Ki Teitzei 5779 – Don’t Promise Presents, Be In The Present

There is a common Hebrew expression: Bli neder, which means “without a vow.”  Bli Neder, I’ll pick you up tonight at 7.  Bli neder, I’ll bring the money that I owe you this Thursday.  Bli neder, I’ll have my High Holiday sermons done on time.

One of the laws in Parashat Ki Teitzei deals with nedarim, or vows.  A vow works likes this.  I’ve got something big coming up, and I feel like I am going to want God’s help.  Examples could include: the birth of a healthy child, victory in war, a successful business deal.

So I make a vow, promising to bring a specific gift to God.  It could be a sacrifice, or a donation of money, livestock, or grain to the Temple.  I might even vow to refrain from a particular activity, such as drinking wine or getting a haircut.

The Torah deals with the laws of vows in Parashat Ki Teitzei here in Deuteronomy as well as in an entire chapter at the end of the book of Numbers.  A number of Psalms express vows as well.

This morning’s parashah dedicates three verses to the topic.  The first verse warns that anyone who makes a vow had better fulfill it as quickly as possible.  No procrastinating, or else that person will incur guilt. The third verse emphasizes that any vow that crosses a person’s lips must be fulfilled.  The Torah provides no mechanism for nullifying a vow.

In between these two statements, the Torah provides a hint: “you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing.”  Wink. Wink. Note the double negative—no guilt if you don’t vow.  If we read into it a little deeper, the Torah is saying that since there is no obligation whatsoever for a person to make a vow, why would anyone put such a burden upon themselves?

Vows were apparently quite common in ancient times. There are several famous vows in the Bible.  The Judge Samson and the Prophet Samuel are both dedicated to a lifetime of service to God in fulfillment of vows made by their respective mothers. Thanks mom.

The Patriarch Jacob makes a vow in the book of Genesis when he is about to the leave the land of Canaan with nothing but the shirt on his back.  He declares that if God is with him, protecting him and eventually returning him home, then Jacob will be faithful to God and dedicate ten percent of his future earnings.

The most notorious vow in the Bible occurs in the book of Judges.  The Chieftain Yiftach, about to lead the Israelites in battle against the Ammonites, makes the following declaration to God:

“If You deliver the Ammonites into my hands, then whatever comes out the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s and shall be offered by me as a burnt offering.”

Yiftach, it can be assumed, is thinking it will be a goat or chicken.

God is with Yiftach, and he defeats his enemies.  When the warrior returns home, who should run out of the house, dancing with a timbrel in her hands to celebrate her father’s great victory but Yiftach’s daughter, his only child.  Yiftach is crushed, but his daughter understands the seriousness of the vow, and insists that her father fulfill it.

The Rabbis are aware of vows as well—and they don’t like them.  Drawing on our portion, the Rabbis invent ways to nullify vows.  They dedicate an entire Tractate of Talmud to the subject.

At one point, the Talmudic Sage Rav Dimi takes it a step further, declaring that anyone who makes a vow is a sinner, even if that person fulfills it. He proves it from Ki Teitzei.  The Torah states “you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing.”  The Torah implies, therefore, that ‘you do incur guilt if you don’t refrain from vowing.’

Oy.  So many double negatives.

What’s the big problem with a vow?  The medieval commentator, Nachmanides, does not mince words.  God takes no pleasure in fools who make lots of vows.  The problem, he explains, is that unexpected things get in the way of us fulfilling so many of our commitments.  When it comes to something as serious as a vow, saying “I meant to do it, but circumstances made it impossible…” is not good enough.  There are no excuses.

Building on this this, the nineteenth century commentator, Samson Raphael Hirsch, says that we have enough trouble with our actions in the present.  A vow adds extra obligations for some future time, when we have no idea what unexpected events may get in our way.  “We should rest content with directing [our] actions every moment of [our] present existence, living it as it should be lived.  Whatever we will be called upon to do in the future constitutes our duty then, without undertaking it in the form of a vow.”

In just under four weeks, we will gather together for Yom Kippur.  At the very beginning, before the holiday actually begins, we will chant Kol Nidrei.  In fact, we name the entire service Kol NidreiKol Nidrei means “All vows.” It is not a prayer, but rather a legal statement.  We declare that all vows, oaths, pledges, and so on that we make from this Yom Kippur and next Yom Kippur are officially annulled.  Nidrana la nidrei.  “Our vows are not vows.”

When Kol Nidrei first appeared in the 9th century, the Rabbis didn’t like it.  But it was too popular with people.

The idea behind Kol Nidrei is that words matter.  Life is unpredictable.  I can never know for certain that I am going to be able to fulfill in the future the commitment that I make today.  But I want to be able to start the new year with a clean slate.  Kol Nidrei enables me to do that, to not be held back by all of my failures.  

Better, as Hirsch, advises, to live my life in the present as it should be lived.  With integrity and honesty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have a lot of work to do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wouldn’t it be nice to know.

Bringing Home With Us (on the occasion of my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah) – Lekh Lekha 5777

A Rabbi was once giving a lecture in which he claimed that from it’s earliest days, Judaism has always promoted the parent-child relationship.  Suddenly, a heckler stood up from within the audience, and challenged his assertion.

“Isn’t it true that God’s first commandment to Abraham was to leave his father’s home?”

“It is true,” the Rabbi responded, “but he was seventy-five at the time.  He was entitled.”

I have had the privilege of officiating as Rabbi at many Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations over the past decade.  But there is a special joy to being here as my own child becomes Bat Mitzvah.

I also try to remind myself that being the child of a Rabbi can be tough.  There is even a special nickname just for kids of clergy: PK’s – “Preacher’s Kids.”

There are the pressures of living in the fishbowl.  The boundaries between private life and public life are often blurred for Rabbis’ families.

PK’s see their parents living public lives in the same community in which they themselves are raised.  Parents sometimes place expectations on their PK kids to live up to a higher standard because the family is living in the public eye.

And, communities sometimes hold PK’s to higher standards, expecting them to have the same knowledge, religious commitment, or leadership qualities of their parents.

For the child of Rabbi, this pressure is nowhere more on display than at a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  We are sure aware of it as parents, as we celebrate a personal simchah within the community that we serve.  Noa, I am sure that you feel it as our daughter.

Dana and I are grateful to the Sinai community for respecting boundaries and giving our children the freedom to be regular kids, almost all the time.

The truth is, these issues are not unique to PK’s.  All of us struggle in one way or another with the legacies left to us by our parents.  We all must find a way to differentiate ourselves, to break free, to step out of our parents’ shadows.

Some of us, as we get older, choose to emulate the qualities of the homes in which we were raised.  Others go the opposite direction, rejecting the examples of those who brought us into the world and guided us in our early years.

For all of us, though, there is a tension between leaving the home of our childhood vs. bringing the home of our childhood with us.

This morning’s Torah portion, parashat Lekh L’kha sends something of a mixed message with regard to continuing our parents’ legacies.  It begins:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה֙’ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶךָּ:

The Lord said to Avram: Go forth from your land and your birthplace and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  (Gen. 12:1)

God could have told Abraham simply, “Pack your bags and go.”  Instead, God emphasizes the departure in triplicate.

Nachmanides, the 13th century Spanish commentator, explains this threefold instruction:

It is difficult for a person to leave the land in which he, along with all of his loved ones and companions, has lived; and even more so when it is the place in which he was born; and even more so when his father’s entire household is there.  Therefore, it was necessary to tell him to leave everything – out of his love for the Holy One, blessed be He.

What a tremendous request this is from God.  Abraham is being asked to make a clean and total break from his past.  And this is really something.  Abraham will never go back.  He will never see any of his family members again.

It is ironic, because one of the central components of God’s covenant with Abraham is about family.  “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them…  So shall your offspring be.”  (Gen. 15:5)  God promises the land of Israel to these yet-to-be-seen descendants of Abraham.

Towards the end of the parashah, God instructs Abraham to circumcise himself and his household, explaining that it will be a sign of the everlasting covenant between God and Abraham’s children.

In next week’s parashah, as God is deciding to consult with Abraham over the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, God reveals another aspect of Abraham’s legacy.  “I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right…”  (Gen. 18:19)

Ever since, the Jewish people have treasured the transmission of values from one generation to the next.  So many aspects of Jewish law and custom emphasize this.

How do we transmit our values?  Of course, we place great focus on learning – Talmud Torah – and not just for an elite class of scholars.  Universal education for all – that is the Jewish way.

But we also recognize that, as a medium for transmitting values, formal education alone is insufficient.  Jewish values must be lived.  All of our holiday celebrations take place in the home.  The most obvious of these, of course, is Passover, with its encouraging of children to engage with their elders through questions.  But our other holidays also involve multiple generations celebrating together.  This is how values are transmitted – not by classroom learning, but by intergenerational living within a household and amongst a community.

It is profoundly ironic, therefore, that God asks Abraham to sever his relationship with previous generations, his father’s household, and his community.

This break is a necessary step for Abraham.  His particular household and community is thoroughly immersed in idolatry and immorality.  The Rabbis develop this idea in numerous Midrashim about Abraham’s youth.  In the most well-known of them, Abraham’s own father, Terach, is an idol merchant.

For Abraham to fulfill his destiny, he must first break free from his father’s shadow.

Other figures in the Book of Genesis struggle with this as well.  Midway through Parashat Lekh L’kha, tensions are rising between Abraham and his nephew Lot’s shepherds.  The time has come for Lot to leave home, to strike out on his own.  He needs to get out of Abraham’s shadow to live his own life.  Unfortunately, he does not choose well, settling in Sodom, which is such a depraved society that God annihilates it in next week’s parashah.

Later, Isaac has trouble breaking free from his father, Abraham’s, strong personality.  But Jacob, and in the subsequent generation, Joseph, leave their homes and families to spend significant portions of their lives on their own.

As a Diaspora people for thousands of years, we have developed the ability to bring home with us in our journeys.  It is this ability which has enabled the survival of our people.

In Abraham’s day, most people were born, lived their lives, and died within the same community.  Nowadays, it is common for children to move away.  This raises the stakes even higher for parents to instill a deep sense of home in their children.

Maybe it is too soon for me to be thinking these thoughts.  After all, Noa, you are only in seventh grade.  I don’t think you are quite ready to leave home yet.  Nevertheless, as you make this transition into adolescence, it has been on my mind.

As a father, I see it as my primary duty to raise children who will bring home with them wherever they go in life.

For me, this means children who are grounded, who know themselves, and who have humility about their limitations and their strengths.  They feel a deep sense of peoplehood, and a mature understanding and sincere commitment to Jewish practices and beliefs.  They are curious, and love to learn.  They feel connected to Israel and speak Hebrew, the language of the Jewish people.

They know the stories of their own family, and their connection to previous generations gives them a sense of rootedness in a rapidly-changing world.

They are resilient, able to be flexible and respond thoughtfully to unexpected challenges.  They recognize the importance of community, and they have people in their lives who care about them.  They are generous, and give freely of themselves to support others in their need.

While I would like to say that our children will also live near us, I must recognize that all of Dana and my family members have flown in from out of town to celebrate Noa’s becoming Bat Mitzvah.  That is the unfortunate reality of contemporary life.  God’s request – for Abraham to leave his land, his birthplace, and his father’s household – which was so radical in its day, is commonplace now.

My more realistic hope is that, when my children move out, they bring their “home” with them.

Noa, you are an inspiring young woman.  From a young age, you have demonstrated a level of self-awareness that has taken me until adulthood to achieve.

You spoke about your desire to develop more patience.  That is certainly an admirable quality to pursue, and one that will result in greater happiness.  But impatience is not all bad.  A healthy dose of channeled impatience compels us to change the status quo, right wrongs, solve problems, and make discoveries.  But, try to be more patient with your family.

Noa, you are a naturally curious, skeptical person.  You often express your doubt regarding religion and belief.  I applaud those questions, and I often share your doubts.  I encourage you to be as open-minded to hearing answers as you are willing to ask questions.

Throughout your life, you have embraced Jewish practices and traditions with enthusiasm and joy.  I have loved watching your challah baking, sukkah building, and Torah reading skills develop over the years.  As soon as you were old enough, you chose to join me on the early walk to synagogue most Shabbat mornings.  I have loved that weekly time together.

These are religious activities that connect you to your tradition and your past.  They will be tangible ways for you to bring your “home” with you as you go out into the world.

Noa, may your curiosity continue to inspire you to learn Torah, asking critical questions while embracing the ancient wisdom of those who have come before us.  May you continue to fulfill the mitzvot and customs of Judaism with joy and enthusiasm.  May you always remain deeply rooted in community, family, and home, wherever your journey takes you.  I love you.