaced the altar as the central location for Jewish worship. But it retained the same essential function. The subject of all our prayers, at a fundamental level, is shalom – “peace,” or “wholeness.” It is what we gather in synagogue for, and it is what we should strive for in our personal lives.

The midrash recognizes that there is something symbolically perverse about mixing stone and iron. The altar, and its replacement, the synagogue, should not require the sword to perform its primary function of fostering peace.

But ideals meat reality. We have a security guard at the gate every Shabbat. Our synagogue courtyard is surrounded by black iron bars. We have a sophisticated CCTV system, panic buttons all over our campus, and fancy bulletproof films covering the windows. We hold an Emergency Preparedness Shabbat just about every year during which we actually evacuate the synagogue in the middle of services under the supervision of the San Jose Police Department.

Our synagogue, this house of peace, is not just figuratively hewn from iron, it is covered in it. To protect our sanctuary, we must profane it.

What a sad and unfortunate reality. This is not a subject in which I expected to gain expertise when I decided to become a Rabbi, nor is it one in which I received any training. But it is one which, by necessity, I —we all — have had to reluctantly embrace.  What a steep price we pay.  

Yes, there are financial costs, but the more significant price is spiritual. Nobody should have to fear for their physical safety when they come to shul to pray. Parents should not have to think twice about sending their children to Religious School.  

For years, when I come into this room, I think about escape routes. I look around and try to identify what I could use as a weapon. In a synagogue!

I am done with my harangue.

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker did two really important things last Shabbat: he served tea, and he threw a chair.

You have probably heard the story by now. A man, apparently homeless, showed up on Shabbat morning a few minutes before the start of services. It was cold outside, and he seemed to be seeking a place to warm up. The Rabbi welcomed him warmly, made him a cup of tea, and introduced him to the President of the congregation. At the time, there was no evidence that he posed a threat.

As soon as services began, however, the stranger pulled out a gun, and thus began an eleven hour hostage ordeal.

Towards the end, as he became increasingly agitated, Rabbi Cytron-Walker saw an opportunity.  He indicated to the two other congregants who were being held that they should be ready to attempt an escape. At a moment when the hostage taker seemed distracted, he threw a chair at him and the three of them quickly escaped.

An act of compassion and kindness, and an act of courage and, frankly, violence. Both acts should inspire us. We can look to two biblical women, both non-Israelites, whose stories model similar behaviors.

In the Book of Ruth, after her husband, brother-in-law, and father-in-law all die, Ruth binds herself and her fate to Naomi, her mother-in-law.  They return from Moab to Bethlehem, arriving destitute at the beginning of the barley harvest.

As chapter two opens, Ruth informs Naomi, “I would like to go to the fields and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone who may show me kindness.”  (Ruth 2:2)

What does this simple statement reveal? That Ruth, a Moabitess, knows that this place, where she has never set foot, is one in which a poor, foreign woman can go harvest for herself on a field belonging to another. The Book of Ruth does not mention the Torah’s obligation to leave the corners of the fields unharvested, among other mitzvot pertaining to tzedakah.

The details of the laws are beside the point. What matters is reputation. These people of Bethlehem are known to practice kindness, so when Ruth declares her intention, Naomi responds “Yes, daughter, go.”

Being compassionate, opening up our doors to let the stranger in, makes us vulnerable. Letting a stranger into our shul is a risk. That is why behaving with compassion is an act of faith, but would we prefer a Judaism which did not welcome the stranger? What would we be if we put up barriers that kept everyone else out?

Of course, evil exists. We cannot be so naive as to think that there are not those who hate us simply for being Jews.  Last weekend was the third violent attack in a synagogue on Shabbat in America in just over three years.  There have been six deadly antisemitic attacks in the United States since 2016.

According to FBI statistics, over the last several years Jews have been the targets of around 12% of all hate crimes.  Nearly two thirds of religion-based hate crimes have targeted Jews.  And we are less than two percent of the overall population.

Antisemitism is real and growing. It is not confined to a particular political ideology. Those who hate us for being Jewish do not care whether we are Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox, Democrats or Republicans. Our preparation and readiness are not misplaced.

This brings us to our second non-Israelite heroine.

Last Shabbat, while our fellow Jews were being held hostage, we read in the Haftarah about Yael. The Canaanite King Jabin had subjugated the Israelites for the past twenty years, with Sisera serving as the commander of his troops. Under the spiritual guidance and encouragement of the Chieftain Deborah, Barak leads the Israelites into victorious battle against Sisera with his nine hundred iron chariots. 

The Canaanite General flees, seeking refuge in the tent of Yael, wife of Heber the Kenite.  She offers him hospitality, feeds him, gives him milk to drink, and covers him with blankets so that he can fall asleep. Then she takes a tent peg and drives it with a hammer through his skull into the ground. In her victory song, Deborah praises this heroine.

Most blessed of women be Jael,
Wife of Heber the Kenite,
Most blessed of women in tents.

He asked for water, she offered milk;
In a princely bowl she brought him curds.

Her [left] hand reached for the tent pin,
Her right for the workmen’s hammer.
She struck Sisera, crushed his head,
Smashed and pierced his temple.

At her feet he sank, lay outstretched,
At her feet he sank, lay still;
Where he sank, there he lay—destroyed.

Judges 5:24:27

Ours is not a tradition that would have us be passive when threatened or attacked. Judaism recognizes that evil exists, and that we have a duty to fight it, that there are those who hate us, and that we must defend ourselves. Sometimes that means we must use force.

This is the uncomfortable place in which we find ourselves. How do we embrace a message of hope and peace, of compassion and openness, while also protecting ourselves from the very real threats that exist?

We cannot afford to simplistically think that there is a satisfying answer out there, if only we can find it.  The Jewish people knows that the world is messy, that human beings are imperfect and often unreliable. That our loftiest ideals have a tendency to slam into disappointing reality.

I come back to our name as a people, the name given to Jacob after he wrestles with the unnamed angel.  Yisrael – for you have striven with beings Divine and human and stayed in the game. That is who we are, and who we must continue to be.

We pray for a time when we can tear down all of the walls, remove the panic buttons and cancel the evacuation drills. In the meantime, we are Yisrael – the people who struggle. We remain committed to each other, to acting with compassion and kindness, to keeping each other safe, and to pursuing shalom in our prayers and our deeds.

Think for a moment: what are the last two words that we recite at the end of every Shabbat morning service?

At the end of Adon Olam, which we typically invite our children to lead, the final words are v’lo ira, words are aspirational and declarative: “I will not be afraid.”

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.