The Israelites’ First Shabbat – Beshalach 5779

How wonderful is it that we can be together on a special day like today!  In a little while, God willing, we will complete services and move on into the social hall for a delicious Kiddush lunch.  It will be all the more amazing because it will simply be there waiting for us.  None of us will have to do any cooking.  It will be a miracle!

Not exactly, I assure you that there was a tremendous amount of hard work yesterday preparing our delicious feast.  And we are extremely grateful to the caterers, and to today’s kiddush sponsors for providing such a wonderful meal.

But there is something special about being able to sit down once a weak, for an extended meal in synagogue, or at home, that has already been prepared.  That this opportunity comes every week is even more wonderful.  That is the gift of Shabbat.

But do we see it that way?

It is the fifteenth day of the second month after the Israelites left Egypt – exactly one month later.  They arrive at the wilderness of Sin on their way eventually to Mount Sinai.

They do what they do best – complain to Moses and Aaron.  “If only God had let us die in Egypt, where at least the food was plentiful,” they grumble, “instead of being dragged out into the wilderness to starve to death!”  The Israelites can be a bit melodramatic.

But God gives them what they want, directing Moses and Aaron to gather everyone together.  God tells Moses, to tell Aaron, to tell the people what they can expect.

“By this evening you will be eating meat, and tomorrow you will have your bread.”

That night, a vast flock of quail appears, and the people feast.

The next morning, they awake to find a strange new substance covering the ground.  Man hu — what is it?” they ask.  

“It is the bread that God has give you to eat,” Moses replies. 

Then Moses instructs them what to do with it.  “Everybody should gather as much as is needed for each individual in the household —one omer per person.”  An omer is a unit of measure.

People being people, some gather more and some gather less.  Miraculously, when they return to their tents, they find that everyone has exactly what he or she needs.  No more, no less.

“Eat your fill.  Don’t leave any leftovers,” Moses tells them.  But they don’t listen.  Some are worried about the next day, so they set aside leftovers.  By the morning, it becomes maggot infested and smelly.  Moses is angry that they continue to not listen to him.

But they quickly fall into a routine, getting up each morning to collect that day’s food.  Everybody has as much as they need, and nobody goes hungry.

Five days pass.  On the sixth day, something strange happens.  When they get back to their tents, they find that they have collected double the amount as the previous five days.  The chieftains, perplexed, turn to Moses for an explanation.  “What is the meaning of this sudden abundance?”

Then, for the first time ever, they hear about Shabbat.  “Tomorrow is a day of rest,” Moses explains, “a holy sabbath of the Lord.  Prepare all of your food now.  Whatever is left over, you can eat tomorrow.”

That is what the people do.  Unlike the previous days, the leftovers do not rot.  

“Eat up,” Moses urges them.  “You won’t find any out on the ground today.  It’s Shabbos.”

But there are some skeptics among the Israelites who go out anyways, despite Moses’ instructions.

God gets angry.  “How long will you keep defying my instructions!”

Moses explains to the people: Adonai natan lakhem et haShabbat — “The Lord has give you the Shabbat; therefore He gives you two days’ food on the sixth day.  Let everyone remain where he is: let no one leave his place on the seventh day.”

The people obey, and they call this miraculous bread man —manna.  It will sustain them for the next forty years in the wilderness.

Note that we have two important phenomena introduced together.  Manna and Shabbat.  Prior to this passage, the Israelites are completely unaware of both of them.  This is not a coincidence.

The Israelites will receive more details about Shabbat in subsequent parashiyot.  And the Rabbis will really go to town elucidating the fine points in Shabbat observance.  But by the end of this story in parashat Beshalach, what have the Israelites learned the day of rest?

1 Shabbat is connected with food.  

2 Shabbat is a time for staying near to the home, and not for going out to ‘bring home the man,’ so to speak.

3 To observe Shabbat properly, one must prepare for it ahead of time.

4 Finally, Shabbat is a gift from God.  Observing Shabbat is an act of faith.

That sounds like a pretty great introduction to me.

Many of us see modern life as too fast paced, too demanding, to take off a day to do something completely different.  We tell ourselves, “things were simpler in the past.  Our ancestors did not have as many distractions, or as many pressures as we have.  Observing Shabbat was easier back then.”  

The Torah’s description of the Israelites’ first Shabbat would suggest otherwise.

Surely some of those Israelites were doubtful when Moses said, “Hey!  Don’t collect any food tomorrow.  God will provide.”  They did not trust that their would be enough.  They worried they would not be able to get everything done in time.  It was too difficult, too unrealistic, to take a whole day off.  They did not see Shabbat as something special.  They wanted to continue on exactly the same as the rest of the week.  They did not understand it as a gift from God.

Perhaps that is why God wraps it up in miracles.  Unfortunately for us, we can’t walk outside to find our food lying fresh on the ground each morning.  But we are blessed to live in a world in which, if we plan for it, it is possible to have the same Shabbat experience as our ancestors in the wilderness.  The question is, can I see Shabbat as a gift?

By the way, the excuses we make for why observing Shabbat is so difficult are exactly the reasons why we need to make Shabbat a regular part of our week.

So in a few minutes, when we sit down together in the social hall for our delicious man, let’s see it as a miracle that we are so blessed to be able to celebrate God’s gift of Shabbat to us.  What can I do to appreciate that gift again next week?

Don’t Take Time and Space for Granted – Ki Tavo 5778

The universe is inconceivably big.  It has a diameter of 91 billion light years.  In miles, that is approximately 54, followed by 22 zeros.  The universe is comprised of between 100 and 200 billion galaxies.  Our Milky Way Galaxy has about 100 billion stars.  The closest star to the earth is a little bit more than four light years away.

Planet Earth has a number of rare features that have made the development of life possible.  Moving tectonic plates enable the formation and maintenance of an atmosphere.  The climate is not too hot and not too cold.  The moon is unusually large, blocking just enough solar radiation to allow genetic mutation to occur at a reasonable pace.  Earth’s orbit around the sun is pretty close to circular.  The sun itself is larger than most stars, and smaller than others.  In so many ways, the earth is “just right.”

The earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago.  Life came into existence around 4 billion years ago.  More than 99% of all species that ever lived on Earth are now extinct.  Homo Sapiens emerged about 300,000 years ago.  Our ancestors began to develop modern ways of thinking, reflected by the use of complex tools, cave painting, big game hunting, and ritual burial.

3,800 years ago, Abraham heard the voice of God blessing him with the promise of land and offspring.  3,300 years ago, Moses led our people out of slavery in Egypt to the land of Israel.  Solomon built the Temple.  It was destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again over the next thousand years, sending our ancestors into exile.  That exile ended in 1948, and here we are…

…residing in the most prosperous country in the history of the planet, and for all we know, the universe.  Here in Silicon Valley, we have a perfect climate.  We have air conditioning.  In about 45 minutes, we will sit down to have lunch together, and there will probably be enough food for us to go back for seconds and thirds.

How incredibly unlikely it is that each one of us is here right now.

Is there an appropriate response to the unfathomably minute possibility of my existence?

If such a response exists, I am not sure what it is.

We humans have a built-in tendency to take our lives for granted.  This is one of Moses’ concerns as he prepares to make his final goodbyes to the Israelites, whom he has led for the previous forty years.  Over the course of Deuteronomy, he has been delivering his final series of instructions to those who will be entering the Promised Land without him.

In this morning’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, Moses lays out a few ritual ceremonies that the Israelites will have to observe.

The first of those ceremonies will not be performed by the generation that stands before him.  True, they will enter the land, but it will take several more generations until their descendants complete its conquest, and even longer before they build the Temple.

That is the time to which Moses refers.  Israelite farmers will plant their seeds and harvest their crops.  When the first fruits of those crops come in, the farmer will place it in a basket and bring it to the Temple in Jerusalem, identified by Moses as “the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name.”  The farmer will present the fruit to the priest on duty and make a declaration:

I acknowledge this day before the Lord your God that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to assign us.”  (Deut. 26:3)

The priest will take the basket from him, and the farmer will continue:

My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us . . . and the LORD heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The LORD freed us from Egypt . . . He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me.  (Deut. 26: 5–10)

This speech integrates themes of agriculture with history.  This is one of the great theological innovations of the Torah: God is both the Creator of the natural world, as well as the God of history.

We see this throughout the Torah, as the various agricultural holidays are infused with historical significance.  Passover, the Spring festival to celebrate the beginning of the agricultural season, is also the holiday celebrating freedom from slavery.  Succot, the Fall harvest festival, also commemorates the booths that our ancestors dwelt in while they were in the wilderness.

This is what Moses wants to ensure that future Israelites will remember.  He wants future Israelites to know:  My ancestors were once slaves in Egypt.  God brought them out, enabling me to be born in freedom.  I am here now because of God’s promise to my ancestors.  Without them, I would not be in this land, this land that is so prosperous that it flows with milk and honey. 

Notice that the farmer never makes any reference to all of his hard work: the early mornings planting and weeding; the backbreaking labor; the difficult journey from his home to the Temple.  That is not the point.  The point is for him to acknowledge everything that has happened to bring him to this blessed moment.  

Moses knows that future Israelites will have a tendency to take two things for granted.  One, that he lives in a fortuitous time period.  Two, that he lives in a fertile place.

In other words, Moses worries that the farmer will take time and space for granted.

It is not just ancient Israelite farmers who tended to take their existence in time and space for granted.  We all do.  When we are successful, we tend to overweight the impact of our own hard work and underweight the countless factors outside of our control that made our success possible.

The purpose of much of Jewish ritual is to alert us to the many blessings that we enjoy.  In our daily prayers, we acknowledge God as the Creator of the universe, the heavenly bodies, and the daily rising and setting of the sun and moon.  

We acknowledge the incredible way in which the human body is put together.  We give thanks for knowledge and understanding.  We praise God for moments of our ancestors’ redemption, without which we would not be alive.

Before eating a piece of bread, we recite a blessing indicating that it is God who “brings forth bread from the earth.”  Even though this is not literally where bread comes from, we remind ourselves of the many natural miracles that must occur so that human beings can produce food that is delicious and nutritious.  

People who express gratitude are happier, and experience life as more meaningful.  I suspect, as well, that those who are conscious of how undeservedly blessed they are tend to behave towards others with more generosity and compassion.

So, is there an appropriate response to the unfathomably minute possibility of our existence?  Let’s start with simply trying to acknowledge it:

The universe has conspired to bring me to this moment in time and space.  And for that I am grateful.

Uncontrolled Anger and its Remedy – Shelakh Lekha 5778

Anger is powerful.  It is a core emotion, one we all experience.  It is a natural part of being human.

When we feel angry, we should pay attention, because it indicates when something is not right.  Anger is what alerts us to injustice.  It is how we prepare emotionally to respond to a perceived threat.

Uncontrolled anger, however, makes us forget important details, overrides our moral training, and makes us generally unpleasant to be around.  It causes us lose our ability to self-monitor and maintain objectivity.  Uncontrolled anger, with its partner, irrational fear, is responsible for much of the polarizing behavior in America today.

Anger will lead to Moses being banned from the Promised Land in a few weeks’ Torah portions.

To illustrate this point, the Torah depicts even God slipping into uncontrolled anger.  This morning’s reading, Parashat Shelach Lekha, describes the infamous story of the spies, who are sent to scout out the land of Canaan and bring back an advance report.

We enter the story at the moment when God is furious.  The Israelites have panicked after listening to the spies’ depressing assessment of their chances against the inhabitants of Canaan.

God is incredulous about the Israelites’ lack of faith.  He is frustrated beyond imagination.  “Let me strike them down with pestilence and start over with you, Moses!”

This is when Moses shows his true mettle.  In his prophetic role, he steps into the breach.  “But think about what the other nations will say,” Moses warns.  “‘This God of the Israelites did not have the power to finish the job.  Since he could not bring them into the land that He promised, He just killed them off in the wilderness.’  Is that how You want to be known?”

That is argument number one for Moses.  Argument number two is more personal.

Here it is in Hebrew:  וְעַתָּה יִגְדַּל־נָא כֹּחַ אֲדֹנָי כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ לֵאמֹר  “And now, let the strength of my Lord increase, as you have spoken.”  (Numbers 14:17)  What is this koach, or strength, that Moses mentions?  And when did God speak about it?

Moses continues:

ה’ אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב־חֶסֶד נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן וָפָשַׁע וְנַקֵּה לֹא יְנַקֶּה פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל־בָּנִים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִים:

“Adonai, patient and full of lovingkindness, bearing iniquity and transgression, yet clearing, not clearing, calling-to-account the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons to the third and to the fourth [generation].”  (Numbers 14:18)  

Does this sound familiar?  Partially.  When is the last time that God threatened to wipe out the Israelites and start over with Moses?  At Mount Sinai, during the incident with the Golden Calf.  Moses talks God down at that time as well, using similar arguments.  While he is on a roll, Moses asks to behold God’s glory.  God agrees, and hides Moses in a cleft in a rock and passes the Divine Glory next to him.  While passing, God proclaims the thirteen attributes.

In this deja vu moment, Moses repeats God’s words back to Him.  He quotes some, but not all, of those attributes.  Maybe it will remind God, he thinks, of the last time when really really wanted to kill the Israelites but changed His mind.

Most of the commentators connect the koach, the strength that Moses wants God to increase with the term erekh apayim.  Literally, it means, long-nosed.  In Hebrew, this is a euphemism for patient.  The opposite is charon af, which means the burning nose, or flaring nostrils, a euphemism for anger.

So Moses is appealing for an increase in the relative strength of God’s patience.  Or, as Ibn Ezra puts it, that “the attribute of mercy should be victorious over the attribute of judgment to conquer Your anger.”

Anger has led God to forget about His own nature.  Moses is trying to awaken Divine compassion, which has become blocked.

Citing a midrash, the commentator Rashi takes it a step further. 

When Moses goes up Mount Sinai to get the Torah, he finds God writing down the Divine attributes.  Erekh apayim, Moses sees.  Long-nosed, patient.  Moses asks: “that is just for the righteous, right?

God corrects him, “Nope, it is for the wicked as well.”

“But should not the wicked be punished?” Moses asks.

“By your life,” God responds, “you are going to need these words one day.”

Today is the day.  The entire nation of Israel sins by listening to the ten spies.  God wants to obliterate them.

“But God,” Moses pleads.  “Didn’t you say that you are erekh apayim, patient?”

The Holy One replies, “I thought you wanted that to be just for the righteous.”

“No, no, no” Moses shakes his head.  “You said that it would also be for the wicked.”

Moses concludes his appeal by asking God to forgive the nation’s sin in accordance with the greatness of God’s love.  

God responds: סָלַחְתִּי כִּדְבָרֶךָ – “I forgive just as you have spoken.”

What a wonderful parallel.  Moses uses God’s words to remind God to be His best self.  And God responds by forgiving, according to Moses’ words.

So was God actually angry?  The midrash suggests that the story might have been told this way to teach a lesson about the danger of uncontrolled anger, and to offer a remedy.

The danger is that anger can cause me to forget who I am.  What are the values and principles that govern my life, that lead me to be me best self?  When I allow myself to be consumed by anger, I lose my way.

The remedy is another person.  Moses is the courageous prophet who has the nerve to confront God during God’s moment of rage.  To His credit, God accepts the intervention and snaps back, forgiving the Israelites.

I need to have people in my life who I can trust to step into the breach and tell me when I have lost my way.  And I should have the courage to be that person for someone else.  And most importantly, I should be receptive to hearing the voice of someone who has the courage to tell me, with love, when I am being an idiot.

The Chieftains’ Gifts – Naso 5778

One thing I have learned about lists of names in the Torah: While at first glance they seem repetitive, closer inspection usually reveals an aberration of some sort.  And behind that aberration often lies a story.

The end of parashat Naso is the longest chapter in the Torah, at 89 verses.  It describes the offerings that are brought by chieftains from each of the twelve tribes.

First, they get to collaborate on a gift of 6 carts and 12 oxen to pull them.  These are assigned to two of the Levite clans whose job it is to disassemble and carry the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.

But they are not done yet.  They have more to give.  God instructs that each of them should present his gift individually, one per day for twelve days.

The gifts are identical: one silver bowl and one silver basin, each filled with choice flour mixed with oil; a golden ladle filled with incense; a bull, a ram and a lamb in its first year as a burnt offering; a goat for a sin offering; and two oxen, five rams, five he-goats, and five yearling lambs as a sacrifice of well-being.

Have you ever showed up to a birthday party and found that the gift you brought, that you were so excited about, is exactly the same as someone else’s gift.  Funny?  Embarrassing?

The Torah details the offerings twelve times in a row, for every single chieftain.  Other than substituting the name of the tribe, the presenter and the day number, the text repeats itself twelve times, word for word exactly the same – – – almost.

There are three small aberrations, all appearing with regard to the first two names.   The first is that the title nasi, meaning “chieftain,” is absent from the first name on the list, Nachshon ben Aminadav.  The eleven other donors are given the honorific nasi.

The second aberration is that for the first two donors, Nachshon from the tribe of Yehudah and Netanel ben Tzuar of the tribe of Issachar, their names are mentioned before the tribe, as in “on the second day, Netanel son of Tzuar, chieftain of Issachar.”  For the other ten, the tribe is mentioned first, as in “on the third day, it was the chieftain of the Zebulinites, Eliav son of Chelon.”

The third and final difference also has to do with Netanel ben Tzuar of Issachar.  He is the only chieftain whose offering is accompanied by the verb hikriv, which means “to offer a sacrifice.”  For all the others, the introductory phrase at the beginning of verse 12 – va’yehi ha-makriv… et korbano – the one who offered his sacrifice – serves as an introduction to their offering.  This is explained by several of the commentators (Rashi on 7:24, Rashbam and Ibn Ezra on 7:13).

I know.  That is pretty nitpicky.  You might not have even caught the distinctions.

Operating under the assumption that the Torah is never sloppy, these three small aberrations must mean something.  Let’s see if we can figure out what they mean.

First, why is the word nasi , chieftain, missing from the description of Nachshon?  When he appears elsewhere in the Torah, he is certainly described as a chieftain of the tribe of Judah.  Nachshon, by the way, is credited by the midrash as being the first of the Israelites to walk into the Sea of Reeds.  Only when the water reached above his nose did the sea split.  Nachshon also happens to be the Brother in Law of Aaron the High Priest.

A midrash (Numbers Rabbah 13:17) explains that God is concerned that the rest of the chieftains might feel jealous of Nachshon for getting to present his gifts first.  As a sign of Nachshon’s humility, and to convey to the others that all of the gifts are valued equally by God, Nachshon’s honor is diminished slightly by leaving out his title.

The next irregularity in the list is that for the first two chieftains, their names are mentioned before their tribes.  Rashi cites a midrash (Sifrei Bemidbar 48) which explains that Nachshon collected his donation from his own personal wealth, not from the tribe.  He is especially generous.

As for Netanel from Issachar, the reason is connected to the third aberration.  He is the only chieftain who gets his own verb.  In fact, he gets it twice.

Rashi (on 7: 18), citing a midrash (Sifrei Bemidbar 52), relates the following story:  When the tribe of Reuven, who is the first born of Jacob’s 12 sons, sees that he is being skipped, he gets angry and complains to Moses.  “It was bad enough when you let Yehudah go first.  Now you are letting Issachar go ahead of me?!”

Moses scolds him: “It was God Himself who commanded that the tribes go in this order!”

What is so special about the tribe of Issachar, Rashi asks?  Two things:  First, Issachar is known to be a tribe that truly values talmud Torah, the study of Torah.  Second, it is Netanel of Issachar who encourages his fellow chieftains to bring these donations.  Thus, says Rashi, the verb hikriv appears twice to reflect the two reasons that Issachar is moved up.

So we see that these three tiny departures from the linguistic pattern are explained as indications of meritorious actions and/or characteristics of Nachshon and Netanel, along with their respective tribes.

There is a bigger question, however, regarding the overall order in which the tribes appear.  There are many passages in the Torah and in later books of the bible that list the sons of Jacob or their eponymous tribes.  The order, however, is not always the same.*

Sometimes, it follows their birth order.  Other times, the lists seem to reflect other considerations.  

The Book of Numbers opens with a military census of all adult male Israelites.  They are to be counted by tribe.  In the opening verses of chapter one, we find a list of the twelve tribes, along with their chieftains who are assigned to assist Moses in conducting the census.  They are the exact same chieftains who bring the offerings in today’s parashah.

One chapter later, the tribes are assigned their marching orders.  For reasons unexplained, the order is changed.  The marching order in chapter two is the same as the donating order in chapter seven.  I am going to read the first seven tribes in each list.  See if you can catch the difference

The census order begins as follows: Reuven, Shimon, Yehudah, Issachar, Zevulun, Efraim, Menashe, and so on.

The marching and donating order begins: Yehudah, Issachar, Zevulun, Reuven, Shimon, Gad, Efraim, and so on.

Quite a few changes.  And although the Torah does not give a reason, these changes are not arbitrary.  We have already seen how the midrash captures Reuven’s anger at being demoted from first position to fourth position.

Nachshon from the tribe of Yehudah often gets bumped to first place.  This reflects the future ascendancy of Yehudah as the tribe of King David and the seat of the future Southern Kingdom.

You might not have noticed another switch with regard to positions six and seven.  In the census order, the tribe of Efraim comes sixth.  In the marching and donation order, Efraim comes seventh.

A midrash points out the obvious.  If there are twelve consecutive days of donations, at least one of those days must have been Shabbat.  The first day was a Sunday.  Day seven, therefore, is Shabbat.  It is thus a special honor for the Chieftain of Efraim to be able to bring his gifts on this day.

What is so special about Efraim?  Efraim is the tribe of Yehoshua, who takes over the leadership of Israel after Moses.  Efraim also is destined to become the dominant tribe of the northern Kingdom of Israel.

A Midrash collection called Numbers Rabbah (14:2, 14:3) imagines Joseph observing Shabbat when he is the Prime Minister of Egypt, even though the Torah has not yet been given.  In a different version, the midrash notes Joseph’s incredible fortitude at being able to resist the temptations of Potiphar’s wife, motivated by fear of violating God’s holiness.  God rewards Joseph’s future descendants, the tribe of Efraim, by accepting their chieftain’s gifts on Shabbat, God’s holy day.

Nachmanides summarizes an extensive series of midrashim that also appear in Numbers Rabbah (chapters 13-14).  The chieftains decide, perhaps in response to Netanel from Issachar’s suggestion, to each make a final donation in honor of the dedication of the Mishkan.  Each one of them thinks about what he can offer that will be a meaningful gift, that will bring honor to God.

They each, independently, pick out silver bowls and basins, golden ladles, grain, oil, incense, and unblemished animals, and show up at exactly the same time.  Surprise, surprise!  They all bring the same gift.  How embarrassing!

How could this happen?

Nachshon brought a ke’arat kesef, a silver bowl, because in gematria, ke’arat kesef adds up to 930, the number of years that Adam lived.  Netanel of Issachar decided to bring his ke’arat kesef because it represents Torah, (based on a wordplay that I am not going to try to explain right now).  Eliav from Zevulun picked out his ke’arat kesef because the silver bowl represents the sea, which is how the tribe of Zevulun conducts its trade.  And Zevulun is known for supporting all of those Torah scholars from neighboring Issachar.

And so on with each of the tribes.  Every chieftain, independently, comes up with a meaningful reason to bring a ke’arat kesef weighing exactly 130 shekels.  And similarly with each of the other gifts.

It is, of course, a miracle that all of them came up with the exact same offerings.  But even more miraculous is that each of them has a different kavanah, a different intention, for doing so.

God considers all of the gifts equally precious.  To convey that preciousness, God commands that each chieftain must show up on his own day to present his offering.  Instead of just piling them all up together and sending the givers off, each donor is made to feel special and honored.

What could have been an embarrassing and contentious moment is saved.  And we are left with the longest, and certainly not the most boring, chapter of the Torah.

 

* Order in which the names of Jacob’s sons/tribes appear in various places in the Torah:

Birth Order

(Gen 30)

Jacob’s Blessing

(Gen 49)

Beginning of Numbers

(Num 1)

Order of Gifts, Marching Order

(Num 2, Num 7)

Reuben (L1)

Shimon (L2)

Levi (L3)

Judah (L4)

Dan (B1)

Naphtali (B2)

Gad (Z1)

Asher (Z2)

Issachar (L5)

Zevulun (L6)

Joseph (R1)

Benjamin (R2)

Reuben (L1)

Shimon & Levi (L2,3)

Judah (L4)

Zevulun (L6)

Issachar (L5)

Dan (B1)

Gad (Z1)

Asher (Z2)

Naphtali (B2)

Joseph (R1)

Benjamin (R2)

Reuben (L1)

Shimon (L2)

Judah (L4)

Issachar (L5)

Zevulun (L6)

Ephraim (R1b)

Menashe (R1a)

Benjamin (R2)

Dan (B1)

Asher (Z2)

Gad (Z1)

Naphtali (B2)

Judah (L4)

Issachar (L5)

Zevulun (L6)

Reuben (L1)

Shimon (L2)

Gad (Z1)

Efraim (R1b)

Menashe (R1a)

Benjamin (R2)

Dan (B1)

Asher (Z2)

Naphtali (B2)

The Unclaimed Crown – Terumah 5778

Parashat Terumah is the first of two parashiyot that describes the design of the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle that the Israelites build and then carry with them throughout their time in the wilderness.  It also describes the furnishings that resided within the Mishkan.

The Mishkan becomes a somewhat “permanent” temporary structure.  Even after the Israelites enter the Promised Land, it will take several centuries before the Beit Hamikdash, the Temple, to be built by King Solomon in Jerusalem, using the Mishkan as a model.

V’asu li mikdash v’shakhanti b’tokham.  “Build for me a Sanctuary that I may dwell in your midst,” God instructs Israel through Moses.  The Mishkan is the place where God’s Transcendent Presence becomes immanent.  The people can simply look to the center of the camp, see the clouds of incense hovering over the Tent, and know that God was there to protect them, bless them, and bring them prosperity.

Everything pertaining to the Mishkan, and later the Beit Hamikdash, is deeply symbolic.

In the ancient world, the belief was that when people sin, impurity becomes attached to the Mishkan, and specifically to the altar.  God’s Presence cannot remain in an impure Sanctuary.

That is where the priests come in.  By conducting the rituals, they cleanse the Mishkan and the altar of impurity, allowing God’s Presence to return, bringing blessings to the people.

This is true for the Mishkan in the wilderness, and later for the Beit Hamikdash in Jerusalem.

But something begins to change when the Rabbis come on the scene about two thousand years ago.

They take over from the biblical prophetic tradition, which tends to be skeptical of the automatic nature of the Temple rituals.  Prophets like Isaiah, Micah, and Amos recognize that while the priests conducted all of the Temple rituals with care and precision, people continues to behave with greed and callousness.  There must be more to being a people of God than merely offering sacrifices.

The Rabbis inherit and replace this countercultural prophetic tradition.  They interpret the Mishkan and Beit Hamikdash symbolically, deriving universal moral lessons from the specific rituals that were once conducted only by the priests.  Even before the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE, certain Jewish circles are starting to imagine a decentralized Judaism.  They embrace the ancient Temple symbols, but add them new layers of meaning that make them accessible to any Jew, in any place.

Three of the important pieces of furniture in the Mishkan are described in Parashat Terumah – the altar, the ark, and the table.  The altar, the mizbeaḥ, is where the sacrifices are performed.  The Ark, the aron, houses the tablets of the Ten Commandments and serves as God’s footstool in the Holy of Holies.  The table, the shulḥan, is where twelve loaves of bread are placed every week on Shabbat.

In describing each of these items, the Torah indicates that they are to have a zer of gold encircling the top.  It is not clear what a zer is.  Our English translation uses the word “molding.”  It is some sort of decorative gold rim around the top of the altar, ark, and table.  The Talmud (Yoma 72b) describes this zer as a crown, with symbolic meaning that extends way beyond mere aesthetics.

Rabbi Yoḥanan teaches: “There were three crowns on the sacred vessels in the Temple: The crown of the altar, and of the Ark, and of the table.”  Each of these crowns is available to be claimed by someone who is deserving.  For the crown of the altar, it is Aaron who is deserving.  He takes it, becomes the High Priest, and passes on the crown of priesthood to his sons after him.  The crown on the table is understood to represent kingship.  David is the deserving one.  He takes it for himself and passes it on to his children after him.  What about the third crown – the crown of the ark?  It still sits unclaimed, says Rabbi Yoḥanan.  Kol ha-rotzeh likaḥ, yavo v’yikaḥ.  Anyone who wishes to take it may come and take it.  What is this crown of the ark?  It is the crown of Torah.  Anyone is allowed to come and wear the crown of Torah.

The midrash continues: You might think that this third, unclaimed, crown is inferior to the crowns of kingship and of priesthood.  After all, nobody has taken it.  This is not the case.  It is in fact greater than both of them.  The Book of Proverbs states, “Through me kings will reign”  (Pr. 8:15).  The strength of the crowns of priesthood and kingship is derived from the crown of Torah, which is greater than them all.

This midrash undermines the old system.  Torah, that is to say, learning, has replaced the old dynastic systems of religious leadership.  This is one of the great legacies that the Rabbis have left to us: a meritocracy based on learning that is accessible to anyone who chooses to embrace it, regardless of lineage, wealth, or background.

This idea is developed further.  What does it mean to take the crown of Torah?  The Talmud again derives its answer through a creative analysis of the Mishkan.  We have already identified the ark as representing Torah.  It contains, after all, the Ten Commandments.  This ark, we read in the this morning’s Parashah, is constructed preciselt.  It is kind of like one of those Russian nesting dolls, with three compartments.  The middle compartment is a box made out of acacia wood.  It is sandwiched between an inner compartment and an outer compartment, each of which are made out of gold.

In other words, the exterior part, that is visible to the outside world, is gold.  But so is the inner part, the part that nobody sees.  In the Talmud, Rava teaches kol talmid ḥakham she’ein tokho k’voro eino talmud ḥakham.  “Any Torah scholar whose inside is not like his outside is not a Torah scholar.”

Torah is not meant to be merely an intellectual pursuit.  It is a living document, one that must transform the behavior of the one who studies it.

Cultivating the Ability to Say “I Love You” – Yom Kippur 5778

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, once said:

I came into the world to show another way, to cultivate love of God, of Israel, and of the Torah, and there is no need for fasting and mortification.”

Now don’t get too excited.  I do not think he was saying we should not fast on Yom Kippur.  But he is suggesting that the cultivation of our ability to love is the most important thing we can do.  How do we cultivate love?

Today’s Torah reading does not offer much guidance.  It describes the ritual that Aaron, the High Priest, performed on behalf of the Israelites on Yom Kippur.  It goes into all of the technical details of washing, dressing, offering sacrifices, and even sending a goat off into the wilderness.  All of this so that the Tabernacle could be purified of the sins that had accumulated over the course of the year.

The High Priest had a crucial role to play, and only he could play it.  In describing the ritual, the Torah speaks matter-of-factly.  We gain no insight into the internal emotional state of the High Priest as he performs the rituals.  But it must have been a terrifying and exhilarating experience.  I imagine that many High Priests might have been motivated by their love for the Jewish people.

The single hint of what Aaron could have been feeling appears in the opening words of the reading.  “The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of Adonai.”  (Lev. 16:1)  The language is cold and factual, but it draws our memories back to the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, six chapters earlier.

Is this a detail that we need?  After all, it does not add anything to the procedures.  Perhaps, as our Mahzor suggests, it is a warning to remind the High Priest of what is at stake if he is not careful to perform the ritual exactly as prescribed.

Or maybe the Torah is trying to remind us that the individual who performs this ritual on our behalf bears his own burdens and struggles.  “After the death of the two sons of Aaron” brings us back in time to the moment and its aftermath when Nadav and Avihu were inexplicably struck down.

Moses steps forward to take charge.  Explaining the tragedy, he comes off as something of a “know it all.”  His grieving brother’s response?  Vayidom Aharon.  “Aaron was silent.”

Moses instructs a couple of cousins to remove the bodies.  He tells Aaron and his sons that, due to their position, they are not permitted to engage in public mourning.  He instructs them to continue the sacred offerings, as if nothing has happened, reviewing in detail all of the procedures.  Then, when Moses sees Eleazar and Itamar, Aaron’s remaining sons, doing something which he thinks is improper, he scolds them.  That is a step too far.  Aaron ends his silence, pushing back against his brother’s cold, by-the-book attitude.

Moses relents.

Aaron needs something from his brother in that moment, and he does not get it.  Moses shows no compassion, no acknowledgement that Aaron has just experienced the worst loss a parent can suffer.  Surely Moses loves his brother, but he fails to look beyond the garments of the High Priest to the suffering person underneath.  What would have comforted Aaron?  What would have reassured him that his brother, his family, and indeed the Israelite nation, loved him?

We do not know.  The Torah is silent.

As human beings, we are social creatures.  Included in our basic core requirements, in addition to food, clothing, and water, is our need to be loved.  And not only romantic love, but the love between parents and children, siblings, other relatives, friends, and even God.

When a person knows that he or she is loved and accepted unconditionally, that person is better able to return love, feels more settled, and is more willing to take risks with the knowledge that love is not on the line.  And when that person suffers a loss, as Aaron did, he is able to move through the stages of grieving with more resilience.

One of the unconscious mistakes that most of us make is assuming that we know what other people need from us.  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is not necessarily the best advice, as each of us wants different things.

Centuries after Aaron performed the ritual in the Tabernacle, the High Priest would conduct a similarly intricate series of rituals in the Temple in Jerusalem.  As in earlier times, the purpose was to bring about atonement on behalf of the Jewish people.  Over the course of the year, the people’s sins accumulated, polluting the sanctuary.  God’s Presence could no longer remain in a polluted sanctuary.  The atonement rituals served as a spiritual cleansing, enabling God’s Presence to return.

The Talmudic Tractate, Yoma, goes into great detail about the rituals of Yom Kippur.  In the fifth chapter, it describes the incense offering.  (Yoma 5:1)  The High Priest places the specially formulated incense on hot coals in a metal pan so that the entire chamber of the Holy of Holies fills with smoke.  He then exits the Holy of Holies, walking backwards.  When he reaches the outer chamber, the High Priest pauses to recite a short prayer.  The Mishnah emphasizes that the High Priest would not pray for too long, so as not to alarm the people who are waiting for him outside.

It is known that a priest who alters the recipe for the incense, or who is not himself fit, can be struck dead on the spot while in the Holy of Holies.  If such were to occur, the regular priests waiting outside would have a problem, as none of them are permitted to enter the sacred precincts while the High Priest is in the Holy of Holies.  Maimonides reports that many Second Temple priests perished while conducting the Yom Kippur ritual .

After completing his duties and emerging safely from the Holy of Holies, the High Priest throws a big feast for his loved ones to express his gratitude that no tragedy has befallen him.  (Yoma 7:4)

The Talmud (Yoma 53b) relates a particular incident that occurs one year.  A certain High Priest is inside the Holy of Holies, reciting his prayer after the incense offering, but he is not coming out.  His fellow priests are worried.  Maybe he needs help?  Maybe he fainted?  Maybe he has been struck dead by a bolt of lightning!?

After speculating on the increasingly gruesome possibilities, they finally agree to enter.

Just at that moment, the High Priest emerges, triumphant.

“Why did you take so long to pray?” they ask him.

“What are you so worried about?” he responds.  “After all, I was praying for you and for the Temple to not be destroyed!”

Angry, they respond, “Well, don’t make a habit out if it.  You know what the law says; ‘He would not extend his prayer, so as not to alarm the Jewish people.'”

Clearly, there is a failure of communication.  The High Priest is convinced that he is doing the right thing for the people.  He loves them.  He is praying for their survival, and for the survival of the Holy Temple.  “Everything I did, I did for you,” he seems to be saying.  What could be wrong with that?

He has miscalculated.  In fact, his prayer is somewhat self-serving.  He prays for the people, and for the temple to not be destroyed.  He, of course, has a personal interest in the continued functioning of the Temple.  He assumes that everyone else wants the same.

It turns out, the people want something different.  “But what you did for us is not what we wanted you to do for us.”

What do they want?  He is their beloved High Priest, their religious leader.  They are worried about him.  They want his presence, not his prayers.  They are looking for a more intimate relationship than what he has offered them.  He does not seem to understand their needs – much as Moses fails to understand Aaron’s needs in his moment of loss.

This is one of the major stumbling blocks in relationships.  We do not pay the right kind of attention to what the people we love need.  Different people need to be loved in different ways.

Let’s each think for a moment about someone who loves us, either now or in the past.  It could be or have been a partner, a parent or child, a relative, or a friend.  Let’s ask, “How do I know that this person loves or loved me?”

The marriage and family counselor Gary Chapman wrote a well-known book called The 5 Love Languages which he has subsequently expanded into a small empire.  (I am indebted to Rabbi Laurie Matzkin for making this connection.)  His basic premise is that there are five essential ways of communicating love of all kinds.  Every person has a primary emotional language that determines how they best receive love.

Chapman argues that by knowing which is our own primary love language, and which is the primary love language of our partner, child, parent, or friend, we will be able to both give and receive love in a fuller way, and will have deeper, more fulfilling and compatible relationships.

If we are having difficulties in a relationship, it may very well be the case that the two individuals are not speaking one another’s love language.

The five love languages are, in no particular order:  “Words of Affirmation,” “Quality Time,” “Receiving Gifts,” Acts of Service,” and “Physical Touch.”  I will briefly summarize each of them.

Someone who responds best to “Words of Affirmation” likes to receive unsolicited compliments and kind words.  Saying “I love you,” sincerely of course, leave this person feeling great.  Conversely, this person takes insults very hard.

A person whose primary language is “Quality Time” appreciates nothing more than full, undivided attention.  Put the cell phone on mute, turn off the TV and be present with this person for focused conversations or shared activities.

Some people blossom by “Receiving Gifts” that reflect care and thoughtfulness.  Don’t mistake this for greed.  A meaningful gift could be a flower plucked from the garden.  Marking birthdays and anniversaries with a gift are important for those who speak this language.

Those whose primary love language is “Acts of Service” appreciates it most when things are done for them.  Washing the dishes, performing other household chores, or relieving a burden are received as expressions of love.  On the other hand, laziness and not following through communicate to this person that he or she does not matter.

Finally, some people communicate love through “Physical Touch.”  Hugs, a pat on the back, holding hands, or simply sitting close to another person are received as acts of love.  When a child who is feeling bad comes over to sit in a parent’s lap and nuzzles their neck, it is probably a good indication that “Physical Touch” is that child’s primary love language.  When a person who speaks this language does not experience physical contact, it can be lonely and insecure.

We all speak each of these languages, but for most of us, there is one that is dominant.

So… which do you think is your primary love language?  Think back to how you answered the question about how you knew you were loved.  “Words of Affirmation,” “Quality Time,” “Receiving Gifts,” Acts of Service,” or “Physical Touch.”

Chapman identifies three questions to help us figure it out.

1.  How do I typically express my affection for other people?  Our natural inclination is to express love in the way that we hope to receive it.  That is why the High Priest expresses his love for Israel by praying that they and the Temple will not be destroyed.  In Chapman’s language, we might say that the High Priest’s language is “Acts of Service.”

2.  What do I most complain about to my loved ones?  This could indicate that I am feeling abused in my primary love language.  The people complain to the High Priest that he was not there with them.  Their primary love language is “Quality Time.”

3.  What am I most likely to ask for from my loved ones?  The thing that we most often request from our friend, partner, or family member is likely connected to the thing that would most likely make us feel loved.  A spouse who insists that her partner mark her birthday with some sort of present or special activity speaks the language of “Giving Gifts.”

Knowing this about ourselves, and about each other, can make a tremendous difference in our relationships.  I may hate to do the dishes… with a passion.  But if I know that my spouse’s love language is “Acts of Service,” then by doing the dishes, I am actually saying “I love you” to her.  It even makes me feel differently about doing the dishes.  And my partner feels loved.

When we love another person, we want to make that person happy.  We want that person to feel secure, and to know that our love for them is unconditional.  Knowing which language to speak is key.

Can we apply this paradigm to God?  What is God’s primary love language?

Ahavah, the Hebrew word for love, means something different in the Torah than the word love means to us today.  The concept of ahavah is wrapped up in covenant.  In the Shema, we recite V’ahavta et Adonai Elohekha b’khol levavekha uv’khol nafshekha uv’khol me’odekha.  “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, and with all of your might.”

The Torah is not talking about an emotional feeling.  It is talking about actions.  How do we express our love for God?  Through actions.  By teaching our children, reciting words of Torah at home and on the road, at night and by day.  By putting up mezuzot on our doorposts and wrapping tefillin on our arms and our heads.  These are concrete deeds which express our relationship as individuals and as a people to God.

So we might say that God speaks the language of “Acts of Service.”  Through our actions, through performance of mitzvot, we express our love for God.

God has a different way of expressing love for us.  The language is all over our prayers.  How do we know that God loves us?  “Gift Giving.”  In the morning service, we recite Ahavah rabah ahavtanu.  “You loved us with a tremendous love.”  How?  Through the gift of Torah.

In the Torah’s covenantal language, God gives us the Promised Land, along with peace, security, and prosperity.  But is this all we want?  After all, the rabbis insist that we should strive to serve God not for a reward, but for God’s own sake.

In a more spiritual sense, what we long for is “Quality Time.”  In today’s Amidah, we say vatiten lanu Adonai Eloheinu b’ahavah… “You have given us in love, Adonai our God, this Shabbat day for holiness and rest, and this Yom Kippur for pardon, forgiveness and atonement…”  The ability to experience a sense of holiness in time comes through the weekly gift of Shabbat, as well as the annual cycle of holidays, each of which offers a unique opportunity to relate to God.

In Biblical and Temple times, the Yom Kippur ritual is what enabled God’s Presence to remain or return into the people’s midst.  With the knowledge that God was with them, the nation felt safe and protected.

The rituals of the Temple have been replaced by synagogue worship and personal teshuvah.  It is now we, individually, who long to feel the Presence of God in our lives.

As the 20th century theologian Martin Buber describes using the language of I-Thou, it is when we can fully encounter another person with our entire being that we experience God.  I would suggest that this can only happen when we are feeling loved, and are able to express love to someone else in the language that they understand.

In this new year, to experience God more fully, let’s strive to experience each other more fully.

Let’s figure out our own love language.  And them, let’s pay attention to our partners, parents, children, and friends to learn how to better express our feelings to them in the language that they will understand.

May we be sealed in the book of life for a year filled with the cultivation of love, both expressed and received, for God, for Torah, and for each other.

Response to Charlottesville – Re’eh 5777

Like many of you, I am astonished over what has been taking place over the past week.  I went to the University of Virginia for my undergraduate degree and lived in Charlottesville for three years.  I never expected it to be all over the news for a reason like this.

As I am sure you know, last week’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, has brought anger and fear to the surface.  People are anxious and not sure what to do.

The rally was organized by numerous self-identified Alt-Right groups, including, neo-Nazis, skinheads, white supremacists, and the Ku Klux Klan.  They were protesting the removal of a statue of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a city park.

Over the course of the two day rally, the protesters marched through the University of Virginia campus with torches, as well as through the streets of Charlottesville.  They shouted slogans and waived signs attacking Jews, Muslims, immigrants, the media, and others.

Usually, I avoid comparing contemporary situations to Nazis, Hitler, or the Holocaust.  As soon as anyone makes that kind of comparison, emotions flare and constructive conversation usually ends.

But these people were explicitly embracing Nazi slogans and actions.  They shouted the Nazi slogan “blood and soil,” they gave the Nazi salute.  Nazi flags waved.  Signs read “Goyim know,” and “Jews are satan’s children.”  Every time the Charlottesville mayor got up to speak, they shouted “Jew, Jew!”

There were large numbers of counter-protesters as well, and numerous fights broke out.  In a horrible tragedy, two State Troopers died when their helicopter crashed.  And a twenty year old man who had previously expressed Nazi sympathies drove a car into crowds on the pedestrian mall, murdering Charlottesville resident Heather Heyer and injuring 19 people.

It is hard to believe that something like this is happening in twenty first century America.  Until now, I have avoided making any public statements about President Trump.  But I cannot remain silent on this.

Many of the Unite the Right protestors were waving “Trump/Pence” signs and wearing “Make America Great Again” hats.  In their own words, they draw strength from his election.

The President spoke about Charlottesville publicly for the first time on Saturday.  He stated “we condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.”  He did not label the attack terrorism.  He did not reject the Alt-Right’s embrace of him or condemn any of the groups by name.  And by saying “many sides,” he implied that the protestors and counter-protestors were equally to blame.

Under enormous pressure from all directions, President Trump made a second statement two days later, in which he said:

To anyone who acted criminally in this weekend’s racist violence, you will be held fully accountable. Justice will be delivered. […] Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.

He said the words, but it was not an especially forceful condemnation.  Alt-Right leader Richard Spencer responded by declaring that the statement was “hollow” and that Trump had not denounced the Alt-Right movement or white nationalism.  Spencer said, “his statement today was more kumbaya nonsense… Only a dumb person would take those lines seriously.”

And then the next day, in an unscripted press conference, the President returned to his original sentiments, declaring that there was “blame on both sides.”  He claimed that “not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me.  Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch.”  And he went on to say that there were “very fine people on both sides,” and he criticized what he called the “very, very violent… alt-left.”

To declare moral equivalency between Nazi flag-waving white supremacists and the people who gather to oppose them simply boggles the mind.

There is no moral equivalency.  There is a moral obligation to oppose hate and intolerance.  We have a duty to fight racism, bigotry, antisemitism, and sexism.  Doesn’t everybody know this?

How many times have we heard, or ourselves said, something to the effect of “there are no innocent bystanders?”  When evil appears in our midst, we have a moral obligation to act.

I am reassured by the outpouring of anger by vast numbers of Americans – conservative and liberal – who are simply appalled by President Trump’s failure to provide any moral leadership.  His words and actions have fanned the flames of hate and emboldened people who until recently have only acted on the fringes of society.

I do not believe that what we are witnessing today remotely resembles Germany in the 1930’s.  We are seeing disparate fringe elements coming together and making a lot of noise.  And that noise is strengthening individuals and groups that are working towards greater  peace, acceptance, and understanding.

But we need more from the leader of our country.  Can you imagine a US President of the past fifty years, of either Party, who would not have found the right words to forcefully repudiate neo-Nazis marching in the streets of America?

The Torah is not ambivalent about right and wrong.  At the beginning of Parashat Re’eh.  Moses places a challenge before the Israelites:

See this day I place before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced.”  (Deuteronomy 11:26-28)

There is a right way and a wrong way.  Choosing the path of blessing, the path of God, has been our challenge as a people since we stood at Sinai.  What is that path?  What does it mean to choose life, to choose blessing?  The Torah often speaks in lofty language about our obligation to care for the least powerful members of society, to welcome the stranger into our midst, and to apply laws equally to citizen and foreigner.  It is the most widespread theme in the Torah, and can be found in this morning’s reading.

Parashat Re’eh also expands on what, to modern readers, is one of the most disturbing themes in the Torah.  Moses instructs the Israelites to utterly wipe out idolatry from the land of Israel.  Those who practice it must be killed relentlessly, and the cities in which it thrives must be razed to the ground.

This extreme xenophobia has always troubled Jews.  In ancient times, the Rabbis wrestled with how to live peacefully and constructively in a multicultural society.  Jews in ancient times often had good relations – both business and social – with their non-Jewish, often pagan, neighbors.  The Rabbis knew that to reconcile the Torah’s black and white message with the multi-hued society around them, it would take creativity.  They developed the understanding that the seven Canaanite nations had ceased to exist many centuries earlier.  The Torah, thus, speaks only of an ancient time that has no bearing on the present.

But the Rabbis’ solution sidesteps the issue.  With thousands of years of history behind us, we know, or at least we ought to know, the evil of racism and xenophobia.  We as a people have too often been victimized by those who have argued, “my religion is truer,” “my culture is better,” “my blood is purer.”  Yet the Torah seems to advocate that same attitude viz a viz idolatry.

I squirm in my seat when I read verses telling us to annihilate an entire people.  Justifying these words by claiming that the Torah is referring to something that happened a long time ago does not solve the moral horror.  How can the same book promote boundless generosity and acceptance on the one hand, and violence and intolerance on the other?

What does the Torah mean when it talks about idolatry?  From the Torah’s perspective, there is something pervasively and irredeemably immoral about it. The great twentieth century Rabbi and Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel was an important religious leader in the Civil Rights Movement.  In 1963, he attended a conference of religious leaders entitled “Religion and Race.”  He wrote an essay of the same name which offers us a way to understand idolatry.

Perhaps this Conference should have been called ‘Religion or Race.’  You cannot worship God and at the same time look at a man as if he were a horse…

What is an idol?  Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol.

Faith in God is not simply an afterlife-insurance policy.  Racial or religious bigotry must be recognized for what it is: satanism, blasphemy.

In the 1960’s, Heschel was speaking about a society which was racist to its core.  To raise the living conditions of African Americans, he writes, normal everyday people had to shed their complacency and get involved.

Heschel’s definition of idolatry suggests that whenever we forget that all human beings are created in God’s image, we commit idolatry.

Heschel notes that when the Bible describes God’s creation of the universe, it specifies that “God created different kinds of plants, different kinds of animals (Genesis 1:11-12, 21-25)  In striking contrast, it does not say, God created different kinds of man, men of different colors and races; it proclaims, God created one single man.  From one single man all men are descended.”

The idolatry that Parashat Re’eh would have us eradicate is the belief that not all humans are reflections of God.

If I take seriously the prohibition of “sitting idly by,” what should I be doing?  I have been struggling with how to respond.

Well, I do happen to be a Rabbi, and I have a pulpit.  That is why I am speaking about this now.  One can certainly get involved in protests and counter-protests, writing letters to politicians and newspapers.  These are admirable actions to take.  But they are not for everyone.

We combat hate with love.  Let’s make an extra effort to learn about someone who is different.  Have an open conversation with a person who does not share your opinion or way of life.  Invite them over for dinner.  Share your own stories.  When we can increase the human connections between ourselves and others, peace is sure to follow.

Thomas Jefferson, the founder of the University of Virginia (“Mr. Jefferson’s University,” as we call it), wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

We do not have to tremble for our country.  I have faith in the American people to recognize right from wrong, and to move, albeit in fits and starts, towards the direction of justice and peace.

Sharing Passover – Shabbat HaChodesh 5777

As we just announced, Rosh Chodesh Nisan occurs this Tuesday.  In other words, the two week countdown until the first Seder begins in just three days.  (Aaaah!)

I am sure you noticed that we took out two Torah scrolls this morning.  That is because this Shabbat is Shabbat HaChodesh, the Shabbat before the beginning of the month of Nisan.

In the special reading that we chanted from the second Sefer Torah, God makes a similar announcement to Moses and Aaron.  It is the first day of the month of Nisan.

God gives them instructions on how to prepare.  This is the first recorded observance of Passover.  Here are the basics:  On the tenth day of the month, each household must select an unblemished, one-year-old male sheep or goat.  They must then watch over it for three days, making sure that it does not acquire any new blemishes, which would render it unfit for the offering.

On the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, they are to slaughter it.  They take the blood and paint it on the doorposts and lintels of their homes.  This signals to the Angel of Death that this is a Jewish home.  In his wreaking destruction over all the first born of Egypt, he will know to pass over these houses.

Each household then roasts its selected animal over a fire, and eats it that night with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.  They are not allowed to have any leftovers the next day.  Whatever is not consumed that night must be burned up.

The Israelites are supposed to eat in their traveling clothes – loins girded, staff in hand, and sandals on feet.

Then, God switches gears, explaining that the people of Israel will continue to observe this holiday as a seven day festival for all time – in remembrance of being rescued from slavery in Egypt.

More than three thousand years later, our seders, and our observance of Passover, still look back to this moment.

A detail in this first Seder stands out.  The instructions are not directed to the priests, or to the tribal leaders, or to just the men, or even to individual Israelites.  The laws of Passover are directed to households.  People have to come together and share.

Remember the details – no leftover are allowed.  Given those restrictions, a lamb or sheep is way too much for one person to eat alone.  So it has got to be eaten by an entire household.  But what if a whole lamb is still too much for an entire household? The Torah takes it into consideration: “But if the household is too small for a lamb, let him share one with a neighbor who dwells nearby, in proportion to the number of persons: you shall contribute for the lamb according to what each household will eat…”  (Exodus 12:4)

Imagine the setting in Egypt.  Israelites are rushing around, trying to get ready to leave Egypt.  They are packing their things.  But in the midst of all their preparations, they have to plan for one final meal.  They pick out the lucky animal, and take special care of it for three days, amidst all the hustle and bustle.

Then, the night before departure – one final feast, a barbecue.  Children, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, servants – all come together to share.  Those without large families meet up with their neighbors.  Nobody is left out.  Why?  Because there cannot be any leftovers.

Nowadays, there are surely lots of leftovers after the seder.  At our house, by the time we get to the main course, it is so late, and we have already eaten so much, that nobody has any appetite left.

But the legacy of making sure everyone is included in the celebration of Pesach, in the celebration of freedom, is still with us in two significant ways.

The first is through the practice of maot chittin.  Literally, “coins for wheat.”  Since the time of the Talmud, it has been customary to give kosher for Passover flour to the poor prior to the holiday.  This enables them to bake their own unleavened bread.  Keep in mind, this tradition developed in the days before Manischewitz invented factory-baked matzah.

Giving flour, or money for flour, was considered to be ideal, as it is more dignified when a person can bake his or her own matzah.  Alternatively, a person could give matzah.

In some communities, local Jewish authorities would actually compel miserly residents to contribute towards Maot Chittin.  

A story is told of a woman who once went to her Rabbi with a strange question:  “Rabbi, is it permissible to drink four cups of milk at the seder instead of four cups of wine?

Shocked by the question, the Rabbi asked her why she would want to use milk.

“I am very poor.  I cannot afford wine.”

So the Rabbi gave her a large sum of money, and told her to go buy wine for her seder.

The Rabbi’s wife overheard this exchange, and when the women left, she asked her husband why he gave her so much money.

“Anyone who is intending to drink milk at the seder certainly does not have enough money to serve meat.  So I gave her enough money to purchase both.”

Every year at Sinai, members contribute money towards Maot Chittin.  It enables us, as a congregation, to help feed people.  I am privileged, as Sinai’s Rabbi, to send hundreds of dollars each year to our local Jewish Family Service’s No One Abandoned Here project, as well as to Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger.

The other way in which we make sure everyone is included in Pesach is captured in the opening lines of the Maggid section of the Haggadah.  Ha lachma anya…  “This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are needy come and celebrate the Passover.”

While reciting these words, it is customary to open our doors to look outside to see if anyone is wandering around, looking for a seder to attend.  Not likely, so this action is largely symbolic.

But many of us try to fulfill this ideal by inviting guests to our seder tables.  Just as the first seder involved entire households, extended families, and neighbors joining together, seders today can be big affairs.  We invite relatives and friends.  For many seders, it is basically the same guest list year after year.  And that is wonderful.  We trace this tradition all the way back to our Israelite ancestors in Egypt.

I wonder, though, if we could do better.  Back in the shtetl, everyone knew everyone else’s business.  If a neighbor did not have a seder to attend, word would get out pretty quickly – and an invitation would follow.  But in our days, when we are dispersed and no longer dwell in tight-knit Jewish neighborhoods, we have no clue about each other’s plans.  We should not make any assumptions.

I assure you that there are plenty of Jews who do not have a seder to attend.

It is one of the reasons that I am proud of Sinai’s Second Night community seder.  It gives us a chance to celebrate together.  It also gives some people a seder who would not otherwise have one to go to.  We are so grateful to Rina Katzen for generously underwriting the seder to help keep the expense down.  Even so, it is still a lot of money for some people.

This year, let us give ourselves a challenge.  For those who are hosting, think about everyone you know.  Is there an individual or a family who might not have a seder to attend?  Invite them.  You do not have to know them well, or even at all.  According to Ha lachma anya we are supposed to literally bring strangers in off the street.

We shouldn’t worry about not having enough space or enough food.  I know from experience that it is always possible to squeeze in one extra person, or even four extra people.  I promise, there will still be plenty of leftovers.

By embracing the spirit of ha lachma anya, we get back to an important part of the first seder in Egypt.  Everyone is included.  Let’s make it happen this year.

Immigration, Terrorism, and History – Parashat Bo 5777

I am the child of a stateless refugee.

My grandfather, Israel, was from Lodz, Poland, and my grandmother, Feiga, was from Kamenets-Podolsk, Ukraine.  Each of them fled East from the Nazi advance – the only members of their families to escape and survive.

They both made their way to the Soviet Georgian town of Poti, on the Black Sea – which was beyond the Nazis’ advance into the Soviet Union.  In 1943, my grandmother’s landlady thought they would make a nice couple, so she introduced them.  They were married 6 weeks later.   After the war, they returned to Poland to search for surviving relatives, without success.  When pogroms broke out, they escaped to the West, and ended up in an American-run Displaced Persons camp in an Rosenheim, West Germany.  They applied for a visa to come to America.  My grandfather had an older sister, Bella, who had emigrated to the United States in 1930 and settled in Long Beach, California.  She sponsored their application.

My father, Carl, was born in the DP camp in 1948.  They did not receive the visa until he was three years old.  By that time, the DP camp had actually closed down.  Finally, in June 1951, my father and grandparents arrived at Ellis Island aboard the USS General M.B. Stewart.

I have grown up with this story.  I always kind of wondered why it took my grandparents so long to receive their visa – but never looked into it.  Over the last couple of weeks, as issues around immigration and refugees has exploded across our country, I have been thinking a lot about my own family’s journey.

I asked my father why it took so long to get the visa.  He explained that the United States had annual refugee quotas, and that there was no preference given to Jewish refugees who had survived the Holocaust.  So they simply had to wait their turn.

Searching online for information, I came across the Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation and discovered that more than 51 million passenger records have been scanned and recorded in a searchable database.  I ran a query for the name Berkenwald, and was surprised to discover records for 21 people.  All of them had originated from Lodz, Poland, so I am almost certain that they are all relatives.  It is remarkable because we thought we knew about all of our surviving family members.

The earliest immigrant on the list, 21 year old Schmul Leib Berkenwald, arrived in 1906.  Two Berkenwald’s arrived in 1921.  (Remember that year.)  One came in 1938, leaving from Belgium.  Five managed to arrive during World War Two, a pair leaving from Spain in 1941 and a mother and her two daughters coming from the United Kingdom.  Twelve Berkenwald’s came as refugees after the war, including my father, listed as Calel, and my grandparents, Feiga and Israel.

America is a nation of immigrants.  Each of us has stories about how we arrived.  Some people in this room are themselves immigrants, and even refugees.  But the truth is, as the Jewish people, we are all immigrants and refugees.

This morning’s Torah portion, Bo, describes the final moments before our Israelite ancestors leave Egypt.  The story takes a break from the narrative to record instructions for observing Passover.  It specifies symbolic rituals that are to be reenacted every year.  We are to slaughter and eat the paschal lamb on matza and maror, with loins girded, sandals on feet and staff in hand.  We are to remove hametz from our homes and eat only unleavened bread for seven days.  Our Passover seder today is directly based on these instructions given to Moses over three thousand years ago.

What does the seder recall and celebrate?  The Exodus, after four hundred years, of our people from the oppressive Egyptians.  Looked at from a different angle, it is a celebration of the moment when our ancestors became political refugees.  They wandered for forty years through the wilderness, homeless and stateless.  It was essentially a refugee camp, not too dissimilar from refugee camps in the Middle East today.

As the Torah progresses, it hammers home our memory of being strangers in a strange land.  We cannot forget what it was like to have been aliens living in Egypt.  Jewish tradition instructs us to recall our redemption from slavery every single day.

It is not only the ancient past.  We have experienced persecution, exile, and statelessness over and over throughout our history.

That memory must make us compassionate to strangers living among us.  The Torah repeatedly tells us to take care of the strangers in our midst.  Citizens and non-citizen alike must be treated with the same set of laws.

These are the ideals of our tradition.  In the real world, however, things get more complicated.  Nations cannot simply throw open their borders and allow anyone who wants to come in.  Governments’ primary responsibilities are to those who are already living in the country.  So it is absolutely legitimate to screen potential immigrants before their arrival.  The dilemma we face now is how many immigrants we ought to be accepting, and which ones.

I am certain that everyone in this room has an opinion about these questions.

Before we get too locked in our beliefs, I ask that we first consider a couple of things.  First, let’s each think about our own family history.  How did each of us end up in America?  Those of us who are not immigrants, at some point had ancestors who arrived on these shores from somewhere else.  What compelled them to make the journey?  What were they leaving behind – were they seeking opportunity, or fleeing persecution?  What kind of welcome did they find when they arrived?

It is important to recall our personal stories, because it reminds us that government policies have impacts on the lives of individuals and families.  Just imagine if, when your relatives wanted to immigrate, immigration policies had been more restrictive and they were turned away.

The second thing we ought to all consider is the history of immigration into the United States.  President Trump’s Executive Order titled “Protecting the nation from foreign terrorist entry into the United States” did not appear out of a vacuum.  Our nation has a long history.  Before any of us takes a stand on this issue, we ought to know what has come before.

So please allow me to summarize the past 135 years of US immigration and refugee policy.

Since the founding of our nation, there have been many laws which regulate who can be admitted into the country as immigrants.  Some of those laws expanded immigration, while others limited it.

The first immigration law to restrict a particular ethnic group from coming to America was passed by Congress in 1882.  It was called the Chinese Exclusion Act.  Initially, it was meant to last ten years, but it was so popular that Congress renewed it in 1892 and made it permanent in 1902.

Large numbers of mostly male Chinese workers had immigrated beginning with the California Gold Rush in 1848.  They continued as laborers for the construction of the transcontinental railroad.  As the economy declined in the 1870’s after the Civil War, fear of the “Yellow Peril” increased.  Chinese workers were blamed for driving down wages.  Chinese residents had already been banned from becoming US citizens.  The new law imposed a total ban on Chinese immigration.  Anyone who left the country needed to have special certification in order to reenter.  This meant that husbands could neither sponsor their wives to join them from China, or themselves go to visit their families.

The law was overturned in 1943 in deference to the US’s alliance with China during World War Two.  The new legislation allowed Chinese residents in the US to become naturalized citizens.  With regard to immigration, it expanded the national quota – to 105 Chinese immigrants per year.

Until the 1920’s, Chinese were the only immigrant group that was specifically targeted by law.

After World War One, huge numbers of Europeans were fleeing the devastation that had been wreaked on their homelands.  Immigration to the United States exploded.  At the same time, the US economy took a downturn as war-spending declined.  The result was predictable: anti-immigrant backlash.

The Immigration Act of 1917 was the first to broadly restrict immigration.  It marked the beginning of nativism in the United States.  It established literacy requirements and created classes of inadmissible people.  It banned all immigration from the Asia-Pacific Zone, a huge swath of territory defined by latitude and longitude which included the Arabian Peninsula, India, Afghanistan, Asiatic Russia, and more.  Nobody who lived there would be allowed in the country.

In 1921, Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act, which introduced the National Origins Formula.  For the first time, the US imposed immigration quotas.  It worked like this: The 1910 US census included records of the numbers of foreign-born residents currently living in the United States, divided up by country of origin.  3% of the total number from each country would be permitted to immigrate each year.

The National Origins Formula was originally designed to be temporary, but it became permanent three years later when Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924.  The new act changed the formula.  The percentage would decrease to 2%, with an annual ceiling that would severely reduce the total number of permitted immigrants.  Instead of the 1910 census, immigration would now be based on the 1890 census.

Furthermore, relative percentages from each country were now going to be based on the overall proportion of all naturalized citizens, including those whose families had been in the United States for generations.  This was designed to give a tremendous preference to new immigrants from the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Germany, who were seen as racially superior.

It was also meant to reduce immigration by Eastern European Jews, Italians, and Africans.  It worked as intended.  86% of the 155,000 permitted immigrants in the first year came from Northern European countries.  The restrictions were so great that in 1924, there were more people from the undesirable countries that left the United States than who entered it.

The law was not controversial.  It passed the Senate by a vote of 69 to 9 to 18, with strong bipartisan support.  It was rooted in beliefs in eugenics that were popular at the time.  One of the architects of the law, Senator David Reed, complained that earlier legislation “disregards entirely those of us who are interested in keeping American stock up to the highest standard – that is, the people who were born here.”  He claimed that Southern and Eastern Europeans and Jews arrived sick and starving and were less capable of contributing to the American economy and adapting to American culture.

In 1932, President Hoover shut down nearly all immigration.  1933 saw just 23,000 foreigners move to the United States.

Throughout the 1930’s on average, more people emigrated from the US than immigrated to it.    Under the Mexican Repatriation Movement from 1929 to 1936, as many as 2 million people were deported by the Immigration and Naturalization Services, many without any due process.  Significant numbers of the deportees were actually US citizens at the time.

Most Jewish would-be immigrants throughout the 1930’s were refused admission.

Things began to swing the other way in 1952.  The Immigration and Nationality Act changed the quotas, basing them on the 1920 census.  It also removed racial distinctions.

Finally, in 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments abolished the National Origins Formula.  It put limits on immigration based on hemisphere.  For the first time, there was a limit for immigration from the Western Hemisphere – 120,000 per year.  The Eastern Hemisphere was given 170,000.  It also established a seven-category preference system, giving priority, for example, to potential immigrants with relatives who were US citizens, and to those with professional or specialized skills.

In subsequent years, further refinements have been made.  Many of these changes should be understood in light of the rise of globalization and the increasing ease of movement around the world.  The 1980 Refugee Act established policies for refugees, redefined refugees according to UN norms; and set a target for 50,000 refugees annually.

In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act, signed by President Reagan, established penalties for employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants and provided amnesty for 3 million illegal immigrants.

The 1990 Immigration Reform and Control Act increased immigration limits to 700,000 annually, and increased visas by 40%.  It also increased the amount of employment-related immigration.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed laws to expand the categories of criminal activities that could lead to deportation.  As of 2013, this legislation had resulted in the deportation of more than 2 million people.

Recent years have also seen resolutions by Congress and the California Legislature apologizing for discriminatory immigration policies of the past, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Mexican Repatriation movement.

It is a long and complicated history.  Ours is a nation of immigrants, and yet we have gone through periods of time when the ideals of freedom and equality enshrined in the Constitution were not necessarily reflected in our immigration policies.  The overall trend since the end of World War Two has been to establish a fair and equitable system of immigration that provides a steady inflow of people from around the world who will assimilate into American culture and contribute to the flourishing of the country.  America has also been a haven for persecuted individuals who enter as refugees.  That is why I am standing here today.

In periods of restricting immigration to the United States, we have seen some of the same kinds of fears expressed as we are witnessing today: Immigrants take jobs from Americans.  They depress wages.  They will not be able to assimilate American values.  They will change the demographic mix of the country and disrupt American culture.

Are these valid concerns?

We each have our opinions.  But I would urge all of us to acknowledge that these same claims have been made in the past when other groups have been excluded, including Jews.

A fear that is widely expressed today is that by accepting Muslim refugees specifically, we open the doors to potential terrorists who would try to take advantage of weak vetting policies.

That is the stated reason for President Trump’s Executive Order.  By the way, if we are going to express an opinion about it, it behooves us to read it first.  Some elements might be a good idea.  The President instructs the Secretaries of Homeland Security and State, and the Directors of National Intelligence and the FBI to conduct reviews and submit reports of the status of various aspects of our current vetting procedures for visas and immigration and to create more rigorous screening procedures.

The sections that have generated so much controversy, and that should be viewed in light of our nation’s immigration history, is the outright banning of all travel by any person from those seven countries, the total halting of all refugee resettlement for 120 days, the indefinite halting of acceptance for all Syrian refugees, and the implied favoring of Christian refugees over Muslims.

Consider two questions:  1.  Are these steps consistent with our nation’s values?  2.  Do they address a problem that actually exists?

There is an underlying flaw with the whole thing.  Terrorism-generated fear is vastly overweighted and thus leads to really bad policy.  That is precisely why terrorists do what they do.  They want governments to overreact.

How many people have actually been killed in terrorist attacks in the United States by people born in foreign countries?

In September 2016, the CATO Institute, a libertarian thinktank, issued a report entitled “Terrorism and Immigration.”  The author, Alex Nowrasteh, catalogs all foreign-born terrorists between 1975 and the end of 2015.  He looks at how many people they killed, which countries they came from, and what kinds of visas they used to enter the United States.  In that time period, there have been 154 foreign-born terrorists who have murdered 3,024 people on US soil.  Keep in mind that 2,983, or 98.6% of them, were killed on 9/11.

114 of the 154 foreign-born terrorists did not actually manage to kill anyone.  They either failed in their attacks, or were caught by law enforcement before they could act.  40 terrorists are responsible for the murders of 3,024 people in that 30 year time frame.

During the same time period, 1.13 billion foreigners entered the United States legally or illegally.  More than 28 million foreigners entered the country for each victim who was killed in an attack.  The chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack on US soil by a foreigner is one in 3.6 million per year.

Fear of refugees is unsupported by the facts.  Nobody has been murdered in a terrorist attack in the United States by a refugee since the 1970’s.

Of the nineteen hijackers on 9/11, eighteen had entered on tourist visas.  None of them came from the seven countries banned by the President’s order.  In fact, there has never been a single person killed in a terrorist act on US soil by someone from one of those seven countries.  Here are the countries of origin of radicalized Muslims who have carried out attacks in the United States since 9/11: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and the United States.

The attack at the Pulse nightclub this past December in which 49 people were killed was committed by Omar Mateen, who was born in New York.  The San Bernardino killings were committed by Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik.  He was born in Chicago.  She was born in Pakistan and raised in Saudi Arabia.

In light of our recent history, it would seem that the threat of terrorism is not an especially significant problem with regard to our current immigration and refugee policies.  This is not to say that we should not take great care regarding who is permitted to entire our nation.  We should, but we must not allow ourselves to be driven by fear.

The deeper question we must consider is what our personal experience, our national experience and the experience of the Jewish people over the last three millennia teach us about dealing with those who leave their homelands to seek greater opportunities.  What are the values that we hope to embody?  And in an increasingly complicated and quickly-changing world, how do we translate those values into actions?

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.