The Wicked King Achashverosh – Purim 5776

King Achashverosh is the central figure in the Book of Esther.  Most of the critical events revolve around him in some way or another.  He selects Esther to be his Queen.  He appoints Haman and authorizes his plot to kill the Jews.  His order enables the Jewish people to defend themselves and defeat Haman’s evil plot.  And then he appoints Mordechai to replace Haman as his Viceroy.  Without Achashverosh, there is not much of a story.

Ironically, when we think of the figure of King Achashverosh, we tend to picture him as a bumbling fool.  His interests are primarily in wine, women, and wealth.  He leaves the art of statecraft to his advisors.  He is unable to make any serious decisions himself, and so his answer to any recommendation, regardless of the source, is always an enthusiastic “yes!”  The typical depiction of Achashverosh is as a simple-minded, gullible moron.

As it turns out, the Book of Esther contains numerous subtle references to other books of the Tanakh that suggest a far more critical take on Achashverosh..

In the first chapter alone, we find allusions to the Books of Kings, Jonah, and Genesis.  Achashverosh, it turns out, is a power hungry, self-centered, and abusive man.

Chapter one of the Book of Esther serves as a prologue to the rest of the story.  It introduces us to the Persian court, and explains how it is that King Achashverosh finds himself in need of a new Queen.  This sets the stage for introducing the villain Haman, as well as the rise of the heroes Mordechai and Esther who will orchestrate the rescue of the Jewish people.

It starts with the mother of all parties.  In the third year of his reign, Achashverosh proclaims a celebration to last one hundred eighty days.  He invites all of the nobleman and governors from the one hundred twenty seven provinces of his empire.  All of the riches of the kingdom are put on display.  For the final seven days, the invitation is extended to every resident of Shushan, “from high to low.”  Achashverosh orders the wine to be poured without limit, but instructs his stewards to respect the wishes of each individual, implying that if someone does not want to drink, his feelings should be honored.

We get the impression of a benevolent king.  It seems on the surface that the author admires him, as he describes the treasures put on display with exuberant language.  We can picture in our minds the wine flowing into the golden goblets, and happy citizens enjoying each other’s company.  He is generously sharing the wealth of his kingdom with his loyal subjects.

As I just mentioned, this feast occurs in the third year of Achashverosh’s reign.  In the third year of Solomon’s reign, he removes the final threat to his ascension to the throne by executing a Benjaminite named Shimi ben Gera.  His kingship secure, Solomon has a prophetic dream in which God asks him what he wants.  Solomon responds, “Grant… Your servant an understanding mind to judge Your people, to distinguish between good and bad…”  (I Kings 3:9)

So impressed with Solomon’s request, God responds, “Because you asked for this – you did not ask for riches, you did not ask for the life of your enemies, but you asked for discernment in dispensing justice – I now do as you have spoken.  I grant you a wise and discerning mind… And I also grant you what you did not ask for – both riches and glory all your life – the like of which no king has ever had…”  (I Kings 3:11-13)

After this dream, Solomon goes up to Jerusalem, where he offers sacrifices to God and then throws a feast for all of his servants.

There are a couple of connections between Solomon’s and Achashverosh’s feasts.  Both occur after three years of reign.  The language for both is nearly identical.  Va-ya’as mishteh l’khol avadav – “He made a banquet for all his courtiers” – in the case of Solomon.  (I Kings 3:15)  Asah mishteh l’khol sarav va’avadav – “He made a banquet for all his officials and courtiers” – in the case of  Achashverosh.  (Esther 1:3)

Furthermore, God promises Solomon that he will be rewarded with osher and kavod – riches and glory – all the days of his life.  Achashverosh puts on display osher k’vod malkhuto, “the rich glory of his kingdom.”  (Esther 1:4)

Solomon, in making his request for wisdom and discernment, chooses to forego riches and glory, yet God awards him with those anyways.  In contrast, Achashverosh deliberately shows off his riches and glory, thereby displaying his lack of wisdom and discernment.

Solomon’s feast is a celebration of God’s blessing.  He honors his loyal courtiers by including them, the true act of a wise and discerning mind.  Achashverosh’s feast is a celebration of his own royal person.  By extravagantly showing off his wealth, he reveals the emptiness of his reign.

The midrash picks up on this connection between Solomon and Achashverosh.  Solomon’s throne, carved of solid ivory, is captured and recaptured until it eventually winds up in the possession of the Persians.  When Achashverosh attempts to sit in it, he is unable.  He is told, “no one who is not ruler over the whole world can sit on it.”  So he commissions a replica to be made that, according to the midrash, is a poor copy of the original.

The next clue occurs in the guest list.  To the seven day party for the common-folk, the invitation is extended l’migadol v’ad katan – “from the greatest until the least.”  (Esther 1:5)  Usually, the expression is the opposite, from the least to the greatest.  In only one other book of the Bible is it “from the greatest until the least” – the Book of Jonah.

Jonah, you will remember, is a reluctant prophet sent to Nineveh to announce that God will destroy the city and its inhabitants unless the people repent.  After unsuccessfully trying to shirk his duty, Jonah eventually fulfills his mission.  To his distress, the Ninevites respond immediately.

The people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast, and great and small alike – mig’dolam v’ad k’tanam – put on sackcloth.  When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes.  And he had the word cried through Nineveh: “By decree of the king and his nobles: No man or beast—of flock or herd—shall taste anything! They shall not graze, and they shall not drink water!  (Jonah 3:5-7)

Both references of “from the greatest to the least” refer to the relationship between a King and his subjects.  In the case of the King of Nineveh, the expression is one of great humility.  The king himself gets off of his throne.  He orders everyone in the city to repent and to fast.  They must join him in removing their clothes and putting on sackcloth and ashes.  And he orders that they drink nothing whatsoever.  King and subjects have come together in a deep expression of piety, humility, and self-reflection.

In contrast, King Achashverosh ascends his throne, and includes his subjects in his partying in order to raise himself up.  He puts on his finest royal robes and brings out all of his wealth.  And he orders that the drinks should flow without limit, although nobody should be forced.

In making this allusion, perhaps our narrator is hinting that Achashverosh ought to take heed to the humble example of the King of Nineveh.  If not, he suggests, the city of Shushan, and indeed the entire Perisan Empire, may soon see its demise.

Our final clue is in the episode with Vashti.  She has thrown a separate party for the women.  To mix with the men during their drunken revelry would be incredibly inappropriate, according to the social mores of the day.  Considering what the men were up to, it would have likely also been dangerous.  Plus, the men really do not want their wives around, given what is taking place.

Nevertheless, on the final day of the celebrations, Achashverous sends a messenger to summon Vashti to appear before all of his guests in her crown.  A midrash suggests that the implied message is that she is to appear in her crown, and in nothing else.  Regardless of whether the royal decree includes clothing or not, it is an inappropriate request, but one that she cannot refuse without repercussions.

He wants to show her off, just like he has shown off all his other precious treasures.  Given the inebriated state of his guests, it is likely that Vashti’s ordeal would not simply end after her making an appearance.  She refuses, again through messengers.  This domestic dispute, by taking place in public, has been elevated to the level of state.

Traditional commentaries about Vashti depict her as wicked in some fashion, or describe her refusal to appear at the King’s summons as being embarrassment at an acute onset of leprosy, or the sudden sprouting of a tail.  The rabbinic desire to demean Vashti is perhaps a way to raise up our impression of Esther, her replacement.  Even the text itself could be understood as being critical of her.  After all, she refuses a royal order and then is banished from the kingdom at the advice of the King’s advisors.  Then we never hear about her again.

There is a subtle clue, however, that this is not the impression that the narrator intends for us.  Vashti is described as being beautiful – ki tovat-mar’eh hi.  And when she is summoned, she refuses – va-t’ma’en ha-malkah Vashti.  This leads to her being banished from the King’s palace.

Similar things are said about an earlier biblical figure.  Joseph is also described as being beautiful – va-y’hi Yosef y’feh toar vifat ma’eh.  After his master Potifar’s wife tries to seduce him, he refuses – va-y’ma’en.  She then lies to her husband about him, and Joseph is banished from his master’s house.

When we read about Vashti’s beauty, the request made of her, her refusal, and her banishment, we are meant to think back to the similar pattern having once taken place with Joseph.  This should tell us something about the moral fortitude of these characters.  Through allusion, the narrator hints of his approval of Vashti’s unwillingness to be demeaned despite the consequences that she knows she will face.  The narrator takes Vashti’s side.  Achasherosh is a drunken boor.

As you can see, there is much beneath the surface in the Megillah.  While the book is a satire from nearly two and a half thousand years ago, it’s exaggerated characters display traits that are all too familiar in the twenty first century.  We have seen that, through a close reading of the first chapter in its biblical context, Achashverosh is far more selfish, power-hungry, and abusive than he is typically depicted.  The narrator artfully uses storytelling to teach us something about human behavior, showing us how the actions of individuals can have reverberations that affect the fate of entire nations.

As we read the Megillah this week, make merry, and raise a glass in l’chayim, let us also pay close attention to the characters of Purim and find how their behavior, their positive and negative traits, their correct and incorrect decisions, their heroic and cowardly acts reverberate through the rest of the Tanakh and through our lives.

Bibliography:  http://etzion.org.il/vbm/english/archive/ester/03ester.htm#_ftnref14

Let Us Make a Name for Ourselves – Noach 5775

According to the Torah, all human beings are descended from Adam and Eve.  Then, after humanity is wiped out in the flood, all humans are descended from Noah and his wife.  Why is it so important to specify that we all share a common ancestor?  According to the Mishnah, it is so that no one can say another, my father is better than yours.  We are all descended from the first Primordial Human, Adam, whom the Torah describes as created in God’s image.  (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) Thus, equality and freedom are central concepts in our tradition.

Soon after creation, however, humanity starts to move away from this ideal.  Within ten generations, human society has become so corrupt and violent that God simply cannot take it any more.  God looks at all of the wickedness and violence, sees the way that human beings have corrupted the entire planet, and becomes sad and regretful for having ever made humanity.

So God brings a flood, appointing Noah and his family to be the sole human survivors, protectors of each animal species, and progenitors of human life in the new world that will follow.

What will change this time?  Presumably, things will be different in Creation 2.0.  Indeed, God plans ahead for the change, giving rules to humanity this time so that they do not repeat the same mistakes.

But has anything really changed?

God knows that Noah’s offspring will be no better than their ante-diluvian ancestors.

After Noah exits the ark, he offers a sacrifice.  That’s a good start.  God appreciates the gesture, and declares “Never again will I doom the earth because of man…”  (Genesis 8:21)

Fantastic!  Is it because God is so pleased with Noah’s piety?  Not exactly.

The Lord continues, “…since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth.”  Nature or nurture?  It’s nature.  Humans have the same capacity for evil that they have always had.  It is part of our D.N.A.  Nevertheless, God makes a commitment to let the experiment continue, acknowledging that it an occasional intervention may be warranted.

Within a few generations, humanity seems to be heading down a familiar path.  The Torah introduces us to major characters in the generations following the flood and occasionally shares brief notes or stories about them.  We meet Nimrod, son of Cush, son of Ham, son of Noah.  Nimrod is described as “the first man of might on earth.  He was a mighty hunter before the Lord.”  (Genesis 10:8-9)  He built a kingdom in Shinar, otherwise known as Babylonia, otherwise known as Mesopotamia, otherwise known as present-day Iraq and Syria.

Tradition identifies Nimrod as the first King.  How does he ascend to that position?  The medieval commentator Abravanel points to Nimrod’s hunting prowess.  People see how powerful he is to be able to defeat lions and bears, and stand in awe of him.  When Nimrod turns his attention towards his fellow human beings, he easily vanquishes and conquers them, thus building the world’s first empire.  With empire comes progress.  The development of political life, technological innovation, human wisdom – all are made possible by civilization.

But Nimrod and his generation go astray, according to commentators, pursuing progress for its own sake, rather than as a means to a greater good.  Power begets power, as the saying goes.  Where the violence and oppression before the flood had been chaotic and random, now it is state-sponsored.

The Torah continues with the well-known story of the Tower of Babel.  At this time, we are told, everyone on earth speaks the same language and lives in the same place.  Humanity has gained the ability to control the environment in which it lives.  From their place in the lowlands, people figure out how to take mud, shape it, apply fire, and make bricks.  They now have the ability to make life better, safer, and more meaningful.  They can build structures to protect them from the elements, buildings to store food, schools to learn, libraries to store knowledge, and temples in which to worship.  So what do they do with this technological innovation, this amazing new ability?

“Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky…” they say to one another.  For what purpose?  Efficient apartment dwelling?  A university?  A hospital?  A town hall?  A sanctuary?  No.  Those are not what the people are interested in.  They are not going to use their technological abilities to serve a greater good.    Their aims are more self-centered.

V’na’aseh lanu shem.  “Let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky to make a name for ourselves.”  (Genesis 11:4)

They want to build it as a timeless monument to human progress.

A midrash teaches that the tower gets to be so high that it takes a really long time and a lot of effort to travel from the bottom to the top.  Whenever a brick would fall, the workers would collapse to the ground and weep, “Woe is us.  When will another brick be hauled up to take its place?”  But when a person falls, nobody pays any attention.  (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 24)

Why do they build the tower?  Because they can.  This is the end result of what Nimrod introduces to the world.  It is a description of a totalitarian society in which the state is everything and the individual is nothing.  There is no God in such a situation.

God looks down at this rising edifice to human power and sees that something must change.  This is not what God had intended.  So God babbles their tongues, and they can no longer understand one another.  The building project grinds to a halt.  Then God scatters the people over the face of the earth.

On one level, The Tower of Babel is an origin story that explains why the earth contains so many people with different languages, cultures, and beliefs.  But it is also a story with lessons about human nature, politics, and equality.

Judaism is highly skeptical of political leaders.  The idea that power corrupts seems to be ingrained in the Torah.  Deuteronomy’s laws of Kings are all about limiting the powers and rights of the monarch.  Kings and societies are judged not by how much land they acquire or taxes they collect, but by how the most marginal people in society are treated.  Why are political leaders so suspect?  Because politics inevitably leads to inequality.  A subject, by definition, is not equal to the king.

In our democracy, ideally, the power of government is derived from the people, and there are checks and balances to prevent any one person or group from gaining too much power.  In reality, we know that American society has gross inequalities, whether in money, political power, educational opportunities, health care access, and so on.

The Tower of Babel suggests that the solution to the problem of too much power is diversity.  People and nations need to be free to pursue meaningful lives in different ways.  Our tradition recognizes this as ideal.

The Messianic future envisioned by Judaism does not imagine that all nations will one day unite and become a single people.  That has never been our vision.  In the Messianic Age, it is simply that all peoples on earth will recognize God as the Creator and ruler.  It is in this morning’s parashah that the Rabbis identify the seven Noachide commandments; seven laws given to all humanity that form the backbone of ethics.  As long as a people abides by those essential norms, it should be free and encouraged to go its own way, while respecting other peoples’ rights to do the same.

A thirteenth century Spanish commentator, Menachem Meiri, in considering the Christians and Muslims of his day, declares that as long as they are gedurim b’darchei hadat, bound by the laws of morality and justice, they are to be considered as equal to Jews in all respects.  That is a fairly remarkable position for that that time and place.

Elsewhere in our texts, we are taught that the righteous of all the nations earn a share in the world to come.  So you see, Judaism advocates a healthy respect for diversity.  There are other ways to worship God and other ways to organize societies other than the Jewish way, and that is a good thing.  This is a lesson from the Tower of Babel.

It is also good from a practical perspective.  A society’s embrace of diversity and pluralism serves as a check against oppression and violence.  It is why a country’s freedom is typically measured by factors like religious freedom, the fairness of elections, the existence of civil liberties, freedom of the press, and the absence of corruption.

In every age, there are Nimrod’s who seek to suppress freedom and deny equality.  Israel’s Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, has been in Washington D.C. this week.  I heard an interview in which he was asked about ISIS.  He predicted that the Middle East is never going to return to what it was a few years ago.  The borders of countries like Iraq, Syria, and Iran, were drawn up arbitrarily after World War One.  The countries themselves were held together for almost a century by totalitarian dictators from minority tribes who forcefully imposed themselves on their populations, much like Nimrod thousands of years ago, who exercised power for the sake of power.  But these artificial nations were comprised of diverse peoples with different cultures, religions, and languages.  In order to maintain power, that diversity had to be suppressed.  The violence and terror we are witnessing today is driven by religiously-fueled zealots who also reject the value of diversity, deny equality, and subjugate all who come under their authority.

We have been watching in horror as ISIS and other militant Islamic groups fight to create a caliphate, an empire, that would oppress anyone who does not conform to their narrow belief system.  It is a scary, totalitarian ideology.  How ironic that the story of the Tower of Babel took place smack dab in the middle of the war zone!

If we learn one thing from the Tower of Babel, let it be that God wants diversity.  The Mishnah cited above regarding humanity’s shared common ancestor (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) also teaches that when a person kills another, it is as if s/he has destroyed the entire world.  It goes on to explain that when people mint coins from a coin press, every single coin comes out exactly the same.  Not so with God, for God stamped each person with the seal of Adam, and yet no two people are alike.  Thus each person is obligated to say, “For my sake was the world created.”

People of faith would do well to remember this.

What Do I Do That Makes Me a Jew – Rosh Hashanah 5775 (second day)

The Torah does not make any connection between Rosh Hashanah and repentance.  Yom Kippur, yes.  But Rosh Hashanah is described in the Torah as Yom Teruah – a Day of Blasting.  Although it is not stated explicitly, the biblical Rosh Hashanah did mark a new year of sorts.  It was a coronation holiday, when ancient Israel celebrated the crowning of God as King.

It was implied that on the day we celebrate God’s Kingship over the universe, we also celebrate God’s creation of that universe.

The element of teshuvah, repentance, does not seem so obvious.  Why celebrate something so grand by first going through the soul-wrenching experience of teshuvah?

The musaf Amidah includes three major themes: Malkhuyot, Zikhronot, and Shofarot – Kingship, Remembrances, and Shofar blasts.  Each section is comprised of ten biblical passages followed by a concluding blessing.

The verses in the first of the three sections, Malkhuyot, proclaim God’s Kingship over the universe, as we might expect.  The ninth verse is from the Prophet Zechariah: v’hayah Adonai l’melekh al kol ha’aretz, bayom hahu yi-h’yeh Adonai echad ushmo echad.  “Adonai shall be acknowledged King over all the earth; On that day Adonai shall be one, and His name, one.”

It might sound familiar.  This verse is included in the final line of v’al kein, the paragraph after Aleinu.

Notice that in Zechariah’s words, God is not currently recognized as King over all the earth.  The Prophet speaks of a future time when God will reign supreme.  “Adonai shall be acknowledged King…”

Zechariah looks ahead, to a time when all of humanity will be united in recognition of God.  Neither Zechariah, nor any other biblical or Rabbinic text, proclaims that everyone will become Jewish.  We have never expected the nations of the world to convert to be saved.  Rather, Zechariah imagines that all peoples will come to recognize God, and will be united in their commitment to justice and kindness.  That is the messianic future in our Jewish tradition.

So if, from the human perspective, God is not currently King, why do we celebrate God’s Kingship?

The clue is perhaps to be found in the tenth verse of Malkhuyot.  This should also sound familiar.  Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.  “Listen Israel: Adonai is our God, Adonai alone.”  It is included in Malkhuyot, even though it does not contain any obvious reference to God’s Kingship, either now or in the future.

The Rabbis of the Talmud understand the Shema as a statement about the Jewish people’s sole commitment to God.  In declaring our allegiance to Adonai alone, we proclaim our acceptance of ol malkhut shamayim, the yoke of the kingdom of heaven.

But there is something unusual about the language of the Shema compared to almost every other prayer.  Usually, we direct our prayers towards God.  God, you are great, merciful, powerful, and so on… Heal us, forgive us, save us…  You get the picture.

With the Shema, however, we talk to each other.  Shema Yisrael – “Listen Israel.”  Our tradition is to close our eyes to help us concentrate better, but it might make more sense to actually turn to the people around us, and make eye contact.  That is what the words themselves would seem to suggest.

Shema Yisrael!  “Listen, my fellow Jews, standing to my right and my left, in front and behind me.”  Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad! – “Adonai is our God, Adonai alone!”

This proclamation we make to one another is kind of a pep talk.  While the rest of the world may not yet have come to acknowledge God, we the Jewish people are committed.  We have a unique covenant, a particular sacred relationship with God that confers certain responsibilities on us.

By reciting the Shema as the conclusion of Malkhuyot, we send a message to ourselves and each other that the Jewish people has a role to play in crowning God as King of the world.  What is that role?  To live up to our potential as individuals and as a people. As Jews, the Torah is our recipe for reaching higher.

Teshuvah, repentance, is about refocusing ourselves on a life of Torah, recommitting to what truly matters in life.  That is how we bring Zekhariah’s vision closer to reality.

Today, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we read the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac.  As a test, God asks Abraham to offer up his beloved son Isaac as a burnt offering.  Abraham complies without a word of protest.  At the last moment, as the knife is raised above his bound son, an angel calls out, “Abraham, Abraham… Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him…”

To our ears, this is a horrific story.  How could Abraham go along with such an awful request, we ask.  Why does the man who argued with God on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah not plead for the life of his own son?  What kind of a God would ask such a thing, even if the plan all along was to stop Abraham from finishing the task?

These morally troubling questions might seem obvious to us, but before modern times, these were not the issues that Jews raised.

Traditional commentaries and midrashim recognize the importance of this story, but for different reasons.  It is so significant that our ancient Sages selected it as the Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah.  I do not think their goal was to horrify Jews sitting through long High Holiday services.

Why did they pick it?

The answer can be found in the angel’s next words to Abraham:  “For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.”

It is Abraham’s faith, his willingness to offer up the ultimate sacrifice, that the Rabbis suggest as a model.  Abraham did not want to sacrifice his son.  The text tells us as much.  “Take your son,” God instructs Abraham at the beginning of the story.  “your favored one, Isaac, whom you love…”  There is no question that Abraham loves Isaac, and that he does not want to do what has been asked of him, but his fear of God is even greater.

For millenia, Jews read this story and saw in Abraham not a model to be emulated, but a solitary act of faith whose merits would continue to reverberate with blessings throughout the generations.  To this day, prayers in our siddur evoke Abraham’s (and Isaac’s) tremendous act of faith.  Jews in the middle ages who took their own and their children’s lives rather than be murdered by Crusader mobs looked to the Akedah as a model for martyrdom.  “Abraham did not finish the task, but we did,” they proclaimed.

One reading of the story could be as a rejection of child sacrifice.  After all, God tells Abraham that he does not want him to sacrifice Isaac.  Contrary to the pagan gods of the ancient world, our God is not like that.  The sacrifices asked of us do not require that we give up our future.  Quite the opposite.  The purpose of the Torah and the mitzvot is to promote life.

Nevertheless, we are asked to offer our children to God, but in a different way.

A midrash teaches that as the Jewish people are at Mount Sinai about to receive the Torah, God suddenly stops and says, “I will not give this Torah to you unless you provide worthy guarantors who will ensure that you keep it.”

The people are dumbfounded.  “We’ll give you the Patriarchs,” they offer.

“Nah.”  God is not impressed.  “They didn’t always do what I wanted.  They need their own guarantors.”

“Okay,” the Israelites think. “We’ll give you the Prophets.”

“Nope,” God responds.  “I have problems with them too.”

Finally, the Israelites look up.  “Our children will be our guarantors.”

God smiles.  “That I can work with.”

From that moment on, the Jewish people have been committed to living by the Torah.  This commitment is primarily not about belief, but rather it is about action, so let each of us ask ourselves the following question:  What do I do that makes me a Jew?

It is not such a simple question.  Let me reframe it.  What does Judaism compel me to do that, left to my own devices, I would not do on my own?

For example:  I would love to stay in bed all morning on Saturday, but according to Jewish law I am supposed to get up in order to pray, ideally with a community.  So instead of sleeping in, I come to synagogue.

Here is the inverse of the question:  What would I love to do that I don’t because Judaism says no?

That’s easy.  I would eat a bacon double cheeseburger.  I have never had one, but I am certain that it is delicious.  According to the Torah, bacon double cheeseburgers are not kosher, so I will have to go without.

What do I do that makes me a Jew?  It is an important question because being Jewish is more than just a cultural aspect of our identities.  Judaism is supposed to be lived.  We ought to be able to point to specific decisions we make that we would not make if we were not Jewish.  Everyone in this room made a choice to come here today.  You are here because of Judaism.  How else does being Jewish impact our decisions and actions?

In recent decades, much of the Jewish world has embraced tikkun olam, literally, “repairing the world,” as a core expression of Jewish values.  While traditional texts have something more mystical and spiritual in mind, we have redefined the term to refer to social action and social justice.  Tikkun olam means literally, “repairing the world.”  Reinterpreting tikkun olam in this way is a wonderful application of traditional Jewish values about justice to contemporary life.  But is social justice Jewish?

After all, there are lots of people of all faiths, and of no faith, who are dedicated to social action and social justice.  I do not need to be Jewish to volunteer at a soup kitchen, clean up a creek, run a clothing drive, or make a micro-loan.

Would I do the same volunteer work and give the same money to charity if I was not a Jew?  If the answer is yes, then can I really claim to be doing something Jewish?  Do not get me wrong, humanist values are important, and often overlap with Jewish values.  In fact, these kinds of shared values are a great opportunity for finding common ground with other groups.

But a Judaism that is only about social action and social justice is incomplete.

So let’s come back to the question:  What do I do that makes me a Jew?

Let’s consider our homes.  If someone were to walk inside your home, how would she know that its residents were Jewish?  A Jewish home has a mezuzah, at least on the main entrance, and preferably on all doors except bathrooms and closets.  Jewish homes have books, especially Jewish books, emphasizing our commitment to learning.  Jewish homes have ritual items on display like Shabbat candles, Challah plates, kiddush cups, Chanukah menorah’s, seder plates, and so on.  Ideally, these ritual items should be used.  Jewish homes often have Jewish art on the wall.  If it is the home of a married couple, the ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract, might be displayed prominently.  A Jewish home probably has a Jewish calendar hanging up somewhere.  The synagogue bulletin might be on a coffee table or attached by magnet to the fridge.

If a home is kosher, it might have labels on the kitchen cabinets, indicating whether the milk or the meat utensils belong there.

That’s the home.  What about when we are out in the world?  When it comes to food, there are twenty four primary regulations that make up the rules of kashrut.  But did you know that there are over one hundred rules that deal with business conduct?  Those rules are a lot more complicated than “be honest.”  These laws often go beyond what the secular legal system would allow, and represent a way of conducting our affairs that is rooted in morality, fairness, and compassion.  For example, it is forbidden to ask a shopkeeper how much something costs if we do not have any intention of making a purchase.  While perfectly legal under American law, our Jewish law considers it cruel to falsely raise the hopes of someone whose livelihood depends on making a sale.  Let us think about that the next time we go into a brick and mortar store to check out an item that we intend to purchase online.

It is a mitzvah to give tzedakah, charity.  Specifically, we are asked to give a minimum of 10% of our income.  This applies even to the person who is himself a recipient of tzedakah.

How does Judaism impact the financial decisions we make?

Judaism has a lot to say about what comes out of our mouths.  Spreading gossip, lashon hara in Hebrew, which literally means “the evil tongue,” is forbidden in Judaism.  Entire books have been written that explore the numerous permutations of this most ubiquitous of activities.  To talk as a Jew involves holding our tongue in rather significant ways.

The ways that Judaism offers guidance for our lives covers nearly every category we can imagine: how we treat our family members, how we support members of our community in need, how we celebrate with a bride and groom.

Taken as a whole, to live a Jewish life has the potential to touch on every moment of the day.  Committment to the mitzvot puts us on the path for living an ethical life, a life in which our everyday moments are elevated in holiness, a life in which our own characters are refined, and a life in which we share a deep connection with the Jewish people of today, those who have come before us, and those who will follow.

The question that everybody involved in Jewish continuity wrestles with is “How do we ensure that the next generation of Jews will stay committed?”

The answer is so simple.  We have to do Jewish and like it.  When children are immersed in families and communities in which the adults, their role models, have made a commitment to Jewish life because it is meaningful to them, it makes an impression.  It must be more than dropping off our kids at Religious School or Day School.  We have got to model how living a committed Jewish life is worthwhile for adults.

That is the simple answer for how to raise committed Jews.

Last year, the well-publicized Pew Report on Jewish identity in America indicated declining rates of affiliation among Jews.  Every marker of Jewish identity and commitment, ranging from raising children as exclusively Jewish, to lighting Shabbat candles, to feeling connected to Israel, had gone down rather significantly compared to surveys in previous decades.

It especially highlighted – and many articles were written subsequently about this – the decline of the Conservative Movement.

Yet here we are – so many people gathering together to celebrate Rosh Hashanah.  And look at all of the children who have passed through these doors the past two days.  In our little pocket here in San Jose, we seem to be bucking the trend – and there are a lot of similar pockets around the country.

It is because we have chosen to make a commitment.

Last year, Congregation Sinai adopted a new mission statement.  The first line captures what our synagogue is here to do:  “At Sinai, we connect people to Judaism, each other, Israel, and the world.”

Judaism has always been rooted in community.  The fullest expression of Jewish life needs other Jews.  It needs synagogues.  That is why the Shema is such a perfect prayer for us to recite.

It is a prayer in which we acknowledge each other.  We declare that we need one another to fulfill our role in the world.  And if we, the Jewish people, are going to play our part in bringing about Zechariah’s vision of a world that is united in its commitment to peace and justice, it will depend on each one of us.

The teshuvah that we perform during our celebration of the New Year recommits us to that vision.

Over the rest of today, and in the days ahead leading up to Yom Kippur, let us each ask ourselves the question.  Let us talk about it with each other.  Let’s talk about it with our kids:  What do I do that makes me a Jew?

Limits on Kings and Presidents – Shoftim 5774

In Hebrew, the name of the United States is not a translation of “United States of America.”  If it were, it would be something like Medinot HaIchud shel Amerika.  Instead, our nation is described in Hebrew as Artzot HaBrit, “Lands of the Covenant.”

While not a direct translation, this name expresses an aspect of our nation that is particularly valued in our Jewish tradition.  What is the covenant of which Artzot HaBrit speaks?  It is the Constitution of the United States of America, the supreme law of the land.

This concept appeals to us because we are the first people in the history of the world to have a document that functions as the supreme law.  Of course, it is the Torah.

Having a written brit, or covenant, at center of national identity is not the only similarity between Judaism and the United States.  Both polities imagine some of the same qualities in the ideal leader.

The Declaration of Independence, after establishing the fundamental human rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” along with the rights of people to reject a government that fails to ensure those rights, lists a number of grievances against the King of Great Britain.

In establishing the Republic, the Founding Fathers wanted to draw clear distinctions between the monarchy that they had rebelled against and the democracy that they were establishing.  They understood the need to have a unitary executive, but they were fearful of the abuses that could ensue if power was left unchecked.

In creating the office of President, the Founding Fathers limited his powers and ensured that he would have to serve the Constitution, rather than the other way around.  That is why, when the President is sworn into office, he promises to “Preserve, Protect, and Defend the Constitution of the United States – so help me God!”

The Federalist Papers were published in the years 1787 – 1788 under the psuedonym Publius.  They were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay to promote the ratification of the Constitution by each of the States.

In Federalist Paper number 69, Alexander Hamilton enumerates some of the differences in power between the President of the United States and the King of England.  He notes that the President is limited to a four year term, while the King serves for life.  The President can be impeached and removed from office, while the King is personally sacred and inviolable.  The President has veto power, but he can be overruled, while the King’s veto is absolute.  Both are the supreme commanders of the military, but the President cannot independently declare war, sign treaties, or raise armies, while the King can do all three.  The President does not have unlimited power to appoint officials, and the King does.  And finally, the President has “no particle of spiritual jurisdiction,” while the King is the “supreme head and governor of the national church.”

At the time, these kinds of restrictions on the power of a national leader were unique in the world.  But the idea of subjecting the leader to a written covenant, limiting his warmaking powers, and otherwise preventing him from self-aggrandizement was not unheard of.  In fact, it bears striking similarities to the Torah’s vision of the ideal king, as presented in the Book of Deuteronomy.

I do not suggest that the Founding Fathers explicitly modeled the Presidency on Deuteronomy’s laws of kings. but there certainly seem to be similarities.  How did this come to be?

In the 18th century, a complete education included learning classical languages like Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, as well as acquiring extensive knowledge and mastery of the Hebrew Bible.  Yale, Columbia, and Dartmouth have Hebrew inscriptions on their university seals, and until 1817, Harvard graduation ceremonies included a Hebrew oration.

For Puritan colonialists, what for them was the Old Testament had great significance.  I think it is safe to say that the Founding Fathers’ critiques of the overreaching of King George and their imposition of limits on the power of the President were influenced, at least in spirit, by the Torah.

This morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Shoftim, teaches us much about leadership.  It commands that judges and officials administer the law justly and impartially.  It mandates the establishment of a higher court that will issue rulings on cases that are too baffling for local leaders.  (The Rabbis understand this as the basis for the Sanhedrin, the court of 71 rabbis, judges, and priests who function as the High Court of the land, with added legislative and executive powers.)

The Torah portion also deals with kings, albeit with ambivalence.  Unlike its treatment of judges, officials, and the High Court, the Torah does not command the appointment of a King.  It is optional.  “If,” Moses tells the Israelites,

after you have entered the land that the Lord your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, asima alai melekh –  “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,” you shall be free to set a king over yourself… (Deuteronomy 17:14-15)

So what powers does a King have?  If we go exclusively by what is written in the Torah, absolutely none.  The King only has limitations.  Listen to these restrictions on the power of the monarchy.  Does this fit your image of a King?

• He is not allowed to accumulate too many horses, or send people down to Egypt to get more horses.

• He is not allowed to acquire too many wives.

• He is not allowed to amass too much gold and silver.

• He must have a copy of the Torah, written by the Priests, always at his side.  He must read it constantly so that he will learn to revere God and follow its laws.

• He may not act with haughtiness towards other people.

Nowhere in the Torah are the people actually commanded to follow the king and do what he says.  In the relationship between king and subjects, the responsibility is unidirectional – it is the king who serves the people.

When we think about royalty in pre-modern times, we usually think about the unlimited exercise of power.  The king’s word is law.  He rules by divine right.  The people owe him their total obedience and respect.  He can impose taxes and raise armies.  He gets to live a life of extravagance and pleasure.  As a famous monarch once said, “It’s good to be the king!”

Parashat Shoftim’s model is that of an anti-king.

Not only is he not allowed to build up the army, impose heavy taxation, and live the good life, he is also bound by a constitution – the Torah.  His job is to promote and enforce the commandments, and lead the people in observing the terms of the covenant not with a human king, but with God, the King of Kings.

It is a utopian vision of leadership not so dissimilar to other systems that place a wise, benevolent executive in charge of leading a society in accordance with principals of justice, “the good,” or philosophy.  Think Plato, Aristotle, Locke, and so on.

But is such a utopian vision realistic?  Apparently not.

After the Israelites conquer the Promised Land under the leadship of Joshua, they split up into tribes.  Various local and regional chiefs lead the people through one crisis after another.  Order gradually breaks down over the next two hundred years, and the Israelites have finally had enough.  They turn to the Prophet-Chief Samuel and ask him to appoint a King over them.  Tnah lanu melekh lshofteinu – “…appoint a king for us, to govern us…”  (I Samuel 8:6)

Samuel is disappointed, but God reassures him and tells him to ascede to the people’s request.  Samuel’s reaction is surprising, because the Torah already anticipated the Israelites’ future desire to be ruled by a human king.  Had not Samuel read Parashat Shoftim?

The nineteenth century Polish Rabbi, Yehoshua Trunk from Kutna (1821-1893), points to a subtle distinction between what Deuteronomy allows, and what the people request.  In Deuteronomy, when the people ask to set a king over them, they say asima alai melekh.  Whereas in Samuel, the people say t’nah lanu melekh, give us a king.  What is the difference between setting and giving?

Without going into the complexities, Rabbi Yehoshua from Kutna says that Deuteronomy’s vision of sima, setting a king, implies that he is going to be immersed in the people, and his job will be to guide them in the ways of God, influencing their thoughts and actions, and helping them to focus on the innermost realm of the heart.

When the Israelites in Samuel request n’tinah, to be given a king, they are asking to have a leader placed above them.  What they want are the pomp and circumstance, the external trappings of power that characterize the leaders of all the other nations of the world.

But God does not want Israel to be like the other nations of the world, and certainly does not want its king to fall to the hubris that afflicts so many human leaders.

In telling Samuel to go along with the people’s request, God knows that they are not motivated by the lofty ideals of the Torah, but as the saying goes, “people get the leaders they deserve.”

Samuel warns the people what the king is going to do them.  He will draft your sons into his army and your daughters as cooks and bakers.  He will seize farmlands, vineyards, and orchards.  He will tax you, and consign you to serfdom.  Eventually, you will regret this decision.

But the people insist that they want someone to go out in front of them and lead them to victory in battle.

Things start to unravel almost immediately.  The first king, Saul, turns out to be deeply flawed.  David brings the nation to greatness, capturing Jerusalem and expanding the borders, but not without his share of trouble.

His son Solomon builds the Temple, but violates every single  one of Deuteronomy’s laws about Kings, fulfilling Samuel’s warnings from just three generations ago.  He imposes heavy taxes and forced labor to build the Temple.  He buys horses and chariots from Egypt.  He accumulates vast riches.  Solomon marries seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines, whom he allows to introduce their idolatrous foreign practices into the Holy Land.

When Solomon dies, the united monarchy ends as the northern kingdom of Israel breaks off from the southern kingdom of Judah.  The righteous king, as described in Shoftim, is an ideal that turns out to be exceedingly difficult to implement.

The establishment of Israel in 1948 has reignited issues about Jewish power that have not been practical considerations for nearly two thousand years.  Is Israel a nation like any other, or do Jewish history and values make it different?  What should the role of Torah and Jewish law be in a country that is committed to freedom of religion and equal rights?  Who is authorized to interpret Jewish law?  How does Israel maintain itself as a Jewish state and a democracy?  What does it even mean to be a Jewish state?

You might be surprised to know that Israel does not have a constitution.  According to Israel’s Declaration of Independence of May 14, 1948, there was supposed to have been Constitution in place by October 1 of that year.  But the above questions were so difficult to resolve, the question of an Israeli constitution was placed on the back burner.

Because of the international and domestic pressure cooker that Israel always finds itself in, these questions are being dealt with and tested on a daily basis.  Israelis wrestle with the dilemma of creating a society based on the lofty ideals and values expressed in Jewish law and tradition while facing the very real and practical challenges that often are a question of survival.

One of the reasons that Israel is so important to Jews everywhere is because it creates powerful opportunities to put Jewish values into practice on a national level.  That is a possibility that did not exist for nearly two thousand years.  As we see on a daily basis, it is not easy.

We refer to the modern State of Israel in our prayers as reishit tz’michat geulateinu, the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.  The question of whether that is true or not depends on how Israel the country and Israel the people deal with these challenges.  I take it as a positive sign that Israelis, as well as Jews in the Diaspora, are actively engaged in wrestling with the question of how to exercise power in ways that embody the ethical principles of the Torah.