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.

Change My View – Balak 5777

This week, I heard an interview of Kal Turnbull, a young man from Scotland.  In 2013, when he was 17 years old, he asked himself what leads a person to change his or her mind.  He wanted to create a forum in which people were able to openly grapple with views about which they were embarrassed.  He also wanted to keep conversations civil and substantive.

So Turnbull created a Subgroup on the website Reddit called “Change My View.”  For those who are not familiar with it, Reddit is a website that serves as a discussion platform.  Users can submit content, post ideas or questions, and comment on postings by others.  The site prohibits harassment.

Turnbull established several rules for both submitting and commenting on a post.  His goal was to create a space in which users could really get into the details.  If someone wants to submit a post, there are some rules, including:

• The submitter cannot just make a claim.  He or she must also include the reasons for the claim.

• The submitter must personally hold the view and be open to it changing.

• The purpose is to encourage lively debate, so a submitter should only post if he or she is willing to have a conversation with those who reply within 3 hours of posting.

There are also rules that apply to anyone who wants to make a comment, including:

• Direct responses to a post must challenge at least one aspect of the stated view or ask a clarifying question.  In other words, I can’t simply agree with the previous person’s post.

• No rude language or hostility.

• No low effort comments.  I can’t just write, “I agree.”

Submissions and comments that do not follow the rules are reported by users and promptly removed by editors.

If a person who submits a post ends up changing his or view, he or she gets to award a Delta to the person whose comment prompted the change.  The Greek letter Delta is the symbol for change.

I was intrigued.  It seems to me that one of the problems we face is that too many of us stubbornly hold on to our views without being open to other ways of thinking.  We do not like to change our minds.  To do so is seen as week, or wishy washy.

The internet encourages this kind of intellectual siloing.  We get our information from sources that already agree with us.  We ridicule and look down on those who do not share our opinions.  Much of the Talk Back and comment sections that follow articles seem to devolve into insults and hate speech.  The irony is, that these kinds of aggressive writing rarely change minds.  Quite the opposite, they tend to encourage further entrenchment.

But there are many of us that want to engage in polite, substantive, and open conversation with people who disagree with us.  We recognize that receptive exposure to different ways of thinking makes us better.  What is so great about “Change My View” is that it forces users to put forward their best arguments, and to respond thoughtfully to others’ best arguments.  It seems to have struck a chord.  There are over 300,000 subscribers.

Through these rules, “Change My View” has reversed the normal reward structure of the internet.  Now instead of winning by insulting or belittling one’s opponent, a person only wins by taking one’s opponent seriously and responding respectfully.

In the great Jewish tradition of arguing, it is supposed to be this way.  Since the days of the Talmud, Jews have been arguing back and forth through the issues, recognizing that Truth emerges through the dialectic.

In this morning’s Torah portion, which is named after him, the Moabite King Balak sees the approaching Israelites and determines to prevent them from passing through his territory.  He sends a delegation to Balaam, intent on commissioning him to place a curse upon the Israelites.  Balaam is known as a Prophet whose blessings and curses are fulfilled.

The delegation makes it pitch, and Balaam has them stay overnight to receive his answer.  That night, God appears to Balaam and instructs him in no uncertain terms that he is not to curse the Israelites, for they are blessed.

The next morning, Balaam informs the Moabite messengers that it is a no-go, and they return home.

Balak will not take no for an answer.  He sends an even more distinguished delegation to Balaam, promising to reward him richly.  Balaam responds, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, big or little, contrary to the command of the Lord my God.”  (Numbers 22:18)  Nevertheless, he invites the messengers to stay overnight.  Perhaps God will change God’s mind.  This time, God permits Balaam to return with the men, but reminds Balaam that he must do whatever God tells him.

Upon waking, Balaam rises and departs with the Moabite dignitaries.  God is furious, and sends an angel to interfere with his journey.

On the surface, Balaam seems to have done everything right.  He repeatedly insists that he can only do what God tells him to do.  Eventually, God tells Balaam that he is allowed to go.  So why is God so angry with Balaam when he actually does it?

Rashi, reading the text closely, says that there is more going on here than meets the eye.  Balaam is sending subtle messages to King Balak to indicate that, indeed, he is more than willing to curse the Israelites.

With the first delegation, when God tells Balaam “Do not go with them,” Balaam responds, “All right, then I will stay right here and curse them,” according to Rashi.  The next morning, Balaam tells the messengers “The Lord will not let me go with you.”  According to Rashi, Balaam is hinting that he wants King Balak to send higher ranking dignitaries because he is so full of himself.

With the second dignitaries, Balaam does not simply say no, he adds the bit about Balak giving him his entire house full of silver and gold.  Somewhat sneakily, Balaam has actually just named his price.

So why does God allow him to go?  According to the midrash, God is not going to prevent a wicked person from continuing on the wicked path to which his heart leads him.  Why does Balaam choose to go?  Rashi says that he thinks he will be able to change God’s mind.

Of course, Balaam cannot change God’s mind.  Three times he tries to curse the Israelites, but God places words of blessing in his mouth.

Balaam is duplicitous.  He presents himself as an easy-going guy.  He does not just send the messengers away.  He suggests that, perhaps, if they spend the night, he can convince God to change God’s mind about cursing the Israelites.  He asks God for permission.  But when God says no, Balaam does not really accept the answer.  He leads Balak’s emissaries on in a ploy to negotiate a higher fee, all the while saying, “Hey!  It’s not me.  I’m just the messenger.”  In reality, he is an arrogant profiteer.  Balak may be wicked, but at least he is honest and up front about his intentions.

Balaam is not interested in changing his mind.  If he was as open-minded as he claims, he would accept God’s declaration that the Israelites are blessed.  Instead, he has to learn the hard way, as God takes over his faculties of speech and forces words of blessing to come out.  Even afterwards, Balaam still plots against the Israelites, advising Balak to lead the Israelites astray by sending in women to seduce the Israelite men.

Balaam has not gone into this episode with a willingness to have his view changed.  Rather, he thinks that he can manipulate everyone around him so as to change their views.  Perhaps this duplicitousness explains how he has gained his reputation as a successful Prophet.

Sadly, this kind of closed-mindedness is all around us.  We ourselves fall victim to it.  We take an attack on our beliefs or views as an attack on our persons.  We belittle those who disagree with us, calling them uneducated, backward, naive, elitist, or out of touch.  And we often are not prepared to acknowledge that people who disagree with us might have really good reasons for doing so.

But maybe it does not have to be this way.  Intrigued by the “Change My View” project, I decided to join the group and post a comment.  I suggested an idea that I have an opinion about, but about which I do not feel confident enough to speak with certainty.  I stated that a National Revenue Neutral Carbon Tax in the United States is the best option available for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  Without going through my entire post, it does not unfairly penalize the poor.  It is simpler to implement than a Cap and Trade system.  And it is politically more likely to win approval from both liberals and conservatives.  Even ExxonMobile has recently come out in favor of it.

Within four hours, there were eleven comments -not a single insult among them.  No words in ALL CAPS.  Most of the comments were quite well-informed, and helped me think about the issue in more depth.

I awarded one delta to a commentor who explained how a Cap and Trade system could do a better job of letting the market determine an appropriate price for carbon, whereas a fixed tax would be somewhat arbitrary and would not be able to adjust to changing circumstances.  I conceded that there might be room for some sort of hybrid system, with taxes on commodities that consumers see directly, such as gasoline, and Cap and Trade for big industry applications.

It was a great experience to be able to have a conversation with educated people with thoughtful opinions

In the interview, Kal Turnbull agreed that the rules for the website are really rules that ought to guide our disagreements out in the real world:  Make your claim.  Back it up.  Respond to others with substance.  Don’t insult.  Be open to change your mind.  Acknowledge when another person has made a great argument.

I am not sure that I have time to become a regular contributor to “Change My View.”  But I do know that I crave more opportunities to have my ideas challenged, and to challenge those of others – but only in ways that bring us together.  I suspect that all of us want that.  For that to happen, we need to start with a willingness to let the other person “Change My View.”

Starting At Home – Naso 5776

This morning’s Torah portion, Naso, introduces the peculiar ordeal of the Sotah, the suspected adulteress.  Before I explain it, I urge all of us to temporarily suspend our standard assumptions about justice, morality, and biochemistry.

In Jewish law, adultery occurs when a married woman has sexual relations with a man who is not her husband.  In a clear-cut case of adultery, both parties are considered guilty, and the punishment is death.

The ritual of Sotah is introduced to deal with a situation in which a husband suspects his wife of cheating, but does not have any witnesses.

The woman is brought to a priest.  The priest takes sacred water in an earthen vessel, and adds some dirt from the floor of the Tabernacle.  The priest writes down a curse on a piece of parchment, and recites the words out loud.  The woman responds by saying “Amen, amen!”

The curse basically says that if she is guilty, her thigh will sag and her belly will distend, which probably means that she will become infertile.  If she is innocent, than nothing will happen.  The priest then places the parchment in the vessel so that the ink, with the words of the curse and God’s name on it, dissolves in the water.  The priest then makes her drink the water.

If she is guilty, her thigh sags and her belly distends, and she becomes a curse amongst the people.  If she is innocent, she is unharmed.

Before getting too upset, keep in mind that this is a three thousand year old ritual.  “Trials by ordeal” like this one have been a part of human justice systems throughout history.  It was practiced in Europe into the Enlightenment.  There are some societies to this day which conduct similar rites.

The medieval Spanish commentator, Nachmanides, notes that this is the only mitzvah in the entire Torah which depends upon a miracle.  For this legal procedure to work, God has to actively intervene.  It is quite remarkable.  We must wonder why, of all cases, does this one rely upon a miracle.  And why are there not others?

Nachmanides refers to the Mishnah in Sotah which reports that “when the adulterers proliferated, the bitter waters ceased…” (M. Sotah 9:9)  In other words, at some point during the Second Temple era, more than two thousand years ago, the priests stopped administering the ritual.  The Rabbis tend to understand this to mean that the Sotah ritual would only work in a case when the husband was himself free of sin.

Nachmanides expands upon this explanation.  It is not just the guilt or innocence of the husband which is responsible for the cancellation of the Sotah ritual.  It is “the deterioration in the moral climate of the people [that] makes the Sotah ordeal meaningless,” as Dr. Aviva Zornberg explains.  Only in a society in which adultery is “an unequivocal taboo” does the ritual have meaning.  But “where the taboo has lost its force, an exquisite attunement to holiness has been lost and the ordeal’s high import likewise becomes underappreciated.”  (Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, Bewilderments, p. 37)

If society does not take the sin of adultery seriously, then God will have no part in this ritual.  Society’s moral indifference drives God away, leaving us human beings on our own to figure out what is just.

In two thousand years, our situation has not changed much.  We still live in an ethically confused world without clear-cut morals.

Over the past few weeks, there has been widespread controversy over the lenient verdict that was issued in the Stanford Rape Case.  If you have been following the story, you know the basic details.  In January 2015, a twenty year old Stanford student sexually assaulted an unconscious woman on campus.  Fortunately, two graduate students were passing by on bicycles.  They stopped the rapist and apprehended him until police could arrive.

I am not going to enter into the debate over whether the verdict was correct or not, or whether the Judge should resign.

This case has resonated with me as a man, as a husband, and especially as a father of a boy and a girl.  I am worried about my daughter, and I am equally worried about my son.

As Rabbi Rebecca Rosenthal writes in an article that appeared recently on Kveller, “…as a parent, I want my children to grow up to be the two men on bikes.”

What do I need to do to make that happen?

Throughout human history, societies have placed the moral burden of sexuality on women.  This is an undeniable fact.  It is as true of Judaism as it is of any other culture.  From the story of Eve being tempted by the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and feeding it to her husband; to the ritual of the Sotah, in which only the woman is subjected to the ordeal; to the laws of family purity – women are held to be responsible, while men are innocents – victims even, of female sexuality.

This classic misogyny exists blatantly in many cultures today, including in segments of the Jewish world.  Do not expect it to disappear any time soon.

But it is insidiously prevalent around us as well.  Think about the ideals of masculinity and femininity with which we are bombarded daily.  Men, according to the so-called “bro-code,” are supposed to be physically tough, in charge, unemotional, and sexually aggressive.  Women are expected to be sexy, passive, and emotional.  If you have any doubt about this, just look at the magazine covers the next time you are in line at the grocery store.

For the past several decades, we have tried to teach our girls to take ownership of their own sexuality.  We have encouraged them to have the courage and strength to say “no,” to protect themselves, and to speak up.  “Be cautious about whom you go out with,” we warn.  “Never go to a party alone.”  “Take care of your friends.”  “Be careful around alcohol and drugs.”  We have had all of these conversations in my house in just the last two weeks.

We place the burden to protect themselves on our daughters because, after all, “boys will be boys.”

It does not seem to be working that well, does it?

The emphasis is starting to shift.  Health curricula in some schools have begun to chip away at the ideals of masculinity expressed by the “bro-code.”  We have begun to teach our boys to respect boundaries, take responsibility, and only proceed in a relationship when there is affirmative consent.

But we are only at the beginning of a paradigm shift that releases us from the burden of unhealthy gender roles and places the responsibility for sexual violence on the perpetrator rather than the victim.

We have a lot of work to do.  It must start with the way that we teach our children.  It must start when they are young.  And it must start at home.

Today is the day on which we remember the ancient ritual of the Sotah.  We recall how God withdrew from performing the miraculous part of the ritual because of sexual hypocrisy.  Tomorrow is Father’s Day. a day for celebrating fathers’ roles in raising their children.

It is a good time to make a commitment to do better, especially with our boys.  I encourage us to adopt Rabbi Rosenthal’s words:  “I commit to teaching my children to respect boundaries, to understand that their bodies and the bodies of those around them are created in the image of God.”

Our Conveniently Dark Past – Masei 5774

Rabbi Dov Lior, Chief Rabbi of the Jewish settlement at Kiryat Arba, in Chevron in the West Bank, issued a halakhic ruling this past Sunday, July 20, with regard to the killing of civilians during war.  He was asked the following question.

…what is the halakhic position with regard to attacks against a civilian population that does not have a direct connection to the terrorists in the area?

Rabbi Lior begins his one page reponse with this:

The Torah of Israel guides us in all walks of life, private and public, on how to behave during war and also how to keep moral standards.

As a halakhic precedent, he cites the Maharal of Prague, from the 16th century.

The Maharal from Prague (Rabbi Judah Loew – A.K.), in his book Gur Arye, clearly writes that… in all wars the attacked people are allowed to attack fiercely the people from whom the attackers came from and they do not have to check if he personally belongs to the fighters.

He bases this on the story in Genesis in which Shimon and Levi massacre the entire town of Shechem, killing three hundred men, in retaliation for the rape of their sister Dinah by the chieftain’s son, Chamor.  Rabbi Lior concludes:

Therefore, during war the attacked people are allowed to punish the enemy population in any punishment it finds worthy, such as denying supplies or electricity and also to bomb the whole area according to the discretion of the army minister and not to just simply endanger soldier’s lives but to take crushing deterrence steps to exterminate the enemy.

In the case of Gaza, the Minister of Defense will be allowed to instruct even the destruction of Gaza so that the south will no longer suffer and to avoid harm to our people who have been suffering for so long from the surrounding enemies.”

Any kind of talk about humanism and consideration are moot when speaking of saving our brothers in the south and in the rest of the country and bringing back quiet to our country.

For the last several weeks, we in the American Jewish community have been praying for our brothers and sisters in Israel.  But not just in Israel.  We have seen protests in cities around the world, especially Europe, turn scarily to anti-semitism.

It has been so frustrating for us to observe media outlets that do not seem to understand or care about aspects of this war that have been so important to us.  Specifically, the great care that the Israel Defense Forces have given to minimizing civilian casualties in Gaza.

As Jews, we have been proud of the Israeli government, its soldiers, and its citizens for doing their best, amidst the chaos of war, to protect Palestinian civilians.

I have personally given several Divrei Torah and written an article adressing this over the past few weeks.  So that is not what you are going to hear from me today.

The legal ruling by Rabbi Lior points to minority attitude that exists amongst the Jewish people.  I would imagine that his endorsement for not just ignoring civilians, but even targeting them, might offend many, but he brings up somthing that we ought not ignore.

In this morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Masei, God provides some details for Moses to tell the Israelites regarding how they are to settle the Promised Land.

First, they are told to disposess all of its current inhabitants.  The Israelites must destroy every last trace of idolatry, including idols, figurines, and sacred shrines.  Then, the Israelites are to divide up the land amongst themeslves, apportioning tribal territories by lot.

God warns the Israelites that they had better clear out all of the current inhabitants, because any Canaanites who are left behind will continue to harrass them.

Next, God describes the borders of the country which the Israelites are about to invade.  The Bible has several different accounts of the boundaries of the Promised Land. Parashat Masei‘s version has the land of Israel extending south into the Negev, travelling up the entire Mediterranean coast (including Gaza, by the way) all the way through Lebanon and over to Damascus.  The Eastern border follows Lake Kineret down the Jordan River and the Dead Sea.

Imagine for a moment that you are an Israelite, hearing your aged leader Moses giving you these instructions after he has successfully led you through the wilderness for the past forty years.  What is he telling you to do?

The word used is l’horish, “to dispossess.”  The commentator Rashi explains that it means that the Israelites have to expel them from the land.

Deuteronomy is even more extreme.  It gives explicit instructions to utterly wipe out idolatrous towns, killing all of the inhabitants and burning their possessions.  The Israelites are not allowed to make peace with them or allow them to surrender.

In modern parlance, we would call this ethnic cleansing or genocide.

Does this sound like Judaism?  It certainly does not align well with the maxim of “love your neighbor as yourself” that we like to repeat so often.  But it is in the Torah, our holy book.  What are we to do with it?

When admitting out loud that our sacred scriptures advocate holy war, Jews today, myself included, typically explain why those texts do not reflect Jewish tradition.  Our Sages, even in ancient times, were uncomfortable with what the Torah seems to be saying.  It not only violates common moral sense, but it also seems to go against the spirit of so many other mitzvot mitzvot telling us to give tzedakah, to treat our employees properly, to care for the strangers living among us, to enforce the law fairly for both citizens and strangers.  When we talk about Jewish ethics, those are the kinds of ancient laws that we highlight.

So the Rabbis feel a strong obligation to do away with holy war.  It may have applied back then, when Joshua led the Israelites to conquer the land of Israel, but it is no longer relevant. Here are several justifications that are typically offered.

One.  They never actually did it.  It is apparent from later books in the Bible that the idolatrous nations of the land stayed right where they were, living side by side with the Israelites.  Of course, we did annihilate the Midianites in last week’s Torah portion.

Two.  The Torah is really concerned with the immoral influence of idolatry.  The only way to remove idolatry is to completely eliminate its practice in the land.

Three.  It is a practical warning that as long as the Canaanites remain in the land, they will continue to be a thorn in the side of the Israelites.

Four.  We have to understand the Torah in light of its historical context.  This is how war was conducted in the ancient world.  If it was written today, it would have been written differently.

For the fifth explanation, we turn to Maimonides.  He qualifies the Torah’s instructions by saying that, in fact, a pagan town must first be offered the choice of renouncing its paganism.  Only if it refuses must it then be destroyed.

Maimonides acknowledges that it is indeed obligatory to annihilate the seven Canaanite nations, and one who has an opportunity to kill a Canaanite but fails to do so has violated a commandment from the Torah.  It is a moot point, however, as Maimonides concludes, “but their memory has already been lost.”  (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, 5:4)

He bases this on a passage in the Mishnah that declares that the Assyrian King Sennacherib came along at the turn of the seventh century b.c.e. and scattered all of the nations of the land of Canaan.  (Mishnah Yadayim 4:4)  Conveniently for Maimonides, and for us enlightened twenty-first century Jews, it is now impossible to fulfill the Torah’s command to commit genocide because the people we are supposed to kill on the spot do not exist any more.

The problem with all of these explanations is that none of them address the core moral issue.  We sit back, confident of our own uprightness, absolved of any responsibility for our the actions of an earlier generation.

We, in 2014, have an ancient connection to the land of Israel.  It was promised by God to Abraham four thousand years ago.  As a people, we inhabited the land autonomously for hundreds of years during the First Temple era.  In the Babylonian exile, we wept as we longed to return.  Then we built the Second Temple and inhabited the land for another five hundred years.  After it was destroyed by the Romans, we went into exile for nearly two millennia, always keeping Zion in our hearts.

But if we go back to the beginning, the entire notion of a Promised Land is founded upon a violent conquest that took place more than three thousand years ago.

Do we bear any responsibility?

What about the modern State of Israel?  In his new book My Promised Land, Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, a left wing journalist, writes with full honesty about the home that he loves.

He describes a well-known writer, Israel Zangwill, who travels to Palestine in 1897.  While most of the early Zionists see only a barren land devoid of inhabitants, Zangwill sees what is really there, and he speaks about it.  In 1905, Zangwill delivers a speech in New York City in which he reports that Palestine is populated.  Then he points out that no populated country has ever been won without the use of force.  Therefore, he tells his audience, the sons of Israel must be prepared to take action, “to drive out by sword the tribes in possession, as our forefathers did.”

Zangwill is rejected as a heretic by the Zionist establishment at the time, but his ideas persist.  A couple of decades later, he writes that “there is no particular reason for the Arabs to cling to these few kilometers. ‘To fold their tents and silently steal away’ is their proverbial habit: let them exemplify it now… We must gently persuade them to trek.”

According to Shavit, Ben Gurion and the rest of the leadership knew that for Israel to be viable, the majority of the Arab population would have to be relocated.  While there was no explicit policy of forced population transfer, there were numerous examples of Jewish forces encouraging Arab villagers to flee.

It seems that the legacy of the Torah’s commandment to our ancestors to conquer the land by force and eliminate the inhabitants is not as distant from us as we might like to think.

Let us not get embroiled in arguments about who is at fault or who has a more legitimate claim.  We all know it is complicated – and highly emotional.  I bring this up because I believe that it is important for us to be honest about our past.  We ought to at least acknowledge that the blessings we enjoy in our lives today sometimes come at a cost that was paid by innocent suffering extracted by others.

Today, we all benefit from the free, open, and prosperous society in the United States.  But how did we get here?  Our nation’s founders had to wage a brutal war of independence against Great Britain.  Before that, of course, European colonialists had dispossessed, by force, the former inhabitants of the land, killing 95% of them through war and disease, and shutting the rest up in reservations.  We must not forget that the Native Americans had come from somewhere as well, and fought their own wars againt rival nations.

As Israel Zangwill said in 1905, no populated country has ever been won without the use of force.  In a similar vein, Mao wrote in his Little Red Book that without violence, “it is impossible to accomplish any leap in social development.”  I fear that they may be right.  I challenge us to name a nation that was not formed by expelling or subjugating the local population and/or defeating the former rulers by force.

We have been doing this for hundreds of thousands of years, so it would seem to be inevitable.  If this is simply the way of the world, then what is wrong with Rabbi Dov Lior’s call to protect Jews by ending the restraint and demolishing Gaza?  After all, this is how human societies have protected themselves for hundreds of thousands of years.

The Torah challenges us to become holy by overcoming our DNA, and that is an incredibly difficult thing to do.  Our world is a messy, morally ambiguous place.  Good people are often forced into situations in which they have to make difficult decisions.

As justified as a young soldier may be in fighting to protect his family and his country, war leaves a permanent mark on a person’s soul.  I say this presumptuously, as someone who has thankfully never had to go into battle.

We are challenged in every aspect of our lives to be holy: in how we do business, in how we support members of our community, in how we eat, in how we love, and yes, in how we make war.  We honor those who have fought on our behalf in the past and who do so today when we open our eyes and admit that the things in our lives that we count as blessings sometimes have been accompanied by the suffering of innocents and the sometimes difficult moral struggles of people who tried their best to live good lives.

We must say to Rabbi Lior that what he advocates does not represent Judaism.  God asks more of us.  Although it is often not clear, may we discern the path of holiness in this difficult world, and may our striving to be holy one day soon bring us to peace.

Income Inequality – Behar 5771

As you know, economists have officially declared the recession over.  That may be true on paper, but there are still millions who have lost their jobs, and their homes, and are struggling to get by.  Despite the immensity of the recession, it has not impacted everyone the same. Some have come through just fine, and even prospered.  One of the recent critiques we have heard is that the national unemployment rate is still well over 8 percent while some of the largest American corporations are making record profits and sitting on billions of dollars.  There are vast differences between the economic experiences of Americans.  I don’t think there is much disagreement that there is something broken in the socio-economics of this country.  There is a lot of disagreement about what is broken and how to fix it.

As a Diaspora people, Jews have lived in many different societies.  But wherever we have lived, we have taken our Torah, and our teachings with us, and we have applied their lessons to the situations we face.  This morning’s Torah portion has a lot to say to us about the relationship between the rich and the poor in society.

Most of Parshat Behar, is a presentation of the laws of land ownership in ancient Israel.  It describes an economic system that is vastly different from what we have today.  It is agriculturally based.  There is no money.  And land is apportioned to tribes, clans, and families.  As in some other societies in the Ancient World, land could not really be sold.  Great value was placed on keeping ancestral land within the family.  The Torah adds an innovative, and powerful moral concept with far-reaching implications.  God instructs the people, “But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.”  (Lev. 25:23)

The Israelites get this reminder every seven years, when they observe shemitah, and let the land lie fallow.  Every fifty years, they observe the yovel, the Jubilee.  In that year, all land reverts back to its original owner.  Any Israelite who had to indenture himself into servitude regains his freedom, and his land.  All debts are cancelled.

This economic model, if fully implemented, would have some pretty significant effects.  Families would not fall into multi-generational poverty, since there would effectively be an economic reset every fifty years.

Also, it would be impossible for anyone to accumulate huge amounts of property, since any land or debt that a successful business person acquired would revert on the Jubilee year.  There is not even such a thing as selling land, just leasing it for a period of time up until the fiftieth year.

The result would be a flattening of economic disparities.  You can imagine that the gap between the richest and the poorest in society would never get that huge if everything reset itself every half century.

What I especially appreciate about the system that the Torah dscribes is that it is not a pie in the sky utopia.  It does not say that everyone will be equal.  This is not “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”  This system understands that some people are going to be wealthier, better educated, shrewder, and luckier, than others.

Remember, the underlying moral value is that the land ultimately is owned by God, and not us.  While prosperity is important, there are values that are more important to pursue than the accumulation of wealth.

In his commentary on the Book of Leviticus, Jacob Milgrom describes these laws as trying to stop the loss of land by debtors to the rich, as well as reduce “the ever widening gap between the rich and the poor.”  The Biblical Prophets condemned the mistreatment of the poor in their particular prophetic style.  They harangued a society for ignoring the light of the poor, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan.  Here in the Book of Leviticus, Israel’s priests are trying to fix the immorality of economic inequality, not through moral pronouncements, but through law.

Nevertheless, the historical evidence suggests that the Jubilee year as presented in the Torah was never actually practiced.  What are we to make of its appearance here?  It is a presentation of values.  An ancient reader would see in this theoretical economic system a critique of what was probably a less just society in which those with less money, and less power, did not have many opportunities.  A society in which bankruptcy risked dooming a family to poverty for generations.

We seem to have some of the same issues today.

As you no doubt are aware, the last several decades have seen a significant rise in income inequality around the world.

Of all developed countries, the income gap between the rich and the poor is greatest in the United States.  In 2008, the top earning 20 percent of Americans, who earn at least $100,000 per year, received 49.4 percent of all income generated in the country  The bottom 20 percent received  just 3.4 percent of all income.  The relative gap is the widest that it has been since the U.S. Census Bureau started collecting data in 1968.

We are not going to get into what causes income disparities, or how to reduce them.  But I do want to talk about the effects.

There has been a lot of study over the last few decades about the impact that large gaps between the rich and the poor has on society.

Robert Putnam, the professor of political science at Harvard University, conducted a study on the relationship between social capital, or the connections between members of a society, and economic inequality.  He found that throughout the twentieth century, social connectedness and civic engagement moved “in tandem” with economic equality.  The flatter the gap between the rich and the poor, the more society was interconnected.  The high point in social capital, according to Putnam, occurred during the 1950’s and 1960’s, which was also the most economically egalitarian period in the twentieth century.  “Conversely,” he writes, “the last third of the twentieth century was a time of growing inequality and eroding social capital… The timing of the two trends is striking: somewhere around 1965-70 America reversed course and started becoming both less just economically and less well connected socially and politically.”

In other words, when the rich-poor gap is smaller, society functions better.  There are more interactions between people.  Communities are tighter-knit.  Individuals are more engaged politically, meaning that they are more involved in shaping the course of society.

There are many other social factors that have been also statistically correlated to income inequality.  To the extant that the income gap is reduced, societies in the developed world experience lower homicide rates, fewer mental health problems and less teen-age pregnancy.  But the gap is expanding.

It was not always like this.  In 1831, in his book Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville talked about how wonderful the economic equality was that he witnessed.  He writes:

Among the new objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, none struck me with greater force than the equality of conditions.  I easily perceived the enormous influence that this primary fact exercises on the workings of society.  It gives a particular direction to the public mind, a particular turn to the laws, new maxims to those who govern, and particular habits to the governed…  It creates opinions, gives rise to sentiments, inspires customs, and modifies everything it does not produce…  I kept finding that fact before me again and again as a central point to which all of my observations were leading.

De Tocqueville was describing an engaged, inspired population.  I don’t think de Tocqueville would be able to make those comment today.

Today, with the widest gap between the wealthy and the poor this country has seen since the 1920’s, it seems that there is a tremendous  despair among individuals about our ability to affect society.  With corporations now defined as people, and large PACs with unknown sources of funding able to influence politics with huge amounts of money, that despair seems justified.

The point I want to make this morning is that our Jewish tradition has always understood large gaps between the rich and the poor to be highly problematic.  Such disparities are harmful to a cohesive society, and are antithetical to the Jewish notion of justice.  To be clear, our tradition encourages us to be involved in the material world around us.  We pray for God to bless us with prosperity.  Wealth and prosperity are things to pursue.  But not as ends in and of themselves.  Only as means to do the more important work of serving God by creating a just world.

It is said that you can always cherry pick a text that will support your position.  I don’t think that can be said about this issue.  I have never heard or read any Jewish thinker, speaking from within the tradition, defend the idea that the rich should be free to acquire as much as they can without regard to the consequences on the rest of society.  As Jews, we have a moral and a legal obligation to create opportunities for the people at the bottom to succeed.  We can argue about strategy – raise taxes, lower taxes, expand social services, cut medicaid – but from a Jewish perspective, something has to be done about income inequality.