Thou Shalt Write a Torah – Rosh Hashanah 5780

While there is no such thing as 100%, we’ve done a great job at making ourselves more secure.  But at what cost?

We can assign a dollar value to it.  We introduced a voluntary security assessment this year.

There is also the cost in time.  I can’t even imagine how many hours I have spent going to security workshops, meeting with police officers, having conversations with staff and lay leaders,  interviewing security companies—all time that could have been spent doing something more productive.

There is the cost in stress.  That is a little more difficult to measure.  But fear, no matter how irrational, causes anxiety, which takes a physical toll on us.

For a synagogue community, there is another toll.  In placing so much emphasis on securing the body, we neglect the spirit.  

The walls of this building are now harder than ever, but what about what is inside these walls?

Emil Fackenheim was born in 1916 in Germany.  Like many enlightened German Jews of his generation, he embraced both aspects of his identity, believing that the flourishing Jewish community in Germany was secure.  Studying at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, he received his ordination as a Reform rabbi from Dr. Leo Baeck in 1938.

After Kristallnacht, Fackenheim was sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, but was released after 3 months.  He escaped to Scotland, where his parents joined him.  Fackenheim was then sent to Canada, where he was interned as an enemy alien for 16 months.  His older brother did not escape Europe, and was murdered in the Holocaust.

Fackenheim served as a pulpit rabbi for several years, and then became a Professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.  He became a Zionist in 1967, when he came to understand the central importance of the Jewish state.  He made aliyah in 1984 and joined the faculty at Hebrew University.  Fackenheim passed away in 2003.

In the 1960’s, Fackenheim first began to address the significance of the Holocaust to Jewish theology and philosophy.  He is most well-known for adding a 614th commandment to the traditional 613 commandments in the Torah:  “Don’t give Hitler a posthumous victory.”  In an essay, Fackenheim explains what he means:

… we are, first, commanded to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish. We are commanded, secondly, to remember in our very guts and bones the martyrs of the Holocaust, lest their memory perish. We are forbidden, thirdly, to deny or despair of God, however much we may have to contend with him or with belief in him, lest Judaism perish. We are forbidden, finally, to despair of the world as the place which is to become the kingdom of God, lest we help make it a meaningless place in which God is dead or irrelevant and everything is permitted. To abandon any of these imperatives, in response to Hitler’s victory at Auschwitz, would be to hand him yet other, posthumous victories.

Emil Fackenheim, Essay entitled “The 614th Commandment.”

To summarize, he lists four aspects to the 614th commandment:

  1. Survive
  2. Remember the martyrs of the Holocaust
  3. Don’t give up on God
  4. Don’t give up on the world

The 614th commandment has been criticized as being too focused on the tragedy of the Holocaust as the primary motivating force for Jewish survival.  It is not enough to merely survive.  Judaism, and the Jewish people, must be worthy of survival. Jewish survival must be for something positive, rather than merely denying Hitler a posthumous victory.

I cannot imagine that Fackenheim would have disagreed with that.  We have done a great job of physically ensuring Jewish survival.  We have hardened our synagogues, schools, and community centers.  Is there any religion that surrounds its houses of worship with as much security as we do?

The prowess of the Israel Defense Forces is legendary.  Jewish organizations closely monitor the media and keep close watch on antisemitic groups around the world.  We are an extremely vigilant people. But does this vigilance translate to an embrace of the positive reasons for Jewish existence?  We can have the tightest security imaginable, but what are we protecting?

We need to match, or even surpass, our commitment to security with a commitment to Jewish life.  Let’s fill our insides with Yiddishkeit, both in our synagogue and in our homes. Emil Fackenheim numbered his mitzvah 614.  This year at Sinai, we are going to embrace the immediately preceding commandment: mitzvah number 613:  Thou shalt write a Torah.  Maimonides explains the mitzvah clearly.

It is a positive commandment for each and every Jewish person to write a Torah scroll for themself…

Mishneh Torah, Laws of Tefillin, Mezuzah and the Torah Scroll, 7:1

Write a Torah scroll?!  This is a difficult mitzvah to achieve.  What do we need another Torah scroll for?  Don’t we have an ark full of them?  Can’t we just pull a printed copy off the shelf?  What is the point of such a difficult requirement?

Maimonides addresses this question as well. He writes:

Even if a person’s ancestors left behind a Torah scroll, it is a mitzvah to write one oneself.  A person who writes the scroll by hand is considered to be like someone who received it on Mount Sinai.  

Ibid.

This still does not address the very real objection that the skill needed to write a Torah scroll is substantial.  The Torah is a big book, and it takes a tremendous amount of knowledge and time to write it.  People in Maimonides’ day were no more capable of fulfilling this mitzvah than we are today.  So he continues:

[Someone who] does not know how to write it personally, [should have] others write it for him.

Ibid.

The solution is to hire a sofer, a scribe, to serve as our representative.  And for a bonus: if a person writes a single letter of the Torah, it is as if that person has written an entire Torah.  That is because if a single letter is missing, the entire Torah is pasul, or invalid.  So it is possible for a sofer to guide a person’s hand in writing the letter correctly, and then that person gets credit for the entire scroll.  That’s a pretty good deal.

What is so special about the Torah?

On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate the creation of the world.  Rabbinic teachings suggest that the physical world around us was not the first thing to come into existence.  A midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 1:1) states that, before declaring “Let there be light,” God first created the Torah and used it as a blueprint.

Similar to Plato’s Theory of Forms, God’s Torah is the perfect, non-physical template upon which our physical world is modeled.  Jewish tradition teaches that all Truth, all knowledge, is hidden within the words of Torah.  hafokh bah v’hafokh bah, ki khulah vah, Pirkei Avot teaches.  “Turn it and turn it, for all is in it.”  As we continue to plumb its depths from one generation to the next, revelation continues.

Just as the metaphysical Torah lies at the center of Creation, the physical Torah scroll is placed at the center of the synagogue, in the Holy Ark, modeled after the Holy of Holies. A Torah scroll is the most sacred item in Judaism.  This makes the 613th commandment a particularly meaningful one.

I am excited to announce that this year will be the “Year of the Torah” at Congregation Sinai.  By next Rosh Hashanah, we will have a new Torah scroll in our ark.  Thanks to Jeanette and Eli Reinhard, who are dedicating this Torah, every single one of us will have the opportunity to fulfill the 613th mitzvah, personally scribing a letter.

I would like to spend a few minutes talking about Sinai’s existing Sifrei Torah.  These are the scrolls that, as Maimonides describes, have been “left to us by our ancestors.”

When we look into the ark, we see the mantle, not the scroll underneath.  Right now, we have a beautiful set of High Holiday mantles that were custom made in 2013. What about what is inside?  The words are the same in all of them, but each of these scrolls is unique.  How did they get here?

In every case, there was once a blank parchment over which a skilled sofer toiledWhen he finished, a person or community purchased that Torah.  How many arks was it stored in?  How many B’nei Mitzvah were celebrated with it?  What was its journey?  How did it arrive at Congregation Sinai?  

I have been doing some research. Before the Holocaust, there was a lot of money to be made in Eastern Europe writing Sifrei Torah for Jews in America.  A sofer could earn enough by writing one Torah to support himself and his family for an entire year.  To give you an idea of how big this business was, there were around 5,000 soferim in the region around Warsaw alone.

As the Jewish population in America became more established, Ashkenazi immigrants would write to their relatives in the old country to arrange to have a Torah sent over.  

In Russia, the sofrut business ended abruptly in the early 1920’s when the Communists took over.  In fact, there are large stashes of Torah scrolls in Russia today, numbering in the thousands, that were confiscated during the Soviet era. In Poland, Romania, Hungary, and other communities, the business dried up in the 1930’s.  

Congregation Sinai was founded in 1954.  All seven of our Torah scrolls are from this pre-war period.  My best guess is that, by 1960, Sinai had acquired all of them.  Most likely, they were purchased on the used market by members of the young synagogue, although it is possible that some of them may have been passed down in the family. The eighth Torah, owned by the Mirkin family, has been on permanent loan since 1991.

A Torah is written on parchment, which is made from the skin of a kosher animal.  It takes 62 to 84 individual sheets of parchment, stitched together with animal sinew, to make one Torah.  The scroll is attached to wooden posts called atzei chayim, trees of life.

The sofer writes with a feather pen, using special ink.  There are precise rules about the correct formation of every single letter.  Rows and columns must be straight, and not one of the 304,805 letters can touch another.

We treat the Torah, which contains the words of God, like royalty.  We tie it together with a belt, dress it in a decorated mantle, crown it, and stand up to give it honor whenever it is removed from the ark.  To prevent deterioration, we don’t touch the letters, using a yad, hand, to point out the correct place in the text.

For a Torah scroll to be used during services, every single letter must be correct and legible.  A single mistake renders an entire scroll pasul.

Over time, Torah scrolls deteriorate.  The letters can fade, smear, or even crack off the parchment.  Parchment can tear, and stitching comes out.  If the letters deteriorate too much, a Torah becomes pasul.  A pasul Torah can be restored by a sofer.  A restoration involves cleaning, re-inking letters, sewing together torn or separated pieces of parchment, and patching holes.

Currently, two of the Torah scrolls in our ark are kasher.  Two are kasher b’diavad, which means that they are kosher for ritual purposes, but there are significant problems that, if not addressed, could eventually invalidate them.  Four of the scrolls are pasul and cannot be used in their current condition.  I’d like to say something about each of them.

Let’s start with the two kasher scrolls.  The scroll that we use week in and week out was donated by the Berman family in 1959.  The mantle was replaced in 1986 in memory of Mary Rokofsky, the grandmother of Sinai’s rabbi at the time, Alan Berkowitz.

The Smulyn Torah comes from Russia.  The current cover was dedicated by Al and Ruth Sporer in 1991 in memory of Al’s mother, Kreindel Perel bat Shmuel Yitzchak.  At some point, a coating of lime was painted on the back of the parchment so that it would look white whenever it was lifted.  That makes it extremely heavy, and unfortunately can also cause faster deterioration.  

Next come the two kasher b’diavad scrolls. Mr. and Mrs. Hyman Weisel donated this Torah, which is from Germany.  Several different scripts are apparent in various parts.  It was not uncommon for soferim in different villages to specialize in certain books of the Torah.  As long as the size and spacing lined up, the different segments could be stitched together into a single scroll.  The cover was replaced in 1986.

This Torah is on long term loan by Barry and Rosemarie Mirkin.  It has a special history at Sinai.  Barry’s grandfather commissioned a scribe to write it in Kiev in 1912, even dedicating a special room in the house.  He was planning on immigrating to America, and wanted to bring a Torah scroll with him.  He left it incomplete, intending to have it finished in America. Things did not work out as intended.  After many harrowing adventures, including being arrested, he and his wife landed in Massachusetts in 1923.  The Torah was shipped in a wooden crate, surrounded by sanitary pads.  He never got around to completing it.

In 1991, Barry brought the scroll to San Jose.  A sofer came to finish what Barry’s grandfather had begun 79 years earlier.  Members of the community were given the opportunity to participate.  We have photo albums of people writing letters with the sofer, fulfilling the 613th mitzvah.  Some of those people are in this room.  There are also photos of parades and dancing to celebrate its completion.

Sinai’s remaining Torah scrolls are pasul. This Polish Torah was donated by David and Ethel Hellman.  It was probably Sinai’s first Torah.  Congregation Sinai was formed in the Hellman living room when David needed to say kaddish for his father when he died in January, 1953.  This Torah was purchased in April that year from a Judaica shop in New York for $300 and donated to Sinai in his memory.  This cover is from 1991.

This Torah is from Russia, and was dedicated by Sol & Charlotte Ellner in memory of Sol’s parents.  The Torah can always be identified by its multi-colored handles.  The cover was donated in 1986 by Sinai’s Confirmation Class.

The next two scrolls are Sinai’s oldest, dating from the 19th century.  This mantle goes with our heaviest Torah, from Germany.  It was donated by Marcus Liebster, a Holocaust survivor, in memory of his parents.  I suspect that the red cover dates to the 1950’s when it was donated.

This Torah, our smallest, is from Poland, and was donated by the Konar family.  The cover was donated by the Sporer’s in 1991 in memory of Elka Sosha bat Feivel, Ruth and Maureen’s grandmother.

These eight scrolls bring with them a lot of memories, only some of which can be redeemed.  If they could speak, what would they say?

All of our scrolls are heavy.  So heavy that the number of people who feel comfortable performing hagbahah, or lifting the Torah up high after the reading, is limited.  Because of improvements in parchment making technology, new Torah scrolls are considerably lighter than older ones.  Sinai’s new Torah will be less than 15 pounds.  The writing will be clear and beautiful.

It will be the first time in Sinai’s history that a new Torah scroll, written especially for our community, will be placed in this ark.  Thank you again to Eli and Jeanette for making this a possibility for us.

The bulk of the Torah will be written by a sofer in Israel, where most Torah’s are written these days.  The sofer we are working with is Zerach Greenfield.  He will visit several times over the coming months to teach us about our most precious book.  He will also do some writing.  We want as many people as possible to write a letter: women, men, and children.

This is a potentially once in a lifetime opportunity for us.  

A side part of the plan is to create new Torah covers for all of the Sifrei Torah in the ark, to be used throughout the year.  They will complement one another thematically, and fit in with the look of the rest of our beautiful sanctuary.  Best of all, Sinai members will have an opportunity to participate in actually making the covers.  I cannot think of a better way for us to honor these ancient texts.

This is going to be an exciting year at Sinai.  There will be so many opportunities to get involved.  Take them.  Jewish continuity is not guaranteed by locking down our security and strengthening our walls.  It’s secured by filling our hearts.

This year, we are going to put a new Torah in the heart of our synagogue.  

May it fill our hearts with love and pride. 

Shanah Tovah Umetukah.  May we have a sweet new year.

Don’t Cut Off the Species (Human or Otherwise) – Emor 5779

In 1598, Dutch sailors landed on the Island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.  There, they discovered a creature that no human being had ever before seen.  They named the bird the Dodo.  Poor bird.  With such a name, you know it was doomed from the start.

The Dodo was not particularly fast, and it was incapable of flying.  Apparently, it was also rather tasty.  A hungry sailor, without much difficulty, could easily catch a Dodo and roast it up nice and juicy. Imported animals like pigs, dogs, and rats found that Dodo eggs made for a scrumptious snack, and were easy to steal out of the nest.

Within a few decades, the Dodo was no more.  It has since become the most famous extinct animal on the planet.  I suspect it might have something to do with the name.

It serves as a cautionary tale.  The Dodo’s range was limited to the small island of Mauritius, so it literally had nowhere else to go.  Human greed, lack of compassion, and absence of foresight led to the disappearance of this strange bird.

There are categories of Jewish law that address these character deficiencies.  The laws of Bal Tashchit prohibit us from using up resources wastefully.  Tza’ar ba’alei chayim, means the “suffering of living creatures,” and refers to commandments protecting animals from unnecessary suffering. These and other areas of Jewish law have their roots in the Torah.  One of the important sources of Jewish law regulating how we treat animals appears in this morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Emor.

Most of the parashah focuses on rules for the priests.  After describing special privileges as well as limitations on their behavior, God gives Moses instructions pertaining to animals that are brought by Israelites as sacrifices.  In the midst of these regulations, we read the following commandment:

וְשׁ֖וֹר אוֹ־שֶׂ֑ה אֹת֣וֹ וְאֶת־בְּנ֔וֹ לֹ֥א תִשְׁחֲט֖וּ בְּי֥וֹם אֶחָֽד׃

No animal from the herd or from the flock shall be slaughtered on the same day with its young.  (Lev. 22:28)

This verse seems fairly straightforward.  Most commentators connect this passage to another passage from the book of Deuteronomy.

If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young.  Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life.  (Deut: 22:6-7)

Both passages address the relationship between an animal and its offspring.  In this morning’s parashah, the focus is on herd and flock animals.  In Deuteronomy, the focus is on bird eggs or fledglings that one may find in a nest.  For both commandments, the Torah offers no explanation or rationale.

Maimonides, the great medieval Rabbi, physician, and community leader, sees in these commandments a lesson about compassion.  He focuses on the emotional pain of the mother.

“There is no difference in this case between the pain of man and the pain of other living beings,” he writes, “since the love and tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reasoning, but by imagination, and this faculty exists not only in man but in most living beings. If the Torah provides that such grief should not be caused to cattle or birds, how much more careful must we be to not cause grief to our fellow men.”  (Guide for the Perplexed III:48)

In other words, the Torah commands us to consider the emotional suffering of all living creatures.  Even though we are permitted to consume meat, we still must be concerned with the suffering of animals.  It is noteworthy that he does not hold that we should be merciful towards animals exclusively for their own sake.  Maimonides is ultimately concerned with the cultivation of character.  Compassion for animals is important because it conditions us to be compassionate towards our fellow human beings.

Nachmanides, living shortly after Maimonides, has great respect for his predecessor.  He quotes him often, although usually it is to disagree with his explanations. Nachmanides claims that both commandments are meant to discourage us from having a cruel and unforgiving heart.

Then he continues.  Even though we are permitted to eat meat, provided that we slaughter the animal correctly, the Torah does not permit us to be so destructive as to destroy the species.  When a person kills the mother and her offspring on the same day, or takes the eggs or fledglings without first sending away the mother bird, it is as if that person has cut off the entire species.  (Nachmanides on Deut. 22:7)

What a radical statement!  Slaughtering two generations of an animal on the same day, from a symbolic standpoint, is like eradicating the species.

I am pretty sure that the concept of species eradication was not on people’s minds in thirteenth century Spain.  For Nachmanides to bring it up is surprising.

Like Maimonides, Nachmanides is still mainly focused on the harmful effects that such a destructive action has on a person’s character.  If God was truly concerned with animals, why would we be allowed to eat them in the first place, and why would God have commanded that we offer them as sacrifices?  The Torah’s concern with animal suffering, or with species extinction, is ultimately about the harmful impact that such callous behavior has on the human soul. Nevertheless, Nachmanides seems to be aware that species extinction is a problem, and that human beings have an important role as caretakers of the earth which, after all, belongs to God.

Today, we are very much aware that species can become extinct through human carelessness and callousness – and not just symbolically.  Just look at the Dodo.

Two weeks ago, the United Nations issued a chilling report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.  It was the most comprehensive study of its kind.  Species are now going extinct at a rate between 10 and 100 times greater than the average over the past 10 million years, and the rate is increasing.  Out of the approximately 8 million species of plants and animals on earth, one million are at risk of extinction in the coming decades as a direct result of humanity’s impact on the planet.  

The report pointed to five primary ways that human activity has produced these deteriorations in ecosystems.  They are, starting with the greatest impact: (1) changes in land and sea use; (2) direct exploitation of organisms; (3) climate change; (4) pollution and (5) invasive alien species.

The Chair of the committee, Sir Robert Watson, warned: “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever.  We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

In other words, if we take a human-centered approach (like Maimonides and Nachmanides), the harm that we have caused to the global environment puts humanity at risk.

He goes on to say that all hope is not gone  “…it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global…  Through ‘transformative change’, nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably – this is also key to meeting most other global goals.  By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”

We have a lot of work to do.

Jewish law does not typically make broad, sweeping pronouncements upon entire industries.  It does not prescribe government regulations, nor does it make specific pronouncements about how to balance economic growth with sustainability.  

Jewish law tends to focus on the specific case before the individual.  It is concerned with the measurable impacts of a person’s behavior.  But Judaism does have something to say more generally about our relationship to the Earth, and our responsibility to the living things that call it home.

Nachmanides looked at the Torah’s prohibitions against slaughtering two generations of animals on the same day, and declared it to be the symbolic equivalent to species extinction.  

What would he say about the ways in which we consume the planet’s bounties today?  Or about the impact that human expansion has on waterways and forests?  Or how the pollution that is dumped into the air, water and ground when resources are extracted threatens the survival of indigenous plants and animals?

He might say that it comes down to how each of us consumes the resources of our planet.  We know that the impact of human progress extends way beyond what we see right in front of us.  We also know that the risk of species extinction is not merely symbolic.  We should not pretend otherwise.  We cannot bury our heads in the sand.

Psalms declares “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell within it.”  With the knowledge that we now have, can we say that our behavior, as a species, honors this sentiment?

What would it look like to live in a global society that honored the earth as belonging to God, and recognized that we are one of millions of species that depend on it to thrive?

Wouldn’t it be nice to know.

What Does God Look Like? – Yitro 5779

What does God look like?

Can we ask such a blasphemous question?  God, after all, is not tied down by a body.  God is transcendent.  In the prayer Yigdal, which summarizes Maimonides’ thirteen attributes of faith, we sing Ein lo d’mut haguf, v’aeinu guf – “God has no form of a body, nor is God a body.”

So what does God look like?  Most of us do have some idea of what God looks like buried in the backs of our minds.  That image probably goes back to childhood, before we had a chance to build up all of our intellectual, rationalistic ideas about God being formless.

When I was a little kid, I remember my father being a news junkie.  So it is not a surprise that my earliest memory of God is in the form of an older man with white hair sitting behind a desk reading the news.  In this image, God bears a striking resemblance to Walter Cronkite.

In Parashat Yitro, we read the Ten Commandments.  But as much as we talk about the receiving of the Ten Commandments as being central to Judaism, the moment that we coalesced and joined together to form the Jewish people, there is an event that is even more significant.  This event occurs just before the commandments are given.

It is the simultaneous encounter of the entire Jewish people with God.  It is an experience that cannot be described in words, just like all mystical experiences.

The Torah tries to give us a sense of what it was like with nature terms:  “… there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the shofar; and all the people who were in the camp trembled…  Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently.  The blare of the shofar grew louder and louder.”  (Ex. 19:16-20)

This is the encounter of God: thunder… lightning… a dense cloud… the blast of a shofar… fire… smoke… and trembling.

What does this sound like to you?  To me, it seems like a massive volcanic eruption.  But is that it?  Is that the essence of what they, and really all of us, experienced during that moment of revelation?

I do not think so. While this tremendous, mind blowing event did take place, there was also a moment of deep, intimate, and personal connection.  A passage in the Book of Kings captures that moment.

The Prophet Elijah flees Jezebel’s wrath and eventually winds up at Mt. Sinai  There, he experiences God’s Presence in a way that should sound similar.  

There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind – an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake – fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire – a still small voice.  (I Kings 19:11-12)

Wind, earthquake, fire.  This sounds pretty similar to what the Israelites encounter in Parashat Terumah.  But the Elijah text explicitly states that the Essence of God is not in any of phenomena.  God is found in the still small voice, kol demamah dakah.  It takes a true Prophet like Moses, or Elijah, to hear God’s voice within, or despite, the cacophony.

After the moment ends, it is impossible to accurately describe what just happened.  So the Torah describes natural phenomena that overwhelm the senses.  Too much sound, too much light, too much noise, the ground quaking.  It is sensory overload.

Either that or a really loud rock concert.  But who can a hear a still small voice at a rock concert?  Only the Prophet.

That is why the Israelites tell Moses, “You speak to us, and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.”  The sensory overload is too much for them to handle, so they send Moses.

That is one way of looking at the Revelation at Mout Sinai.

A midrash from a medieval collection called Midrash Tanhuma takes a different approach entirely.  It embraces anthropomorphism unabashedly.  God is a person.  And not only that, but God has wardrobe changes to suit the occasion.  God appears in a different human form in each time and place in which God is needed.

At the splitting of the Red Sea, God is a heroic warrior battling on Israel’s behalf.  At Sinai, when God presents the Torah to Israel, God appears as a sofer, a scribe.  In the days of King Solomon, who tradition holds wrote the erotic love poetry of the Song of Songs, God takes the form of a strapping young man. In the days of the Prophet Daniel, God appears as a wise old man teaching Torah.  (Tanhuma Buber, Yitro 16)

The point is that God appears to the Israelites in ways that befit the needs of the moment.  Let’s extend the metaphor into the present.  When we are in the hospital being treated for cancer, maybe God takes on the appearance of a doctor, dressed in scrubs and wearing a stethoscope.  Or when our souls are lonely and in need of relief, God can look like a lover, who comforts us with an embrace.  For a young boy who looks up to his news-watching father, God takes the form of a news anchor, conveying confidence and security.

I suspect that this midrash would make Maimonides uncomfortable.  He insists throughout his writings that God cannot be described positively in any way, whatsoever.  Language, which is finite, is incapable of representing the infinite.  But what can we do?  It is the only way we have to communicate.

Maimonides insists that any anthropomorphic language of God in the Torah must be understand as metaphor.  We naturally turn to images and symbols that already carry recognizable cultural meaning when we try to convey a transformative encounter.  Maimonidew is fully aware, however, that the majority of people in his own day do not understand this.

Today, it seems to me that many of us have embraced Maimonides’ rejection of the anthropomorphic descriptions of God without taking the next step, which is to embrace them anyways, knowing full well that they are metaphors.

We are understandably not comfortable embracing the notion that God takes human forms because it sounds so similar to certain other religions, or because it does not fit in to our modern, supposedly rational way of understanding the world.  

But the drawback is that we lose a powerful way to experience the Divine and to subsequently express that experience.  Instead, we get stuck in an intellectual head-game in which we are comfortable talking about what God is not, but never able to discuss what God is.  I wish I could be more comfortable living in both worlds.

What does God look like?  I know that God is distant, invisible, and unknowable.  But God is also a warrior, a scribe, a doctor, and even a news anchor.  The challenge is to embrace the metaphors while recognizing that they are (merely) metaphors for the Indescribable.

The Ship of Theseus – Rosh Hashanah 5779

You may recall the stories of the ancient Greek hero, Thesesus.  He is the legendary founder of Athens.  Among his many adventures, Theseus’ most famous exploit is his defeat of the Minotaur, the half-man, half-bull beast that dwelled in the labyrinth created by Daedalus on the Isle of Crete.  

He returned home with the rescued youth of Athens on a ship with thirty oars.  The people of Athens, to commemorate Theseus’ great victory, preserved the ship in the Athenian harbor to serve as a memorial.

According to the ancient Greek and Roman historian, Plutarch, the ship was maintained for several centuries.  As we all know, things age, especially ships kept in the salty water, and humid air of the Mediterranean.  Over times, the wooden planks of Theseus’ ship began to rot.  They were replaced, as needed.  This went on for years, then decades, and then centuries.

Eventually, Plutarch explains, the ship gave rise to a question posed by the philosophers: If every single plank, oar, rudder, and piece of rigging from Theseus’ original ship has been replaced, can it still be considered to be Theseus’ ship?

This question came to be known as the Ship of Theseus paradox.

Let’s extend the paradox to rock and roll.

Quiet Riot is a heavy metal band from my childhood.  I remember listening to their 1983 hit, Bang Your Head, on the school bus with my friend Brian when I was in second grade.  We would bank our heads against the padded seat in front of us whenever they got to the chorus.

When Quiet Riot plays Bang Your Head today, they sound just like I remembered them, even though the only band member that was with them in 1983 is the drummer, and even he was not part of the founding lineup.  Are they still Quiet Riot?

It is a deep philosophical quandary.

Let’s shift the question to the human body.  We each are made up of about ten trillion cells.  It is often claimed that it takes seven years for every cell in the human body to regenerate itself.

It turns out, that is not quite true.  Our cells die and are regenerated at different rates.  The cells of the stomach lining, for example, are replaced every couple of weeks.  The same is true of our skin.  The liver takes about two years.  Bones take about ten years to regenerate.  Cardiomyocytes, in the heart, regenerate at about 1% per year, but the rate slows as we age.  A seventy five year old person would still have more than half of the heart cells that he had at birth.  For some parts of our body -Tooth enamel, the cells on the inner lens of the eye, and the neurons of the cerebral cortex–the cells we are born with have to last our entire lives.

On average, though, we could say that we are approximately eleven to fifteen years old.

I am in my 40’s.  Does that mean I am on my third life, or does who I am transcend the physical parts of which I am comprised? 

These are really questions about the nature of identity.  Am I the collected sum my parts?  If so, perhaps the gradual replacement of those parts transforms me into a new person.  Or maybe, since the same DNA directs the regeneration of each of my cells, I remain the same person.  My DNA is the genetic algorithm that defines me.

Or, perhaps identity has nothing to do with the physical body.  Perhaps identity is rooted in consciousness, summarized succinctly by Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum – “I think, therefore I am.”

Although still in the realm of science fiction, we could imagine the future possibility that a person’s consciousness could be uploaded into a computer, or into an artificial body.  Would this be the same person?

Might consciousness have something to do with the soul?

Maybe each moment in a person’s life is a distinct slice of existence, a solitary point in space-time, with no two slices being the same.  We are constantly changing and reforming into new entities.

Or, we could go four-dimensional, and imagine a series of slices stacked together, forming a river through time in which each individual slice is distinct from a three dimensional perspective, but identical from a four-dimensional perspective.

It is enough to make you want to “bang your head.”

Our Jewish tradition asks a similar question.  Am I the same person, year after year, throughout my life?  The answer: it is up to me.

The great medieval Rabbi, physician, philosopher, and community leader, Maimonides, suggests a number of practices that those who are truly serious about teshuvah, repentance, might undertake.  Those practices include: crying out loud to God with real tears, going out of one’s way to avoid situations in one has earlier sinned, and even possibly going so far as to pick up and move to a new city.  Finally, Maimonides suggests that a would-be-penitent might change his or her name, as if to say, “I am a different person.  I am no longer the one who perpetrated those misdeeds.” (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah, 2:4)

This is kind of the opposite of the Ship of Theseus.  The person’s physical body has remained exactly the same, but the identity is new.

These practices that Maimonides mentions are really just superficial changes.  Real teshuvah, he explains in detail, involves a much deeper transformation.

In 1944, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote a book called Halakhic Man.  In it, he connects a human being’s capacity to create to teshuvah.  He says that repentance is itself an act of self-creation.

The severing of one’s psychic identity with one’s previous ‘I,’ and the creation of a new ‘I,’ possessor of a new consciousness, a new heart and spirit, different desires, longings, goals—this is the meaning of that repentance compounded of regret over the past and resolve over the future. (110)

In short, a person who achieves teshuvah creates herself as a new individual.

Imagine a sinner.  In other words, every one of us.  That person is characterized by the term rasha – wicked.  What does it take for that person to no longer be a rasha?  Two things: regret and resolve.  The first step, regret, is about the past.  It is when I recognize and feel shame about something I have done.  

The action itself cannot be erased.  The question is: what does the action mean in the story of my life?

If I do not change, I will continue on my course as the same person, as the same rasha.  My past behaviors, personality traits, and desires will continue to direct me.  It is as if I have lost my free will.  I will continue to sin, and my sins will accumulate and become harder and harder to shed.  Rav Soloveitchik describes this person “as the random example of the biological species.”  (127)

The second step in teshuvah is resolve.  Resolve is about the future.  It is “an absolute decision of the will and intellect together” to “terminate [a person’s] past identity and assume a new identity for the future.”  (112)

With resolve, something miraculous occurs.  The future changes the past.  That sin, which prompted such feelings of regret, no longer continues, through inertia, to its inevitable conclusion.  I am no longer trapped in destructive patterns of behavior.  “Such a man is no longer a prisoner of time but is his own master.”  (127)  He creates a new universe.

My regret for the sin I have committed has become the catalyst for self-transformation.  The ability to change meaning of the sin in my past through teshuvah, says Rav Soloveitchik, is the essence of human free will.

Now, when I tell my story, I look to that low point as my wake-up call to change my ways.  My sin becomes a merit.  This is what the Talmud means when it teaches: “Great is repentance, for it causes deliberate sins to be accounted to [a person] as meritorious deeds.”  (BT Yoma 86b)

Think about this from a parent’s perspective.  We have to allow our children to make mistakes.  We have to recognize their need to test limits, even if we want to throw them out the window.  It is an essential part of their development.  We even need to allow them to behave in ways that can be harmful to other people.  

We also have to make sure that our kids face the consequences of their actions.  That is the only way for them to mature into resilient human beings with a solid ethical foundation.  If we shield our children from errors, they will grow into weak adults, unable to take charge of their destiny.

It is only by making mistakes that we have the opportunity to grow.  The Talmud teaches “in the place where repentant sinners stand, the wholly righteous cannot stand.”  (BT Berakhot 34b)

The midrash (Genesis Rabbah 1:4) teaches that, even before the creation of the physical world, God created teshuvah.  It is built-in to human identity.  Rav Soloveitchik adds that teshuvah is the key to a human’s ability to create as a partner with God.

A person is creative; he was endowed with the power to create at his very inception.  When he finds himself in a situation of sin, he takes advantage of his creative capacity, returns to God, and becomes a creator and self-fashioner.  Man, through repentance, creates himself, his own “I.”  (113)

This sounds great.  But is it true?  Can we really stop the inertia of destructive behavior and transform ourselves? ?

If I look at my resolutions from previous High Holidays, can I honestly say that I have succeeded?  Am I a new person from the person I was one year ago, five years ago?  Have I created a new “I?”

Every night, the Hassidic Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev would examine his heart.  He would review the day, considering everything he had done, every interaction, every moment.  As he was only human, he would inevitably discover a flaw of some sort.  Then he would announce out loud: “Levi Yitzchak will not do this again!”

Then he would pause and reflect: “Levi Yitzchak said exactly the same thing yesterday!”

To which he would add: “Yesterday Levi Yitzchak did not speak the truth, but he does speak the truth today.”  (Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, Vol. I, p. 218)

This sounds a little more realistic.

The first instance of teshuvah in the Torah occurs between brothers.  Joseph is the Viceroy of Egypt, tasked with guiding the nation through seven years of famine.  He is in disguise when his brothers come begging for food.

To test them, Joseph accuses his brothers of being spies and throws them in jail for three days.  Then he keeps Simeon as a hostage, and sends the others back to their father in the Land of Canaan.  “Do not return,” he says, “unless you bring your youngest brother, Benjamin, with you!”

When they eventually come back for more food, Benjamin in tow, Joseph continues the test.  He plants a silver goblet in Benjamin’s sack of grain and has them arrested.  “Return to your father in peace,” he orders, “but Benjamin must remain here in Egypt as my prisoner!”

Joseph has reproduced the exact circumstances from twenty years earlier when they returned home to their father without their brother.

You will recall that it was Judah who devised the plan to sell Joseph into slavery.  Now, it is again Judah who steps forward.  “Take me as your prisoner and slave, and let Benjamin return to our father.  For I cannot bear to return to him without the boy.”

Maimonides defines teshuvah gemurah, complete repentance, in the following way:  When a person is found in the same circumstances, able to commit the same crime, and yet does not–that is complete repentance.

Judah has become a new man.  He, along with the other brothers, are not the same people that they were twenty years earlier.  Perhaps that is why Joseph, after revealing himself, says “it was not you who sent me here, but God.”  (Genesis 45:8)

Regret leads the brothers to resolve to change.  They rewrite the meaning of their earlier mistreatment of Joseph in their own narratives.  They are not the same siblings who banished their brother.  Since these are different men standing before him, Joseph cannot hold them accountable.  He forgives them. 

The Ship of Theseus paradox is not an analog for a human being.  The ship was placed in the Athenian Harbor to remind future generations of what Theseus once did.  Its meaning and memory is static.  Regardless of how much a philosopher bangs his head against the problem, those tasked with maintaining the ship do not want it to change.

We are the opposite.  Our bodies may remain basically the same from one moment to the next, but our purpose, as human beings fashioned in God’s image, is to be dynamic.

Rosh Hashanah celebrates Creation.  While most of our liturgy focuses on God’s Creation of the World, there is another aspect of Creation which is at least as important.  We often describe human beings as partners with God in Creation.

This rolls off the tongue easily, and sounds inspiring.  But what does it really mean for a human being to create—to produce something out of nothing—to change the nature of reality?

That is what teshuvah can be.  An opportunity not only to create a new “I,” but to create a new world.  That is the aspect of  being human that is God-like.  It is the possibility to create.  But to be Creators, we must look at what we have done with open eyes and brutal honesty.

I note those moments when I could have been better.

I discern the patterns of repeated mistakes.

I feel regret.

Am I prepared to change?

Can I resolve to become a new “I”?

Am I ready to create a new world?

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

David P. Goldman, “The Jewish Idea of Freedom” in Ḥakirah 20, 2015 – (http://www.hakirah.org/Vol20Goldman.pdf)

Ilana Kurshan, If All the Seas Were Ink

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Birth of Forgiveness (Vayigash 5775) – (http://rabbisacks.org/birth-forgiveness-vayigash-5775/#_ftnref2)

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man

Neal Stephenson, Anathem

Judaism and Science Need Each Other

Shabbat, April 22, 2017, 26 Nisan 5777

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was not convinced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bibliography

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

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

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

 

Shimon Peres, z”l: Did I bring more good to the world today, or bad? – Nitzavim 5776

The entire world this week mourns the passing of Shimon Peres, alav hashalom, who died Wednesday at 93 years of age.  Many obituaries have been written in the past few days about him, which I encourage all of us to read.

Peres was involved in the creation, building and flourishing of the State of Israel more than any other person.  As a young man, Peres was active in the Haganah and became a close advisor and protege to David Ben Gurion.  He was responsible for breaking the siege and acquiring military equipment in the War of Independence.  Peres built up the military during the early years of the state.  He led behind the scenes diplomacy with France leading up to the 1956 Suez war.  Then, he was in charge of creating Israel’s nuclear program in the 1960’s.

In the years after the Six Day War, Peres encouraged Jewish settlement in the West Bank, although he eventually came to see it as an obstacle to peace.  He, along with Yitzchak Rabin, was an architect of the Oslo Accords, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.

Peres was an early and constant promoter of technology.  He saw economic growth and cooperation as the path towards closer relations and eventual peace with other nations, including Israel’s enemies.

Shimon Peres served in the Knesset for nearly five decades, and held every major position in government, including Prime Minister and President.

In his last public interview, conducted on August 31, Peres spoke about the exercise of power.

You have to decide either to be a giver or a taker. The biggest mistake is if you’ll use the power to take. The greatest wisdom is if you give.

That, he explains, has been the secret to America’s great success.  And it is has driven his approach to building stronger connections between Israel and other nations.  Peres shared a story in which he was recently meeting with Vladimir Putin, whom he described as a very good friend.  Peres rebuked him for being a taker rather than a giver.

“You behave like a czar,” [he] said…

“What did the czars do? They developed two cities, St. Petersburg and Moscow, as a showcase. Whatever you want, you will find there. The rest of Russia is like Nigeria covered with snow. Your people are dying. You don’t give them life. You think they’ll forgive you?”

“Why is America great?” I asked him. “Because they were givers. Why is Europe in trouble? Because they are takers. America is giving; people think it’s because they are generous. I think it’s because they are wise. If you give, you create friends. The most beneficial investment is making friends.”

“America had the guts to take the Marshall Plan, a huge piece of their GNP that they gave to this dying Europe. And in this way, they have shown that this is the best investment in the world.”

A cultural Zionist, Shimon Peres nevertheless believed strongly that Zionism had to be rooted in timeless Jewish values, and felt that the current generation had gone off track from that ideal.

But Peres was always an optimist.  Respected by everyone across the political spectrum, he has been Israel’s chief visionary for peace for the last two decades.  It was a hope that he never gave up.

Peres recently reached out to meet with Micah Goodman, a philosopher and teacher at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.  Goodman is the most prominent writer on Jewish philosophy in Israel today.  A few years ago, he wrote a best-seller entitled The Secrets of the Guide for the Perplexed about Moses Maimonides.  (Only in Israel would a book like that be a best seller.)  It was recently translated into English as Maimonides and the Book that Changed Judaism.

Peres wanted to meet with Goodman, whom he described as his teacher, to discuss Maimonides.

“I find myself in his apartment in Tel Aviv,” Mr. Goodman recalled. “He is wearing his jeans. He wants to understand Maimonides.

“He told me that before he goes to sleep he thinks to himself, ‘Did I bring more good to the world today, or bad?’ He kept a balance sheet. He was like a 16-year-old idealist. At 93.”

That question, “Did I bring more good to the world today, or bad?” summarizes the entire theme of the High Holidays.  For a 93 year old man to retain that sense of mission and responsibility is incredible.  Shimon Peres’ entire life is evidence that this question has always driven him, from earlier times when he was building up Israel’s capacity to survive and thrive, to more recent times when it had achieved power and found itself in a position from which it could strive for peace.

I suspect that the teaching by Maimonides to which Peres is referring is from the Mishneh Torah, in his section on Teshuvah.  (Hilchot Teshuvah 2:1,3-4) Maimonides writes:

Each and every person has merits and sins. A person whose merits exceed his sins is [termed] righteous. A person whose sins exceed his merits is [termed] wicked. If [his sins and merits] are equal, he is termed a Beinoni.

The same applies to an entire country. If the merits of all its inhabitants exceed their sins, it is [termed] righteous. If their sins are greater, it is [termed] wicked. The same applies to the entire world.

Just as a person’s merits and sins are weighed at the time of his death, so, too, the sins of every inhabitant of the world together with his merits are weighed on the festival of Rosh HaShanah. If one is found righteous, his [verdict] is sealed for life. If one is found wicked, his [verdict] is sealed for death. A Beinoni’s verdict remains tentative until Yom Kippur. If he repents, his [verdict] is sealed for life. If not, his [verdict] is sealed for death…

And this is the teaching which I believe Peres found so inspirational:

…Accordingly, throughout the entire year, a person should always look at himself as equally balanced between merit and sin and the world as equally balanced between merit and sin. If he performs one sin, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of guilt and brings destruction upon himself.

And so Peres, to his dying day, asked himself, “Did I bring more good to the world today, or bad?”

Is this a question that each of us can ask ourselves?  Maybe it is only a question for great individuals.  The rest of us can be free to go about our lives day by day, just trying to get by.

This morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Nitzavim, would suggest otherwise.  It opens with Moses leading the Israelites through a covenant ceremony.  He begins:

Atem nitzavim hayom kulkhem lifnei Adonai Eloheikhem.  You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord you God

It is important to note that Moses begins with the general – “all of you.”

He then specifies the leaders: “your tribal heads, your elders and your officials.”

But then, to underscore the point that this message is not reserved for the elites in society, Moses continues: “all the men of Israel, your children, your wives.”

Finally, even those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder are included: “even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer.”  (29:9-11)

Moses goes on to specify that it is not just the generation about to enter the Promised Land that stands there.  Rather, all of their descendants, up to and including us, are present to affirm the Jewish people’s covenant with God.

Parashat Nitzavim is always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah.  It is no accident.  We are meant to hear this opening line.  The word that stands out is hayom.  Today.  Moses’ instruction is delivered in the second person, in the present tense.  He is addressing us, in this moment.

He then tells a story of sin, punishment, exile, and then return, invoking the word teshuvah seven times.  The parashah ends with Moses’ exhortation to us: “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse.  Choose life…”  (30:19)

The question that guided Shimon Peres’ life, “Did I bring more good to the world today, or bad?” can be traced back to Maimonides, and even further back to Moses in the Torah itself.  It is a question not just for the great among us.  But truly, it is a question that each of us must ask ourselves.

And not only as we approach the new year.  It is a question for hayom.  Today.

I wonder if we might take this lesson from the great Shimon Peres and make this a regular question that each one of us reflects on at the end of every day.  “Did I bring more good to the world today, or bad?”  Did I tip the scales of my own life towards merit, and thus save the world?  When presented with the choice, did I choose life?

Shanah Tovah.