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.

How to Disagree – Rosh Hashanah 5777

Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan were the best of friends.  Their lives were intertwined from the Study Hall, to the home, and to their graves.  (BT Bava Metzia 84a)

Before they meet, Resh Lakish is an outlaw.  One day, as he is walking next to the Jordan River, he sees what he thinks is a beautiful woman in the water.  He enthusiastically removes his weapons and armor and jumps into the water.  To his surprise, the bathing beauty turns out, upon closer inspection, to be none other than Rabbi Yohanan.

“You are too pretty to be a man,” Resh Lakish declares.  “This beauty is wasted on you.  You should be a woman.”

With a sly look at the highwayman, Rabbi Yohanan responds, “But I have a sister.  And she is even more beautiful than I.  If you will repent of your wicked past, you can marry her.”

Reish Lakish eagerly agrees.  So Rabbi Yohanan brings him into the Beit Midrash and teaches him Torah and Mishnah, and transforms Resh Lakish into a great scholar.

They become brothers-in-law, study partners, and best friends.

One day, they are arguing a point of law in the study hall, and things get a little out of hand.   In a moment of frustration, Rabbi Yohanan brings up Resh Lakish’s past as a brigand.  The insults fly back and forth, and before they know it, they are refusing to speak with one another.  Rabbi Yohanan’s anger and hurt swirls about, invoking the spiritual realm.  As sometimes happens with holy men in Talmudic stories, this causes Resh Lakish to fall gravely ill.

Resh Lakish’s wife, Rabbi Yohanan’s sister, visits her brother in desperation, hoping his spiritual intervention might save her spouse.  “Please, my brother, pray for my husband, if only for the sake of his children, your nephews.”

Yohanan refuses.  “Your children can become orphans.  God will provide for them.”

“If not for the children’s sake, then, save him for my sake.  Don’t allow me to become a widow!”

“God takes care of widows,” he stubbornly insists.

Resh Lakish, without his friend to intercede on his behalf, dies.

Rabbi Yohanan, bereft of his friend, falls into a deep depression.  The Rabbis from the Study Hall are so concerned that they send Rabbi Elazar, a mild-mannered scholar, to console him.

Elazar sits by Yohanan’s bedside, and they begin to study together.  Every time Yohanan makes a statement, Elazar nods enthusiastically in agreement, and offers additional arguments to support him.

Yohanan is exasperated.  “Whenever I used to make a statement to Resh Lakish, he would have twenty four objections to me, to which I would have twenty four responses.  That is how we would deepen our knowledge of the law.  And you tell me, ‘Oh, here is something that supports you.’  I don’t need you to tell me that.  I already know that I am right!”

In despair, Rabbi Yohanan rends his garments in mourning and is overcome with weeping.  “Where are you, O son of Lakish?  Where are you?”  He cannot be consoled.

Seeing that there is no remedy for his heartbreak, the Rabbis of the Study Hall pray to God for mercy, and Yohanan dies.

This rich and tragic Talmudic story conveys so well, with deep emotion, Jewish values of machloket, disagreement.

We, as individuals and as a society, are in deep need of guidance when it comes to dealing with those who think differently than us.  Rosh Hashanah offers us an opportunity for taking stock of how we interact with one another in our homes and in our society.  With an election looming, it is an especially important time for us seek productive ways to address disagreement.  Perhaps our tradition can be a source of wisdom.

Let us be careful not to play the revisionist game and claim that there was a glorious time when human beings used to speak to each other with respect and honored opponents who held differing opinions.  And let us not be so naive as to suggest that Jewish culture, in contrast to all other traditions, has always tolerated other ideas.  It is simply not true.

But there is a well-developed idea within our intellectual history that portrays how human beings ought to treat those with whom we disagree.

The goal is not just the intellectual pursuit of Truth, but also the practical implementation of rules for society.  How can we live together when we disagree so fundamentally about how we should live?

The pursuit of truth and peace is best achieved through a blend of vigorous disagreement and mutual respect.  For us Jews, these are deeply held values that are the products of our own unique history.

For 2,000 years, we exercised our minds.  We perfected the art of seeking theoretical analyses of Biblical passages.  We debated the interpretations of the interpretations of the interpretations.  In great depth, we studied laws that had not been implemented for hundreds of years, and for which there was no hope of actual implementation.

As a result, we Jews got really good at reading texts and arguing about ideas.  Perhaps this was the result of our being an exiled people.  Without political autonomy, and no ability to exercise power beyond the confines of our small communities, we turned inward.  We expressed our power on the page and in the study hall.

If we could not fully implement our vision of what life ought to be in the world, we were at least free to develop a vision of the ideal in our minds.  In so doing, we held on to four primary principles of machloket, argument.

1.  Passionate argument is a good thing.  It makes us sharper, and it brings us closer to the truth.

2.  We must respect our opponents, even when we disagree with them.

3.  We can only claim to be in pursuit of truth if we are willing to be convinced by our adversaries’ arguments.

4.  Even when we cannot agree, we still need to find a way to live together.

If we could introduce these four principles into our current relationships, we would have a far more cohesive society.

The tragic story of Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Lakish introduces the issues with great humanity.  The situation begins to decline in the Study Hall.  In a moment of weakness, Rabbi Yohanan takes what, until that moment had been an intellectual disagreement, to heart.  Instead of offering a logical counterargument or accepting defeat, he insults his friend.  He knows exactly where to strike so that it will hurt the most.  He drags up Resh Lakish’s sordid past.

Never mind that Resh Lakish has done teshuvah, that he has left that world long behind.  In bringing it up, Rabbi Yohanan makes a power move, as if to say, “I may have lost this argument, but I am still more pious, holy, and wise than you.”

How often have we heard that?!  Resorting to name calling?  Dredging up personal attacks to avoid engaging with ideas?

Rabbi Yochanan holds the grudge, refusing to intervene to save his friend.  Even his sister cannot break through his stubbornness.

Only when it is too late does Rabbi Yochanan discover what he has done.  He realizes the value of argument.  With Resh Lakish as his intellectual jousting partner, Yochanan was sharpened.  He gained a deeper understanding of truth.

It is remarkable how relevant this ancient story is to our time.

At the extreme are ISIS and their ilk, who seek to create a world in which all who do not share their vision are killed or enslaved.

But there are plenty of other ways, permeating every layer of our civilization, in which we are becoming more polarized.  Our openness to even hearing the opinions of those who disagree with us seems to be waning.  This is a disturbing and dangerous trend.

The current presidential election campaign has been the most in-your-face example of this.  But then again, isn’t every election ugly?  This year is perhaps not an aberration, but a culmination of the building polarization of the past couple of decades.

We might point to the rise of certain consumer technology tools that have fed the flames of this divide.  The popularity of Twitter, with its short, truncated format, lends itself to oversimplification and name-calling.  The extreme ease of passing along internet memes through various forms of social media enables the ugliest characterizations and rumors to circumnavigate world with lightning-fast speed.

I do not mean to sound like a luddite, but there is a terribly harmful side to the miracle of instant communication.

Quite disturbing has been the trend over the past few years to suppress speech at, of all places, college campuses.  There have been numerous efforts to disinvite speakers – many of which have won.  Lecturers have been spat upon.  Speakers have been shouted down to such a degree that they could not continue.  Campus newspapers have been defunded.  Universities have drafted speech codes, the violation of which can result in professors losing jobs or students being expelled.

The evidence reveals that it is perpetrated by both the left and the right, sometimes in response to one another.  Students and professors have reported feeling that they have to self-suppress out of fear of repercussions.

These trends are creating pockets of like-minded thinkers who never have to face ideas that challenge them.  In the tragic story, it is the replacement of the feisty Resh Lakish by the “yes man,” Rabbi Elazar, that – quite literally – kills Rabbi Yochanan.  We should read it as a warning.

When we do permit ourselves to hear other perspectives, do we truly listen with open minds?

The next story is about the famous schools of Hillel and Shammai (BT Eruvin 13b).  It teaches us about the importance of respecting our opponents.

Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel once got into an impassioned argument over a matter of Jewish law.  One school says, “The law is in agreement with our view,” while the other claims, with equal certainty, “The law is in agreement with our view.”

Three years pass without any progress.  One day, a Heavenly Voice suddenly booms across the study hall: Elu v’elu divrei Elohim chayim hen.  “These and these are the words of the living God.”  V’halakhah k’veit Hillel.  “But the law is in agreement with the rulings of Beit Hillel.”

“But how can this be?” the Talmud asks.  If “both are the words of the living God,” what entitles Beit Hillel to determine the law?

The Talmud answers, “Because they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of Beit Shammai and were even so humble as to mention the opinions of Beit Shammai before their own.”

We draw two lessons from this remarkable story.  The first, elu v’elu divrei Elohim chayim.  “These and these are the words of the living God.”  Strangely, the Talmud does not ask how it is possible that both Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai could be correct.  It is a given.

This should remind us that, as sure as we might be of our rightness, someone else is just as sure of theirs.  It’s not to say that there is no such thing as truth and everything is whatever a person says it is.  But indeed, there is often more than one solution to a problem.

I learned this lesson from my tenth grade Algebra 3/Trigonometry teacher, Mr. Evanson.  One would think that in a field like math, there is a right and a wrong answer.  But Mr. Evanson was much more concerned with how we solved a problem than in the answer we came up with.  What excited him was seeing different ways of approaching the challenge.  I learned that, even in math, there is often more than one way to arrive at the truth.

So what made the difference?  Not superior logic or better proofs.  It was intellectual openness and respect for difference.  That is why we follow Beit Hillel.  Hillel taught his students to learn from and honor their adversaries.  If I have to state my opponent’s arguments before my own, it means that I have to pay close attention and have an open mind.

Beit Hillel teaches us another lesson: we should always be willing to be proven wrong.  A Mishnah begins Elu d’varim she’chazru Beit Hillel l’horot k’divrei Beit Shammai.  “These are the matters about which Beit Hillel changed their minds and taught according to Beit Shammai.”  And then the Mishnah goes on to list a number of laws.  (Mishnah Eduyot 1:12)

The Mishnah does not need to tell us this.  It could just state the outcome.  Indeed, the Mishnah usually states the majority opinion, along with significant minority opinions.  But to cite opinions that are later abandoned is unusual.

Maimonides explains that it is to be lesson for us.  “For when these honored, pious, generous, and distinguished scholars of the School of Hillel saw that the view of those who disagreed with them was to be preferred to their own, and that others’ deliberations were more correct – they agreed with the others and retracted their view.  How much more should other people, when they see that the truth lies with their opponent, incline to the truth and not be stubborn…”

And he goes on to say that “even if you are able to use proofs to buttress your position, but if you know your friend’s position is correct and that your proofs to the contrary are only due to his weakness in argument, or because you are able to pervert the truth, accept his version and forsake further argument.”

Maimonides nails it.  How often is it that we hang on to a position out of stubbornness and ego?

Wouldn’t it be refreshing to occasionally hear a politician say, “My opponent is right.  After considering all the facts and the arguments, I have concluded that my earlier position is wrong.  And now I think differently.”  A candidate who had the humility and the courage to say that would probably earn my vote.

But what about when there is no resolution – when two sides are firmly entrenched in their positions about how society should function?

A Mishnah tells how Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagree about several areas of personal status law.  While it might not seem so today, in the ancient world, this was a huge deal.  It could mean the difference between a child being legitimate or illegitimate, which could have life-long implications affecting marriage and social acceptance.

The two schools disagree with one another.  Nevertheless, the Mishnah concludes, “even though the one invalidated and the other validated, Beit Shammai did not refrain from marrying women from Beit Hilllel, and Beit Hillel did not refrain from marrying women from Beit Shammai.”  (Mishnah Eduyot 4:8)

As much as each side “knew” that it was correct, they shared a higher value.  “We are one people.  Even if we can’t come to an agreement, we will still find a way to live together.”

This is such a lovely example.  Because the way the Mishnah finds to express their shared value is in the most intimate way possible.  Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai joined their houses together.  They intermarried with one another.

This would be like the Montague’s and the Capulet’s getting together to throw an engagement party for Romeo and Juliet.

While we may not be able to change the polarization that plagues our world, in this new year, we can begin to take small but significant steps in our own lives, drawing upon the ancient wisdom of our tradition.

Judaism treasures machloket.  Vigorous questioning and challenging of each other offers us the surest path to truth.

In doing so, however, we must always maintain the dignity of our opponents, honoring them even when we disagree.

We also have to be open to being convinced.  If we are not willing to change our minds, than we cannot claim to be seeking truth.

And finally, we have got to remain sincerely committed to living together in peace, despite our differences.

In this new year, may we have the courage and humility to argue, listen, and respect one another with open minds and open hearts.

Shanah Tovah.

Shimon Peres, z”l: Did I bring more good to the world today, or bad? – Nitzavim 5776

The entire world this week mourns the passing of Shimon Peres, alav hashalom, who died Wednesday at 93 years of age.  Many obituaries have been written in the past few days about him, which I encourage all of us to read.

Peres was involved in the creation, building and flourishing of the State of Israel more than any other person.  As a young man, Peres was active in the Haganah and became a close advisor and protege to David Ben Gurion.  He was responsible for breaking the siege and acquiring military equipment in the War of Independence.  Peres built up the military during the early years of the state.  He led behind the scenes diplomacy with France leading up to the 1956 Suez war.  Then, he was in charge of creating Israel’s nuclear program in the 1960’s.

In the years after the Six Day War, Peres encouraged Jewish settlement in the West Bank, although he eventually came to see it as an obstacle to peace.  He, along with Yitzchak Rabin, was an architect of the Oslo Accords, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.

Peres was an early and constant promoter of technology.  He saw economic growth and cooperation as the path towards closer relations and eventual peace with other nations, including Israel’s enemies.

Shimon Peres served in the Knesset for nearly five decades, and held every major position in government, including Prime Minister and President.

In his last public interview, conducted on August 31, Peres spoke about the exercise of power.

You have to decide either to be a giver or a taker. The biggest mistake is if you’ll use the power to take. The greatest wisdom is if you give.

That, he explains, has been the secret to America’s great success.  And it is has driven his approach to building stronger connections between Israel and other nations.  Peres shared a story in which he was recently meeting with Vladimir Putin, whom he described as a very good friend.  Peres rebuked him for being a taker rather than a giver.

“You behave like a czar,” [he] said…

“What did the czars do? They developed two cities, St. Petersburg and Moscow, as a showcase. Whatever you want, you will find there. The rest of Russia is like Nigeria covered with snow. Your people are dying. You don’t give them life. You think they’ll forgive you?”

“Why is America great?” I asked him. “Because they were givers. Why is Europe in trouble? Because they are takers. America is giving; people think it’s because they are generous. I think it’s because they are wise. If you give, you create friends. The most beneficial investment is making friends.”

“America had the guts to take the Marshall Plan, a huge piece of their GNP that they gave to this dying Europe. And in this way, they have shown that this is the best investment in the world.”

A cultural Zionist, Shimon Peres nevertheless believed strongly that Zionism had to be rooted in timeless Jewish values, and felt that the current generation had gone off track from that ideal.

But Peres was always an optimist.  Respected by everyone across the political spectrum, he has been Israel’s chief visionary for peace for the last two decades.  It was a hope that he never gave up.

Peres recently reached out to meet with Micah Goodman, a philosopher and teacher at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.  Goodman is the most prominent writer on Jewish philosophy in Israel today.  A few years ago, he wrote a best-seller entitled The Secrets of the Guide for the Perplexed about Moses Maimonides.  (Only in Israel would a book like that be a best seller.)  It was recently translated into English as Maimonides and the Book that Changed Judaism.

Peres wanted to meet with Goodman, whom he described as his teacher, to discuss Maimonides.

“I find myself in his apartment in Tel Aviv,” Mr. Goodman recalled. “He is wearing his jeans. He wants to understand Maimonides.

“He told me that before he goes to sleep he thinks to himself, ‘Did I bring more good to the world today, or bad?’ He kept a balance sheet. He was like a 16-year-old idealist. At 93.”

That question, “Did I bring more good to the world today, or bad?” summarizes the entire theme of the High Holidays.  For a 93 year old man to retain that sense of mission and responsibility is incredible.  Shimon Peres’ entire life is evidence that this question has always driven him, from earlier times when he was building up Israel’s capacity to survive and thrive, to more recent times when it had achieved power and found itself in a position from which it could strive for peace.

I suspect that the teaching by Maimonides to which Peres is referring is from the Mishneh Torah, in his section on Teshuvah.  (Hilchot Teshuvah 2:1,3-4) Maimonides writes:

Each and every person has merits and sins. A person whose merits exceed his sins is [termed] righteous. A person whose sins exceed his merits is [termed] wicked. If [his sins and merits] are equal, he is termed a Beinoni.

The same applies to an entire country. If the merits of all its inhabitants exceed their sins, it is [termed] righteous. If their sins are greater, it is [termed] wicked. The same applies to the entire world.

Just as a person’s merits and sins are weighed at the time of his death, so, too, the sins of every inhabitant of the world together with his merits are weighed on the festival of Rosh HaShanah. If one is found righteous, his [verdict] is sealed for life. If one is found wicked, his [verdict] is sealed for death. A Beinoni’s verdict remains tentative until Yom Kippur. If he repents, his [verdict] is sealed for life. If not, his [verdict] is sealed for death…

And this is the teaching which I believe Peres found so inspirational:

…Accordingly, throughout the entire year, a person should always look at himself as equally balanced between merit and sin and the world as equally balanced between merit and sin. If he performs one sin, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of guilt and brings destruction upon himself.

And so Peres, to his dying day, asked himself, “Did I bring more good to the world today, or bad?”

Is this a question that each of us can ask ourselves?  Maybe it is only a question for great individuals.  The rest of us can be free to go about our lives day by day, just trying to get by.

This morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Nitzavim, would suggest otherwise.  It opens with Moses leading the Israelites through a covenant ceremony.  He begins:

Atem nitzavim hayom kulkhem lifnei Adonai Eloheikhem.  You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord you God

It is important to note that Moses begins with the general – “all of you.”

He then specifies the leaders: “your tribal heads, your elders and your officials.”

But then, to underscore the point that this message is not reserved for the elites in society, Moses continues: “all the men of Israel, your children, your wives.”

Finally, even those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder are included: “even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer.”  (29:9-11)

Moses goes on to specify that it is not just the generation about to enter the Promised Land that stands there.  Rather, all of their descendants, up to and including us, are present to affirm the Jewish people’s covenant with God.

Parashat Nitzavim is always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah.  It is no accident.  We are meant to hear this opening line.  The word that stands out is hayom.  Today.  Moses’ instruction is delivered in the second person, in the present tense.  He is addressing us, in this moment.

He then tells a story of sin, punishment, exile, and then return, invoking the word teshuvah seven times.  The parashah ends with Moses’ exhortation to us: “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse.  Choose life…”  (30:19)

The question that guided Shimon Peres’ life, “Did I bring more good to the world today, or bad?” can be traced back to Maimonides, and even further back to Moses in the Torah itself.  It is a question not just for the great among us.  But truly, it is a question that each of us must ask ourselves.

And not only as we approach the new year.  It is a question for hayom.  Today.

I wonder if we might take this lesson from the great Shimon Peres and make this a regular question that each one of us reflects on at the end of every day.  “Did I bring more good to the world today, or bad?”  Did I tip the scales of my own life towards merit, and thus save the world?  When presented with the choice, did I choose life?

Shanah Tovah.

Be An Organ Donor – Terumah 5776

This past Tuesday, I was on the panel for a program sponsored by our local Maimonides and Cardozo Societies – made up of Jewish physicians and lawyers, respectively.  I was the “Jewish Expert” on the panel.  The subject was based on a book written a few years ago called Larry’s Kidney: Being the True Story of How I Found Myself in China with My Black Sheep Cousin and His Mail-Order Bride, Skirting the Law to Get Him a Transplant–and Save His Life, by Daniel Asa Rose.  The author spoke for the first half of the program, so I was only able to touch the surface of the topic from a Jewish perspective.  It is a vitally important topic of life-and-death, and there are many misconceptions, so I would like to spend time this morning going into more depth.

In the United States, an average of 79 people receive an organ transplant every day.  Sounds good, right?  Also, on average, 22 people die every day waiting for a transplant.  That is more than 8,000 people per year whose lives could have potentially been saved if more organs had been available.  If more people in this country were registered organ donors, many more lives could be saved.

There are numerous complicated issues, both ethical and medical, when it comes to organ donation.  Let me try to summarize a few of them.

We can divide organ donation into four categories.  The first is live organ donations for which there is minimal risk to the donor.  Examples include blood, bone marrow, skin, and even kidney donations.  The second category is live organ donations for which there is risk to the donor.  Examples include liver lobe and lung lobe donations.  The third category is cadaver donations in which the organs can be harvested after the donor’s heart stops beating.  An example is a cornea.  The final category is a cadaver donation for which the cardiovascular system has to be kept working by artificial means until shortly before the organs are removed.  This is the case for heart, lung, and pancreas donations.

For each of these categories, the ethical and medical considerations are different.  How much risk is tolerable?  What is the definition of death?  At what point after the withdrawal of life support can organs be harvested?  What factors should be considered when determining which of multiple candidates should receive an organ?  Can live donors be paid for their donations?  Each of these questions is extremely complicated.  There is a vast body of writing from the perspective of medical and religious ethics that deals with every one of these issues.

Until fairly recently, Israel had an organ donation rate that was far below other developed countries.  Because there were so few Israelis willing to donate their own or their loved ones’ organs, “transplant tourism” became very popular.  Organ brokers would advertise their services on the radio and in newspapers.  Not only were there not any laws prohibiting Israelis from going abroad for organ transplants, but the national health insurance would even reimburse patients for their expenses.  So Israelis would travel to China, Brazil, and other countries to receive life-saving organ transplants.

Is there anything wrong with this?

The problem is that in many countries, there is little regulation and no transparency.  China, for example, has become a major center for organ transplants over the past twenty years, advertising their services to wealthy patients around the world.  Where do the organs come from?  China does not maintain a national organ donor database – so nobody really knows.

Over the years, there have been numerous allegations and investigations claiming that Chinese prisoners are being executed for their organs – and not just those imprisoned for violent crimes.  Also included are political prisoners, as well as tens of thousands of member of the Falun Gong religious sect.  With the vast amounts of money to be made, and the lack of oversight and transparency, it is no wonder that Chinese politicians, judges, and medical workers  up and down the system allow this to happen.

From the perspective of Judaism, this is absolutely wrong and immoral.  While I do not have to sacrifice myself to save another person, and I am permitted to protect myself if I am being attacked, under no circumstances can I kill another person to save my own life.

Which is why it is such a chilul hashem – a desecration of God’s name – that there have been numerous cases of Jews convicted for organ trafficking, in Israel and in the United States.  One of the factors contributing to this embarrassment is the low organ donor rate in Israel.

Why are so few Israelis willing to be organ donors?

There are several assumptions that people make about Jewish law.  First of all, we know that the body is considered to be sacred in Judaism.  When a person passes away, we treat the body with the utmost respect, cleaning and dressing it quickly, and returning it to the ground from which it came.  Autopsies are generally prohibited, as well as embalming.  The proper care of a body before burial is considered to be one of the greatest mitzvot that we can perform.

The removal of organs before burial, therefore, would seem to be a violation of Jewish law and custom.  Another complicating factor is the traditional belief in a future resurrection in the days of the Messiah.  If a person is buried without all of his or her organs, will he or she be resurrected whole in body?

Because of these beliefs, many Jews have been reluctant to register themselves or agree to donate their loved ones’ organs.  That is why the organ donor rates are so low in Israel.

But there is a competing principle which most halakhic authorities across denominations consider to be even more significant.  Pikuach nefesh, the saving of a life, is such an important value that it trumps even the special sanctity of the body.

The Torah states, lo ta’amod al dam re’echa.  Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.  This means that if we have the ability to save the life of another person, we have an obligation to do so.  Halakhic codes stretch this concept to require us to spend our money, or even endure personal discomfort, to save the life of another person.

While organ donation was not a possibility at the time these laws developed, the principle is relevant.  So rather than ask “are Jews permitted to donate their organs?” the question really ought to be “Are there ever circumstances in which a Jew is not required to donate his or her organs?”

While some modern poskim, including Orthodox ones, today use the term mitzvah to refer to organ donation, it seems clear that they mean it not as an obligation, but rather as a midat chasidut, a particular pious act that is lifnim mishurat hadin – beyond the strict letter of the law.

So what can be done to increase organ donor rates and save more lives?

In the United States, we have an opt-in system.  Most states, including California, have recruited the DMV to register donors.  If you have a license you are probably familiar with this.  When you go to get your license, the DMV clerk asks you if you want to be an organ donor.  To be registered, you have to say yes.  An opt-out system automatically assumes that everyone is an organ donor except for those who explicitly state that they do not want to be.  Some countries have been successful with this.

While an opt-out system might seem to many Americans like a gross invasion of personal autonomy, it is defensible and maybe even preferable from a Jewish perspective.

In Judaism, there is a concept that I can perform an act or make a decision on behalf of another person without his or her knowledge, and potentially even against his or her will, if it causes that person benefit.  Some authorities apply that concept to organ donation.  Let’s say that my loved one is in a coma and is determined by doctors to be brain dead.  When I agree to donate the organs, my loved one gains the benefit of saving a life.

So a Jewish argument could definitely be made in favor of an opt-out organ donor system.

Another possibility is the solution that Israel enacted in 2008.  It made it illegal to travel abroad for an organ transplant, or to engage in organ trafficking.  It defined death as “brain death,” clarifying the circumstances under which cadaver donations can take place.  And it created an incentive system to encourage more donors.  Donors now receive reimbursement for all medical expenses related to the donation, as well as for lost work.  Live donors also receive preference if at some later time they find themselves in need of an organ.  In addition, if two people on a transplant waiting list are at the same tier of eligibility, the one who has been a registered organ donor will receive preference.  Finally, the immediate family members of a deceased person whose organs were donated will also receive preference.

The law is controversial, as it introduces non-medical factors for determining eligibility.  But it has caused organ donor rates to increase in Israel.

This morning’s Torah portion, parashat Terumah, offers us a fitting model for how we might understand organ donation.  In the opening statment, God instructs Moses:

 דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ־לִי תְּרוּמָה מֵאֵת כָּל־אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ תִּקְחוּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִי.

Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.  (Exodus 25:2)

The Hebrew word for donation is terumah.  The Israelites are being instructed to bring their donations for the construction of the mishkan, the Tabernacle.  Rashi asks, why does God specify v’yikchu li terumah.  “Take for me a donation?”  After all, God certainly does not have any physical needs.  Rashi answers with the word lishmi – for my sake.  In other words, these are to be purely selfless, altruistic donations.  There should be no personal motive.

But a passage in the Talmud states the opposite:  “If a person declares ‘this coin is for tzedakah so that my child should live, or so that I can earn a place in the world to come’ – such a person is a tzadik gamur – a totally righteous individual.”  (BT Rosh Hashanah 4a)  Commenting on this, Rashi explains im ragil b’kach – if the person is in the habit of giving tzedakah regularly.

So which is it, Rashi?  Are we supposed to give altruistically, without hope of personal benefit, or is a donor just as righteous if or she receives some advantage?

Is it the American system, which relies solely on altruistic donations, or the new Israeli system, which seeks to create positive incentives that cannot be harmfully manipulated?

Maybe the point is that it doesn’t matter.  Whatever the motivation, the end result of more organ donors is that more lives will be saved.  So if you are not already a registered organ donor, get on the list.  If, God forbid, we should ever find ourselves in the situation of having to make a decision about our own or a love one’s organs, let us please remember that Judaism has something to say about it.

And in so doing, in making the ultimate gift of saving the life of a human being made in God’s image, the terumah can surely be said to be lishmi, for God’s sake.

Feeding the Wolf – Rosh Hashanah 5776

Every year, as I prepare for the High Holidays, I struggle with how to make our experience here together transformational in some way.  Because I know that, for myself, and probably most of us, we come back year after year with mostly the same sets of issues and concerns.  So I ask myself :  What can I, as a Rabbi on Rosh Hashanah, say that will help us to become the human beings we would like to see ourselves as?

The great prayer which the Cantor chants during the repetition of the Musaf Amidah, Unetaneh Tokef, creates an impression of human powerlessness.  We appear before God on Rosh Hashanah, described as Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment.  God is judge, prosecutor. expert, and witness.  God knows all, every forgotten thing, reading it out of the Book of Remembrance.  The imagery shifts, and now God is a shepherd, and we are sheep, passing underneath the staff.  A final shift, and God is decreeing the fates of every living thing in the coming year.

These three scenes convey an impression of our utter lack of control.  There is nothing whatsoever that we can do to determine our destiny.  Everything is in the hand of God.

As frightening as this imagery might seem to many of us, it does convey a truth of human existence.  So much of who we are, our personality and characteristics, are pre-determined.  Whether by genetics or the family and community into which we were born, i.e. nature or nurture – we do not get to decide our core personalities, our innate strengths and weaknesses.

Even the ability to make choices is something of an illusion.  Much of our mental activity takes place on a subconscious level, determined by neurohormonal loops that regulate our emotions.  While it seems to us that we have free will and are making choices for ourselves, in reality the outcome is predetermined by our biochemical makeup.

Religious language that speaks of our utter lack of control over our fate and our total dependence on God would seem to reinforce this notion.  Drawing upon biblical imagery, our machzor describes human life as insignificant, using terms like “a broken shard, withering grass, a shriveled flower, a passing shadow, a fading cloud, a fleeting breeze, scattered dust, and a vanishing dream,” in contrast to God, who is “the sovereign, living God, ever-present.”  All that we can do is appeal to God to be loving and merciful with us.

We come into the new year wrestling with ourselves.  We have spent the past month inspecting our deeds, focusing on where we have gone off course, and striving to make amends with each other, with ourselves, and with God.  And it is hard work.  To approach someone we have wronged with openness and honesty takes tremendous courage.  Our tradition provides us this annual opportunity to face our imperfections.

However, even when we have bravely performed real teshuvah, there is little we can do to change our core personalities, to affect the neuropathways in our brains that regulate all behavior.  Pathways that we have spent a lifetime establishing.  It is not a simple thing to rewire the brain.

The fact that we return annually to recite the same prayers and make the same confessions would seem to reinforce the notion that from year to year, most of us are the exact same people, struggling with the exact same character flaws.

So how can we make the celebration of the new year personally transformational?

A Cherokee legend teaches of a boy who got in a fight.  His parents send him to go speak with his grandfather.  The two of them go for a walk on a path through the forest.  The leaves of the trees and the soft breeze protect them from the heat of the noonday sun.  The two walk in silence, holding hands.

After a time the grandfather interrupts the silence.  “Grandson, there are two wolves fighting in my heart.  One wolf is good and does no harm.  He lives in harmony with all around him, and does not take offense when no offense was intended.  He will only fight when it is right to do so, and in the right way.  But the other wolf!  Ah!  He is full of anger.  The littlest thing will set him into a fit of temper.  He fights everyone, all the time, for no reason.  He cannot think because his anger and hate are so great.  It is helpless anger, for his anger will change nothing.  Sometimes, it is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, for both of them try to dominate my spirit.”

Hearing the words of his grandfather the grandson is filled with fear.  With a tremor in his voice he asks, “Grandfather, which wolf will win the battle of your heart?”

To which he quietly responded, “The one I feed.”

We have Jewish terms that mirror these two wolves: the yetzer ha-tov and the yetzer ha-ra – the good inclination and the evil inclination.

A Talmudic sage teaches a similar lesson about what happens when we continue to feed our yetzer ha-ra.

Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri taught:  A person who tears his clothing in anger, or who breaks his utensils in anger or who throws coins in anger – consider him like someone who worships idols, for such is the art of the yetzer ha-ra.  Today it says, “Go do this.”  And tomorrow, it says “Go do that.” until finally it says “Go worship idols,”  And he goes and worships them.  (BT Shabbat 105b)

For the Rabbis, idol worship is the paradigm of evil and immorality.  It is the ultimate sin towards which the yetzer ha-ra drives us.  This midrash draws a causal connection between simple, everyday expressions of anger and the ultimate descent into depravity.

Another midrash teaches that Adam and Eve were created today, on Rosh Hashanah.  The Torah describes this moment using the verb vayyitzer ha-adam.  (Genesis 2:7) “God formed Adam.”   A Rabbi in the Talmud noticed that that the word vayyitzer is written in the Torah with two letter yud‘s.  This hints at the creation of two yetzer‘s.  Two inclinations, one for good and one for evil.  (BT Berachot 61a)

Thus the two inclinations, the two wolves, are part of us.  In both the Cherokee legend and the Jewish concept of two yetzarim, we have outsourced agency.  It is not we who personally direct our behavior.  External forces, which happen to reside within our hearts, are at fault.  But those forces cannot be eliminated, for as soon as we did so, we would cease to be human.

A another midrash teaches that after forming humanity, God looks at all creation and declares v’hinei tov me-od.  “Behold, it is very good.”  “Good” refers to the the good inclination.  “Very good” refers to the evil inclination.  “How can this be?” asks the midrash.  Because without the yetzer ha-ra a person would not build a house, get married, have children, or engage in commerce.  (Genesis Rabbah 9:7)

From a Jewish perspective, our goal must be to harness and control our inclinations, not to destroy them.  We are not expected to deny who we are, to utterly eliminate aspects of ourselves.  Neither are we allowed to complacently say, “this is just how God made me.  There is nothing I can do about it.”

Short of brain damage or a lobotomy, we cannot ever banish parts of our core personality, but we can encourage certain traits and discourage others.  As the grandfather acknowledges, while both wolves are always with us, it is we who feed them.

Let’s carry this metaphor a little further.  For each one of us, our wolves have unique appetites.  Some of our evil wolves feed on anger.  We are quick to lose our temper, to shout at family members or friends, to swear at drivers who do not signal before merging, or to judge others harshly without first pausing to consider their perspectives and motivations.

Some of our wolves feed on jealousy.  We compare our lives to others, and hold ourselves to unrealistic external standards.  We want what our neighbors have: their homes, cars, families, bodies, full heads of hair.

Some of our wolves feed on low self-esteem.  We downplay our successes and dwell on our failures.  We strive too hard to be liked.

Some of our wolves feed on lust, or addiction, or greed.

What do our good wolves like to eat?

In the middle of Unetaneh Tokef, in just seven words, the Mahzor hints that our fates may not be quite as out of our control as we thought.  Uteshuvah, utefilah, utzedakah ma-avirin et roa ha-g’zeirah.  “But repentance, prayer, and tzedakah can turn aside the severity of the decree.”

Although the decree cannot be erased, it can be redirected.  Perhaps therein lies the answer to our quandary – three actions that feed the good wolf, that can encourage our yetzer ha-tov to take control and direct our yetzer ha-ra.

First:  Teshuvah, repentance.  The path of teshuvah begins with being self-reflective, being willing to admit our weaknesses without blaming others and do the work that is necessary to repair our brokenness.  Teshuvah is ultimately an expression of hope that our loves ones can take us back, and that God will allow us to return.

Second:  Tefilah.  Prayer, but I would suggest that it is really about humility.  We are asked to recognize that there is more to existence than our own egos, to acknowledge the typically ignored blessings in our lives with a sense of gratitude, to turn to God with a sense of wonder and awe at a world that is simultaneously both accessible and unfathomable.

Third:  Tzedakah.  Translated alternately as justice, righteousness, and charity.  We act with the knowledge that what we typically consider to be our possessions do not fully belong to us.  Tzedakah asks us to be generous to others with our time and our resources, to accept that we have obligations to one another, a duty to bring justice and righteousness into the world, and ultimately, to place the needs of others ahead of our own.

Teshuvah, Tefilah, and Tzedakah:  three feasts for the good wolf.

So although our personalities and characters may be sealed, our strengths and weaknesses determined for us by some complicated mixture of nature and nurture, even our fate in the coming year out of our control, our tradition teaches us that we have a say in the outcome of the battle taking place in our hearts.

It is about conditioning.  Through the small, seemingly insignificant choices from day to day, we in fact have the ability to train our characters.  We can cultivate qualities that make us better people and redirect qualities that separate us from each other and from God.

So as we celebrate Rosh Hashanah and enter the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance leading up to Yom Kippur, let’s each ask ourselves: What do my wolves like to eat?  How have I been feeding them?  And what can I do in the year ahead to give the good wolf the upper hand in the battle for my heart?

For the Love of Israel – Rosh Hashanah 5776

I am a lover of Israel.  And so it is with great love that I share the following:  This summer has been a tough one for Israel.  I am not talking about the Iran deal.

It started in June, when the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes, one of the holiest sights in Israel for Christians, was burned down in an arson attack.  Spray-painted on the wall were the words, in Hebrew, v’ha-elilim karot yikareitun – and their gods will be cut down, lifted out of our siddur from the prayer Aleinu.

On July 30, at the Jerusalem Gay Pride parade, an ultra-Orthodox man stabbed six people, one of whom, a teenage girl named Shira Banki, died.  The murderer had been released from prison just three weeks previously after finishing a ten year sentence for stabbing several people at a gay pride parade in 2005.

The next day, Jewish arsonists firebombed the home of the Dawabsheh family in the Palestinian town of Duma, killing 18 month old Ali, and both of his parents.  Four year old Ahmad is the only survivor, with burns covering 60% of his body.  Hebrew graffiti was found on a nearby wall with the spray-painted words nekamah – “revenge,” and y’chi hamelekh ha-mashiach – “long live the the king, the messiah.”

These are not just stand-alone incidents.  Over the last several years, there has been a rise in Jewish extremism and terrorism.  Although often cloaked in religious garb, it is classic right-wing nationalism.

Without a doubt, these actions do not represent the attitudes of the vast majority of Israelis, or of Jews around the world.  Politicians and national leaders from all parties, as well as leading Rabbis, were quick to publicly denounce violence, call for the criminals to be brought to justice, and pay condolence calls to the families of the victims.  The Israeli public was appropriately outraged.

But when it comes to taking action, it is a different story.  Israel has been slow to address the problem of Jewish extremism and racism.

Over the past three and a half years, more than forty churches and mosques have been burned in Israel, usually accompanied by biblical passages scrawled on a nearby wall.  Until this past June’s attack, Israeli security services had not arrested a single person.  No arrests have been made for the murder of the Dawabsheh family.  Not a single Rabbi was detained for encouraging students to commit violence.

Do any of us have any doubts whatsoever about the capabilities of Israeli security services to take these kinds of Jewish hate-crimes seriously?  Where were the task forces and undercover informants?

Just this summer, under pressure, the Shin Bet began using “Administrative Detention” to apprehend Jewish terrorist suspects.  It is a tool that has been using against Palestinians, with great success, for many years.  Why did they wait so long?

It did not happen earlier because there was no political will to do so.  Policies by every single Israeli government for the past thirty five years to settle the West Bank with 400,000 Jews has quietly fanned the flames of Jewish nationalist extremism.  The perpetrators are widely known to come from extreme religious nationalist settlements which often have a lot of political clout.

We cannot complain about moderate Muslims’ failure to take on Islamic extremism while we ignore our own Jewish extremism.

I know that some of us are thinking, ‘but what about all of the Islamic fundamentalism around the world?  How can we even compare what a few religious wackos are doing to what is going in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, and many other parts of the Muslim world?’  You are right, there is no comparison.

But they are not our own people.  We are talking about family.

How do we, the American Jewish community, react when we hear about Jewish racism and Jewish terrorism?

There are some in the Jewish community that will never say anything critical of Israel, at least not publicly.  Others have bought in to the anti-Zionist rhetoric that portrays Israel as a gross violator of human rights.

These two groups tend to be made up of the people who yell the loudest, creating what I suspect is a false depiction of a divided American Jewish community.

Anyone who says that Israel has a perfect human rights record is either blind or does not know what ethics is.  Anyone who claims that Israel is one of the worst human rights abusers in the world is either naive or antisemitic.

Both extremists are guilty of the same assumption – that Israel must be perfect.  Those who don’t see the blemishes and those who only see the blemishes are both blind.

But we can admit it: there are blemishes.  Israel has some serious challenges.  It struggles with poverty and unaffordable housing costs.  It faces sharp social divides between different ethnic and religious streams.  It has a problem with large numbers of immigrants trying to cross the border illegally.  There is deeply-felt racism, conflict, and distrust between ethnic and religious groups.  Hundreds of thousands of people who had lived on the land for generations were displaced when new immigrants arrived.

These problems should all sound familiar, because these are all challenges that are faced: here in America, as well as in Europe, South America, Asia, Africa, and Australia.  In other words, nations, by definition, struggle to balance the pursuit of security and prosperity with the pursuit of justice and morality.

We don’t give up on America because it is not perfect.  Nor should we give up on Israel because it is not perfect.

The Torah reading for this morning, the first day of Rosh Hashanah, begins with Isaac’s birth.  Abraham circumcises his son on the eighth day, and then, at his weaning a few years later, throws a party on his behalf.  At the party, Sarah, Isaac’s mother, sees Ishmael, Abraham’s other son, playing – m’tzachek.  Something bothers her, and she tells her husband to banish Ishmael and his mother Hagar from the household, “for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”

Abraham is distressed, but God reassures him that all will be okay.  ‘Do what your wife tells you to do.  I will make Ishmael the father of a great nation as well.’

Sarah and Abraham represent two distinct parental concerns.  Sarah looks at Ishmael and sees in him a threat.  One midrash explains that Ishmael was bragging that he, as the eldest son, would receive a double inheritance.  Other commentators suggest that the word m’tzachek implies that Ishmael was involved in idolatry, and that Sarah was concerned that he would be a corrupting influence.  Sarah is the mother who will protect her son from any perceived outside threat, regardless of collateral damage.

Abraham, in contrast, is concerned about the effect that favoring Isaac will have on Hagar and Ishmael.  He knows that that there will be a personal and moral toll if he defends Isaac at all costs.  He understands Sarah’s desire to protect her son, but he also sees the suffering that will ensue on the part of Hagar and Ishmael.  So he is paralyzed, unable to take action until God breaks the stalemate in his conscience by assuring Abraham that Ishmael will not only survive, but will thrive.  In the end, God affirms both Sarah’s protectiveness of Isaac and Abraham’s concern for Ishmael.

When I think about Israel today, I hear Sarah and Abraham’s voices arguing in my mind and in my heart.

We have got to look out for the Jewish people, because if we do not, nobody else will.  And, we have to be concerned with morality in our treatment of the other.

In a perfect world, there would be no contradiction between these two values.  In a perfect world, Sarah and Abraham would be of one mind when it came to matters affecting their son.  In an almost perfect world, God would step in to offer a solution when our self-protection conflicts with our ethics.

Alas, we do not live in a perfect world, or even a near-perfect world.

As I said earlier, I am a lover of Israel.  But there are different kinds of love.

Any good love affair begins with infatuation.  Our beloved glows.  Everything she does is perfect.

After Israel gained independence in 1948, Jews around the world were infatuated.  Israel could do no wrong.  What was the narrative?  Israel had risen out of the ashes of the Holocaust.  The New Jewish soldier-farmers fought a scrappy war of Independence against all odds to enable the Jewish people to come out of exile and reclaim our place in history.

In 1967, Israel’s sneak attack and victory against menacing Arab armies created an illusion of invincibility.  It was David against Goliath, and we were David.

In 1982, that image began to crumble.  Israel invaded another country in a war that was optional.  It was not, like the others, a fight for survival.  The IDF found itself an occupying power in Southern Lebanon.  Atrocities were committed.  While Israeli soldiers looked the other way, Lebanese Christian Phalangists murdered over two thousand civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut.

International condemnation followed, and the Israeli public was furious.  Ariel Sharon, the Defense Minister at the time, was found to be personally responsible by an Israeli commission of inquiry, and was forced to resign.

The Lebanon war was followed a few years later by the First Intifada, Oslo, the Second Intifada, The Gaza pullout and subsequent wars with Hamas.  You know the stories.

It has been a complicated thirty years in which Israel is no longer David to the Arabs’ Goliath.  Israel has struggled to balance security and morality as a powerful nation with dangerous enemies and sovereignty over people who refuse to accept it.

And all of this occurs in the spotlight, under a magnifying glass.  I do not need to tell you this.  So what kind of love do we bring with us?

For those of you (I do have to exclude myself) born before 1967, your foundational memories of Israel are of a nation that can do no wrong.  The American Jewish community, especially after the Six Day War, was infatuated.

But for those of you born after 1982 (again, I have to exclude myself) – the only Israel you have known is one that has struggled, in the most public way, with being depicted as an immoral aggressor.  You never had a chance to experience infatuation and fall in love.

In recent years, the rise of the BDS movement on many college campuses has created such an oppressive atmosphere for Jewish students, that some feel the need to hide their identity, and not get involved in Jewish life altogether.  The rest are put in the position, as 18-22 year olds, of defending Israel on behalf of the rest of the American Jewish community.  It is a tremendously unfair burden.

Some American Jews are so turned off by all of the attention that they check out.  Why should I care?  Why should I get emotionally invested in something that attracts so much conflict?  For those Jews, Israel does not play much of a role in their identity.

That is unfortunate.  Israel has been central to the Jewish people throughout our existence.  When God first spoke to Abraham, it was to send him to an unknown Promised Land where his descendants would one day constitute a nation that would serve as a blessing to the world.  When our ancestors left Egypt, their destination was Israel.  At the Covenant at Mount Sinai, we committed to accepting the Torah and the mitzvot and God committed to settling us in the land of Israel in peace and prosperity.

And so, Ahavat Yisrael, the love of Israel, both the people and the land, has been central to Jewish identity from our formation as a family, as a religion, and as a nation.

But what kind of love?

Not infatuation that blinds us to seeing our beloved as she truly is.  Real love is not blind.  Real love requires our eyes to be wide open.  Real love is conditional.  I love you because of who you are, not regardless of who you are.

So what would a mature, lasting love of Israel look like?

On Rosh Hashanah, as we celebrate the beginning of the new year, we engage in Cheshbon HaNefesh, taking stock of our souls – not just as individuals, but also as a people.  What does Cheshbon HaNegesh mean on a national scale?

It means lively and respectful debate about where we are as a Jewish people, here in our local community, in America, and as a global Jewish community.  Israel, as our eternal homeland, must be part of that debate.

Unfortunately, so many aspects of Israel have become polarized.  If you are a Republican, then you are against the Iran deal, against Obama, and for Netanyahu.  If you are a Democrat, you are for the Iran deal, for Obama, and against Netanyahu.  We have to reject this kind of “issue packaging.”  A person can be against the Iran deal and still like Obama.  A person can be for the Iran deal and against the settlements.  It is possible to be disappointed in both Netanyahu and Obama, or to be fans of both (not very likely).  We have allowed the loudest voices to polarize the Jewish community in a very unhealthy way.

Let me tell you about the Israel I love.  As you may know, my family and I recently returned from a five month sabbatical, most of which we spent living in Israel, so I’ve had a lot of time recently to think about this.

I love that Israel provides an opportunity for the Jewish people to bring the values of our tradition into the real world.  When we read the Bible and pay close attention, we realize that Jewish sovereignty in the Bible ultimately failed.  The Torah presents a model of a society that, in addition to an elaborate system of ritual worship, emphasizes justice, ethical social and economic interactions, and righteous treatment of all members of society, including resident non-Israelites.  The biblical Prophets are constantly railing against both the leaders and the populace for failing to live up to the standards established by the Torah.

The modern State of Israel, as a democratic Jewish State, offers us an opportunity to bring Jewish values into the world, with all of the messy challenges that are entailed.  And while not perfect, I think Israel’s record is pretty strong, especially considering how many challenges it faces.

I also love the expansion of interest in Jewish life that has been taking place in Israel in recent years.  More and more secular Israelis are turning back to our religious tradition and our texts for spiritual fulfillment.  In contrast to a shrinking non-Orthodox Judaism in America, the liberal movements in Israel are growing.

I love all the ways that usually go unreported that different groups interact with each other positively.  In June, Dana and I participated in the Zarzir Night Run.  Zarzir is a Bedouin Village in the Jezreel Valley close to where we lived in Kibbutz Chanaton.  Our kids drove through Zarzir every day on their way to and from school.  On full moons during the summer time, a running store on the outskirts of Zarzir hosts a night run on paths through the fields.  Well over a thousand men and women showed up, including religious Jews, secular Jews, and Arabs.

I love that Israel is expanding it’s national parks, and making them more accessible.  I love that Hebrew has been revived as a spoken language.  I love that Israel has an entire month dedicated to books.  I love Israeli pop music.

There are also ways in which I wish Israel did better, and it is love that makes me care so much about where Israel is off the mark.

I am horrified that there are racist Jews, and even more so that there are members of our people who commit terror.  And I am disappointed that Israel’s leaders have been so slow to do anything about it.

I wish that the government supported education equally for all Israelis.  Currently, there are different funding levels depending on which public school system a child is learning in.  Arab Israeli students receive far less education spending than their Jewish counterparts.  That is wrong.

I cannot stand that the Rabbanut is allowed to impose its will on the rest of the country in matters pertaining to marriage, divorce, and conversion.  I wish the Israeli government recognized the rights of non-Orthodox movements so that, for example, a wedding officiated by one of my Masorti colleagues would be recognized by the State.

I wish the government did not continue to encourage new Jewish settlement in the West Bank.  I think it makes peace more difficult and sends unspoken messages that encourage extremist behavior.

Israel is a complex country that is far from perfect.  And yet, to me, it is special and unique.  I think it ought to be that way for all Jews.  So I am not asking any of us to love everything.  I am asking all of us to find what it is that we love about Israel, and love it even more.  And if we can identify aspects of Israel that we think are off the mark, it is ok to disagree, as long as we are not disagreeable.

Memory, Gratitude, and the Promised Land – Ki Tavo 5775

Imagine, for a moment, that you are an Israelite.  Your parents, along with their ancestors, were slaves in Egypt.  Nearly forty years ago, God freed them and brought them out into the wilderness.  You were born in that wilderness, and have spent your entire life living a precarious existence: in-between, dependent on God for food, water, and protection; no longer enslaved, but not truly in control of your destiny.

Finally, you are within striking distance of the final destination, the Land of Israel.  The Jordan River flows in front of you, and on the other side you can see hills rising up into the distance

Your leader, Moses, old and weathered, called the entire nation together to hear a series of final speeches, which you have been listening to for the past several days.  He reviewed the history of the previous forty years, taught about God, and listed commandment after commandment.

At this point, it’s enough already.  You’re exhausted.  You’re bored of eating manna for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  You’re sick of living a nomadic existence.  You want to settle down.  You’ve bean hearing about the Promised Land your entire life.  It’s time that someone made good on that promise.

This morning, you roll out of your tent to hear yet another speech.  But today, Moses shifts gears.  He leads you through a mental time travel journey.

‘Right now,’ he begins, ‘you are about to enter the land that God has promised you.  You will settle it, and you will begin to build your lives.  You will construct homes, and you will plant seeds.  When the first harvest comes in, you need to do something.  Gather samples of the first fruits from everything you plant and bring them in a basket to the Priest.  And then, recite the following speech:

My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us . . . and the LORD heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The LORD freed us from Egypt . . . He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. (Deut. 26: 5–10)

It looks like it’s finally about to happen.

Notice there are three distinct time periods in this narrative: the present, in which Moses is speaking to the assembled Israelite nation; the not-too-distant future, after the Israelites have settled the land and gathered their first harvest; and the distant past, beginning with the first Israelites who made their way down to Egypt and were enslaved.

Present, future, and past – all existing in a single moment.

In the current reality, the Israelites can imagine themselves in the Promised Land.  They can see it, just ahead – across a river and over the hills.

But Moses, who will not be joining them there, is not content to let them simply arrive.  In fact, he knows that if they just show up, the Promised Land will slip through their fingers.  Two more things are needed – memory and gratitude.

The Israelites will not be able to appreciate the full extent of what they have achieved unless they keep the memory of where they have come from alive.  They need to express that memory with gratitude.  Only then can the achievement of the Promised Land be real for them.  So Moses prescribes a thanksgiving offering of first fruits to be accompanied by the performance of a historical narrative.

And here we are, thousands of years later, in yet a fourth time period.

Let’s think about this in personal terms.  Our lives are comprised of a series of journeys with numerous destinations.  We have had struggles on our way.  Successes, failures, disappointments, and surprises.  But hopefully, we have managed to articulate goals for ourselves.  Some of them we achieve.  Others remain elusive.

There are the big life goals: Have close friends.  Fall in love.  Get married.  Have kids.  Have grandkids.  Get a degree.  Build a career.  And so on.

And there are character goals – Be a kind person.  Be a supportive friend.  Be generous.  Contribute positively to the world.  Develop expertise in something.

Often, when we finally get what we want, we find that it is not the same as what we have built up in our minds.  The hype overshadows the reality.  Or, we don’t give ourselves enough credit for our successes.  We are disappointed.

We are asked us to put ourselves into the sandals of our ancient Israelite ancestors.  Partially-redeemed, able to imagine a Promised Land that is full of blessing, but required to recall the past with gratitude before we can fully experience that future in a sustainable way.

Rosh Hashanah is just over a week away.  It is a time when we consider the journeys that we are on.  Where are we headed?  Do we need to perform a course-correction?

Let’s also consider where we have come from.  Who do we have to be thankful to?  What blessings that we had nothing to do with have made our lives and the lives of those who have come before us better.  What can we offer as an expression of gratitude?

Only by taking the time to remember where we have come from, and how truly blessed we are, can we fully appreciate what we have to gain in the future.