In Defense of Strong Walls (with Big, Fat Doors in Them) – Rosh Hashanah 5779

In Jerusalem, a CNN journalist hears about a very old Jewish man who has been going to the Kotel, the Western Wall, to pray twice a day, every day, for a long, long time. So she goes to check it out. She arrives at the Western Wall and there he is!

She watches him pray and after about 45 minutes, when he turns to leave, she approaches him for an interview.

“I’m Rebecca Smith from CNN. Sir, how long have you been coming to the Wall and praying?”

“For about 60 years.”

“60 years! That’s amazing! What do you pray for?”

“I pray for peace between the Christians, Jews and the Muslims.  I pray for all the hatred to stop and I pray for all our children to grow up in safety and friendship.”

“How do you feel after doing this for 60 years?”

“Like I’m talking to a wall.”

What is the purpose of a wall?  It depends from which side you are asking the question.

A wall could be meant to keep those on the other side of it out.  Or, it might be to keep those on this side of it in.  Most walls, intentionally or not, accomplish both.

Putting up a wall invariably designates those on the opposite side as “Other.”  We humans have shown, time and again throughout our history, that “other” translates, in some fashion, to “inferior.”

The wall on a border between countries prevents those who are not citizens, or those without permission, to enter.  That is not the wall that I am going to talk about.  Sorry.

The wall around a prison keeps those whom society has decided to punish for their crimes inside, both as vengeance for the crime committed and for the protection of society.

The walls of a building at one of our many high-tech campuses here in Silicon Valley keep proprietary secrets inside, and prevent would-be corporate thieves from overhearing conversations to which they should not be privy.

A firewall stops would-be hackers from infiltrating a computer network where they could steal data or wreak havoc.

One of the most famous walls in the world of course is the Kotel, the Western Wall.  Originally, it separated the busy marketplace streets of Jerusalem—the profane—from the holy precincts of the Temple—the sacred.  Today, it separates Jewish worshippers from Muslim worshippers.

We are not going to talk about any of these walls today.  We are going to address the walls around American Judaism.

But first, let’s look at a wall that was erected some time back. 

Five hundred years ago, there was a small Jewish community that lived on the mainland outside of Venice.  They were not permitted to live inside the city proper.  Merchants would occasionally enter during the day to conduct business, departing at night. 

For more than one hundred years, Jews had been required to wear a distinguishing mark: first a yellow badge, then a yellow hat, then a red hat.

After the expulsion of Sephardi Jews from Spain in 1492, Jews began fleeing East, pouring in to cities around the Mediterranean.  Political instability, along with wars between Italian principalities, resulted in more population movement.  One of the refugees’ destinations was Venice.

With burgeoning numbers of Jews flooding in, something needed to be done.  The Venetian Senate voted to cordon off an area inside the city, building walls around the site of the former iron foundry, called geto in Italian.  Jews were permitted to live inside these walls.

That is how, in 1516, the first ghetto came into existence.  

The Venetian Ghetto was an instrument of repression and bigotry.  It served as the model for the establishment of other ghettos throughout Europe up until and including the Holocaust.

But the Venetian Ghetto also brought Jews together, forcing them to cooperate and innovate in creative ways, and helping them to maintain social cohesion at an unstable time.  The walls were physically strong and imposing, but permeable.  

The community had to fund the building of the gates that locked them in every night at sunset and the salaries of the guards stationed at the entrances 24 hours a day .

There was overcrowding and poverty.  Jews were forced to pay higher rents compared to Christians outside the ghetto.

And yet, Jewish life flourished.  By creating the ghetto, the Venetian Senate granted legitimacy to the Jews.  Not only could they legally live in the city, they enjoyed protection.

It was a diverse Jewish community.  Separate synagogues were built by the German Ashkenazi, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, and Levantine Sephardic communities.

Some Venetian Jews enrolled at the nearby University of Padua, which issued hundreds of degrees to Jews from all over Europe.  That is where many Jewish physicians received their training.  This placed them in important positions to serve as informal ambassadors between the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds.

Daniel Bomberg, a Christian, moved his printing press into the Ghetto, helping make Venice the most important early publishing center for Jewish books.  There were cultural exchanges between Jewish artists and thinkers and their Christian counterparts outside the walls, contributing to literature, music, and even religious studies.

It was not too long ago when American society erected figurative ghettos to keep Jews away.  There were walls that literally kept us out of country clubs and prevented us from moving in to certain neighborhoods.  Antisemitism prevented or limited Jews from enrolling in universities and joining certain professions.

Thankfully, those days are over.  In the last four or five decades, have any of us been held back in any way in this country?  In my life, there has not been a single thing that was denied to me because I am Jewish.

Today’s situation, in fact, is quite the opposite.

A recent study looked at attitudes towards different religions in America.  It found that overall, Jews are perceived more warmly than any other religious group in the country.

We have made it, my friends.

By and large, the non-Jewish world in America does not see us as other.  We are no longer behind a wall of “their” making.

But remember, walls don’t just keep the undesirables out.  They also keep us in, which means that we now face a different kind of danger.  The question that every Jew in America must ask is existential: do I put up a wall around my Jewish identity, and if so, what kind?

There are those who choose to put up higher and higher walls as protection against an evil and corrupting society.  They see themselves as the protectors of Torah-true Judaism and predict that all of the rest of us will cease to exist within a couple of generations.  

On the other side are those who would erase all differences between Jews and non-Jews.  Since the essence of Judaism is about being a good person, I can just be a humanist.  What do I need Judaism for?

This past May, the novelist Michael Chabon, whose books I have enjoyed, ignited controversy when he delivered the keynote address at Hebrew Union College’s graduation ceremony.

He told his audience of newly minted Rabbis, Cantors, Teachers and Community Professionals to “knock down the walls.  Abolish the checkpoints.”  He referred, emblematically, to the walls separating Israelis from Palestinians.  But those were not the only walls.

He deprecatingly described marriage between Jews as “a ghetto of two,” declaring:

I abhor homogeneity and insularity, exclusion and segregation, the redlining of neighborhoods, the erection of border walls and separation barriers. I am for mongrels and hybrids and creoles, for syncretism and confluence…

Looking at Judaism, Chabon saw only exclusivity and separateness, subjugation of women, and mistreatment of Palestinians.

Chabon told that cohort of newly minted Jewish professionals that he no longer attends synagogue on the High Holidays, and that the Passover haggadah has ceased to have any meaning for him.

Chabon ridiculed anything that makes Judaism distinctly Jewish.  Considering the values that he hopes his own children find in a mate, he rejected any wish that they find Jewish partners, declaring:

I want them to marry into the tribe that prizes learning, inquiry, skepticism, openness to new ideas. I want my children to marry into the tribe that enshrines equality before the law, and freedom of conscience, and human rights.

It is hard to argue with those values.  I certainly want those qualities in my future children-in-law.  But then he continued:

I want them to marry into the tribe that sees nations and borders as antiquated canards and ethnicity as a construct.

Nations, borders, and ethnicity may be human constructs, but we are, after all, humans. 

A construct exists because lots of people agree that it exists.  As a writer by trade, Michael Chabon knows this well.  Here are a few constructs that we employ on a daily basis: money, traffic lights, marriage, language, a high school diploma.  And yes, nations, borders, and ethnicity are also constructs.  So too is religion.  Our celebration of today being the 5,779th anniversary of the world’s creation is a construct—an incredibly meaningful one.

Constructs are what enable us to relate to the world around us.

Humanity is not ready for Chabon’s universalism.  In fact, it appears to be moving in the opposite direction.  Multicultural societies are fragmenting into traditional ethnic and religious subgroups.  We see this with the rise of nationalist parties in Europe, and the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities such as the Rohingya in Burma.

A 2014 Pew study on religion in America found that the gaps are expanding here as well.  The overall percentage of Americans who identify as religious has decreased, along with the number of people who do not have any religion.  This is especially true among millennials.  At the same time, those who identify themselves as religious are becoming more observant. 

We see it in the American Jewish community, where we increasingly polarize into one side that is religious, conservative, Republican, Zionist, and pro-Likud and another side that is increasingly secular, progressive, Democrat, and either ambivalent about Israel or even anti-Zionist.

It is becoming harder and harder to occupy the middle.

Michael Chabon’s vision of a universal global society in which the walls come down, and everyone is equal and shares the same values of freedom is wonderful.  It is a Jewish vision.  It is also a messianic vision.

Judaism is perhaps unique among religions by claiming that the path to the universal lies in the particular.

We do not expect the rest of the world to conform to Jewish beliefs and practices.  We do not promise redemption only to those who embrace our faith.  Nor do we expect other people to tear down their walls and throw out their distinct beliefs and practices.  The Torah recognizes that there are multiple paths to God.  Multiple formulations—constructs, if you will—of what it means to live a good life.

In fact, this idea finds its greatest expression on Rosh Hashanah, when we celebrate the creation of the world.

One of the most ancient prayers in Judaism, dating back to the Second Temple, is Aleinu.  

Aleinu was composed at a time when Judaism was the only monotheistic religion around.  It expresses a particularistic vision of the relationship between the Jewish people and God.

While we now recite it at the end of every service throughout the year, it was originally recited only once—on Rosh Hashanah.  It appears in our Mahzor during the Musaf service. 

Aleinu l’shabeach la’adon hakol.  It is for us[, the Jewish people,] to praise the Master of everything.  To assign greatness to the One who formed Creation.  

She-lo asanu k’goyei ha’aratzot.  Who did not make us like the peoples of other lands…

We Jews have a particular obligation to serve God.  It is an obligation that we do not share with the other nations of the earth.  We, the Jewish people, have a unique role and fate in the world.

Va’anachnu kor’im, umishtachavim umodim.  And so we bend our knees, and bow and give thanks before the King of Kings of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed is He.  

And it continues in this vein.  Then, in the second paragraph, the focus shifts.

Al ken n’kaveh l’kha.  Therefore, we put our hope in You…

L’takein olam b’malkhut Shaddai.  To fix the world under the Kingdom of Shaddai.    

We imagine a future world in which all people acknowledge the one God.  Notably, this Messianic vision does not expect all the nations of the earth to convert, nor does it ask them to embrace the covenant of Israel.  It is (merely) a vision in which wickedness is banished and humanity is unified under God’s Kingdom.

There is a story being told here in two acts.  In the first act, earth is broken and disunited.  Israel serves God in a way that is unique to it among the nations of the earth.  In the second act, each of the peoples of the earth turn to God, accepting that there is a single, unitary power who created the universe.  It is an idyllic time in which evil is banished and humanity is united.  But the nations are still distinct from one another.

This is a Jewish story.  It is our way of understanding our role in the world as a particular people.  It explains why we have unique practices, mitzvot that only apply to us, and customs that might seem strange to an outsider, but that are distinctly ours.

We can and should tell the ancient stories of Jewish peoplehood unabashedly, and with pride.  They are our stories.  They root us in time, and connect us to other Jews who, for the last three thousand years, have turned to the same stories and rituals for meaning.

The Jewish Passover seder is not about the liberation of all enslaved peoples everywhere.  When I tell the story of the Exodus of the Israelites, it is my story.  By internalizing that story, I am better able to empathize with another person’s story of slavery and freedom.  

I can be proud that the Jewish people, throughout their worldwide dispersal over two thousand years, continued to long for and pray for a return to the Holy Land.  I can hold my head up high when I look at the State of Israel’s incredible accomplishments over the past seventy years.  

We have the right to build a strong wall around Judaism.

The Jewish biochemist and philosopher, Henri Atlan (

Henri Atlan (“Chosen People” in Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought), asks how it is possible for us to manage relations with other people who hold on to such different beliefs with just as much passion and conviction as we do.  He answers that belief in a unique God can be quite helpful, as long as my belief does not negate your right to believe something different.

Instead of worrying about what other groups believe, or whether they are worshipping the same God as we are, it would be better to focus on what each group’s unique God calls upon it to do.

Where would so many of our people be if not for the courageous actions of Righteous Gentiles during the Holocaust, many of whom were inspired by their own particular religious teachings?

We can “put off the unification of the gods until a messianic era that has yet to arrive.”  Atlan concludes by quoting the prophet Zecharia, from the end of the second paragraph of Aleinu:

Bayom hahu yihyeh Adonai echad ushmo echad.  In that day, Adonai shall be one and the name of God, one.

For now, we should be putting up walls within which Judaism can thrive and flourish.  And we should be opening doors so that we can make our contribution to humanity, and welcome inside all who would join us. 

Congregation Sinai’s mission is “to connect people to Judaism, each other, Israel, and the world.”

We should never water down the Jewish content of what we do.  Quite the opposite, we should be strengthening it, doing everything we can to offer more opportunities for learning, engagement with Jewish practice, and performance of mitzvot.

It is our particular Jewish way of connecting with each other, with Jews around the world, and with our ancestors.  “Jewish” is the language by which we wrestle with questions of faith, identity, and history.  It is the unique way in which we struggle to understand suffering, and it offers beautiful traditions for comforting each other.

To maintain our identity, we need strong walls.  We need to be able to say: We are Jewish.  This is what we do.  This is what we believe.

Just one generation ago, marrying outside of the faith was looked down upon.  The Conservative movement was seen as being not especially welcoming to intermarried families.  In contrast, Reform synagogues opened their doors.

Today, things are changing quickly.  The big discussion in the Conservative movement is how to do a better job of welcoming intermarried families.

I am really proud of our congregation.  We strive to be friendly and non-judgmental.  Anyone looking to engage in Jewish life is welcomed, whatever their background.

It is especially challenging to maintain a Jewish home when one parent is not Jewish, and yet there are numerous families who have committed to exactly that, raising Jewish children and being part our community.

We have non-Jewish members who take it upon themselves to learn more, without necessarily intending to convert.  Why?  To better support a Jewish spouse or child, as well as to grow and derive personal meaning.  You have given us quite a gift.  Todah Rabah.  Thank you.

Look around this room.  There are Jews here who personally immigrated from Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina, France, Belgium, England, Romania, Egypt, South Africa, Israel, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, India, Poland, Ukraine, Moldova, Russia, China, Japan, Vietnam, Australia, and I am sure that I am missing some.  Traditions and practices vary widely among Jews from different parts of the world, and yet there is a profound sense that we are all brothers and sisters.

Many in this room are Jews by choice, without a direct family history of being Jewish, but who are the direct spiritual descendants of Abraham and Sarah.  Some are considering becoming Jewish, and are actively learning about practice and community.  There are those here who are not Jewish, but who are committed to supporting Jewish homes.

Every one of us fits inside these walls.

This year, let us commit to invigorating our unique, Jewish way of life—in our homes and in our synagogue.  Our tradition has something wonderful to offer us personally, and we, the Jewish people, have something wonderful to offer the world.

The path to universalism lies through particularism.

We need to have walls that are strong and solid enough to define and uphold our practices and values.  And we need to make sure that there are big fat doors in them that are open for all who wish to come and share.

The Ship of Theseus – Rosh Hashanah 5779

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s extend the paradox to rock and roll.

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

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

It is a deep philosophical quandary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Might consciousness have something to do with the soul?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This sounds a little more realistic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I note those moments when I could have been better.

I discern the patterns of repeated mistakes.

I feel regret.

Am I prepared to change?

Can I resolve to become a new “I”?

Am I ready to create a new world?

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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

Ilana Kurshan, If All the Seas Were Ink

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

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man

Neal Stephenson, Anathem

The Beautiful Prisoner, The Great War, and the Yetzer Hara – Ki Teitzei 5778

This morning’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, contains more mitzvot, more commandments than any other parashah in the Torah.  Many of those mitzvot have direct applications to our lives today.  It is easy to see how these are timeless principles by which we ought to lead our lives.

Other mitzvot seem to be better suited for a different time and place.  In fact, we sometimes encounter mitzvot that seem to run counter to what we understand to be proper, moral behavior.

Before judging too harshly, we must remember to read on multiple levels.  Our first task is to try to understand what this law meant in the time and place in which it was given.  The Torah is a very old book.  Ancient social norms were vastly different.  We cannot judge ancient practices by modern sensibilities.

The second way of reading the text is to see it through the lens of Jewish tradition.  It turns out that our ancestors were also disturbed by some of the same things that disturb us, and they often came up with creative ways to interpret or allegorize difficult texts that made them meaningful and applicable to life in their own day.

Then, we can begin to consider how this difficult mitzvah might have meaning for us today.

The first mitzvah in today’s Torah portion is of this kind.  The opening verses describe the treatment of female captives by victorious Israelite warriors.  At a time when plunder and rape were standard practice in warfare, the Torah places extreme limits on the behavior of Israelites soldiers.

If a soldier takes a beautiful woman captive whom he desires, he cannot touch her.  Instead, he must bring her into his house.  She must shave her head, trim her nails, and go into mourning for thirty days.  Basically, he makes her as unappealing as possible.  Then, if the soldier still desires her, he must marry her.  If not, she goes free.

The Torah’s restriction on the behaviors of Israelite soldiers stands out in the history of human warfare until modern times.  Nowadays, the Geneva Convention includes accepted laws of ethical behavior in war which are agreed to by most nations in the world, including Israel.

The Torah’s regulations, therefore, would seem to be no longer relevant.

Rabbi Isaiah HaLevi Horovitz was a Polish Rabbi who moved to Tzfat in the Israel in 1621.  He was an important Kabbalist who had a great influence on Chasidism.   As is often the case, Rabbi Horovitz is best remembered not by his name, but by the acronym of his major literary work, the Shlah.  The Shlah, Shnei Luchot HaBrit, meaning “Two Tablets of the Covenant,” is a commentary on the Torah that was popular among Ashkenazi Jews.

In discussing the opening theme of Parashat Ki Teitzei, the Shlah acknowledges that the pshat, or plain meaning of the Torah, indeed describes laws and limitations of warfare.

But that is not what interests him.  The text hints at a more personal lesson pertaining to each individual human being.  The law about the woman captured in war is an allegory for an internal war that all of us wage.  It is the greatest war of all, the war against the yetzer hara, the evil inclination.

The Shlah tells a story:

There was once a pious man who encountered some soldiers returning from a war against their enemies.  With puffed up chests, they were carrying spoils that they had captured during the fierce battle.

He said to them: “You have just returned from the small war with your spoils.  Now prepare for the big war!”

“Big war?” they asked, looking around in surprise, as if there was an impending sneak attack.  “What are you talking about?”

To which he responded: “The war of the yetzer and his legions.”

The Shlah explains that when the Torah speaks of the soldier’s desire for the beautiful woman taken captive, it is really presenting an allegory about the pull of our urges.  Those urges are hard to resist.  They lead us down paths of self-destruction.  The Shlah equates committing a sin to losing a battle against our urges.  

In a real war, if one is victorious against one’s enemies over the course of a few battles, the enemies (usually) learn their lesson and surrender.  But the big war against the yetzer hara never ends, whether or not we are victorious in its individual battles.  That is the great war which all of us wage.

The soldier’s feelings of desire for the beautiful woman are a metaphor for our attraction to those urges that tempt us.  We desire many things: good food and drink, honor, wealth, possessions, power, recognition, sex.  The ultimate goal is not to suppress those feelings entirely, but rather to channel them appropriately.  The Shlah suggests that we do so by figuratively paring the nails and trimming the hair.  In other words, by making those desirable things less desirable.

The Torah recognizes that these urges are real, and in some senses are even good.  For without the Yetzer HaRa, the midrash teaches, nobody would ever build a house, get married, have children, or conduct business.  (Genesis Rabbah 9:7)

To this list we can add that the proper channeling of our urges leads to healthy living, meaningful friendships, supportive communities, joy.

Through this channeling of our urges, what might have been a sin is transformed into a merit.

The Talmud teaches that “in the place where those who have repented stand, those who are completely righteous cannot.”  (BT Berachot 34b)  The Shlah explains that because the penitent person has made mistakes, worked on them, and trained himself in the ability to resist temptations, he is thus better equipped to deal with new temptations when they arise.

It is the middle of the month of Elul.  We are just over two weeks from Rosh Hashanah, followed ten days later by Yom Kippur.  This is the time when we are supposed to be focused on cheshbon hanefesh, taking account of our souls.

Where am I in life right now?

Have I wronged anyone and not made amends?

Did I make promises that I have not kept?

Have I gone astray in other ways?

In some way, our yetzer hara is mixed up in every mistake or transgression we have committed.

My wrongdoing, my inability to control my desires, comes from selfishnesss and greed, from putting my own desires ahead of the needs of others.  My yetzer hara was victorious whenever I expressed my anger in ways that were hurtful to others, whenever I allowed my fear to cause inaction or laziness.

Let us use this annual time of introspection and life review to understand those moments when our urges have gotten the better of us.  What can we do to channel those desires into constructive actions that bring us closer to our loved ones, our friends, our community, and God?

The Day Of Forgotten Things – Rosh Hashanah 5778 (second day)

A Hasid once complained to the Gerer Rebbe that he was always forgetting his lessons.

“When you are eating soup, do you ever forget to place the spoon into your mouth?” the Rebbe asked.

“No, of course not,” was the student’s puzzled reply.

“Why not?” asked the Rebbe.

“Because I cannot live without food,” said the student.

“Neither can you live without learning,” responded the Rebbe.  “Remember this and you will not forget.”

The Jewish people is a people of memory.  Over the millennia, we have gotten pretty good at it.  Maybe the best.  This talent of ours is rooted in the Torah.  The Torah opens with the Creation of the world in six days.  On the seventh day, God ceases laboring.  It is this ceasing which completes the act of creation.  Later, God instructs the Jewish people to replicate God’s act of Creation by laboring for six days and then resting on every seventh.  Shabbat, the anchor of Jewish life, is an act of memory.

This weekly cycle of work and rest creates, as Heschel describes it, a Palace in Time.  Every Shabbat becomes a memorial for what we are marking today – the Creation of the universe.

And it is does not end there.  The entire Jewish calendar is built around memory.  All of our holidays memorialize formative events of Jewish history.  Exodus from Egypt.  Dwelling in booths in the wilderness.  Overcoming destruction in ancient Persia.  Even in recent times, we memorialize our people’s suffering in the Holocaust, and celebrate the establishment of the State of Israel.  Wherever we are in the physical world, our Jewish calendar emphasizes that sacredness is experienced not in space, but in time.

We do not encounter God by walking into particular locations.  We encounter God by being present in discrete moments of time.

As America struggle with how to remember difficult parts of its past, it would seem that our Jewish expertise may be able to offer some guidance.

And yet, we are no different than anyone else when it comes to forgetfulness.  Especially when it comes to our own lives.  What have we forgotten?

At forty one years old, I have forgotten many things.

Sometimes I forget where I put my keys.

I have forgotten the wonder of childhood, the belief that anything was possible, that there was no barrier between what is real and what is magical.  At a certain point, cynicism and skepticism intruded and shackled wonder.  (For a reminder of what it used to be like, just talk to a four year old.)

I have forgotten the dreams and imagination of youth, when I longed to be an astronaut, a Jedi knight, and a baseball player.

I have forgotten what it feels like to fall in love, to feel unquenchable passion and longing.

I have forgotten what it feels like to be present when a new life comes into the world, or when my child takes her first steps.

The idealism of youth has been replaced by a realism forced upon me by responsibilities and disappointment.  The excitement of unlimited possibility has been stifled by the realities of bills and deadlines.

Even more numerous are those things that I cannot even remember forgetting.

We could fill books with everything we have forgotten.

Indeed, we do.

We call Rosh Hashanah Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance.

But perhaps that is not the best name.  Maybe it should be Yom Hanishkachot.  The Day of Forgotten Things.

In the prayer Unetaneh Tokef, our Mahzor paints a vivid picture of the Heavenly Courtroom.  God is the Judge, Prosecutor, Expert, and Witness.  Vatizkor kol-hanishkachot.  God remembers all of the forgotten things.  The Book of Remembrance is opened, but God does not read it.  Ume’elav yikarei.  It reads itself, for the hand-imprinted seal of every human being is upon it.

The image of a courtroom, with the evidence comprised of all of the things we have forgotten, is powerful and scary.  But why is the emphasis on the forgotten things?

The nineteenth century Hassidic Rebbe, Yisrael Rizhiner, teaches that God remembers everything we forget, and forgets everything we remember.

We read in the Rosh Hashanah Prayer: “For You remember all forgotten things,” and “there is no forgetfulness before Your Holy Throne.”  This means that when a person performs a mitzvah, but then forgets it and demands no reward, then the Lord remembers it; but if the person keeps it in his memory and expects a reward for it, then the Lord forgets.

Also, when someone transgresses and remembers it, and repents of it, the Lord forgets about the sin; but when the a person pays no heed and forgets his sin, the Lord remembers.  (Louis I Newman, Hasidic Anthology, p. 400)

According to the Rizhiner, the sins we remembered and corrected.  And the mitzvot that we performed for their own sake, the good deeds that we did not allow to go our heads and inflate our hearts, these count as merits on our behalf.

But I suspect that many of us tend to do the opposite.  We act as if we are entitled to be rewarded for our actions.  We behave greedily, without taking responsibility for our mistakes, and yet we expect everyone else to pay for theirs.

And today, on the day of Judgment, it is the forgotten things recorded in the Book of Remembrance that determines our fate.

One of the three special sections of musaf is Zikhronot, remembrances.  Let’s recall some of its opening words:

Before You stands revealed all that is hidden, and every mystery from the moment of creation.

Nothing is forgotten in Your awe-inspiring presence, nothing concealed from Your gaze…

We cite ten verses from the Bible extolling Divine memory.  God remembered Noah and all of the animals on the ark, and caused the waters of the flood to subside.  God heard the cries of our ancestors in Egypt, and remembered the Covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  As destruction threatened Jerusalem, God remembered the idyllic time during the Exodus when God and Israel were like newlyweds.

We bring up these memories to remind God of moments when compassion overcame the demands of strict justice.

Remembrance is more than just awareness.  It is attentiveness.  God does not just remember Noah, God saves him.  God redeems our enslaved ancestors and restores an exiled people to its home.

Why have we placed these verses in our Machzor?  Could it be that we are pleading with God to remember because we feel that we have been forgotten?

We are surrounded by so much suffering.  Recent hurricanes and earthquakes remind us that, for all of our civilization and technology, we are helpless before the power of nature.  As we have just seen, God does not seem inclined to hold nature back.

Despite our immense privilege, living in the wealthiest country at the wealthiest time in history, so many of us feel that we do not have control over our own lives.  Housing is insecure, employment is shaky, relations are frayed.  Has God forgotten us?

Maybe we pray so fervently to God, the Rememberer of Lost Things, because we feel lost and abandoned.  Or maybe, on this New Year, we are reflexively pleading with ourselves to remember.  Perhaps it is we who have forgotten.

We have forgotten to be attentive to the needs of our neighbors.  We have forgotten to look at the world with awe and wonder.  We have forgotten to open our hearts in prayer and gratitude for all of the blessings that we take for granted.

Perhaps we need to add an “al cheit,” to the list of confessions that we recite on Yom Kippur.  Al cheit she-chatanu lefanekha be-hese’ach ha-da’at – “For the sin that we have committed before You of neglect and lack of conscious attention.”

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov was a gifted storyteller and a vivid dreamer.  His tales are imaginative, mystical, and deeply symbolic.  He tells a story of an angel named Yode’a, which means, “he knows.”

There is an angel who watches over people, even in the dark.  This is Yode’a, the Angel of Losses.  He watches lives unfold, recording every detail before it fades.

This angel has servants, and his servants have servants.  Each servant carries a shovel, and they spend all their time digging, searching for losses.  For a great deal is lost in our lives.

Even we, who are ourselves lost, search in the dark, aiding Yode’a.

And with what do we search?  With the light of the soul.  For the soul is a light planted in us to seek after what has been lost.

What kind of light is it?  Not a torch, but a small candle.  With it we can search inside deep wells, where darkness is unbroken, peering into every corner and crevice.  (Howard Schwartz, Leaves from the Garden of Eden, p. 21.)

How much have we forgotten!  How lost we are!  But we are searching.  The way to search, the way of the tzaddik, is to use the light emanating from our souls to illumine the darkness.  How can we use our souls to remember forgotten things?

Let’s begin remembering right now.  Turn to the person sitting to your right.  Tell that person one thing that you appreciate about them.  It has to be something you have never told them before.

I bet it feels pretty good to be acknowledged, to be remembered.  I bet it also feels pretty good to acknowledge someone else.  That is the feeling of our souls illuminating something that has been forgotten.

Let’s each commit to doing this at least once more today.

We can make the angel Yode’a‘s job a little easier and help ourselves and each other regain a little bit of what we have lost on this Day of Forgotten Things.

God Is On Everyone’s Side, And No One’s – Rosh Hashanah 5778 (first day)

Many of the ideas in this D’var Torah were taken from a presentation by Yehudah Kurtzer of the Hartman Institute.

Upon election to his second term, Abraham Lincoln delivered as his inaugural address one of the greatest speeches in American history.  It was four years into the Civil War.  The war would end and the President would be assassinated just a few weeks later.  Lincoln articulated one of the most profound statements of religious humility ever spoken.

He was meditating on the use by pro-slavery Confederates and abolitionist Unionists of religion to support the morality of their respective claims.  How is it possible for diametrically opposed sides to claim God’s blessing with equal passion and conviction?

Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes.

This is not to say that Lincoln wavered one iota in his belief in the evil of slavery and the moral imperative of eradicating it.  The best that President Lincoln can hope to do is, through his own wisdom and faith, choose a course and pray that it aligns with the will of the Almighty.

In the Torah portion for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, God is on everyone’s side, and no one’s.

As the reading opens, God takes note of Sarah, as promised, and she becomes pregnant with Isaac.  At her son’s birth, Sarah declares, “God has brought me laughter.”  (Genesis 21:6)

Some time later, Sarah demands that Abraham send away her maidservant Hagar along with Hagar and Abraham’s son, Ishmael.  Abraham is upset, but God reassures him, instructing, “whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says…”  And regarding Ishmael, God “will make a nation of him, too, for he is your seed.”

When the provisions run out, Hagar places Ishmael beneath a bush and walks a distance away so that she can weep without having to watch her son die.  It is then that God sends an angel who declares that “God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.”  The angel reveals a hidden well and reassures Hagar that Ishmael will father a great nation.

In the same story, God is on Sarah’s side, Abraham’s side, Isaac’s side, Hagar’s side, and Ishmael’s side – even while these individuals oppose each other.

What does God stand for in this story?  Life.  The flourishing of human potential.  Each of these characters, Isaac and Ishmael, Sarah and Hagar, and Abraham have a path before them that they cannot discern.  They cannot see the world as God sees it.  Each of them chooses what he or she thinks is the best course of action.  Those choices bring them into irreconcilable conflict with one another.

And yet God’s role is not to negate one or another person’s choices, but rather to direct them towards the paths that will lead to blessing.  God enters the story at three critical points.  The first is to bless Sarah with fertility.  The next is to reassure Abraham that Sarah’s seemingly cruel demand will in fact turn out okay, something that Abraham is incapable of realizing on his own.  God appears for the third time when Hagar has given up hope.  Once again, God directs Hagar to the well that will save Ishmael’s life and lead to his thriving.

These characters are blessed to have God step in at just the right moment to redirect them and let God’s will be known.  We are not so blessed.

We suffer from a terrible case of moral hubris.  It is a pervasive disease across the entire political spectrum: right to left, liberal to conservative, Democrat to Republican.

As we celebrate the world’s birthday, it is hard not to consider the extreme rancor that exists in society.  There is so much partisan hatred.  People are feeling more politics-derived anxiety in their personal lives than ever before.  It is tearing the social fabric apart.

Some of us right now are thinking, “It’s not me.  It’s the people on the other side who are unable to see things as they really are.  They are the ones who are full of hate, who are naive, who are blind to the truth.”

Consider the following:

A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Political Science found that “the level of partisan animus in the American public exceeds racial hostility.”  In other words, Americans hate people from the opposing political party more than they hate people of different races.  Further, partisan differences are driving people apart with regard to behaviors and identities that have absolutely nothing to do with politics.

We all know about the divisions between red states and blue states.  But increasingly, people of the same political parties are segregating themselves by neighborhood.  Parents are often upset when a child intermarries into a family of the opposite political persuasion.  A 2009 survey found that only 9% of marriages were between a Republican and a Democrat.

Dating websites have reported that party affiliation is a more important criteria in a potential mate than physical appearance or personality.  And it is not that people of similar values end up falling in love.  This political discrimination comes into play at the initial mate choice.

The animosity that we feel towards those from the opposing party is stronger than the favoritism we feel towards those from our own party.  Partisanship pushes us apart more than it pulls us together.

It has gotten so bad that party affiliation even compels us to change our preferences for things that have absolutely nothing to do with morality or politics.  The author of a recent study summarized the issue like this:

Imagine that you walked into an ice cream shop on Election Day.  You discover that the shop is filled with supporters of the presidential candidate you oppose, and you find supporters of that candidate morally abhorrent.  When you get to the front of the line, the worker tells you all of the other customers just ordered red velvet – normally your favorite flavor.

[The] studies demonstrated that when asked to order, you are likely to feel an urge to stray from your favorite flavor toward one you like less, politically polarizing an otherwise innocuous decision.

We are willing to abandon our favorite ice cream flavor because we perceive it to be popular with our partisan opponents!

This trend affects the Jewish world as well.  Increasingly, communities are become segregated by party affiliation.  Synagogues have split in half over politics.  It is tragic, because our Jewish values, shared history, and beliefs should be bringing us together.  Instead, partisanship is driving us apart.

But God does not have a party.  God is not from a “Red State” or a “Blue State.”

As a Rabbi, I struggle with how and when to engage with what happens out in the political realm.  As the Rabbi of a diverse congregation, what is my role?  What should Sinai’s role be?

Should it offer an apolitical respite?  Is it a sanctuary in space in the way that Shabbat is a sanctuary in time?

Or perhaps the synagogue is the place where we come to affirm our moral grounding.  Maybe we need a place to engage constructively and thoughtfully on what happens “out there.”

Some congregants urge me to get more political.  Others come to shul looking for a break from all of the noise and contentiousness “out there.”  Let synagogue be a place in which politics is not mentioned.  Let it be a place where we can focus on our inner lives, on the spiritual.

I would kind of like it to be both.  A place where we come together as brothers and sisters in unity.  Celebrating what we share in common, which is a lot.  And learning from each other’s differences with love and respect.

The truth is, regardless of our politics, most of us share the same essential moral beliefs.

Morality is a system of values and principles of conduct having to do with good and bad, right and wrong.  They are developed throughout childhood, strongly influenced by the people who raise and teach us.  They are molded by the standards of the communities in which we live.  Of course, religion plays a huge role.

Our core moral beliefs should direct our political viewpoints.  Let’s say that my moral code tells me I have an obligation to feed the hungry.  There are people in every society who do not have enough to eat, and cannot satisfy their basic needs.  The Torah tells me that I cannot remain indifferent.  I must do something about it.

That should lead me to take a political position.  What do I think is the best way to feed the hungry?  Should the government redistribute wealth from those who have it to those who do not?  Or, should it be left to individuals and private groups to take the lead, with the government either encouraging such efforts from the sidelines or simply staying out of the way?

While the Torah and the Rabbis legislate specific ways to give, the rules around tzedakah focus mainly on individual responsibilities, or those of a tight-knit community, not on society’s obligation.  They do not provide any specific guidance for determining how or even whether a government should provide welfare, food stamps, or social security.

This means that people with similar moral beliefs could end up embracing completely opposite policy solutions – even though we are pursuing the same goal.  This is a good thing, as none of us knows how to end poverty.  The best way to find solutions is through open political systems.

This is how it should work:  our moral convictions should lead to our political positions.

Unfortunately, things are working exactly backwards.  Partisanship has co-opted politics and corrupted morality.

The research shows that my primary allegiance is to my party, not to my morals.  When the opposing party embraces a particular idea, my knee-jerk inclination is to oppose it – not because my morals tell me to, but simply because my opponents favor it.  And the idea itself, along with those who support it, become morally tainted.

It is a serious problem when vast swaths of Americans label each other evil, racist, fascist, and communist because they hold different political views.  After all, it is possible for intelligent people to reach different conclusions.

Religion bears some responsibility for the extreme polarization that we now experience.  In the last century, Judaism and Christianity in America embraced the biblical prophets as models of righteousness.  This may sound surprising, but this embrace of the prophetic ideal has created some rather severe moral traps.  The left has been particularly drawn in.

The first trap is an oversimplification of the moral imperative.  Think about the central message of just about every single prophet in the Bible.  Let’s take, for example, Isaiah’s rebuke in the Haftarah that we will read next week on Yom Kippur.  It is beautiful and inspiring:

This is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke.  It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh.”  (Isaiah 58:6-7)

Isaiah seems to think that, if we only dedicated ourselves to it, we could end human suffering, inequality, and poverty.  The prophetic era lasted for hundred of years.  Most of the prophets offered some version of Isaiah’s message.  At no time did a prophet ever say:  “You guys are doing a great job.”  At no point in human history has a society ever managed to achieve Isaiah’s vision.

Why? Because the problems of human suffering are really complicated.  There is a reason why none of the biblical prophets succeeded.  They were overly simplistic and quite inflexible.

Think of Jeremiah.  He runs around speaking truth to power.  He lambasts the people for their greed and corruption.  He ends up getting himself thrown into a pit for his moral high-mindedness.  There is no doubt that Jeremiah was right.  He was living in a society that had lost its way.  He could see the righteous path forward.  But his message, like so many of the other prophets, failed to take into account the complexity of human beings.  He did not consider how they might feel if he insulted them.

The prophets label behavior as either good or bad, moral or immoral.  If you are not with us, you are against us.

This kind of righteousness is lonely, and if taken too far, can turn violent.

When Moses comes down from the mountain after the sin of the Golden Calf, he declares, Mi L’Hashem Elai!  “Whoever is for God, to me!”  There is no in-between.  The Levites heed the call.  At Moses’ instruction, they take their swords and march back and forth through the camp, killing “brother, neighbor, and kin.”  Three thousand die that day.

The Rabbis, in transforming Judaism, understood the risks inherent in the prophetic tradition.  Rabbi Yohanan declares, “Since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken from prophets and given to fools and children.”  (BT Bava Batra 12-12b)

Where the Bible speaks in absolutes, the rabbinic tradition is steeped in uncertainty.  The Talmud is filled with mostly unresolved arguments.  There is deep suspicion of anyone who would claim to know the will of God.

Another righteousness trap that we have made is in elevating the idea of tikkun olam as the religious goal.  Tikkun olam means, literally, “fixing the world.”  The term has been applied differently over the millenia.  At first, Tikkun Olam referred to a rabbinic decree that fixed a specific problem created biblical law.  Later, it took on mystical aspects.  The idea that tikkun olam is about social action and the pursuit of social justice is a uniquely 20th and 21st century innovation.  In many segments of American Jewry, however, tikkun olam has become the central religious message.

And this is a problem.

To speak of a fixed world implies, first of all, that I know what a fixed world looks like.  What does that say about someone who does not share my vision?  And finally, is it not a little audacious to imagine that the Jewish people, comprising less than two tenths of one percent of the world’s population, are going to be the ones to fix it?

Should we really be pursuing a perfect world?

A story in the Talmud relates a conversation between philosophers in Rome and Jewish elders.  “If your God has no desire for idolatry, why does He not just abolish it?”  “If it was something of which the world had no need,” they replied, “God would abolish it.  But what do people worship?  The sun, moons, stars, and planets.  Should God destroy the universe on account of fools?  Rather, olam k’minhago noheg.  The world pursues its natural course…”  (BT Avodah Zarah 54b)

We live in an imperfect world.  It is never going to become perfect.  There is no “fixing” the world.  The better model is that taught by Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot.  Lo alekha hamlakha ligmor, v’lo ata ben chorin l’hibatel mimenah.  “It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”  (Avot 2:16)  The world remains a work in progress.

The Rabbinic model, as opposed to the prophetic, is one of moral humility.  It is one of engagement with others, including especially those who disagree with us.  It is making sure, always, that the solutions we pursue emerge from the core moral principles of the Torah.  But we recognize that no human being can know the mind of God.

It is through struggle, together, that we get closer to it.

Lincoln concludes his second Inaugural Address with an appeal for compassion for the common humanity of all and a prayer for peace, knowing full well that the fight to end slavery had to continue until its conclusion.  We would do well to embrace his words.

… With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan–to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

Castrametation – Ki Teitzei 5777

I came across a new word just this past Thursday in a novel I am reading.  It was used as the title of one of the chapters.  “Castrametation.”  Does anyone know what it means?

Castrametation: the making or laying out of a military camp

Imagine my surprise the next day when I realized that castrametation is one of the themes in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki Teitzei.

And you shall have a marker outside the camp and shall go there outside.  And you shall have a spike (tent peg) together with your battle gear, and it shall be, when you sit outside. you shall dig with it and go back and cover your excrement.  For the Lord your God walks about in the midst of your camp to rescue you and to give your enemies before you, and your camp shall be holy, that He should not see among you anything shamefully exposed and turn back from you.  (Deuteronomy 23:13-15)

On a p’shat – plain sense – level, the Torah is describing castrametation – how the military camp should be organized.  Of course, there is the obvious element of sanitation and hygiene, which are at least as significant to the end results of a war as the actual fighting itself

The Torah frames it not as an issue of health, but as an issue of Sanctity.  When Israel goes to war, God is with them.  Their victory depends on God fighting on their behalf.  For God to remain, the latrines must be dug – and used – outside of the camp.  It is not about germs.  It is about holiness.

As we might expect, Jewish tradition digs through the p’shat to find broader messages for our lives.  Several Talmudic midrashim see the various elements of this law metaphorically.

The first midrash (BT Yoma 75b)understands this message not as an instruction about how to set up a military camp, but rather an allusion to the condition of the Israelites’ digestive tracks during their time in the wilderness.  The midrash begins by quoting Psalm 78 (vss. 24-25) which, referring to the manna, states “Man did eat the bread of the mighty (abirim)”  The Gemara asks what abirim are.  Eventually, it suggests that  the word abirim should actually be read as eivarim, which means “limbs.”  The manna was completely absorbed into the Israelites bodies.  There was no waste whatsoever.  How convenient!

If that is the case, the Talmud asks, why do we have to be told to dig a latrine and bury our excrement?  After tossing a few ideas around, the answer is given:

After they sinned, [the manna was not as effective.] The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: I [initially] said [that] they would be like ministering angels [who do not produce waste]; now I will trouble them to walk three parasangs [to leave the camp in order to relieve themselves].

So this is really a story about Israel’s sinfulness.  At first, there is no need to build a latrine, and God can walk about the Israelite camp without a problem.  But when Israel sins – by complaining about the manna, says Rashi – their intestines become less efficient.  Now the Israelites have to periodically leave camp to do their business so that they can maintain it as a place in which God can continue to reside.

Midrash number two, from Tractate Sotah (BT Sotah 3b) also tells a story of sin in the wilderness.  But this time, the focus is not on the entire camp, but on individual homes.  At first, Rav Hisda teaches, the Shechinah – God’s Presence – would reside within each and every Israelite home.  After they sin, however, God turns away from them so that God does not see any unseemly matter.

The commentator Rashi explains that the types of sin in question are those pertaining to sexual immorality.  That is why the focus is on God’s Presence within the individual homes of the Israelites.

The final midrash (BT Ketubot 5a) shifts the focus to the everyday situations in which each of us finds ourselves.  Like the first one, this midrash relies upon a pun in the Hebrew.

Bar Kappara asks what the Torah means when it says “And you shall have a spike (tent peg) together with your battle gear.”  “Battle gear” in Hebrew is azeinekha.  Don’t read it as azeinekha, Bar Kappara says, but rather as oznekha, which means, “your ears.”  This means that if a person hears something unseemly, an inappropriate thing, he should place his spike, that is to say, his finger, into his years.

We are exposed to situations that we know are not good for us on a daily basis.  I’ll give just one example: gossip – the most pervasive, and potentially harmful, sin in the Torah.  Even if I am not the person spreading the gossip, even hearing it can have terrible effects.

Gossip certainly harms the person being gossiped about.  The spreader of gossip is committing a sin which Jewish tradition compares to murder.  And when I hear it, it produces negative feelings about the other person, and even harms my own sense of self.

According to this midrash, whenever I find myself in the company of people who are gossiping, I should shove my fingers in my ears – figuratively by walking away, or perhaps even literally.

These three midrashim shift the focus from castrametation to our ability to maintain a community and home in which we are grateful for the blessings around us, respectful of each other’s boundaries, and cognizant of the kinds of people and situations we should place ourselves.  God’s Presence in our midst depends on our ability to maintain proper boundaries.

A 19th century Chassidic Rabbi named Jacob Kattina wrote a book called Korban He’ani.  In it, he directs our attention to an acronym hidden in the text.

כִּי֩ יְ-הֹוָ֨ה אֱ-לֹהֶ֜יךָ מִתְהַלֵּ֣ךְ | בְּקֶ֣רֶב מַחֲנֶ֗ךָ לְהַצִּילְךָ֙ וְלָתֵ֤ת אֹיְבֶ֨יךָ֙ לְפָנֶ֔יךָ

For the Lord your God walks about in the midst of your camp to rescue you and to give your enemies before you.

The last four words of this phrase – לְהַצִּילְךָ֙ וְלָתֵ֤ת אֹיְבֶ֨יךָ֙ לְפָנֶ֔יךָ “to give your enemies before you” – begin with the letters ל ,א ,ו ,ל – which are the letters in Elul – אלול, the Hebrew month in which we currently find ourselves.

Elul is the month before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we are supposed to be engaged in cheshbon hanefesh, taking stock of our lives.  What sins are we carrying from the past year?  Where are the broken places in our relationships with each other?  What is keeping us from experiencing God’s Presence in our lives?

Rabbi Kattina sees in this verse a “hint that in this month, the Holy One can be found among the Jewish people.  He then cites the Rabbis’ teaching about the verse from Isaiah: “Seek the Lord while He can be found, call to Him while He is near.”  (Isaiah 55:6) The gates of repentance are open, therefore let there not be seen in you anything unseemly and let your encampment be holy.

Let us use these next few weeks take an honest look at ourselves, our homes, and our community.  God wants to walk among us, in our homes, and in our communities.  But it is up to us to make our communities, our homes, and our selves worthy of God’s Presence.

Shabbat Shalom.

Self Absorption – Rosh Hashanah 5777

The story of the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac, which we read every year on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, is so tantalizingly evocative, inspiring, and troubling.  It is a carefully written literary masterpiece.  Every year, we find new ways to read it.

“Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test.”

What kind of test is this?  Is it pass/fail?  Is it a test for which God does not know the answer, or a test meant to impart some lesson?

Maybe it is like the test of the emergency broadcast system.  “This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System.  Had the All-Powerful Supreme Ruler of the Universe actually wanted you to sacrifice your son, more information would have followed.  This is only a test.”

Or, perhaps it is a test for us – the readers.

Of course, we know it is a test from the beginning.  The actors in this drama have no such foreknowledge.

“Abraham.”

“Here I am.”  Hineni.

“Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah.  V’ha’aleihu sham l’olah on one of the heights that I will point out to you.”

Abraham hears this as “offer him there as a burnt offering.”

Before we get too upset, keep in mind that child sacrifice was not such a far-fetched idea in Abraham’s day.  It was a widespread practice throughout the Ancient world, including in the Land of Canaan.  We have biblical and other ancient literary references, as well as archaeological remains.  As far as humans in ancient times knew, the gods liked it when people offered up their children.  It probably did not sound all that strange to Abraham.  So he complies with the request.

Without a word, Abraham gets up early, saddles a donkey, enlists two servants and Isaac, and chops some wood to serve as fuel.

On the third day, Abraham looks up and sees the mountain.  He tells the servants to wait at the bottom with the donkey.  He gives Isaac the wood to carry, and they set off to climb the mountain.  He himself carries the firestone and the cleaver.

Suddenly, we hear Isaac’s voice, the only time that the Torah records father and son speaking together.

“Father.”

“Here I am, my son.”

“Here is the fire and the wood; but where is the sheep for the offering?”

“God will see to the sheep for His offering, my son.”

And the two of them walk on together.

No more words are exchanged.  They reach the top of the mountain.  Abraham, methodically, goes about his business.  He lays out an altar.  He places the wood on it.  He binds Isaac and places him on top of the wood.

He reaches out his hand and takes hold of the cleaver in order to slaughter his son.

And suddenly a voice cries out:  “Abraham!  Abraham!”

It is an angel of the Lord from the heavens.

“Here I am.”  Hineni.

“Do not reach out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him, for now I know that you fear God and you have not held back your son, your only one, from Me.”

Abraham raises his eyes and he looks and ‘Behold!  A Ram!’

―with its horns caught in the thicket.  And Abraham takes the ram and offers it up as a burnt offering in the place of his son.

Abraham barely speaks throughout this story, and never once to God.  Rashi, citing a midrash, imagines that Abraham might have had a few questions that did not make the final edit.

“I will lay my complaint before you,” he begins.  “You told me, (Genesis 21:12) ‘through Isaac shall your seed be acclaimed,’ and then you changed your mind and said, (Genesis 22:2) ‘Take, pray, your son.’  Now you tell me, ‘Do not reach out your hand against the lad!'”

Abraham is understandably confused.  God has promised that Abraham will be the father of a great nation, descended specifically through Isaac.  We read about in just the previous chapter, and we chanted it yesterday.

Then, God seems to change the plan by asking Abraham to offer Isaac up.

Through it all, Abraham goes along.

Now, having done everything God has asked of him, despite the contradictions, Abraham is told not to follow through!?

The Holy One, blessed be He, says to him, [You misunderstood me.]  When I told you, ‘Take [your son…,] I did not tell you ‘slay him’ but rather ‘bring him up,’ for the sake of love did I say it to you.  You have brought him up, in fulfillment of my words — now take him down.’ (Genesis Rabbah 56)

The miscommunication hinges on the phrase v’ha’aleihu sham l’olahAn olah is a burnt offering.  That is how Abraham hears it.

But it also means “go up” or “ascend.”  A person who moves to Israel makes aliyah.  Someone who is given an honor in synagogue receives an aliyah.  In the midrash, God means for Abraham to bring Isaac up to the top of the mountain as an expression of love, not to be a sacrifice.

How could Abraham have misunderstood?

To answer this, we must identify the role of the angel in this story.

Imagine the critical scene in your mind, when Abraham has grasped the blade in his hand, and the angel comes to intervene.  Picture it.  Where are Isaac, Abraham, and the angel situated?

In almost every work of art depicting the Binding of Isaac, the angel is reaching out a hand and grabbing Abraham to prevent him from slaughtering his son.  That image of physical intervention has entered our consciousness.

But that is not what the text says.  The only intervention that takes place is verbal.  “Abraham.  Abraham.”

“Here I am,” he responds.

It is Abraham who holds back his own hand.

There is a vein within the Jewish mystical tradition extending into mussar thinking that understands angels as inert forces in our world.  They are unable to act.  It is righteous human action, or expressions of will, that activates these inert Divine forces.

Mussar understands the expression of the human will as it acts in the world to be our yetzer.  The yetzer can be tov – good, or it can be ra – evil.

When we allow it to flow out of us, the yetzer is tov.  But when it is stopped up inside, it becomes ra.

To expand on this―when my focus is external; when my concern is for the other; when the question I ask myself about the person before me is “what does this person need from me?”―That is when my soul opens up, and my yetzer flows out.

But when I am self-absorbed; when I am concerned for my own needs; when I am wrapped up in my own suffering― then I am unable to recognize the needs of the person facing me.  My soul is stopped up, and my yetzer works its evil, rotting inside of me.

All that God or the angel can do is speak.  Only Abraham can act to change the course of events in this story.

In the beginning, God calls out to Abraham and asks him to raise up his son in love.  But Abraham, in this moment self-absorbed in his devotion to a god who might just be a projection of his own ego, hears the message differently.  The yetzer hara has taken hold.  Can Abraham break out of his self-absorption and release his yetzer hatov?

Abraham has other moments of greatness, when his yetzer tov flows out into the world.  When he runs out of his tent to welcome three angels disguised as travelers, when he argues with God on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah―these are moments when Abraham has set aside his own self-concern to serve others, and in so doing, to activate God’s Presence in the world.

In this story, however, Abraham’s yetzer is stopped up.  He is not able to activate the Divine potential that lies dormant.  He does not see the suffering of his son.

Something happens on top of the mountain.  The angel calls out twice.  Abraham looks up.  Not only does he see the ram, he sees his son, perhaps for the first time.  That is the test.  And he passes.  He saves his son, substituting the ram.

Only then does God bless him.

We live in an epidemic of self-absorption.  In former times, people lived in close quarters.  It was not uncommon for three generations to reside under the same roof.  We were thrown against each other in such a way that it was nearly impossible to find privacy, even in our own homes.  Facing each other’s needs was inevitable.

Now, we are so spread out.  Most households today have just one or two generations living under the same roof.  Plus, the distance between our homes has grown, so we are farther away from our neighbors.

The membership of our synagogue is spread out over many square miles.  We’ve gone to the opposite extreme.  We have so much private space that we now find ourselves alone much of the time.  If we want to be with other people, we have to actively do something to make it happen.

The internet offers the promise of connecting with each other across the physical divide.  But how do we use it?

I might snap a selfie, or post the silly thing that my kid said.  I’ll take a picture of my lunch and share it with the world.  And then I’ll check to see how many “likes” I’ve received.  Is this really connecting with other people, or might this perhaps be a manifestation of my self-absorption?

There is an inverse relationship between the amount of time we spend “connecting” online and the amount of time we spend “connecting” in person.  It is getting steadily worse as the number of screen devices in our lives increases.

Our tradition teaches us that holiness is encountered in the relationships between people.  The three dimensional relationships.  God, as a latent force, is activated when we care for another person, placing that other person’s needs before our own.

And believe it or not, quantity matters.

The question is asked―If I have a thousand gold coins to give away, is it better to give all thousand coins to one person, or should I give one coin each to a thousand people?

I might think that it does not make a difference.  What matters is the bottom line.  The tax deduction is the same either way.  Or, I might say that one coin is not going to do anyone any good, but one thousand coins will surely make a difference in someone’s life.

But that is not what our tradition says.  It is better for me to give a thousand coins to a thousand people.  Why?  Because of the impact of one thousand face-to-face interactions on me.

The word v’natnu, meaning “and you shall give” is the longest palindrome in the Torah―vav nun tav nun vav.  This teaches us that the blessings of generosity flow forward to the receiver and backward to the giver.

What are those blessings?  Increased consciousness of the other.  Holiness.  Awareness of God.

What will it take for us to be less self-absorbed?  Deliberate effort.  We have got to train ourselves if we want to be able to resist the forces that drive us towards increased alienation.  And just like the thousand coins, quantity matters.

It is one of the reasons why our synagogue is so important.  Involvement in a religious community offers many ways to break out of self-absorption and see the other:  attending Shabbat services, where we pray side-by-side, and then share a meal together; learning together at a Limmud La-ad, Lifelong Jewish Learning, program; taking time out to comfort a mourner by attending a funeral or a shiva minyan; delivering a meal and visiting with someone in our community who is ill; helping to serve lunch at a homeless shelter.

In this new year, let us each identify individual actions that we can take that will change the question from “what do I want?” to “what does the person before me need?”

The accumulation of many such actions can eventually unstop our hearts, release our yetzer tov, connect us with others in a world of increasing alienation, and activate the Divine Presence in our world.

Like Abraham, who at the critical moment, heard the Divine Voice calling, and woke out of his narrow-minded self focus to see his bound son suffering before him – we too can wake up.

Shanah Tovah.

 

Thanks to Rabbi Ira Stone for providing ideas that went into this D’var Torah.