Shoftim 5779 – One Hand Has Not Spilled This Blood

Parashat Shoftim begins with justice.  It sets up the ideal of wise uncorruptible judges whose decisions are respected.  A society that does this, promises the opening of our parashah, will thrive on its land.

At the end of Parashat Shoftim, we are presented with a case about this limits of justice. The case is called the eglah arufah, “The Broken-Necked Heifer.”  Here is the scenario: a murdered body is found in the open, outside of city limits, and the killer cannot be identified.  Instead of filing it away as an unsolved mystery, respected elders from the area go out and measure the distance from the body to the surrounding towns.  Whichever settlement is nearest to where the body was found must then perform a ritual. The elders of the town take a heifer that has never been worked or carried a yoke.  They bring it outside the town to a nahal eitan, a wadi that flows year-round, on land that is not cultivated.  There, they break the neck of the heifer. Then, in front of priests from the tribe of Levi who have gathered especially for the occcasion, the elders of the town wash their hands in the water of the stream, and make a declaration:

Yadeinu lo shaf’khu et hadam hazeh, v’einayim lo ra’u—”Our hands did not spill this blood, nor did our eyes see it done.  Absolve, O Lord, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel.”

In so doing, they remove the bloodguilt.  In Hebrew, the expression is v’nikaper lahem hadam  That should sound familiar.  nikaper is from the same root as kaparah, which is the same as Yom Kippur.  It means atonement, and it refers to the washing away of sin that is attached to our souls.

This would seem to suggest that the inhabitants of the nearby town bear a certain degree of guilt.  Otherwise, what need would they have for atonement?

The Jerusalem Talmud offers two explanations, one from the Rabbis of the land of Israel, and the other from the Rabbis of Babylon.  In Israel, the Rabbis understand the ritual to be a reference to the murderer.  The elders declare: “the murderer never came through our town.  We never saw him.  He was not in our jail and we did not let him go free.”

The Rabbis of Babylonia suggest that the ritual refers to the victim.  “The victim never came through our town.  Otherwise, we would have surely taken care of him.  We would never have failed to offer him food, or ensure his safe passage.”

Both explanations involve the elders claiming that their communities are the kinds of communities that take responsibility for what happens in their town.  They do not allow criminals to walk the streets, and they do not neglect their obligations to take care of those who live on the margins.

In other words, they are saying, “we are fine, upstanding people.  People in our town do not do things like this.  We don’t let anyone slip through the cracks.  We didn’t do anything.  We didn’t see anything.”

This still does not solve the problem.  If they did everything they were supposed to do, why do they need atonement?

Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Bunim offers a creative explanation, suggesting that they may not be as innocent as they seem to claim. He points out a grammatical problem with one word in the declaration by the elders.  “Our hands did not spill this blood.”  yadeinu lo shaf’khu et hadam hazeh.

The problem is with the word shaf’khu, which is a verb meaning “spill.”  The Torah uses what the commentator Ibn Ezra describes as a really ancient spelling.  Instead of ending with a ו, it ends with a ה.  

שפכה

The vowels, according to the Masoretic text, are שָׁפְכֻה,
rendering the pronunciation shaf’khu.

If we read it like it is written in later Hebrew, it would say shaf’khah, which is singular, as in “our hand has not spilled this blood.”  Just one hand.  Not two. Why does this matter?

It is impossible for the elders to say, “everything we did, we did with both of our hands.”  Rather, they say, “What we did, we did with just one hand, because there will always remains some degree of guilt that we did not do enough.”

It’s such a clever insight on so many levels.  As human beings, we are self interested creatures.  We don’t like to admit guilt.  

A parent walks into the room and sees red crayon marks all over the walls.  She turns to her three year old, who is holding a red crayon, and asks, “Why are there red crayon marks on the wall?”

What does the three year old say?

“I didn’t do it.”

Our gut reaction is always to say “I didn’t do it.”

In the case of the eglah arufah, the crime has been committed nearby.  Suspicion naturally falls on those who are closest.  What is the declaration that they make? It’s the same as the three year old with a crayon.  “We didn’t do it.” But that does not mean that we don’t bear some responsibility.  We might not have been the ones who committed the murder, but can we really say that we were paying close enough attention to what was happening around us?

Did we take responsibility for our community—both by making sure it was safe, and by taking care of the people who needed help?  Did we open our eyes and take notice of the very individuals who tend to not get noticed? When tragedies occur, are those who claim to be innocent bystanders really innocent?

I was listening yesterday to a radio show on which people were calling in with reactions to the split verdict in the Ghost Ship fire.  People were rightfully angry about how such an unsafe situation could be allowed.  There was plenty of discussion about who should be held responsible, beyond just the two people who were put on trial. But of course, this is all after the fact—after 36 people died in a fire that should never have broken out.  But that is the way it goes with tragedies.  It is easy to cast blame after the fact.  

But maybe we should admit, as a society, that we never do everything we could have to build the kind of caring community that the Torah sets up as an ideal.

The Rabbis themselves acknowledge this.  In the second century, the Mishnah (Sotah 9:9) declares:  “When the murderers increased, the rite of the eglah arufah was abolished.”  The ritual itself became meaningless. Communities could not honestly claim that they had done everything that they could, or should have.

Parashat Shoftim begins with the ideal of justice.  It ends with a recognition of human imperfection.

Perhaps we should be honest enough to say, instead of “I didn’t do anything.  I didn’t see anything”  that “Maybe I looked the other way.  Perhaps I could have done more.”

That would be a great step for a society that strives to move towards justice.

We Are Not the Center of Creation – Rosh Hashanah 5771

Rabbi Aryeh Levin, known as the “Tzaddik of Jerusalem”, lived from 1885 to 1969.  He told the story of how he once was walking in the fields with his teacher, Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook.  In the course of their Torah discussion, Rabbi Levin casually picked a flower. At this, Rav Kook remarked, “All my days I have been careful never to pluck a blade of grass or a flower needlessly, when it had the ability to grow or blossom.  You know the teaching of our sages that not a single blade of grass grows here on Earth that does not have an angel above it, commanding it to grow.  Every sprout and leaf says something meaningful, every stone whispers some hidden message in the silence.  Every creation sings its song.”

“These words of our great master,” Rabbi Levin concluded, “spoken from a pure and holy heart, engraved themselves deeply in my heart. From that day on, I began to feel a strong sense of compassion for all things.” 

Every creation.  Everything that we encounter in this world, has a song that it sings.  And that makes today, Rosh Hashanah, a day that is not only for us, the Jewish people, or even for humanity, but for all of Creation.

During the musaf service, after hearing the sound of the shofar, we will recite Hayom harat olam – “Today is the world’s birthday.”

Birthdays are usually times for celebration.  For marking the achievements of the previous year and expressing our hopes for the year to come.  We can imagine the blades of grass with their angels, and the stones whispering hidden messages in the silence, celebrating.

But do we have the right to celebrate the world’s birthday?  Does humanity deserve an invitation to the party?

We seem to be living out of balance with nature.  Rav Kook’s poetic description of treasuring the potential for life wherever he found it is very far from what we experience today.  The imbalance in humanity’s relationship to the earth violates the sanctity of life and threatens our very existence.  For the sake of the world, and for our own sakes, humanity must develop a new understanding of its relationship to Creation.

For recorded history, humans have seen themselves as the ultimate purpose and goal of existence.  While Rosh Hashanah is the most universalistic of Jewish holidays, it still shifts back and forth between the question of whether we are celebrating the creation of the world or the creation of human beings.

A midrash teaches that the seven days of Creation began on the twenty fifth of Elul.  That makes the first of Tishrei, Rosh Hashanah, day six of creation, the day on which God made humanity.  We celebrate the world’s birthday on humanity’s birthday.

The universe used to be a much smaller place.  At first, the world was thought to be flat.  Later, the Greeks introduced the concept of a spherical earth at the center, encircled by the sun, moon, planets, and stars.

In the 16th century, Copernicus introduced the concept of heliocentrism, that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the universe.  It would take several centuries more to learn that this was not true either, and that our sun was just one of countless stars on the outer arm of one of countless galaxies.

Despite our growing awareness that humanity is infinitesimally small, and far from the center of anything, we continue to interact with our surroundings as if we are the be all and end all.  Science has not changed that at all.

Intellectually, we know that the earth, not to mention the solar system, galaxy, and universe, exists completely independent of us.  And yet, we live our lives as if they are meaningful.  As if there is a purpose to our being.  And as if there is a goal to which we are striving.  All of us do this.  We live as if our lives matter.  To love and to strive in an otherwise uncaring and unsympathetic universe is a fundamentally religious act.  An act of faith.

Do we have faith that humanity will survive?  Perhaps it’s a question for science fiction writers, or disaster movies, or apocalyptic doomsayers.  But maybe it is a question we should be asking.

An ancient midrash describes God as the Creator and Destroyer of worlds.  There were in fact many worlds that existed before our earth.  But God was unsatisfied with them, and so God destroyed them.  Like an artist throwing away a rough draft.  When it came to our world, God saw it, and declared this one, finally, to be good.

And then, at the end of the week, on the seventh day, God had one thing left to do.  The Torah states:  “God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, for on that day He desisted from all His work that God created to make.”  (Gen. 2:3)

That final phrase, “that God created to make ” – asher bara elohim la-asot, has puzzled commentators.  It should have said that God desisted from all His work that he had made.  So why does it say “that God created to make.”?  The Chasidic Rabbi Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl, a senior pupil of The Magid of Mezeritch, writes: “That God created to make” means that the work of creation, of mending, of completion of the world continues, and is left in the hands of Israel (Maor Einayim, Ha’azinu).”

Putting it together, ours is not the first world to exist.  There have been others.  God approved this time around, calling it tov, good, but the work of creating is not yet done.  The jury is still out on this one.  There is a distinct possibility that we humans could wipe ourselves out of existence.  And God, and the universe, will go right on without us.

The well known prayer, Adon Olam, presents this possibility quite clearly:  v’acharei kichlot hakol, levado yimlokh nora – And after everything ceases to exist, God will continue to rule in awesomeness.

As partners in creation, or rather, as the ones to whom the continuing work of creation has been handed over, it is up to humanity to create, mend, and complete the world.  How are we doing with that?

From an ecological perspective, not so great.  Species are disappearing at between 100 to 1000 times the average extinction rates in the evolutionary time scale of planet Earth due to habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species, and climate change.

When humans come along and clearcut a forest for the lumber, or blow up a mountain top to get at the coal underneath, or overfish a fish population into near or actual extinction, do we, in our suburban homes, bear some responsibility?  When a large multinational company introduces genetically modified organisms that breed with and then take over native species, have we committed some wrong?

We are very insulated from these kinds of questions out here in Northern California with our progressive environmental laws and liberal attitudes.  It is very easy to blame others.  We fault nations that don’t have the same laws we have.  We criticize companies that do everything they can to maximize shareholder profits, and avoid having to pay the actual environmental and other costs.  

But the truth is, we ourselves benefit from their avoiding responsibility.  We enjoy a pretty nice lifestyle.  Our gas is inexpensive.  Coal fueled electricity is cheap.  We can buy organic grapes from Chile for $1.49 a pound on sale.  We can fill our homes with consumer junk that we don’t need from the other side of the world.  And when the garbage accumulates, we get rid of it and it gets dumped in the landfill, or shipped off to some impoverished nation.  But as long as we don’t have to look at it, we treat it as “out of sight, out of mind.”

There is a cost to this lifestyle.  It is a cost that humanity may end up having to pay on a global scale.  From a purely self-serving perspective, humanity needs to change the ways that we interact with our planet.  

In his chilling book, Collapse, Jared Diamond explores a number of unconnected civilizations separated by time and place that experienced sudden and total collapses.  He notes that in all of them, the civilization reached its peak population and resource use shortly before its precipitous demise.  His final chapter points out that humanity is now a single civilization – the result of the globalization of transportation, communication, and economies.  If our global civilization follows the pattern of earlier societies, then we will have nowhere else to go when the collapse occurs.

But it is not only out of self-interest that humanity needs to change its relationship to the natural world.  One of the messages of Rosh Hashanah is that we are but a part of Creation.  Adonai is the God of all that is.  If we are celebrating the birthday of the entire world, what would be an appropriate birthday gift?

The new year is the season for teshuvah.  It will culminate next week with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  Atonement is the final step, when God wipes away the stains that have adhered to our souls.  Our tradition teaches that for sins between us and our fellow human beings, full atonement does not come unless we first appease the one whom we have wronged.  Although it is not easy, we know how to do this with each other.

But how do we appease the earth?  What is the language of teshuvah that the earth and its creatures understand?  How do we ask them for forgiveness?

Take the BP oil spill.  It is not a question of how much money the shrimpers are going to get, the destruction of the economy, tourism, and so on.  BP should repay all of those things, and probably will.  But that will not bring kapparah, atonement, for the ocean and seashores, and the creatures that make them their home.

The same question is asked for all of the results of the last two hundred years of progress and development.  How do we ask the earth for forgiveness?

Our global civilization has begun the conversation, but it is far from over.  As populations continue to grow, putting even greater strains on the world, this will be the dominant conversation of the twenty first century.

Religion, which continues to play a central role in how people around the world perceive themselves in their environment, will have a critical voice in this conversation.  Our Jewish tradition has much to contribute.

The first lesson that Judaism offers is that which was expressed in the story of Rav Kook.  We have to be open to experiencing the nes b’tokh hateva, the miracle that is inherent in Nature.  Heschel writes of radical amazement.  If we truly understood that God could be found not only within the creatures and objects of Creation, but also within the very processes of nature, would we continue to overstep our bounds?  Would we not come to discover that we are not separate from Creation, but are rather intimately connected with it?  We are just not yet awake to this fact.

The second lesson is about the importance of rest.  The Torah’s description of the origins of the world, which is the dominant Creation story for a good portion of humanity, culiminates in day seven.  The Sabbath Day.

The chiddush, the great innovation in the Torah, is that humans can rest.  Other religions believed that the gods made humans to serve them, but the Torah says that we rest with God as partners in Creation.  But Sabbath rest is not just for humans, but for animals also, and even for the land itself.  Every seven years, the land of Israel is supposed to observe a sabbath from cultivation.  At the end of the book of Numbers, the Torah describes what will happen if Israel fails to observe the sabbatical years.  It will result in environmental devastation and exile.  The land will then take back its lost sabbaths – on its own terms.

Shabbat is about more than just not going to work on Saturday.  It is a reorientation of our expectations for how we live on earth.  The idea of Shabbat is that we humans are not at the center of existence.  

In our world today, there is no rest.  We don’t give ourselves a break, and we don’t give the earth and its creatures a break.

Rosh Hashanah, like Shabbat, teaches that there are other, more important, more sustainable measures of a nation’s success than Gross Domestic Product.

We are taking some steps in the right direction.  Governments, and some companies, are involved in discussions of how to create more sustainable economies.  As humanity shifts its orientation, it is important for us to take steps in our own lives.  There are many things we have already done.  But there is always more.  

Driving a fuel efficient vehicle, a hybrid, or soon, an electric car.

Switching our homes, businesses, and hopefully one day soon, our synagogue, over to solar energy.

And simple things, like bringing our own bags with us to the grocery store when we go shopping.  Making an effort to buy locally produced food, which in California is not such a difficult or unpleasant thing to do.  

Making our personal decisions from the perspective of sustainability, and respect for Creation.

These are all valid, important steps.  But they are largely symbolic.  The real problem will only be solved when humanity makes a collective decision to do so.

Hayom, today, this Rosh Hashanah, as we celebrate the birthday of the entire world and its creatures, let us pay particularly close attention to the sound of the shofar.  Let its cry remind us of Creation, and call us to teshuvah, not just towards one another, but towards all creatures and the earth itself.

During musaf, we sound the shofar, and then three times, we say Hayom harat olam.  Often translated “today is the birthday of the world,” it in fact means something quite different.  Harat does not mean birth, but pregnant.  Olam, in the Bible does not mean earth, but eternity.  Hayom harat olam “Today is eternally pregnant.”  Today holds endless possibilities, but also great uncertainty. 

And then, we say hayom ya’amid bamishpat kol y’tzurei-olamim.  “Today all Creation is called to stand in judgment.”

 May this day of judgment teach us that without our responsible stewardship, the creatures of all the worlds, y’tzurei olamim, even the earth itself, cannot stand and endure. 

And then we recite at the end of our service:  Chayim kulchem hayom, “Today we are alive on this planet.”  Today our choices will gestate the future, for ourselves, for our children, and for the children of every species upon the earth.

Hayom t’amtzeinu.  “Today may we find courage.”  Hayom t’varcheinu.  “Today may we be blessed.”  Hayom ticht’veinu l’chayim tovim.  “Today may we be inscribed to live.”

May we find hope, may we find courage, may we find blessing, in this moment filled with birth and death, pregnant with eternity.

Hayom im b’kolo tishma-u.” Today, if we will listen to the Voice.

L’Shanah Tovah Tikateivu v’Teichateimu.  May we, the earth, and all who live on it be written and sealed for a good year.