The Prozbul – Hillel’s Financial Creativity – Behar 5781

Trying to claim that the Torah supports this or that contemporary economic system or policy is like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole.

Jews have lived in many places and times and dealt with many different economic and political systems.  In all of those systems, there was economic struggle and human suffering, along with thriving and flourishing. We survived as a people due to cultural and religious adaptability.

Rather than try to awkwardly shoehorn the Torah into our modern theories, why don’t we instead look at what the Torah actually describes?

Parashat Behar, the first of this morning’s double parashah, presents a priestly vision of economic justice in ancient Israel. It offers details about land ownership, debt, poverty, and wealth. It describes indentured servitude and slavery.

By looking closely, perhaps we might learn something about the economic system that actually existed at the time.

First and foremost: there is no land ownership. It all belongs to God, who apportions the land to whom God sees fit. “The land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.”  (25:23)  This is a core concept that we must understand. Nobody owns property.

The parashah begins with a description of the shemitah, the sabbatical year. Just as every seven days ends with Shabbat, every seven years ends with Shemitah.

The Israelites are permitted to work the land and collect the harvests for six years. The seventh year is a Shabbat Ladonai – A Sabbath unto the Lord. Every seventh year, the land must be allowed to rest. There can be no harvesting or planting. Everyone is entitled to eat what the land produces on it. The Torah specifies “you” – the Israelites, along with their slaves, employees, indentured servants, and animals.

Every seven shemitah years ends with the Yovel, the Jubilee year. On Yom Kippur of the Jubilee year, the shofar is sounded throughout the land. All harvesting and planting is forbidden, as in the Shemittah year. In addition, all property returns to the person whose holding it originally was, or his heirs.  All indentured servants are automatically redeemed as well, going free and returning to their ancestral lands.

The Torah then describes the cycle of misfortunes that lead a farmer into servitude. When things first start going downhill, the farmer can take out an interest free loan to buy seed. If that does not work, the farmer sells part of his land for more seed. But not the land, actually. It is the annual productive capacity of the land, multiplied by the number of years remaining until the Jubilee. This makes sense, since the farmer gets the land back on the 50th year. If he manages to do well, he can repurchase the land at any time before then, redeeming it. It is his perogative.

If that does not work out, he can sell the productive capacity of his remaining property. He then remains on the land and becomes a sharecropper.  The purchaser of the land has to supply the tenant farmer with seed, and the farmer tries to pay off his debt with the proceeds from the harvest.

If this does not work, the farmer sells himself and becomes an indentured servant. The purchaser now takes on full responsibility for his well-being, including paying him wages. If he makes enough to pay off his debt, he goes free. Otherwise, he must wait until the Jubilee year.

All of this applies to Israelites dealing with other Israelites. The Torah specifies different treatment for non-Israelites. Non-Israelite slaves are owned in perpetuity. They cannot redeem themselves and do not go free in the Jubilee year.

So what can we say about this economy? There is no land ownership. While a successful farmer can increase his holdings for a time, it gets reset every 50 years, so there cannot be any accumulation of wealth. There does not seem to be any money in this system. Everything is based on agricultural commodities. Since all land ultimately remains under the control of the original family, there is little flexibility. Newcomers cannot break in to this system. A person who does not want to be a farmer does not have many options, since wealth is concentrated in the productive capacity of the land. 

At the same time, there is a strong concern for justice, and for preventing people from falling through the cracks when things turn poorly for them. Israelites are responsible for their neighbors. Even when someone becomes impoverished, they retain their rights and must be supported by those who are better off. Plus, the ability to redeem the land is totally in their hands.  The purchaser is not allowed to refuse to sell it back.

Was this economic system ever put into practice? During the first Temple era, we do not know for sure. But the Prophet Jeremiah makes a point of redeeming his ancestral land before he goes into exile when the First Temple is destroyed. In the Book of Ruth, Boaz redeems the land owned by Ruth’s deceased husband.

Biblical scholars argue about the extent to which these laws were observed. But the fact that the Torah can construct such an elaborate system of wealth redistribution implies that it is reacting to some situation on the ground. Behar represents the priestly vision for a just redistribution of wealth.

During the Second Temple era, however, the shemittah and Yovel laws were definitely being observed. Nehemiah makes reference to it in the fifth century. Philo and Josephus, in their histories, describe its practice during the late Second Temple period.

But the economic situation that Jews are living under is nothing like what existed centuries earlier. Let’s fast forward to the late Second Temple period, after the biblical era has ended. The Romans are in charge. The economy has changed drastically. Property ownership exists.

There is now money, which allows for a much more complex, growth-oriented economy. Think about what money is for a moment. The Emperor issues an order to make coins. The coins have limited intrinsic value, based on what kind of metal they are made of. But the government sets a value for those coins, a value that holds to the extent that people are willing to use it.

To expand the economy, the government encourages the issuing of credit, either by banks or by wealthy individuals. They make interest-bearing loans, which increases the money supply, allows businesses to grow, and allows trade to take place over vast distances.

A wealthy class emerges. Rich people need somewhere to park their money, so they do the obvious thing. They invest in real estate. Gradually, smaller farmers become squeezed out and are forced to sell their lands to wealthy absentee landowners, who typically dwell in the cities.

Jews, of course, are living under Roman rule, and they have to adjust to this system. Those Jews living in the land of Israel are also bound by the Torah’s agricultural laws, including those of the Shemittah and Yovel.

According to Deuteronomy, debts are cancelled every seven years, during the Shemittah. That is a problem. Why would anyone make a loan, especially an interest-free loan, if it is subject to cancellation at the end of each seven year cycle?

The result are as expected: credit dries up for those who are most in need. The poor remain poor, and the wealthy refuse to step in.

This situation led Hillel HaZaken, Hillel the Elder, to take action. Mishnah Tractate Shevii details the laws of the Shemittah year. The tenth chapter introduces an economic innovation that Hillel introduced. It is called a prozbul. The word most likely comes from the Greek pros boule, which means “before the council.”

The prozbul was a contract in which a creditor appears before a Beit Din, a Jewish court, and declares, “I turn over to you, so-and-so, judges of such and such a place, that any debt that I may have outstanding, I shall collect it whenever I desire.”  (Mishnah Sheviit 10:4) In other words, the debt, which by law should be cancelled, is transferred over to the court. The court is not a person, and therefore has no obligation to cancel the debt. After the Shemittah year is over, the creditor reclaims the debt from the Beit Din.

Why did Hillel issue this decree, which so clearly goes against the spirit, if not the letter, of the Torah? The Mishnah answers that question.

When he observed people refraining from lending to one another, and thus transgressing what is written in the Torah, “Beware, lest you harbor the base thought, [‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching,’ so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing].” Hillel enacted the prozbul.

Mishnah Sheviit 10:3

According to the Mishnah, those with means behaved exactly as we would have expected them to. They stopped making loans. That is why Hillel made this dramatic change. To put it into modern terms, “he eased up on banking regulations in order to get the economy moving again.”

The prozbul is one early example of how Judaism evolved to deal with a new economic reality. Over the past two thousand years, there have been many more developments. The best ones recognized, as Hillel the Elder did, the Torah’s underlying concern. “Beware, lest you harbor the base thought so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing.”

Whatever the economic system, whether it be barter, feudalism, mercantilism, capitalism, socialism, whatever’ism, we are supposed to take care of each other. There will always be some who do well while others struggle. We have seen this very clearly during the pandemic.

Food Banks around the country have distributed food in record numbers. We have been warned lately that the numbers of homeless Americans will rise dramatically when national and state eviction moratoriums end in the near future. I am not going to suggest that there is an obvious or simple solution to these problems. We live in a vastly complex global economy that defies simple solutions. 

But we would do well to remember the values expressed by the Torah laws: to be compassionate and generous with our neighbors, to not encumber them with unpayable debt, to support them when they stumble, and to give them opportunities to redeem themselves.

While We Sleep – Emor 5781

I have been working on my garden this week.  I have planted tomoatoes and peppers.  I laid down my drip irrigation system.  I went to the hardware store and bought enriched garden soil. While it may seem like a lot of work, compared to ancient times it was really quite easy.

What is the nature of humanity’s relationship to the earth?

While very much in touch with the land, and full of practical knowledge—probably much more so than most of us today—ancient humans did not have a scientific understanding of the world around them. Whether it rained or not, whether the wind blew or was still, was due to active oversight by God.  And so, I imagine that there was a certain amount of awe and humility that accompanied gardening in ancient times.

We see evidence of this attitude, this awareness of our frailty vis a vis the natural world, throughout the Torah. Parashat Emor includes one of the Torah’s sacred calendars. Appearing next to instructions for priests about maintaining their pure status, it focuses understandably on the sacrifices that the priests must offer in the Temple.

One of those offerings pertains to the season in which we find ourselves right now. God instructs Moses to inform the Israelites:

Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving to you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the priest.

Levitucs 23:10

Notice that this is the very first offering that the Israelites in the wilderness will bring after they enter the Promised Land. They are supposed to bring this sheaf offering, the omer, on the second day of Passover. The priest will take this offering and elevate it. The Torah continues:

Until that very day, until you have brought the offering of your God, you shall eat no bread or parched grain or fresh ears; it is a law for all time throughout the ages in all your settlements.

Leviticus 23:14

Until this omer is brought, the Israelites are not permitted to consume any of the grain from the new crop. 

What is an omer? A sheaf.  What’s a sheaf? You’ve surely seen pictures. Think of long stalks of grain, bundled together. A sheaf is the quantity of stalks that a person could carry under one arm.  One sheaf’s-worth of stalks contained about 4 dry pints of grain. 

So what is the Torah asking the Israelite farmer to do?

Let’s talk about pre-modern agriculture. It was extremely time consuming and labor intensive. It is not for nothing that Adam’s curse upon eating of the fruit includes the line, “by the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat.”

The first step is preparation of the field by ploughing; then sowing it with seed; then hoeing; then removingl thorns and weeds; then harvesting the stalks of grain, then bundling them into sheaves.  After that comes the most labor intensive step of the entire process: threshing. This is when the farmer separates the grain kernels from the straw by beating the stalks of wheat. To thresh one bushel of wheat—about 8 dry gallons—by hand, would typically take about an hour. Finally comes winnowing, which is when the grain kernels are separated by tossing it up into the air and letting the wind carry off the chaff. At this point, the farmer has grain that can be stored in silos. Until the last few centuries, this has been the normal procedure for producing grain.  It was incredibly hard work and not particularly efficient.

The Omer offering adds some additional steps for the ancient Israelite. Removing an omer’s worth of grain from the silo, the farmer would bring the offering in a basket to the Temple in Jerusalem. The Rabbis of the Mishnah describe what happened next. The farmer would

place [the grain] into a hollow, perforated [metal] vessel and then roast it over the fire. They would then spread the roasted kernels out on the ground of the Temple courtyard to be cooled by the wind. Next it would be ground in a mill.  Finally it would be sifted 13 times. This would result in a tenth of an ephah’s worth of the finest quality flour (about one quart).

Menachot 10:4

What an enormous amount of work for such a small offering. What is its purpose? A midrash suggests an answer.

Rabbi Levi said: Even assuming that you have ploughed, sown, hoed, removed the thorns, reaped, made sheaves, threshed and laid up corn in the granaries, if the Holy Blessed One did not produce a little bit of wind for you to winnow, what would you live from? Thus, you must only give Me wages for the wind.

Leviticus Rabbah 28:2

In other words, it is a symbolic gift to the Lord for the gentle breeze that enables the farmer to conduct the step of winnowing, which depends on a breeze to blow the lightweight chaff away from the denser grain.

Of course, there are countless other ways in which the farmer depends on God’s directing the natural world to enable human beings to conduct our livelihood.  Rain in the right quantities at the right times. Peaceful borders. No blight or insect infestation, and so on. Most farmers lived a subsistence lifestyle, powerless to affect so many of the conditions upon which livelihood depended.

An adjacent midrash makes a similar point.

Rabbi Yannai said: Normally, when a person buys a pound of meat in the marketplace, he has to go through so much trouble and anxiety. [Remember, meat was super expensive in those days, and there was no refrigeration.] But though people sleep in their beds, the Holy Blessed One causes the wind to blow, and raises up clouds, and causes plants to grow, and fruits to be plump, and all we have to give Him [in return] is the payment of the omer. Thus is it written: “You shall bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the priest.” (Leviticvus 23:10)

Leviticus Rabbah 28:1

In this midrash, Rabbi Yannai describes a number of other ways in which we depend upon the orderly functioning of the natural world: He mentions God laboring to bring wind and rain, cause plants to grow, and fruit to form. And we take most of those phenomena for granted, most of the time. We literally sleep through the cycle of nature.

That is the purpose of the omer offering: to get us to acknowledge how dependant we truly are on God, the director of the natural cycle.

It is a fitting reponse to experiencing the wonder and awe that we feel when we contemplate the miraculous interdependence inherent in the world around us.

What ought we to do as a symbolic offer of the Omer?

Something that would acknowledge our dependence on God, and instill a sense of humility in our relationship with the world around us.

Because I can have a successful garden regardless of whether it rains or not. All I have to do is turn on the tap and add the fertilizer. The reminders of our dependance are less obvious.

But there are so many indications that our relationship with the earth is out of balance: microplastics everywhere – in our water, our soil, our air, and our mountains; increasingly destructive fires, decreasing sources of groundwater.

The world will continue spinning, and the laws of nature will continue to perform as intended by God. Human behavior is the variable in the equation.

Will we stay asleep in our beds while nature moves forward?

Do Not Hate Your Kinsman, Love Your Fellow – Acharei Mot/Kedoshim 5781

Parashat Kedoshim is close to the physical center of the Torah. It begins with the instruction: You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.

At close to the center of the law code which follows, we find the iconic words: V’ahavta L’re’acha Kamocha. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. This is the Torah’s formulation of the Golden Rule, the core principle that lies at the heart of most religions and ethical systems.

But this apparently simple expression is deceptively complex. To understand it, I invite us to look at it in context. 

V’ahavta L’re’acha Kamocha appears in Leviticus chapter 19:18.  It is only part of the verse, and it follows 19:17, which provides additional context and helps us understand what it is that God is asking of us.

So let’s look at those two verses in their entirety:

You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your fellow openly so that you will not bear punishment because of him. You shall not take revenge or bear a grudge against members of your people. You shall love your fellow as yourself: I am the LORD.

Leviticus 19:17-18


Several details jump out right away. The first verse speaks of hate while the second speaks of love. Ramban notes that these verses are set up in a chiastic format. ABBA

“Don’t hate your kinsfolk in your heart” vs. “Love your fellow as yourself.”

“Reprove your fellow openly” vs. “You shall not take revenge or bear a grudge against members of your people.”

Plus, the “Thou Shalt” and the “Thou Shalt Not” are reversed. Verse 17 says don’t hate but do reprove while verse 18 reverses it, don’t take revenge, but do love.

In each case, the emotional instruction adds something to the more practical part of the commandment. But don’t think that hate and love are mere emotions. In the Torah, they are actions. When the Shema tells us to love the Lord your God, it is telling us to express our covenental obligations of love through actions. Inversely, hatred in the hatred implies a sense of active plotting against another person. We need to keep this important detail in mind as we explore further.

Let’s start with verse 17. Reprove your fellow openly so that you will not bear punishment because of him. That sounds like a dangerous proposition. I see my fellow commiting a sin and the Torah tells me that I must rebuke him. I have to try to stop whatever sinful activities that are being committed.

This commandment suggests that we have responsibilities towards the other members of our community. Like it or not, the impacts of many of my decisions and actions will reverberate to the people around me. The Torah is saying that my neighbors do not have to sit idly by and watch me bring disaster on to the community. In fact, they are not allowed to sit idly by. This positive commandment instructs other people to intervene on my behavior.

Of course, the potential for abuse is obvious. I try to always keep in mind the advice that my late father-in-law, Gary Romalis, may he rest in peace, used to offer, “Unsolicited advice is never appreciated.”

But if I trust my friends and neighbors, and know that they want what is best for me, I might be open to being reprimanded when I am behaving like a selfish jerk. I might appreciate the correction.

I think the Torah might be aware of this as well, as it offers a qualifier. “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart.”

Jacob Milgrom explains that the emphatic doubling of the verb, hokheach tokhiach, implies that reproof must be done openly. This reading helps us understand the commandment to “not hate your kinsfolk in your heart.” Hatred stored up in the heart has the tendency to fester. It is better to get it out in the open.

This is a theme that appears many times in the Bible. “Open reproof is better than concealed love,” states Proverbs (27:5). Proverbs also recognizes that it takes wisdom to receive rebuke. “Do not reprove a scoffer, for he will hate you, reprove a wise man and he will love you.” (9:8)

Taken together, we find themes of love and hate bound up with the notion of commenting on the behavior of friends, family members, and neighbors. Reproof must be motivated by love, and never hatred. And it can only be heard by someone who is open to receiving it.

The community that lived in Qumran, as reflected in the Dead Sea Scrolls, was an extremely tight-knit brotherhood. Strict rules governed daily life. Members of the community were required to reprove one another openly. Listen to what one of their documents states:

…if he kept silent about him from day to day, and accused him of a capital offense (only) when he was angry with him, [the accused’s] punishment is upon [the accuser], since he did not fulfill the commandment of God who said to him, “reprove your fellow openly so that you will not bear punishment because of him.”

Damascus Covenant Scroll 9: 2-8

A brother had to bring everything out into the open. Keeping things bottled up would allow hatred to grow. Another Qumran document provides guidance for how to offer rebuke:

To reprove each his fellow in truth, humility, and lovingkindness to a man: Let him not speak to him in anger or complaint or stub[bornly or in passion] (caused) by an evil disposition. Let him not hate him intrac[tab]ly, for on that very day shall he reprove him so that he will not bear punishment because of him.

1QS 5:25-6:1

Rebuke must be loving and humble.

The next verse in the Torah continues the theme. 

You shall not take revenge or bear a grudge against members of your people.

It is so easy to judge other people’s actions. We jump to conclusions all the time, and before we know it, we are consumed. The Torah warns us against it. The Talmud (BT Yoma 23a) offers a simple example that illustrates the difference between taking revenge and bearing a grudge. I am paraphrasing.

Let’s say I ask my neighbor to borrow a hammer. My neighbor says, “No way, it’s mine.” The next day, my neighbor comes knocking on my door, “Hey Josh, can I borrow a shovel.” 

“Are you kidding me?!  You wouldn’t lend me your hammer yesterday, and now you want my shovel.  Get lost!” 

That, says the Talmud, is revenge.

Let’s say, after my neighbor refuses to lend me the hammer and then has the audacity to ask for my shovel, I instead say, “Here. Take it. You see, unlike you, I am not selfish and greedy. I am the kind of person who lends out his tools.”

That is what it means to bear a grudge.

Both of these examples are the kind of typical reactions that, I imagine, most of us would have. That is why the Torah instructs us to “love your fellow as yourself.”

Even though my neighbor wouldn’t lend me the hammer, I cannot let myself succumb to hate. What does it feel like to need a shovel when you don’t have one? It does not matter that my neighbor was greedy yesterday. When someone needs a shovel, my job is to lend it to them. Because I know what it is like to need a tool.

The Talmud’s example, of course, is a bit trite. There are much more serious offenses that impose barriers between people. It is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to imagine that we should not feel hatred in our hearts against someone who has really wronged us. 

It is perhaps easier to imagine such common trust and acceptance in a small village in which everyone knows everyone, or a tight-new Qumranic brotherhood in the desert. A complex, diverse, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and highly interconnected world simply does not foster the level of trust and acceptance of one another that the Torah imagines.

How often do we pass judgment on other people’s actions, allow hate to fester, hold grudges, bear resentment?

Yet, this is the central command of the Torah, the ethical principle upon which all of Judaism is based, the underpinnings of holiness. 

We are not to be passive to wrongdoing, hokheach tokiach, You shall openly rebuke. But our rebuke must never be driven by hatred, must always be motivated by love for one another. How do we do this?

The Baal Shem Tov inspringly brings it together.

Just as we love ourselves despite the faults we know we have, so should we love our fellows despite the faults we see in them

Telushkin 1997: 466

May we have the honesty and acceptance to do so.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Jacob Milgrom, The Anchor Bible: Leviticus 17-22, pp. 1646-1656

Death and life are in the power of the tongue – Tazria-Metzora 5781

Underneath the surface, this week’s double Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora, is about the power of words.

On its surface, we cover a variety of topics relating to purity and impurity. Childbirth, scaly skin disease, plagues that erupt on clothing or houses, bodily discharges. All of these conditions have the potential to bear impurity.

Tzara’at is often, and misleadingly, translated as leprosy. Jacob Milgrom uses the term “scale disease, ” so that is how I will refer to it.

What are we dealing with? I have sometimes been guilty of referring to this as the Torah’s version of “public health.” There are many different forms that that tzaraat takes. It can appear on a person’s skin or scalp. It can be on clothing, fabric, or leather. Or, it can emerge on the walls of a building. The Torah describes the course of progression. There is a tremendous amount of detail.

But tzara’at does not resemble any skin affliction known to dermatology. What we are dealing with here is a spiritual condition, not a medical condition.

In chapters 13 and 14, the word tahor — pure — appears 36 times; tamei — impure — appears 30 times.  The word for healing, nirpa, appears just 4 times. 

Who performs the diagnosis – a wise person, a medicine man or woman, a prophet? No. It is the priests who are assigned this duty, the ones who are charged with maintaining separation between purity and impurity.

What is the remedy? The metzora must rend their clothes, bare their head, cover their upper lip, and call out “impure! impure!” as a warning to others to keep away. But we are not concerned with contagiousness of disease. We are worried about the contagiousness of impurity, which can be conveyed through touch or through being under the same roof.

Because the metzora has this status of impurity, they must dwell outside the community.

When the priest determines that the scale disease has run its course, he performs a ritual of purification on behalf of the Israelite who then must wait a week and bring sacrifices for expiation.

Tzara’at has little to do with medicine. The Torah’s treatment of it is ritual, not medical.

In the ancient world, death goes with impurity, life with purity.

In the Book of Numbers, Aaron and Miriam complain about their brother Moses on account of the Cushite woman that he has married. In response, God afflicts Miriam with “snow-white scales.” She become s a metzora’at.

Aaron turns to Moses. Pay close attention to how he describes what has happened. “O my Lord, account not to us the sin which we committed in our folly. Let her not be as one dead, who emerges from his mother’s womb with half his flesh eaten away.”

What have we learned about tzara’at?

1.  It is the result of sin.

2.  It makes Miriam look like a corpse, a stillbirth.

Moses intercedes with a prayer, but she still must remain outside of the camp for seven days during her period of ritual purification. There is nothing medical going on here. It is all about purity and impurity.

Our tradition must find religious meaning for these categories in a world in which there is no functioning priesthood. The Rabbis do not disappoint.

Already in the Torah, we found that tzara’at is associated with sin, impurity, and death.

The Rabbis run with that.

Noting that the word for a person afflicted with scale disease is called a metzora, they make a pun.  Metzora is an acronym for the expression motzi shem ra, which means literally “bring out a bad name.” It is the Hebrew expression for gossip in all of its forms.

The case of Miriam and Aaron proves the point. What sin did they commit to merit Miriam’s punishment? They were speaking ill of Moses, specifically concerning the ethnicity of his wife.

So it is not such a stretch for the Rabbis to make the connection between gossip and tzara’at.

A Talmudic Sage asks why the metzora is required to dwell outside the camp.  Why must they be ostracized from the community? The answer is that, through words, the metzora created separation between husband and wife, between neighbor and neighbor. And so, the punishment is to themselves be separated from the community. 

The Rabbis have transformed what in the Bible was a spiritual matter into a moral lesson. The person who destroys community through their words is themself removed from the community.  This could be seen as a punishment, or we might also see it as the natural consequence of speaking destructively.

The Torah begins with words. God speaks the universe into existence. From one day to the next, God declares, “Let there be light.” “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water…” “Let the water below the sky be gathered into one area, that the dry land may appear…” 

And then comes life. “Let the earth sprout vegetation…” “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures…” “Let the earth bring forth every kinds of living creature…” And finally, “Let us make humanity in our image…” Day after day, God creates through words.

What other kinds of words does God use in that opening week?  “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and master it…”

The universe begins with words. Words bring life and blessing. This is the side of purity and good. The opposite, of course, is death and curse, the side of impurity and evil. This too can be the result of words. 

The lesson of Tazria-Metzora is that our words have tremendous power. We can emulate God’s act of creation, using our words for good, for building one another up. For making the world better. For making life flourish. Or, when we use our words improperly, we destroy, we bring death. We separate ourselves from one another like the metzora banished to the edge of the camp.

The Rabbis point out that every act of lashon hara harms three people: the one who is spoken about, the one who is spoken to, and the one who does the speaking. The expulsion of the metzora from the camp is an appropriate metaphor for the potential of our words to destroy community. 

Proverbs gets it exactly right when it states “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”  (Proverbs 18:21)

The corrosiveness of words is so evident and widespread in our world. I often feel powerless to avoid it. But if we remember the potential harm that words cause everyone involved, including ourselves, perhaps there is something we can do.

Before speaking, let’s ask, “Are the words that I am about to say more likely to build or to destroy? Will my speech promote peace or further division?” When listening, it is ok to say, “Can we discuss something else,” or “I prefer not to talk about someone who is not around.” Finally, and this is the hardest of all, take a break from the news, and stop checking the feed. It is not making the world any better, it is not bringing people together, and it certainly is not making your life any better.

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”  Let’s make it life.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Rabbi Shai Held, The Heart of Torah, Volume 2, pp. 47-51

Jacob Milgrom, The Anchor Bible: Leviticus 1-16, pp. 816-824

Between the Sacred and the Profane – Shemini 5781

Parshat Shemini describes the inauguration of the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle that the Israelites built to bring the Divine presence into their midst.

Aaron, as the newly consecrated High Priest, leads the final ceremony, which reaches its climax when a heavenly fire shoots out of the Tent of Meeting to consume the sacrifices that he has prepared on the altar.  The people respond by falling to their faces, shouting.

Meanwhile, Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons, have taken their fire pans and offered incense.  The same conflagration that consumes their father’s offerings engulfs them along with it.  

Moses jumps into action, ordering the removal of the bodies and warns Aaron and his remaining sons, Elazar and Itamar, against interrupting the inauguration ceremony by going into mourning. The Israelites will mourn on their behalf.

Then, suddenly, the story breaks.

God speaks, addressing Aaron directly.

וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר יְהוָ֔ה אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֖ן לֵאמֹֽר׃

And the LORD spoke to Aaron, saying: 

Leviticus 10:8

This is unusual. On only two other occasions in the Torah does God speak directly to Aaron, both in Numbers, chapter 18.  Usually, God speaks to Aaron through Moses. And this is highly significant. Almost all of the rules pertaining to the priesthood are delivered to the Israelites collectively. There is no secret manual of sacrifices to which only the priests are privy. This contrasts with other ancient rites in which that esoteric material is kept secret from the general public.

So if God is speaking directly to Aaron, there must be something special about what comes next.

We might expect God to say something about the tragedy that has just befallen Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. Maybe offer comfort. Or provide an explanation for what just happened

But no, instead God delivers instructions against drinking alchohol while performing priestly duties.

יַ֣יִן וְשֵׁכָ֞ר אַל־תֵּ֣שְׁתְּ ׀ אַתָּ֣ה ׀ וּבָנֶ֣יךָ אִתָּ֗ךְ בְּבֹאֲכֶ֛ם אֶל־אֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵ֖ד וְלֹ֣א תָמֻ֑תוּ חֻקַּ֥ת עוֹלָ֖ם לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶֽם׃ 

Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die. This is a law for all time throughout the ages,

Leviticus 10:9

Midrashim and commentaries try to find connections between this prohibition and the tragedy of Nadav and Avihu. One solution claims that Nadav and Avihu’s mistake is that they were drunk when they made their incense offerings. But there is no indication that the esh zarah, the strange fire, that they brought had anything to do with drunkenness.

Another commentator suggests that it is a warning to Aaron and his surviving children not to drown their sorrows in drink. But again, nothing in the text suggests that this is a temptation under consideration.

God’s instructions to Aaron continues, although the syntax is strange. The sentence begins with an infinitive. It makes the Hebrew feel like a continuation from a different speech.

וּֽלֲהַבְדִּ֔יל בֵּ֥ין הַקֹּ֖דֶשׁ וּבֵ֣ין הַחֹ֑ל וּבֵ֥ין הַטָּמֵ֖א וּבֵ֥ין הַטָּהֽוֹר׃ וּלְהוֹרֹ֖ת אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אֵ֚ת כָּל־הַ֣חֻקִּ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּ֧ר יְהוָ֛ה אֲלֵיהֶ֖ם בְּיַד־מֹשֶֽׁה׃

And to distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean; and to teach the Israelites all the laws which the LORD has imparted to them through Moses.

Leviticus 10:10-11

Rashi, somewhat awkwardly, connects this passage to the prohibition against serving while intoxicated. In other words, you have to stay sober so that you will be able to properly distinguish between “the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean.” 

Or perhaps it should be read as an empahtic, and not directly connected to the preceding verse. וּֽלֲהַבְדִּ֔יל The essential duty of the priesthood is “to distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean and to teach the Israelites” all of God’s laws.

We see here an inner and an outer focus.  The priests have jobs themselves to do. They are tasked with maintaining separation within the sanctuary on behalf of the community.  While everyone knows the rules, only the priests have to concern themselves with fulfilling them. Of the Torah’s 613 commandments, somewhere between 201 and 293 of them only apply when the Temple is standing.

But the priests also have an outward-facing role. They are teachers. According to Deuteronomy (17:7-9), the priests serve as judges, deciding legal disputes and interpreting God’s laws when questions arise.

In the midst of their inauguration, just after tragedy strikes, God speaks to Aaron directly to summarize the essential role of the priesthood.

You may remember a passage from Exodus, when the Israelites recieved the Torah at Mount Sinai. They are instructed to be a “kingdom of priests, a holy people.” And so we see that the role of Aaron and his offspring may be seen as a means to that ultimate end. 

You may have recognized the language in what God tells Aaron. וּֽלֲהַבְדִּ֔יל בֵּ֥ין הַקֹּ֖דֶשׁ וּבֵ֣ין הַחֹ֑ל ul’havdil bein hakodesh uvein hachol — “and to distinguish between the sacred and the profane.”

We use these words in the blessing for Havdallah. As Shabbat ends, we quote God’s directions to Aaron. But instead of the priests having a set of narrow responsibilities for keeping sacred apart from profane, pure from impure, the words undergo a cosmic reformulation. 

It is now God who makes this distinction:

Praised are You, Adonai our God, sovereign of the universe, who distinguishes between the sacred and the profane, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations, between the seventh day and the six days of creation. Praised are You, Adonai, who distinguishes between sacred and profane. 

All of creation: time, space, people, point toward these distinctions.

If that is the ultimate goal, perhaps that explains why God interrupts the disastrous inauguration ceremony to remind Aaron, and us, what it is all about. Right now, everything is a mess. 

Leviticus 1-16 (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries) Hardcover – December 1, 1998

Pure and impure, sacred and profane — all are mixed up. That is why we need the priesthood: to perform the job in the sacred Temple, and to teach the people how to live in a world in which the proper balance is maintained. 

But eventually we will become worthy of the title, a “kingdom of priests, a holy nation.” We remind ourselves of that every week, when we mark the transition from sacred to profane. The Sabbath we have just experienced, a taste of the world to come, is our sample for what a world in balance could be like.

Bibliography

Leviticus 1-16 (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries) by Jacob Milgrom

The Shemitah Ideal: Forego Profit and Renounce Ownership – Parashat Behar 5776

Parashat Behar presents the laws of shemitah, the sabbatical year.  The Israelites are allowed to plant and sow, prune and gather for six years.  Then, on the seventh year, the land is to be given a sabbath of complete rest.  No cultivation can take place, but people are allowed to consume whatever happens to grow on its own.  The Torah explains that when the laws of shemitah are followed, the sixth year will produce such abundant crops that there will be plenty of food to go around for the next two years.

Another aspect of shemitah required indentured servants to be set free during the seventh year.  There were elements of the shemitah system in effect during years one through six as well.  Landowners had to give ma’aser oni, 10% of their crops to the poor every 3rd and 6th year.  They had to allow the poor to come on to their fields to harvest the corners and gleanings every year.

Maimonides identifies two separate mitzvot, commandments, pertaining to shemitah (Hilchot Shemitah v’Yovel 1:1, 4:24).  1.  It is a positive commandment to suspend work on the land and cultivation of trees.  2.  It is a positive commandment to release all agricultural produce.  In other words, farmers are not allowed to put up barriers around their fields, vineyards, and orchards.  Their property must be open to the public.  Furthermore, Maimonides adds, farmers are not allowed to gather in excess produce into their homes.  Small quantities can be brought in.  But for the most part, everyone is supposed to have equal access to the produce that happens to grow during the shemitah year.

In his Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides suggests two reasons for the shemitah requirements.  The first is that these laws promote sympathy for our fellow human beings.  The second is that by letting the land lie fallow on the seventh year, it will result in greater overall production.

Regarding the second reason, Maimonides is wrong.  Farmers have practiced crop rotation since ancient times.  Without going into specifics, simply letting land remain uncultivated once every seven years is not crop rotation.  Many other commentators specifically repudiate Maimonides for suggesting this.

Most agree with Maimonides, however, regarding his first explanation.  Sixteenth century Italian Rabbi Abraham Porto writes, for example:

This law was given in order that we may show sympathy for our fellow men who have neither land nor vineyards, and that they may be happy in the Shemitah year, as the rich are happy every year.  (Minchah Belulah)

Another commentator explains that

the suspension of work in every seventh year causes us to realize that our mission on earth is not to be slaves to the soil but a much higher and nobler one.  Work should only serve the purpose of providing food and other needs, while our task is to attain to the supreme end…  (Akedat Yitzchak)

Think about what it would be like to be an Israelite landowner in a society that observes Shemitah.  I have to stop all work on the land.  I cannot even allow my non-Israelite workers to do anything.  I have to take down any fences or barriers around my fields.  As for produce that happens to grow naturally, I am not allowed to harvest it.  Instead, it remains in the ground, on the tree, or on the vine.

When I need food, I can go out to my field.  But I will be joining everyone else from my community when I do so.  The poor, the strangers, the property-less Levites.  All of us have equal access to the lands that I once thought of us as mine.

For one year, all social and economic differences are set aside.  The wealthy stand side by side with their servants, the poor, and the strangers among them.  Just think about the impact on social interactions if our society followed an institution like shemitah – to forego profit and renounce ownership.

Perhaps this is a utopian socialist ideal – but remember that it is only once every seven years.  The Torah recognizes the inherent competitive nature of humanity.  Rather than try to suppress it, it asks us instead to harness it.

We desperately need this ethic here in California, where we are living the opposite of the shemitah ideal.

There is an unprecedented housing crisis in our state.  The cause of this housing crisis is not a secret: income inequality.

This week, the Mercury News reported the following statistics:  Home ownership rates statewide are at the lowest level since the 1940’s.  The median price of a home in Santa Clara County is $1,070,000.  To qualify for a mortgage for such a home, a homebuyer would need an annual income of $219,870.  Assuming the homebuyer made a down payment of 20%, the resulting payment on a 30-year fixed rate loan would be $5,500 per month.

So many people struggle to meet even their basic housing needs; the idea of taking off a year to pursue more spiritual matters is a pipe dream.

Our society is structured in such a way that people of different economic levels are separated from one another.  There is not a whole lot of social interaction taking place between blue collar and white collar workers.

These kinds of inequalities are precisely what Shemitah addresses.  The walls between us, quite literally, come down.  The pursuit of wealth is put on hold.  Rich and poor, executives and janitors, stand shoulder to shoulder as they pick food for themselves and their families.  And everyone uses their time to pursue spiritual matters: the study of Torah, the development of relationships, the cultivation of compassion.

Rav Kook, the early religious Zionist in the early twentieth century, wrote a book about shemitah called Shabbat HaAretz. – the Sabbath of the Land.  You can hear the idealism in his beautiful words as he imagines Jews living in harmony in with each other and the land.

It is a year of equality and rest, in which the soul reaches out towards divine justice, towards God Who sustains the living creatures with loving kindness.  There is no private property and no punctilious privilege but the peace of God reigns over all in which there is the breath of life…  Sanctity is not profaned by the exercise of private acquisitiveness over all this year’s produce, and the covetousness of wealth stirred up by commerce is forgotten.

Bibliography

Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Vayikra, pp. 509-522

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bibliography

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

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

Living With Hope – Haftarah for Parashat Behar 5776

Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar me’od.

V’ha-ikar lo lefached k’lal.

The whole world is a very narrow bridge, a very narrow bridge, a very narrow bridge…

But the main thing to recall, is to have no, have no fear at all.

This is possibly the most famous teaching of the great Hassidic Rebbe, Nachman of Bratslov.  It is so famous that Baruch Chait turned it into a song which any Jewish child who goes to summer camp or youth group learns by heart.

To be honest, until this week I never really thought about what it means.  “The whole world is a very narrow bridge.”  Ok.  I get that.  It is a metaphor for the precariousness of life.  It is difficult to know what the best path is, and we are constantly forced to choose between options that could plunge us over the side, not necessarily to literal destruction, but perhaps to spiritual oblivion.  A bit dramatic, but I can accept that.

“But the main thing to recall is to have no fear at all.”  Stop.  That is ridiculous.  Despite the constant danger we face, we are supposed to banish all fear?  Is that really what Rebbe Nachman is saying?  Not only is it a virtually impossible ideal for most human beings, fear is a good thing.  Fear saves lives.  Come on, any ten year old who saw Inside Out knows that.

What is Rebbe Nachman talking about?

The problem is that the person who translated the song into English wanted to make sure that it would rhyme – “the main thing to recall is to have no hear at all.”

Conveniently, it also rhymes with the Hebrew.  Lo l’fached k’lal.  What does k’lal mean?  To be fair, it can mean “at all.”  But I don’t think that is what it means here.

The Hebrew of the verse is quite clever.  The word is repeated three times.  Listen carefully:  Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar me’od.  V’ha-ikar lo lefached k’lalKol, Kulo, and K’lal are all from the same root.

Let me suggest a more accurate translation: “The whole world in its entirety is a very narrow bridge.  And the main principle is not to be afraid…”

It could have ended right here.  But then we add the final word.  K’lal.

What is a k’lal?  A k’lal is an all-inclusive principal.  It is a synonym for ikar.  Here, I think it means “And the main principle is not to be afraid entirely.”  We should not be overwhelmed by fear.  Because fear can overwhelm us.

Fear can prevent us from taking action.  It can cloud our vision and prevent us from seeing things as they truly are.  Fear, if we are “entirely” afraid, destroys hope.

But fear also leads us to take risks.  It causes us to reach out to each other.  It inspires religious yearning.  Many of us respond to fear by turning to God.

This morning’s Haftarah, from the Book of Jeremiah, takes place during an extremely fearful time.  Jeremiah is a Prophet who lives during the final years of the Kingdom of Judah, through the reigns of its last four monarchs.  He witnesses the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple and ultimately flees to Egypt with some of the other refugees.  He prophesizes a seventy year period of exile, followed by a return to the Holy Land and a restoration of Israel.

Throughout his career, Jeremiah is a reluctant Prophet.  The people hate him for his pronouncements of doom and destruction and his critique of their behavior, but they are never able to witness the deep love and compassion he feels for them.  The other Prophets ridicule Jeremiah, and the King cannot not stand him.  Along with his external challenges, Jeremiah lives with constant internal struggles.  He argues with God continually, lamenting his plight.  His is a truly tormented soul, but he is unable to prevent the Prophetic message from bursting forth.

As the reading begins, Jeremiah is languishing in prison in Jerusalem.  He is there for speaking truth to power.  Unlike the other court prophets, who are all “yes men,” telling King Zedekiah exactly what he wants to hear, Jeremiah speaks the word of God.

At the time, Jerusalem is under siege by the Babylonians.  Jeremiah issues a pronouncement that God intends to deliver the city into the enemy’s hands.  King Zedekiah himself will be taken captive and sent to Babylon, where King Nebuchadnezzar will triumph over him in person.

Needless to say, the Judean King does not like the message.  He expresses his displeasure by “shooting the messenger,” so to speak.  Jeremiah is thrown into prison.

Jeremiah’s cousin Hanamel comes to visit him in prison, as Jeremiah has prophetically foreseen.  Hanamel, it seems, has fallen upon hard times and is no longer able to keep possession of the land that has been his ancestors’ since ancient times.

As we read about in the Torah portion, in ancient Israel, land is supposed to remain in the family.  If property must be sold off temporarily, it will be restored every half century during the Jubilee year.  Until the Jubilee year, however, other members of the family have the right to redeem the land themselves.  In fact, if they have the means to do so, it is an obligation to buy it back.  That is what Hanamel is asking Jeremiah, his heir, to do.  Hanamel cannot keep the land, so he asks his goel, his redeemer, to buy it from him.

It is not really a good time for Jeremiah.

First of all, he is in jail.  His future is uncertain.  Second, the property in question is in Anatot, which is a few kilometers north of Jerusalem.  By this point, the entire country has been ravaged by the Babylonians.  Many Israelites have already been sent into exile, and Jerusalem is under siege.  Finally, Jeremiah knows that he is going to personally go into exile.

Generally speaking, these are not good conditions for real estate speculation.

Nevertheless, Jeremiah purchases the land for seventeen shekels of silver.  He weighs out the money, writes up a contract, and has it witnessed and signed.  Next, he deposits the contract with his personal secretary, Barukh ben Neriah in front of his cousin and the witnesses.  He instructs Barukh to place the document in an earthen vessel so that it will remain safe and unharmed for many years.

Is Jeremiah crazy?  Or is he just a terrible businessman?

Perhaps his statement at the conclusion of the business transaction explains what is going through Jeremiah’s mind.  He declares, “For thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: ‘Houses, fields, and vineyards shall again be purchased in this land.'”  (Jer. 32:15)

What could possibly explain Jeremiah’s decision?  In a single word: hope.  Tikvah.

Jeremiah knows, better than anyone, the direness of the situation.  He knows that God has chosen the Babylonians as a Divine instrument to punish Israel for its sinfulness.  He knows that he and many of his brothers and sisters will be forced to leave their land.  He also knows that they will remain in exile for generations – seventy years in all.  But in those seventy years, the Babylonian Empire will fall.  The descendants of the exiles, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, will be restored.

Jeremiah’s hopeful realism contrasts with the foolishness of the rest of the nation.  The people, the prophets, and the King do not want to hear Jeremiah’s truth.  Instead, they would rather hear false assurances that things are about to turn around.  The Babylonians will fall and Israel will be made great again.  This is not hope, but wishful thinking.  This is fear blinding the masses from the reality of their situation.

In the second half of the Haftarah, Jeremiah offers a prayer to God.  He recounts God’s power as the Creator of the world, extols God’s compassion, and recalls how God freed the Israelites from slavery and brought them to the Land of Milk and Honey.  Then Jeremiah acknowledges that the people have persisted in not following God’s instructions, leading to the current  crisis.  Jeremiah ends his prayer with a statement that is either a question or a challenge.  “Yet you, Lord God, said to me: Buy the land for money and call in witnesses-when the city is at the mercy of the Chaldeans!”

God’s response:  “Behold I am the Lord, the God of all flesh.  Is anything too wondrous for Me?”  The Haftarah ends here, but God’s response to Jeremiah continues, explaining how the people will eventually return and the land will flourish once again.

While the present situation is bleak, Jeremiah has not given up hope.  He redeems his family’s property now, knowing that he will never personally set foot on it.  But he has hope that his descendants will, one day, make their return.

We are a people that has lived with hope for thousands of years.  Israel’s national anthem Hatikvah, “The Hope,” expresses it beautifully.

Od lo avda tikvateinu, Hatikvah bat sh’not alfayim.  “Our hope is still not lost, the hope of two thousand years.”  Through thousands of years of exile, during some very bleak times, the Jewish people has always had hope.

This is what Rebbe Nachman, living in his difficult times, might have been thinking about.  Despite the darkness, despite the narrowness, the seeming lack of options, we must not be overwhelmed by fear.  We must keep hope.

This is a powerful message for us not only as a nation, but as individual human beings.

We each face a lot of difficulties over the course of our lives.  Sickness, mental illness, abuse, broken relationships, deaths of loved ones.  Some of us have lived through war and persecution.  We have faced financial struggles.  The difficulties we experience sometimes persist for many years.  And some people seem to face more than their share.

Do we have the ability, like Jeremiah, to redeem land in the face of despair.  Can we maintain our hope during dark times?

Can we heed the encouragement of Rebbe Nachman?  Even though the world is a narrow bridge, sometimes vanishingly narrow, can we avoid being consumed by fear?

 

Make Each Day “Complete” – Emor 5776

This morning’s Torah portion includes one of the Torah’s sacred calendars.  After introducing Shabbat, it then describes the biblical holidays beginning with Passover.  In the process, it describes the period of time in which we currently find ourselves, the omer.

An omer is a sheaf of grain.  Imagine a field full of stalks of grain.  To get an omer, one would tie a bunch of them together and then chop the stalks off at the base.

The Torah commands Israelite farmers to bring the first omer of the new harvest to the Priest in the Temple so that he can make a special wave offering to God.  After that, Israelite farmers are allowed to consume grain from the new crop.  The omer offering took place on the second night of Passover.

After describing this ritual, the Torah then tells us to start counting.

You will count for yourselves on the day after the sabbath – from the day on which you bring the omer for waving – seven sabbaths, complete they shall be.  Until the day after the seventh sabbath you shall count fifty days…  (Lev. 23:15-16)

The Torah’s language is somewhat unusual: Sheva shabatot t’mimot ti-h’yenah – “seven sabbaths, complete they shall be.”  What does the Torah mean by saying t’mimot – “complete?”

The medieval commentator Rashi emphasizes the numerical aspect of “complete,” and cites the halakhic, or Jewish legal, interpretation.  “The counting must begin in the evening, for otherwise the weeks would not be complete.”  (Rashi on Lev. 23:15)  The Torah is very precise.  If it tells us to count seven complete weeks, then we have got to make sure to acknowledge every single day.

In Judaism, the day begins at night.  Therefore, the mitzvah of counting the omer is at nighttime, that is to say, as early as possible once the new day begins.

The ritual begins with a b’rakhah, a blessing acknowledging that the action we are about to perform is a mitzvah, a commandment.  Then, we count the new day, using the particular “omer counting formula.”

What happens if I forget to count at night?  Jewish law is very precise.  If I remember the next day, I should count during the day day without reciting the b’rakhah, since I missed the opportunity to do it at the proper time.  Then, that night, I can resume by reciting the b’rakhah and continuing the count.

If I forget entirely for a full 24 hour period, I can no longer count the omer with the b’rakhah, even at night.  Since the Torah says to count “seven complete sabbaths,” the opportunity has been lost.  There are no do-overs.  I am out of the omer game.

Every year, it is a challenge to stay in the omer game.  It is surprisingly difficult to remember every single day.  And the stakes are high, because if I miss even once, I’m out.  So far this year, thank God, I’m still in.

So, it is daytime – not the time to count with a b’rakhah.  This will be a repetition for those who remembered to count last night.  Please repeat after me:

Hayom shmonah v’esrim yom, she’hem arba’ah shavuot la-omer.

Today is the eight and twentieth day, being four weeks of the omer.

Is the omer just a game of memory and persistence?  If it is a game, there must be a prize.  It’s a good one.  At the end of seven complete weeks, we celebrate the holiday of Shavuot when we re-enact the revelation at Mount Sinai and receive the Torah.

With such a holy and ancient prize, we would expect there to be a little more to the omer game than simply trying not to get kicked out of it.

A midrash notes something peculiar about the way that the Torah describes the requirement to count the omer.  It does not use the typical Hebrew word for “complete.”  Normally, if I wanted to say seven whole weeks, I would say sheva shabatot sheleimot.  The word shalem means “whole” or “complete.”  It is related to the word shalom for “peace.”

The word in our verse is t’mimot, or tamim in the singular.  This word adds an additional dimension.

In an ancient midrash, “Rabbi Hiyya taught: seven sabbaths, complete they shall be – when are they complete?” he asks.  “When Israel fulfills God’s will.”  (Leviticus Rabbah 28:3)

The word tamim has two typical uses in the Torah.  One is to describe animals without blemishes which are brought as sacrifices to God in the Temple.  The other is to describe people, who themselves have no moral defects.  They are blameless, or complete in their character.

The Torah says about Noah: tamim hayah b’dorotav – “Blameless he was in his generation.”  (Gen. 5:9)  God instructs Abraham: hit’halekh l’fanai ve’h’yeh tamim – “walk before Me and be blameless.”  (Gen. 17:1)

Thus, tamim implies complete in quality rather than in quantity.  Given this additional aspect, what does it mean to count seven “complete” weeks – or rather, seven “blameless” weeks?

One commentator suggests that the period of the omer, that is to say, the period between our freedom from Egypt and our receiving the Torah, offers us a unique spiritual opportunity.

“And you shall count for yourselves” implies introspection and stock-taking in order to choose the true good… just as one carefully examines the amount and integrity of the money he receives so as to avoid deficient or counterfeit coins, thus also when counting the seven weeks he must make sure to complete the number, and preserve the quality of each day, that they may not detract from spiritual integrity… Hence the expression t’mimut which refers to spiritual integrity.  (HaKtav VeHaKabbalah, citing Rabbi Shelomo Pappenheim)

I had a low quality day this week, a day on which I felt completely unproductive.  I just couldn’t get focused, couldn’t accomplish anything.  It was not a day on which I felt that I had fulfilled God’s will – despite the fact that I had recited the blessing and counted the omer the night before.

I imagine we all have days like this from time to time.  The period of the omer, as we prepare ourselves spiritually to receive the Torah, offers us a special opportunity and a challenge to, as Rabbi Hiyya puts it, fulfill God’s will.

How does one count each day?  By making each day count.

Today is the twenty eighth day of the omer.  For the remaining days – I’ll let you do the math to figure out how many there are – let’s commit to making each day count.  Every day, let’s commit ourselves to perform one quality action that will be a fulfillment of God’s will.

Give to tzedakha.  Study the Torah portion for the upcoming Shabbat.  Invite someone to Shabbat dinner.  Reach out to a person whom you know is going through a difficult time.  Volunteer.

Each day offers us a new opportunity to be tamim, to be complete.

 

Bibliography: Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Vaykira, Vol. 2

Judaism, Meat, and the Environment – Acharei Mot 5776

This morning’s Torah portion contains some of the central principles of kashrut, our Jewish dietary practices.  While other sections of the Torah describe the kinds of animals that may or may not be eaten, Parashat Acharei Mot tells us how they are to be eaten.

It seems to be describing an early stage of ancient Israelite society, when there were lots of local shrines with altars throughout the land of Israel.

God tells Moses to instruct the Israelites that when they get a hunkering for meat, they may not just slaughter animals from their herds wherever they want.  It must be done in the sanctuary.  The blood must be poured out, and certain internal fats must be burned on the altar as a pleasing offering to God.  This requirement essentially transforms all meat consumption into a sacrifice, and elevates our eating into a sacred act.

The purpose of this requirement, God tells Moses, is to stop the people from making their offerings to the se’irim.  The se’irim seem to have been some sort of goat-demon that resided in the wilderness, and ancient Canaanites would apparently make offerings to them out in the wild.

The Torah goes on to state that whenever an animal is slaughtered outside of this sacred context, that person is considered to be cut off from the rest of the people.

The next restriction has to do with hunted game.  There were certain undomesticated animals that were kosher, and could be hunted.  Elsewhere the bible mentions deer, gazelles, roebuck, and several other unidentified species.  Most likely, these were only available to the elite.  But the Torah has to account for these as well.  So it specifies that when someone hunts an animal, it’s blood must be poured out on the ground and covered in order to be eaten.

You might be thinking right about now, “but Jews don’t hunt.”  And you would be correct.  These rules about eating meat have not reflected Jewish practice for thousands of years.  They describe an earlier time, before worship was centralized in the Temple in Jerusalem.  It was possible to bring an animal to the local shrine so that it could be slaughtered in a sacred context.

Later, as described in the book of Deuteronomy, the local shrines are abolished and worship is consolidated to the Temple in Jerusalem.  Along with this change, Israelites are given permission to slaughter animals on their own, outside of a sacrificial context.

Our great commentator Rashi notices something about the Torah’s regulations regarding meat – and specifically the hunting clause.  The word “hunt” appears twice.  asher yatzud tzeid-chayyah.  …anyone who “hunts down any hunted wild animal…”  Seemingly superfluous words are typically interpreted to have additional meanings.  Rashi cites the Talmudic teaching that a person should never eat meat as a casual thing.  (BT Chullin 84a)  Any time we eat meat, we should consider it as if we had gone through the extensive trouble of actually hunting it down.  In its context, the Talmud seems to be concerned with what in those days was the exorbitant cost of meat.  It advises that a person should not impoverish himself or neglect his family’s needs to satisfy his cravings.  It reports that a given quantity of meat costs 50 times the same quantity of vegetables.  And so, the Talmud recommends that, except for the very wealthy, a person should only have a little bit of meat once a week, on Shabbat.

Rashi cites the Talmud’s initial conclusion that eating meat should not be casual to us, but he does not cite the economic reasons.  Rather, meat consumption itself should be uncommon and special.

This would seem to reflect the early practice of our ancient Israelite ancestors, for whom meat could only be eaten in a sacred context.  By taking life to nourish ourselves, we commit an inherently violent act.  That is why it can only be done in a sacred context, recognizing that it is only God who has the right to determine matters of life and death.

How far we have descended from that lofty ideal.  Now, most of us never meet the animals we eat.  We buy them off the refrigerated shelf in the grocery store, wrapped in styrofoam and plastic.  Kosher meat is no different.  Are those of us who do eat meat living up to Rashi’s ideal of meat consumption not being casual?

The most famous Jew to argue for vegetarianism from a religious standpoint was Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel.  Rav Kook was a Chassidic Rebbe, a mystic, an early Zionist, and a prolific thinker and writer.  He believed that religious and non-religious Jews needed to work together, and that Judaism needed to be an active and involved force for change in the world.

Rav Kook notes that God’s original plan for creation is for humans to be vegetarians.  When Adam and Eve are placed in the Garden of Eden, they are given the plants and the fruit bearing trees for consumption, but not the animals.  Only after humanity has corrupted its ways on Earth, prompting God to wipe out all creation with the flood and start over, does God introduce the idea of eating meat.

It is a concession, argues Rav Kook, to humanity’s inability to reign in its appetites.  While God’s compassion is equal for all creatures, God recognizes that humans need to be given an elevated view of themselves vis a vis other animals in order to get them to concentrate on improving their relations with each other.

And so, God authorizes Noah and his descendants to have dominion over the animals, including eating them – but with certain restrictions.

To the Jewish people, God gives even more restrictions.  The menu of available animals is severely limited to us.  We are forbidden from consuming the blood.  We cannot mix meat and milk.  And there are additional restrictions as well.  Each of these restrictions, according to Rav Kook, is intended to elevate our moral consciousness and instill in us a profound reverence for life, even while we are eating animals.  We should never take eating meat for granted.  As Rashi says, it should not be a casual thing for us.

For example, Rav Kook explains that pouring out and covering the blood of the hunted animal is an act of “shame” on our part for committing such a “morally base” act of killing a living creature which had once known freedom.  There are similar moral and spiritual dimensions to each of the other mitzvot that regulate our eating of animals.

If we are paying close attention, we will as individuals come closer and closer to the ideal.  We will live in greater balance with the world around us.  We will treat God’s other creations better, reduce suffering, and be altogether more peaceful in our lives.  As a people, and collectively, as humanity, our heightened consciousness will produce greater unity and harmony in the world.

Rav Kook’s vegetarianism was an integral part of his Messianism.  The permission to eat meat is only temporary, he says.  It is a “transitional tax” until we arrive at a “brighter era” when we will all return to vegetarianism.  When that day arrives, human beings themselves will detest the idea of eating meat with “moral loathing.”  We will all become vegetarians, and balance between the species will be restored.  The sacrifices which will be offered in the rebuilt Temple will be exclusively plant-based.

In his personal life, Rav Kook would eat a small amount of chicken each Shabbat in acknowledgment that the day had not yet arrived.  Rav Kook was incredibly optimistic.  He lived at a time when Jews were building a life in the land of Israel.  He saw humanity as moving forward, closer and closer to perfection.  Rav Kook died in 1935, and so he did not witness the cataclysm of the Holocaust which surely would have affected his positive view of human moral progress.  But he has much to teach us.

In recent weeks, we have received reports of collapsing populations of coral in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and across the globe off the coast of Florida – the results of rising ocean temperatures and acid levels.  I am scared about what that portends for ocean ecosystems upon which we are more dependent than we know.

As a global species, we have done a terrible job of managing our consumption of this planet’s resources.  The Jewish laws of kashrut, in placing limitations on our consumption of meat, offer us a model for how we might relate to our consumption of the other resources of our world.

While Rav Kook’s vegetarianism does not reflect mainstream Jewish attitudes, he gives us something important to consider.  He suggests that there are spiritual and ethical dimensions of consumption, along with the environmental.  God created our world with the intention that its creatures live on it in balance.  As humans, our purpose across generations is to gradually approach that ideal of perfection.

Our Jewish tradition offers us thoughtful limits on our behavior when it comes to diet, and most other aspects of our lives.  If we are paying attention, living by the Torah will refine our character and help us to become our ideal selves.

In the contemporary world, with our scientific abilities to study the global environment and understand our lifestyles’ impacts on the global ecosystem, we would do well to consider what limits we ought to impose on ourselves, not only on our consumption of meat, but of are use of all the resources of this wonderful world that God has created for us.

Rav Kook, by personally eating a little bit of chicken each week, models for us that it does not have to be all or nothing.  Let’s pay a bit closer attention to what we consume.  Let’s try to distinguish between what we need to survive, and what we want.  What is necessary for us to live, and what, if we are really honest with ourselves, can we live without?

 

Bibliography: Rav Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace, Edited by Rabbi David Cohen