Thou Shalt Write a Torah – Rosh Hashanah 5780

While there is no such thing as 100%, we’ve done a great job at making ourselves more secure.  But at what cost?

We can assign a dollar value to it.  We introduced a voluntary security assessment this year.

There is also the cost in time.  I can’t even imagine how many hours I have spent going to security workshops, meeting with police officers, having conversations with staff and lay leaders,  interviewing security companies—all time that could have been spent doing something more productive.

There is the cost in stress.  That is a little more difficult to measure.  But fear, no matter how irrational, causes anxiety, which takes a physical toll on us.

For a synagogue community, there is another toll.  In placing so much emphasis on securing the body, we neglect the spirit.  

The walls of this building are now harder than ever, but what about what is inside these walls?

Emil Fackenheim was born in 1916 in Germany.  Like many enlightened German Jews of his generation, he embraced both aspects of his identity, believing that the flourishing Jewish community in Germany was secure.  Studying at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, he received his ordination as a Reform rabbi from Dr. Leo Baeck in 1938.

After Kristallnacht, Fackenheim was sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, but was released after 3 months.  He escaped to Scotland, where his parents joined him.  Fackenheim was then sent to Canada, where he was interned as an enemy alien for 16 months.  His older brother did not escape Europe, and was murdered in the Holocaust.

Fackenheim served as a pulpit rabbi for several years, and then became a Professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.  He became a Zionist in 1967, when he came to understand the central importance of the Jewish state.  He made aliyah in 1984 and joined the faculty at Hebrew University.  Fackenheim passed away in 2003.

In the 1960’s, Fackenheim first began to address the significance of the Holocaust to Jewish theology and philosophy.  He is most well-known for adding a 614th commandment to the traditional 613 commandments in the Torah:  “Don’t give Hitler a posthumous victory.”  In an essay, Fackenheim explains what he means:

… we are, first, commanded to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish. We are commanded, secondly, to remember in our very guts and bones the martyrs of the Holocaust, lest their memory perish. We are forbidden, thirdly, to deny or despair of God, however much we may have to contend with him or with belief in him, lest Judaism perish. We are forbidden, finally, to despair of the world as the place which is to become the kingdom of God, lest we help make it a meaningless place in which God is dead or irrelevant and everything is permitted. To abandon any of these imperatives, in response to Hitler’s victory at Auschwitz, would be to hand him yet other, posthumous victories.

Emil Fackenheim, Essay entitled “The 614th Commandment.”

To summarize, he lists four aspects to the 614th commandment:

  1. Survive
  2. Remember the martyrs of the Holocaust
  3. Don’t give up on God
  4. Don’t give up on the world

The 614th commandment has been criticized as being too focused on the tragedy of the Holocaust as the primary motivating force for Jewish survival.  It is not enough to merely survive.  Judaism, and the Jewish people, must be worthy of survival. Jewish survival must be for something positive, rather than merely denying Hitler a posthumous victory.

I cannot imagine that Fackenheim would have disagreed with that.  We have done a great job of physically ensuring Jewish survival.  We have hardened our synagogues, schools, and community centers.  Is there any religion that surrounds its houses of worship with as much security as we do?

The prowess of the Israel Defense Forces is legendary.  Jewish organizations closely monitor the media and keep close watch on antisemitic groups around the world.  We are an extremely vigilant people. But does this vigilance translate to an embrace of the positive reasons for Jewish existence?  We can have the tightest security imaginable, but what are we protecting?

We need to match, or even surpass, our commitment to security with a commitment to Jewish life.  Let’s fill our insides with Yiddishkeit, both in our synagogue and in our homes. Emil Fackenheim numbered his mitzvah 614.  This year at Sinai, we are going to embrace the immediately preceding commandment: mitzvah number 613:  Thou shalt write a Torah.  Maimonides explains the mitzvah clearly.

It is a positive commandment for each and every Jewish person to write a Torah scroll for themself…

Mishneh Torah, Laws of Tefillin, Mezuzah and the Torah Scroll, 7:1

Write a Torah scroll?!  This is a difficult mitzvah to achieve.  What do we need another Torah scroll for?  Don’t we have an ark full of them?  Can’t we just pull a printed copy off the shelf?  What is the point of such a difficult requirement?

Maimonides addresses this question as well. He writes:

Even if a person’s ancestors left behind a Torah scroll, it is a mitzvah to write one oneself.  A person who writes the scroll by hand is considered to be like someone who received it on Mount Sinai.  

Ibid.

This still does not address the very real objection that the skill needed to write a Torah scroll is substantial.  The Torah is a big book, and it takes a tremendous amount of knowledge and time to write it.  People in Maimonides’ day were no more capable of fulfilling this mitzvah than we are today.  So he continues:

[Someone who] does not know how to write it personally, [should have] others write it for him.

Ibid.

The solution is to hire a sofer, a scribe, to serve as our representative.  And for a bonus: if a person writes a single letter of the Torah, it is as if that person has written an entire Torah.  That is because if a single letter is missing, the entire Torah is pasul, or invalid.  So it is possible for a sofer to guide a person’s hand in writing the letter correctly, and then that person gets credit for the entire scroll.  That’s a pretty good deal.

What is so special about the Torah?

On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate the creation of the world.  Rabbinic teachings suggest that the physical world around us was not the first thing to come into existence.  A midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 1:1) states that, before declaring “Let there be light,” God first created the Torah and used it as a blueprint.

Similar to Plato’s Theory of Forms, God’s Torah is the perfect, non-physical template upon which our physical world is modeled.  Jewish tradition teaches that all Truth, all knowledge, is hidden within the words of Torah.  hafokh bah v’hafokh bah, ki khulah vah, Pirkei Avot teaches.  “Turn it and turn it, for all is in it.”  As we continue to plumb its depths from one generation to the next, revelation continues.

Just as the metaphysical Torah lies at the center of Creation, the physical Torah scroll is placed at the center of the synagogue, in the Holy Ark, modeled after the Holy of Holies. A Torah scroll is the most sacred item in Judaism.  This makes the 613th commandment a particularly meaningful one.

I am excited to announce that this year will be the “Year of the Torah” at Congregation Sinai.  By next Rosh Hashanah, we will have a new Torah scroll in our ark.  Thanks to Jeanette and Eli Reinhard, who are dedicating this Torah, every single one of us will have the opportunity to fulfill the 613th mitzvah, personally scribing a letter.

I would like to spend a few minutes talking about Sinai’s existing Sifrei Torah.  These are the scrolls that, as Maimonides describes, have been “left to us by our ancestors.”

When we look into the ark, we see the mantle, not the scroll underneath.  Right now, we have a beautiful set of High Holiday mantles that were custom made in 2013. What about what is inside?  The words are the same in all of them, but each of these scrolls is unique.  How did they get here?

In every case, there was once a blank parchment over which a skilled sofer toiledWhen he finished, a person or community purchased that Torah.  How many arks was it stored in?  How many B’nei Mitzvah were celebrated with it?  What was its journey?  How did it arrive at Congregation Sinai?  

I have been doing some research. Before the Holocaust, there was a lot of money to be made in Eastern Europe writing Sifrei Torah for Jews in America.  A sofer could earn enough by writing one Torah to support himself and his family for an entire year.  To give you an idea of how big this business was, there were around 5,000 soferim in the region around Warsaw alone.

As the Jewish population in America became more established, Ashkenazi immigrants would write to their relatives in the old country to arrange to have a Torah sent over.  

In Russia, the sofrut business ended abruptly in the early 1920’s when the Communists took over.  In fact, there are large stashes of Torah scrolls in Russia today, numbering in the thousands, that were confiscated during the Soviet era. In Poland, Romania, Hungary, and other communities, the business dried up in the 1930’s.  

Congregation Sinai was founded in 1954.  All seven of our Torah scrolls are from this pre-war period.  My best guess is that, by 1960, Sinai had acquired all of them.  Most likely, they were purchased on the used market by members of the young synagogue, although it is possible that some of them may have been passed down in the family. The eighth Torah, owned by the Mirkin family, has been on permanent loan since 1991.

A Torah is written on parchment, which is made from the skin of a kosher animal.  It takes 62 to 84 individual sheets of parchment, stitched together with animal sinew, to make one Torah.  The scroll is attached to wooden posts called atzei chayim, trees of life.

The sofer writes with a feather pen, using special ink.  There are precise rules about the correct formation of every single letter.  Rows and columns must be straight, and not one of the 304,805 letters can touch another.

We treat the Torah, which contains the words of God, like royalty.  We tie it together with a belt, dress it in a decorated mantle, crown it, and stand up to give it honor whenever it is removed from the ark.  To prevent deterioration, we don’t touch the letters, using a yad, hand, to point out the correct place in the text.

For a Torah scroll to be used during services, every single letter must be correct and legible.  A single mistake renders an entire scroll pasul.

Over time, Torah scrolls deteriorate.  The letters can fade, smear, or even crack off the parchment.  Parchment can tear, and stitching comes out.  If the letters deteriorate too much, a Torah becomes pasul.  A pasul Torah can be restored by a sofer.  A restoration involves cleaning, re-inking letters, sewing together torn or separated pieces of parchment, and patching holes.

Currently, two of the Torah scrolls in our ark are kasher.  Two are kasher b’diavad, which means that they are kosher for ritual purposes, but there are significant problems that, if not addressed, could eventually invalidate them.  Four of the scrolls are pasul and cannot be used in their current condition.  I’d like to say something about each of them.

Let’s start with the two kasher scrolls.  The scroll that we use week in and week out was donated by the Berman family in 1959.  The mantle was replaced in 1986 in memory of Mary Rokofsky, the grandmother of Sinai’s rabbi at the time, Alan Berkowitz.

The Smulyn Torah comes from Russia.  The current cover was dedicated by Al and Ruth Sporer in 1991 in memory of Al’s mother, Kreindel Perel bat Shmuel Yitzchak.  At some point, a coating of lime was painted on the back of the parchment so that it would look white whenever it was lifted.  That makes it extremely heavy, and unfortunately can also cause faster deterioration.  

Next come the two kasher b’diavad scrolls. Mr. and Mrs. Hyman Weisel donated this Torah, which is from Germany.  Several different scripts are apparent in various parts.  It was not uncommon for soferim in different villages to specialize in certain books of the Torah.  As long as the size and spacing lined up, the different segments could be stitched together into a single scroll.  The cover was replaced in 1986.

This Torah is on long term loan by Barry and Rosemarie Mirkin.  It has a special history at Sinai.  Barry’s grandfather commissioned a scribe to write it in Kiev in 1912, even dedicating a special room in the house.  He was planning on immigrating to America, and wanted to bring a Torah scroll with him.  He left it incomplete, intending to have it finished in America. Things did not work out as intended.  After many harrowing adventures, including being arrested, he and his wife landed in Massachusetts in 1923.  The Torah was shipped in a wooden crate, surrounded by sanitary pads.  He never got around to completing it.

In 1991, Barry brought the scroll to San Jose.  A sofer came to finish what Barry’s grandfather had begun 79 years earlier.  Members of the community were given the opportunity to participate.  We have photo albums of people writing letters with the sofer, fulfilling the 613th mitzvah.  Some of those people are in this room.  There are also photos of parades and dancing to celebrate its completion.

Sinai’s remaining Torah scrolls are pasul. This Polish Torah was donated by David and Ethel Hellman.  It was probably Sinai’s first Torah.  Congregation Sinai was formed in the Hellman living room when David needed to say kaddish for his father when he died in January, 1953.  This Torah was purchased in April that year from a Judaica shop in New York for $300 and donated to Sinai in his memory.  This cover is from 1991.

This Torah is from Russia, and was dedicated by Sol & Charlotte Ellner in memory of Sol’s parents.  The Torah can always be identified by its multi-colored handles.  The cover was donated in 1986 by Sinai’s Confirmation Class.

The next two scrolls are Sinai’s oldest, dating from the 19th century.  This mantle goes with our heaviest Torah, from Germany.  It was donated by Marcus Liebster, a Holocaust survivor, in memory of his parents.  I suspect that the red cover dates to the 1950’s when it was donated.

This Torah, our smallest, is from Poland, and was donated by the Konar family.  The cover was donated by the Sporer’s in 1991 in memory of Elka Sosha bat Feivel, Ruth and Maureen’s grandmother.

These eight scrolls bring with them a lot of memories, only some of which can be redeemed.  If they could speak, what would they say?

All of our scrolls are heavy.  So heavy that the number of people who feel comfortable performing hagbahah, or lifting the Torah up high after the reading, is limited.  Because of improvements in parchment making technology, new Torah scrolls are considerably lighter than older ones.  Sinai’s new Torah will be less than 15 pounds.  The writing will be clear and beautiful.

It will be the first time in Sinai’s history that a new Torah scroll, written especially for our community, will be placed in this ark.  Thank you again to Eli and Jeanette for making this a possibility for us.

The bulk of the Torah will be written by a sofer in Israel, where most Torah’s are written these days.  The sofer we are working with is Zerach Greenfield.  He will visit several times over the coming months to teach us about our most precious book.  He will also do some writing.  We want as many people as possible to write a letter: women, men, and children.

This is a potentially once in a lifetime opportunity for us.  

A side part of the plan is to create new Torah covers for all of the Sifrei Torah in the ark, to be used throughout the year.  They will complement one another thematically, and fit in with the look of the rest of our beautiful sanctuary.  Best of all, Sinai members will have an opportunity to participate in actually making the covers.  I cannot think of a better way for us to honor these ancient texts.

This is going to be an exciting year at Sinai.  There will be so many opportunities to get involved.  Take them.  Jewish continuity is not guaranteed by locking down our security and strengthening our walls.  It’s secured by filling our hearts.

This year, we are going to put a new Torah in the heart of our synagogue.  

May it fill our hearts with love and pride. 

Shanah Tovah Umetukah.  May we have a sweet new year.

If the seventh day arrives and there is nobody there to observe it, is it holy? – Rosh Hashanah 5780

What is today’s date?

{The second of Tishrei.}

What happened on this day that we are commemorating?

{The world was created.}

It is actually a bit more nuanced than this.  For creation was not a one day event.  It took seven: six days for God to bring into existence everything that is, and a seventh day for God to cease working and rest.

As the chronology goes, this week-long creation began on the 25th day of Elul—last month.  This means that the first day of Rosh Hashanah, which we observed yesterday, corresponded to the 6th day, the day on which God created humanity. Today, then, the second day of Rosh Hashanah, is the seventh and final day of Creation, when God rested.

But is this true?

Let me get something out of the way.  The world is not 5,780 years old.  Do not look to the Torah for either a scientific or historical account of how the universe came into being.  That is not the Torah’s purpose.  Classic commentators tell us: The Torah is written in language that human beings can comprehend.  Do not think that we can understand anything about how God created the world.

In our Mahzor, we declare Hayom harat olam.  “Today the world is conceived.”  But, nowhere in the Bible is there a direct indication that today is the birthday of the world.

As late as the Talmud (BT Rosh Hashanah 10b-11a), rabbis were arguing about when the world was created.  Go figure.  Rabbi Eliezer says it was in Tishrei.  But Rabbi Yehoshua says that it was in Nisan, in the Spring.  Each of them bring biblical verses to try to prove their points, and the Talmud raises objections to both. Our observance today clearly follows the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer.  

But how can either of them know when the world was created, or when the new year should begin?  For that matter, why does the week have seven days?  Is there something inherently special about the number 7?

The ancient Romans had an 8 day week.  The Aztecs and Mayans used a 13 day week.  During the French Revolution, there was an attempt to change over to a ten day week, which was seen as more modern and scientific.  It failed after nine and a half years.

Is there something inherently special about Tishrei vs. Nisan, or about a week that lasts 7 days, as opposed to 8, 10, or 13? Are these numbers independently meaningful, or are they significant because we decided to make them so?  If the seventh day arrives and there is nobody there to observe it, is it holy?

This is the theological equivalent of asking, “If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around, does it make a sound?”

Our sages have answers to these questions.  They draw a distinction between the counting of the days of the week and the determination of when the months and the years are supposed to begin. The responsibility and authority for setting the calendar is granted to human beings.  In ancient times, the Sanhedrin accepted testimony from witnesses who had claimed to see the new moon.

When the Sanhedrin was satisfied, they would declare: M’kudash M’kudash.  Sanctified!  Sanctified  That day was declared to be Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month.  The correct observance of holidays depended on the decision that the Sanhedrin made. They knew exactly when the moon was supposed to appear.  They understood the astronomy quite well, probably better than most of us in the room.

But, if it happened to be a cloudy night, or if the there was a problem with the witnesses, too bad.  The declaration would have to be put off until the next day.  This meant that the month sometimes began on the “wrong day.”  

When the Sanhedrin stopped meeting, the rabbis implemented the fixed calendar which we still use today.  They decided that Rosh Hashanah should never occur on a Sunday, Wednesday, or Friday.  Why?  To prevent Yom Kippur from falling on a Friday or a Sunday,  or Hoshanah Rabah falling on Shabbat, which would be really inconvenient.

Whenever the new moon appears on one of those days, Rosh Hashanah has to be delayed.  On particular occasions, it has to be pushed off by up to two days.

This goes against what the Torah says very plainly in today’s maftir:  “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion.” (Numbers 29:1)  According to the Torah, our holiday should begin when the moon first appears.  Period.

This year, the new moon made its first appearance Sunday morning, at 5:50 am.  But, we cannot observe Rosh Hashanah on a Sunday, so we artificially pushed it off until the following day.

Does it seem strange that human beings would manipulate the calendar so brazenly?  What gave our ancestors the right, and why do we keep listening to them?

According to ancient teachings, in fact, permission and responsibility to set the calendar is granted to people. That is why, when we recite the kiddush for Rosh Hashanah, we say m’kadesh yisrael v’yom hazikaron.  Praised are You God, who sanctifies the people Israel and the Day of Remembrance.

Israel is mentioned first.  Why?  Because we are the ones who determine the day on which the holiday is going to be observed.  Don’t worry, everyone.  It’s all kosher.  We’ve got permission.

When it comes to Shabbat, however, there is absolutely no astronomical significance to a seven day week.  The blessing for kiddush is simply m’kadesh haShabbat.  Praise are you God, who sanctifies the Shabbat.  Human beings have no say in the matter.

How do we know that the day we think is Shabbat actually is Shabbat?  How confident are we that human beings have been counting to 7 consistently for the past 5,780 years? Is there anything special about the seventh day, or is it completely arbitrary?

An ancient midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 11:5; Pesikta Rabbati 23) poses that exact question in a conversation between Rabbi Akiva and the Roman Governor of Judea, Quintus Tineius Rufus.  The midrash names him Turnusrufus HaRasha.  Tyranus Rufus the Wicked.  He governed Judah during the 120’s and early 130’s, CE, during the beginning of the Bar Kochba revolt.

A number of legends describe the confrontations between these two figures.  Usually, Akiva comes out on top after the Roman tries to lay a rhetorical trap for him. It was Tineius Rufus who ordered the execution of Rabbi Akiva, when he refused to obey the decree banning the teaching of Torah.  But in a reversal from one particularly dramatic tale, (BT Avodah Zarah 20a) Rufus’ wife divorces him, converts to Judaism, and then marries Akiva.

In this story (Genesis Rabbah 11:5), the wicked Turnus Rufus asks Rabbi Akiva: “Why does this day differ from all other days?”  [Sound familiar?]

Akiva has a quick comeback, “Why does this man differ from all other men?”

Tinneus Rufus is already confused.  “What did I ask you and what did you answer me?’  He does not understand his own question, much less Akiva’s response.

So Akiva breaks it down for him.  “You asked me, ‘why is the Sabbath different from all other days?’ and I answered you, ‘Why is Rufus different from all other men?'”

“That’s easy,” laughs the Roman proudly.  “The emperor wanted to honor him.”

Akiva responds.  “It’s the same with Shabbat.  The Holy One wished to honor it.”

Rufus is not going to be swayed so easily.  “Prove it!” he tells Akiva.  In other words, he is asking if there is anything at all that is different about the seventh day; in the physical or even in the metaphysical world.  It’s a good question.  The rabbis often put good questions which might border on being heretical in the mouths of Romans.

“Let the River Sambatyon prove it!” Akiva declares.  The Sambatyon is a mythical river, the location of which is unknown.  He continues, “The Sambatyon flows along, carrying stones in its current for the whole week, but on the Sabbath, it stops flowing, allowing the stones to rest.”  

Rufus will have none of that.  “You are avoiding the question.”

“Fine,” Akiva says.  “Then let this necromancer prove it.  For every day, he summons the dead to rise up from Gehenna, but not on the Sabbath.  Go check it out with your father.”

So Rufus goes to test Akiva’s theory.  He has his own father summoned from the grave.  Every single day, his father comes up, but when the Sabbath arrives, he is a no-show.  Just to be sure, Rufus summons his father again on the following day, Sunday.  His father’s spirit is there, right on time.

So Rufus asks him, “Father!  Are you suddenly shomer shabbos?! Did you become Jewish after you died?  Did you convert?  Why did you come every day of the week but not on the Sabbath?” 

The father explains.  “Those who do not rest on the sabbath of their own free will while they are alive are forced to observe it here, against their will.”

“But what work is there from which you need to rest?” his son asks.

“Every day we are subjected to judgment and punishment,” Rufus’ father responds.  “But on Shabbat we get a break.”

So Rufus returns to Akiva.  “If it is as you say, that the Holy One observes the Sabbath, then then let Him not cause the winds to blow on that day, or cause the rains to fall, or make the plants grow?” 

This, of course, is the real question.  The earth keeps spinning, the plants keep growing, paying no heed to the Sabbath.  If everything happens according to God’s will, why is there no evidence of the sabbath whatsoever in the natural world?  We are asked to rest on the seventh day, just as God rested on the seventh day.  So how come nature doesn’t get a break?

Here, Akiva gets frustrated, “Let this man’s breath depart from him,” he mutters.  Then he answers with a particularly legalistic explanation.

First, let me explain.  On the Sabbath, there is a prohibition against carrying things outside of one’s private domain.  You may have heard of an eruv.  It is a technical way of combining lots of individual private domains into one giant, shared private space.  This enables observant Jews to carry things outside of their homes on the sabbath.  

So Akiva says to Rufus, “The entire world is God’s private domain, therefore it is permissible for God to cause all of these things to continue on the sabbath.”

And that is the end of the midrash.

With no disrespect to Rabbi Akiva, this is not a particularly convincing answer.  Certainly not one that Rufus would accept, or even understand.  God moving the winds and making the rain fall is the equivalent of a person carrying an object around the yard?!  Come on.  To come up with this answer, Akiva has to utilize a loophole developed by the rabbis, a legal invention that is nowhere in the Torah.

What matters to Tineius Rufus?  The power that he wields over Akiva and other men.  The honor given to him by the King.  He is a nihilist.  There is nothing more than the power and honor that a person can grab in their lifetime.

Akiva struggles to explain that there is something deeper, something that can only be appreciated by acknowledging the power of something that cannot be seen.

If the seventh day arrives and there is nobody there to observe it, is it holy?

We ask the same question about all sorts of things, not just Shabbat.  Is there any inherent meaning to the particular rituals and practices of Judaism?

All of this is really about the sacredness of time.  I would argue that there is, in fact, no inherent holiness from one moment to the next.  It takes people to make time sacred.

This requires from us a leap of faith.  To treat time as sacred is to stand in awe of Creation; to be aware simultaneously of how small and insignificant we are are and of how special and blessed we are.

We embrace a day as holy, knowing full well that the selection of this particular day is arbitrary, that the concept of holiness itself has no physical reality whatsoever.  By embracing the holiness of the day anyways, we relinquish the power to make time sacred to something greater than us.

This is the paradox inherent in ritual.  Ritual is just a series of symbolic actions.  But those rituals have the capacity to free us and make our lives infinitely meaningful.  But only if we take a leap.

What are the rituals of Rosh Hashanah?  What are the stories that we tell about this day that express its holiness and give it meaning?

Hayom.  On this day, we celebrate God’s creation of the world.  Earth is one year older.  It is a party.  A time for joy.

On this day, we sound the shofar.  It rings like a trumpet, announcing the King’s enthronement.  The blast recalls God’s mercy in accepting a ram for sacrifice instead of Isaac.  It wakens us to teshuvah.  The cry of the shofar evokes our own cries as we realize our mistakes.

On this day, God, the King, stands in Judgment.  Our deeds from the past year are weighed, and our destiny for the year ahead is determined.  But we have within us the ability to avert the severity of the decree through our actions: repentance, prayer, and tzedakah.

From this day until Yom Kippur, we can appeal the verdict.  We hope to push God up from the seat of judgment to the seat of mercy.  We know that we are imperfect, but we try our best, and we believe that we can be better, that personal transformation can and does happen.

So to all of us, on this second day of Rosh Hashanah, the day on which God rested after six days of work, the 5,780th birthday of the world, may this year be filled with blessings.  May our lives be enriched by the love of our family, friends, and community.  May this be a year of personal growth as we engage in learning and in working on our midot, our characters.  May God grant us peace: here at home, in Israel, and around the world.  May we and our loved ones be blessed with health, and with strength to face the challenges that will inevitably come.  

L’Shanah Tovah Tikateivu v’Techatemu.  May we all be written and sealed for a good year.

The Head & Not The Tail, The Top & Not The Bottom – Ki Tavo 5779

Rosh Hashanah is coming, and with it, an entire menu of culinary treats.  Apples and honey.  Those are obvious.  The challah is round—to symbolize a crown; and filled with raisins—for a sweet new year.

But there is more.  The Talmud recommends a number of foods to eat on Rosh Hashanah, such as beans, leeks, beets, and dates.  The Aramaic names for each of these foods form puns.

For example, rubia—”beans,”sounds like yirbu—”increase”, as in “May our merits increase.”

Karti—”leeks”—sounds like yikartu—”cut off”.  Silkei—”beets”—sounds like yistalku—”removed”.  Tamrei—”dates”—sounds like yitamu—”finished”.  All three of these can be eaten as if to say, “May our enemies be cut off, removed, or finished.”  Take your pick.  Or eat all three.

Other foods have been added to the list.  Rimon—”pomegranate”—”May our mitzvot be as numerous as the seeds in the pomegranate.”  It also happens to be symbolic of fertility, so interpret that as you will.

But the best food to eat on Rosh Hashanah—actually, this is debatable—is the head of a sheep or fish.  Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg would eat the head of a ram, to symbolize the ram that was sacrificed instead of Isaac, which we read about on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.

Does anybody here follow this custom?  In my house, we buy gummy fish, cut them in half, and eat just the head.

What do we say when we eat the fish head?  Nih’yeh l’rosh, v’lo l’zanav.  “May we be like the head, and not like the tail.”

It is a strange expression, and it comes from this morning’s Torah portion.

In Parashat Ki Tavo, Moses describes a covenant ceremony that the Israelites will perform as soon as they cross over into the Promised Land, which they be doing without him.  As an entire nation, they renew their commitment to God.  During the ceremony, they recite a litany of blessings and curses which will befall the nation as a consequence of whether the people follow God’s commandments.

The blessings are what we might expect: Abundant rain in the right season.  Successful harvests.  Prosperity.  Victory against enemies.  The other nations of the earth will stand in awe of Israel.

Then, after these tangible blessings have been pronounced, there is one additional blessing that seems less specific.  Un’tanekha Adonai l’rosh v’lo l’zanav; v’hayita rak l’ma’alah v’lo tih’yeh l’mata.  “The Lord will make you the head, not the tail; you will always be at the top and never at the bottom…”  (Deut. 28:13)

The curses, beginning a few verses later, are the inverse of the blessings, and then some.  Included among the curses is the declaration that the stranger “…shall be the head and you shall be the tail.”  (28:44)

This is clearly where the Rosh Hashanah practice of eating the sheep or fish head comes from.  But what does it mean?

On its face, it seems fairly straightforward.  It is a metaphor for the economic and political success that Israel will experience if it behaves righteously.  Even today, we use the term “head” to refer to a leader, or the person at the top.  The “tail” is the follower. There is internal evidence in the Torah that the term refers specifically to being a creditor nation, rather than a debtor nation.

Mystical interpretations, however, identify hidden, spiritual meanings in the words of the Torah.  The Chassidic Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, author of the Torah commentary Kedushat Levi, suggests a deeper meaning.

He begins his commentary by asking why the Torah bothers to include the “tail” or the “bottom.”  Shouldn’t it have been enough to have said Un’tanekha Adonai l’rosh; v’hayita rak l’ma’alah—”The Lord will make you the head and you shall always be at the top”?  Adding “and not the tail,” and “never at the bottom” is superfluous.  And the Torah never wastes ink. Here is the hidden meaning.  Please bear with me.  This is kind of esoteric.

Reality, for human beings, is made up of three domains:  1.  The domain of abstract thought; 2.  The domain of speech; and 3.  The domain of action.  

Although Levi Yitzchak does not describe it this way, think about human consciousness.  Our experience of reality is no more than electrical signals passing between neurons in different parts of our brains.  For those electrical signals to be translated into awareness, what we might describe as thoughts or feelings, we need to perform an act of translation. My mind compares these patterns of electrical signals with my previous experiences of electrical signals.  At its most basic level, that is what language is.

I see a creature moving.  It has four legs, fur, and pointy ears.  It makes a noise.  My mind tells me, “this is a dog.”

Why doesn’t my mind say “cat?”  Not because I have seen this particular animal before, but because I have previous experiences with other creatures which have been defined as dogs. Language is the act of defining abstract experiences by comparing them with previous experiences.  Language also enables me to communicate my memory of those experiences to someone else.

After I have translated my abstract thoughts into language, I can then act.  I can manipulate the physical world around me.

We operate in all three domains at all times.  

The mystic sees the first domain, that of abstract thought, as the highest.  The essence of God lies somewhere beyond, but it is the closest a human being can become to God’s domain.  In Kabbalah, God’s essence is described as the Ein Sof, which literally means, “there is no end.”  Or, it cannot be defined.  God is completely abstract.  No word will capture God’s essence. The ultimate goal of the mystic is to attach oneself to God.  This can only be accomplished through the first domain, that of abstract thought.

Now we come back to the head and the tail, the top and the bottom.  Each of the three domains has a head and a tail.  A person who ascends to the head of a lower domain touches upon the tail of the next higher domain.  This is how Levi Yitzchak understands the Torah’s language of head and tail, top and bottom. When the Jewish people is at its best, it approaches the head of the highest domain, abstract thought, and is closest to God.

Let’s bring this back down to earth.  Through our actions, our speech, and our thought, each of us has the capacity to be better.  Actions, speech and thought are related.  As we improve one, we begin to improve the next.  

I work on my physical actions with the world around me: How I treat people, how I earn and spend my money, how I express compassion.  When I achieve success with my actions, it then leads to my speech.

My spiritual health is also about the words that come out of my mouth.  Controlling speech can be even more difficult than controlling behavior.  How hard is it to not gossip: to use language that builds people up rather than puts people down; to only read words online that make me grow?

When I purify my speech, that is when I can begin to purify my thoughts.

Moses describes the ultimate spiritual blessing:  “The Lord will make you the head, not the tail; you will always be at the top and never at the bottom…”  When the Israelites fulfill their covenantal obligations, they will achieve the closest possible relationship with God. Rabbi Levi says that this is not only a lesson for the nation, but for each of us.

As we approach the new year, we are taking stock.  It might be helpful to understand ourselves as being comprised of these three domains of thought, speech, and action.  The religious goal, indeed the human goal, is to improve on all three.

At the Rosh Hashanah meal, whether we eat a sheep’s head, a ram’s head, a salmon head, or a Swedish Fish head, may it symbolize for us that the year to come will be one in which we are the head, not the tail, and always at the top, never the bottom.”

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.