Tzedakah or Selfishness – Vayera 5779

Justice, tzedakah, is one of the recurring themes in this morning’s Torah portion, Vayera.  As God contemplates the fate of the Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities in the Jordan River Valley, God decides to hire a consultant.  

Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do… for I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children… to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right…—tzedakah u’mishpat.

God tells Abraham about the plan to destroy the two cities because of the extreme wickedness of their inhabitants.  Abraham immediately challenges God:  Ha’af tispeh tzadik im rasha  

Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?  What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it?…  Far be it from You… to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty…

God is convinced, promising “If I find within the city of Sodom fifty innocent ones, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.”

This is just the opening salvo in the negotiation.  Abraham lowers the threshold to 45, then 40, 30, 20, and finally 10 innocent people to save the remainder of the population.  God agrees every time.  

It seems, based on God’s original assessment, that this was the plan all along.  After all, God has already identified Abraham as someone who will pass on the values of tzedakah and mishpat — justice and righteousness — to his children.

It turns out that there are not even 10 righteous individuals in the two cities, leaving God free to carry out the original sentence.  Perhaps if Abraham had gone still lower…  God would probably have agreed.

This story depicts Abraham at his best.  He puts everything on the line for the sake of his fellow human beings.  These particular human beings are the worst of the worst,  but Abraham cannot sit idly by, even for such a depraved population.

Soon afterwards, Abraham and Sarah find themselves the land of Gerar, which is near Gaza.  As in a prior encounter with Pharaoh in Egypt, Abraham passes off his wife, Sarah, as his sister.  So what happens?  The King, Avimelech, thinking that she is single, has Sarah brought into his household.  [She is 89 years old at the time, but never mind.]

Before anything happens, God speaks to Avimelech in a dream.  “You are to die because of the woman you have taken, for she is a married woman!”

Still in the dream, Avimelech defends himself.  “O Lord, will you slay people even though innocent? — ha’goy gam tzadik ta’harog?  Sound familiar?  Avimelech makes the argument with God on his own behalf as Abraham made earlier on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah.  God agrees, and instructs Avimelech to return Sarah to her husband.

The next day, Avimelech confronts Abraham.  “What did I ever do to you?  You’ve brought disaster upon us.  You have done things to me that ought not to be done!”

Abraham’s response is difficult to hear. “I thought,” he says, “surely there is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.”  (Gen. 20:11)  Then he offers some weak excuse explaining how Sarah is really his half-sister, and he did not technically lie.  Whether she is his sister or not is irrelevant.  What matters is his hiding the fact that she is a married woman.

Abraham, who had just recently behaved so nobly, now thinks only of himself.  He puts a lot of people in danger.  First of all, Sarah.  As soon as they arrive, she is taken to the palace, presumably to be made part of the harem.  Avimelech is endangered, as even a King is not allowed to be with a married woman.  And finally, because Abraham is, well Abraham, Avimelech’s entire household is stricken with temporary infertility, merely for bringing Sarah in to the palace.  If things had gone further, God’s wrath would have turned lethal.

Abraham assumes the worst of Avimelech and his people.  He condemns them before he even meets them.  But Abraham is wrong.  These are not wicked people.  As it turns out, Avimelech is a God-fearing man, with a sense of justice.  

This story has close parallels to the earlier story.  Only this time, it is Avimelech playing the role of the prophet standing in the breach, arguing for justice against a vengeful God.  In this case, like the previous, God wants to be convinced.  God wants tzedakah, justice, to reign.  God does not want the innocent to suffer the fate of the guilty.  As before, Abraham must personally intercede, praying to God for the health and well-being of Avimelech and his household.  But Abraham’s prayers come only after Avimelech bribes presents him with sheep, oxen, servants, land, and silver.

Abraham does not come out well in this story.  Is this the same person who put everything on the line to argue with God on behalf of people that he knew were wicked?  He is supposed to be the optimist, the one devoted to bringing justice into the world.  He should at least have given Avimelech the benefit of the doubt.

What are we to make of Abraham?  The Torah does not hold back in presenting its heroes as flawed individuals.  They make mistakes.  Sometimes, their opponents have qualities going for them as well.  The underlying theme of these two stories is tzedakah.  God wants justice.  God does not want the innocent to suffer punishments that should be reserved just for the wicked.  And in both stories, it seems that God is not capable of holding back the injustice without human intercession.

Abraham’s abrupt turn from being a justice-hero to behaving with selfishness and distrust teaches us something about the impact that fear can have, even on the best of us.  Abraham is afraid.  He says so himself.  His fear leads him to treat others unfairly, including his own wife.  He succumbs to stereotypes.

And Abraham, remember, is a good man.  He is the one whom God has selected to be a blessing to the world, and to teach his children about justice and righteousness.  If Abraham is susceptible to fear, how much the more so are we!

I don’t think I need to detail the many examples of how fear leads to injustice.  In this case, the victim was King Avimelech, a person in power.  But usually, the ones who are most harmed by fear and distrust are those without power.

The lesson from both stories is that God needs human intercessors to bring tzedakah into the world.  Any of us has the capacity to be such an intercessor, just as any of us has the capacity, through fear, to turn our backs on our brothers and sisters.

As Jews, we take this on as a special obligation, going all the way back to Abraham, whom God selected to “instruct his children… to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right.”

May we always strive to live up to that ideal.

A Natural Family with a Supernatural Mandate – Lekh L’kha 5779

The Silicon Valley Introduction to Judaism class began this past week.  It is a wonderful example of collaboration in our Jewish community.  I, along with Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist colleagues, teach this class every year.

Adult students have an opportunity to learn from Rabbis of different denominations.  Classes rotate, depending on who is teaching that night, between the Jewish Community Center, Congregation Sinai, Congregation Beth David, Congregation Shir Hadash, and Temple Emanu-El.

At the first Introduction to Judaism session, students are invited to introduce themselves and share their reasons for taking the class.  Every year, there are a variety of reasons given.

Some students are Jewish adults who either never received a Jewish education, or who feel that they want to learn about Judaism in a more sophisticated way, as compared to the child-focused education they received years ago.  Some are members of synagogues.  Some are not.

There are also non-Jewish students who are lifelong learners.  Their spiritual and intellectual journeys have led them to learn about different faiths and traditions.

Some class participants are interested in converting to Judaism.  This can include those who have a Jewish partner, as well as those who have decided to explore Judaism on their own.

Finally, some non-Jewish students do not intend to convert, but are committed to supporting their Jewish partners in building a Jewish home and raising Jewish children.

As students describe the journeys that led them to the Introduction to Judaism class, there are often incredible stories.

Some share strange, mysterious family traditions.  Often they involve lighting candles at particular times during the year, or avoiding certain kinds of foods. In some families, there are secrets that are known only to the older members from earlier generations, who hush up in seeming embarrassment whenever the topic arises.

Usually, these suspicions of a Jewish past point to a possible Sephardic family connection.  But not always.

With the growing popularity and availability of DNA testing, it is now possible to confirm long-held suspicions of Jewish ancestry.  That is increasingly serving as the impetus for people to explore Judaism as a way to regain a lost family heritage.

Also at the first session, we divide students into small groups and give them an assignment: Write a one sentence definition of Judaism that is grammatically and syntactically correct – no run-ons.  It is a very difficult assignment which students have a tough time completing.  That is kind of the point.

Judaism is not a religion in the way that we typically think of religion.  Simply by being born to a Jewish mother,  a person is Jewish regardless of what he or she believes.  Don’t learn from this, however, that Judaism does not have particular beliefs.  It does.

So does this make Judaism a race?  Not at all.  For if Judaism was a race, it would be impossible to convert.  And yet Judaism has always welcomed converts, as we will see shortly.

Professor Jon Levenson expresses the difficulty in defining Judaism succinctly in his book, Inheriting Abraham.

The people Israel is neither a nationality in the conventional sense nor a church-like body composed of like-minded believers or practitioners of a common set of norms.  Having something in common with both of these more familiar identities, it reduces to neither of them.

Levenson has stated the difficulty of coming up with a definition.  Then he offers us one:

Rather, as the call and commission of Abram already indicate, it is a natural family with a supernatural mandate.

“A natural family with a supernatural mandate.”  We are family, and we strive to rise above our base nature as human beings to embrace a set of divinely-given, shared practices and values.

This morning’s parashah, Lekh L’kha, opens with God instructing Abram to leave behind his home and his father’s household and travel to the land that God will show him.  Without asking any questions, Abram packs up his household and begins the journey.

וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָם אֶת־שָׂרַי אִשְׁתּוֹ וְאֶת־לוֹט בֶּן־אָחִיו וְאֶת־כָּל־רְכוּשָׁם אֲשֶׁר רָכָשׁוּ וְאֶת־הַנֶּפֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר־עָשׂוּ בְחָרָן וַיֵּצְאוּ לָלֶכֶת אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן וַיָּבֹאוּ אַרְצָה כְּנָעַן:

Then Avram took Sarai his wife and Lot his nephew and all of their property which they had acquired and the persons that they acquired in Haran, and they went towards Canaan and they came to the land of Canaan.  (Genesis 12:5)

A midrash focuses on a peculiar phrase in this sentence.  v’et ha’nefesh asher asu.  Many translations say “the persons that they acquired,” which refers to the many servants that had joined their household.  Abram had done quite well for himself in Haran, apparently. 

An often-cited midrash (Genesis Rabbah 39:14) understands it a bit more creatively.  Literally, I might translate v’et ha’nefesh asher asu as “the soul that they had made.”  Is it possible to create life?

Rabbi Eleazar ben Zimra explains that if all of the people of the world were gathered together, we could not even make a fly, much less a human being.  The Torah says that the soul that was made refers to all the people that Abram and Sarai converted.  We learn that whoever brings idolaters into the fold is considered to have created them.

In other words, Abraham and Sarah were busy in Haran.  They were teaching their neighbors about God, and leading them away from idolatry.

In Levenson’s terms, they were joining the family.  This family is comprised not of people who are related by blood, but by those who share beliefs and values.  That is who Abraham and Sarah brought with them to Canaan.

Rambam, the great 12th century Rabbi, physician, philosopher, and community leader was the leading authority in his day.  People would write to him from all over the world for advice and legal rulings.

A question was once asked of him by a man named Ovadiah, a convert to Judaism.  Ovadiah notes that the language in many of the prayers uses us or we, in reference to events that occurred to previous generations.

Eloheinu v’Elohei avoteinu — “Our God and God of our ancestors”

Asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav — “You who have sanctified us through Your commandments”

She’asah nissim la’avoteinu — “You who performed miracles for our ancestors”

Ovadiah asks Rambam if he, as a proselyte, whose ancestors were not part of the Jewish people, is allowed to recite all of these words.  We can only imagine what experiences Ovadiah might have had that led him to ask this question.

Rambam, in his answer, does not mince words.  He wants to make sure that Ovadiah, and anyone else who might think to raise a similar objection, gets the point.  His answer begins: “You must recite it all in its prescribed order and should not change it in the least.”

In his explanation, Rambam refers to Abraham, who taught people about God and urged them to reject idolatry.  Abraham instructed everyone in his household to follow God’s ways by engaging in righteousness and justice.

For this reason, anyone who converts to Judaism, throughout the ages, is considered to be a student of Abraham and a member of his household.  In other words, part of the family.

Not only that, Abraham is considered to be the father of all converts.  Jews-by-choice, when taking on a Jewish name, are considered to be the children of Abraham and Sarah, and are therefore referred to as ben or bat Avraham Avinu v’Sarah Imeinu—“the son/daughter of Abraham our Father and Sarah our Mother.”

Therefore, when a Jew by choice recites “our God and God of our ancestors,” it is a true statement.

While discovering Jewish roots in a DNA test may lead a person to explore their roots, it is not a determining factor, at least from a religious point of view.  Halakhah, Jewish law, does not tend to operate on the microscopic level.  

A few years ago, there was a young American woman from a Russian-speaking family who wanted to participate in a birthright trip.  She was asked to take a DNA test to prove that she was eligible.  She was ultimately denied.

This is unfortunate, and is certainly inconsistent with Jewish law.  I hope it is not a precedent.

Jewish identity is not in the blood.  It is in the family stories that are passed down from our grandparents.  It is in the moral lessons that parents impart to their children.  Jewish identity is also something that can be chosen by those who seek to be part of the Jewish family.

Does this mean that there will sometimes be questions and arguments about who is in and who is out?  Absolutely.  But we are a family, after all.  And families are messy.

Migrations – Lekh L’kha 5776

Lekh L’kha  Go forth!  Parashat Lekh Lekha is a parashah of migrations.  From beginning to end, its characters leave behind their past and set out for the unknown.  They are driven to do so by the same causes that lead people today to become immigrants: religion, culture, economic opportunity, famine, war, and persecution.

The story actually begins at the end of last week’s parashah, when we first encounter Avram.  (He has not yet had his name changed to Avraham).  His family hails from a place called Ur Kasdim.  We are not exactly sure where it is.  It is either the major city of Ur which is located in Southern Iraq on the coast of the Persian Gulf, or it is a smaller town in Upper Mesopotamia.

Avram’s father, Terach, moves the entire household – including Avram, his two brothers, and their respective households – intending to eventually settle in the Land of Canaan.  For some reason, they stop in a place called Haran.

Haran was a major station along the caravan route between Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean Sea.  It is located about ten miles North of the present border between Syria and Turkey.  The Torah does not tell us what prompted Terach to move the family from Ur Kasdim, nor do we know why they interrupt their migration in Haran.  We do know that the rest of Avram’s family remains in Haran.  Only he completes the journey that his father had begun.

This morning’s parashah begins with God’s revelation to seventy five year old Avram.  Lekh L’kha – “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”  God has big plans for Avram.

Avram responds with alacrity, setting out with his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all of their possessions, and a rather large but unnamed retinue of followers that they managed to acquire while in Haran.  It is not a short journey, and Avram does not stop when he reaches the border.  Rather, he continues his migration until he arrives in Shechem (known today as Nablus).  This is the physical center of the land that God has promised his descendants as an inheritance.

Soon after arriving in Shechem and building an altar to God, Avram continues moving south for another 20 miles, pitching his tent in the hill country east of Beit El, where he builds another altar.  He then continues south by stages until he reaches the Negev, probably near Beer-Sheva.  By now, Avram has traversed the entire length of the Promised Land, from North to South.

How might we describe this migration?  What is Avram abandoning, and what is he hoping to find when he reaches his destination?  The Torah’s emphasis on leaving behind his native land and his father’s house suggests that there is something culturally or morally unsavory about his birthplace.  Although we know nothing about Avram’s first seventy five years of life in Haran, many midrashim fill in the gaps.  Legends abound describing Terach’s idolatry, the deviousness of the local King Nimrod, and the rampant idolatry of Babylonian culture.

Remaining in Haran will subject Avram and his progeny to bad influences which will prevent the realization of God’s blessing that his descendants will become a great nation.  To fulfill his destiny, Avram needs to make a clean break with his culture of origin.

We might describe this move as a religious migration.  But perhaps it also might be akin to moving to a better neighborhood, where Avram’s family will have access to higher quality schools, less crime, and a more cohesive communal environment.

It does not take long for a new situation to arise which will force Avram to pack up his tent and move his household once again.  The land is struck by a famine.  Israel is dependent on seasonal rains.  Several years of poor rainfall, therefore, are disastrous and result in famine.  In contrast, Egypt receives its water from the annual flooding of the Nile River, which is a much more reliable source.  While the text only mentions Avram, it is safe to assume that his household is just one of a deluge of refugees fleeing south to Egypt for food.

The typical experience of refugees is not a pleasant one.  They usually find discrimination in their host countries.  If refugees end up settling permanently in their new countries, it often takes several generations before full assimilation and acceptance is reached.

Avram somehow defies the usual pattern and acquires great wealth during his time in Egypt. In 1848, a Potato Famine prompted the massive immigration of nearly one million Irish to the United States.  In the mid 1980’s a massive famine and war in Ethiopia caused the deaths of over one million people.  Six hundred thousand fled Ethiopia for Sudan, where they remained in refugee camps for several years before finally returning home.

One of the factors in the current Syrian refugee crisis is a famine that has been exacerbated, or even perhaps caused by war.

When the famine ends, Avram returns with his family to his former home east of Beit El.  There, his situation seems to stabilize for a short time.  At this point, Avram has huge flocks.  His nephew Lot has also managed to become wealthy.  Both of them send their herds out into the surrounding fields each day.  Soon, their respective shepherds are quarreling with one another over access to grazing land.

Avram recognizes that the status quo cannot continue, so he offers his nephew a choice.  “This is a fertile land, with plenty of room for both of us.  We just can’t stay here in the same place.  Pick where you want to go,” he says.  “If you go right, I’ll go left.  If you go left, I’ll go right.”  Lot chooses to settle in Sodom, where he has access to the lush Jordan River plain.  Avram stays put.

This migration is not the result of a crisis.  Quite the opposite.  Avram and Lot have become too wealthy, and they need to expand their markets.  Lot moves so that he can have access to better economic opportunities.

God appears once again to Avram, reiterating the blessing.  Afterwards, Avram moves his tent to the terebinths of Mamre, near Hebron.  Again, the Torah does not give us a specific reason for Avram’s move, but like his original journey into the Land of Canaan, it seems to be a religious migration.

Lot, meanwhile, gets caught up in a war when the cities of the Jordan Valley, including Sodom, rebel against their vassal overlords to the east.  The rebel cities are defeated and the conquering armies plunder them and take their residents as spoils of war.  When Avram hears that Lot has been taken captive, he assembles a small army and launches a rescue mission.  His risky venture takes him all the way to Dan, which is located at the far northern point of the Land of Israel, on the slopes of Mount Hermon.  He then goes on a night raid to a location north of Damascus.

The mission is successful, and Avram manages to defeat the enemy armies and rescue his nephew, along with all of the other prisoners who have been forcibly removed from their homes.

We see in this story another kind of migration – one prompted by war.  In this case, residents are taken and enslaved by their conquerors.  As we are seeing vividly right now with the millions of Syrian refugees, people tend to flee from war-torn areas.

The final migration occurs towards the end of the parashahSarai is unable to get pregnant, and so she gives her handmaiden Hagar to Avram to bear a child in her name.  When Hagar gets pregnant, tensions rise in the household, and Sarai begins to treat Hagar harshly.  We don’t know how bad the mistreatment was, but it was enough to cause Hagar to flee.  She heads south, embarking on the Road to Shur, which leads eventually to Egypt.  Along the way, an angel of God appears to Hagar and reassures her that God will bless her son.  In the meantime, she should go back to Sarai and “submit to her harsh treatment.”

This is not an optimistic text, but it illustrates another cause of migration: persecution.  How many millions of Americans came to this country fleeing religious persecution?!  It is what brought the original Pilgrims.  The rise of modern Zionism came about when Theodore Herzl and the other early leaders realized that the persecution of the Jewish people in the Diaspora was not going to go away.  The Jewish people needed a homeland where Jews could immigrate.  Sadly, Herzl’s prediction that the reestablishment of Jewish autonomy in the land of Israel would eliminate antisemitism in the Diaspora has proved to be incorrect, and Jews continue to immigrate to Israel because of persecution.

The reasons that compel a person to leave his or her home and move to a strange new place have not changed in four thousand years.  We immigrate because we want better lives for ourselves and our families.  We want to provide our children with safer environments in which to learn and play.  We move to find better economic opportunities.  Sometimes, we flee dangerous situations like war and famine.  And we leave places in which we face discrimination in favor of communities that will accept us as we are.

All of these factors lead the characters in Parashat Lekh L’kha to become immigrants, just as they lead people in our world today to seek better lives in new lands.

While the reasons to immigrate may be the same, in our world, some of the barriers have changed.

Globalization and technology have made it much easier to travel from one place to another.  A journey that once might have taken an entire year can be accomplished in less than a day.  Images of drowned children vividly demonstrate how dangerous the world can be for someone who is fleeing their homeland in desperation.

While antagonism towards immigrants is certainly still with us, multicultural attitudes in many countries in the world allow for an easier welcome and integration than in earlier centuries.

And yet, legal bureaucracies and quotas place significant obstacles before immigrants.  I doubt Avram was asked to produce his passport and visa when he crossed the border into the Land of Canaan.

Let us each think about our own family history.  How did we get to this country?  On my father’s side, my family immigrated to the United States after surviving World War Two and the Holocaust.  My mother’s ancestors arrived a generation or two earlier with millions of other Jews from Eastern Europe who were fleeing persecution.  My parents migrated from Southern California to the Bay Area, to Atlanta, and finally to Seattle as they sought better economic opportunities and a healthy environment to raise my brother and I.

Illegal immigration is a serious challenge in our world.  There are currently over eleven million undocumented people in the United States.  European countries are facing hundred of thousands of Syrians crossing their borders.  Millions of Syrians have been displaced and are living in refugee camps in Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon.  Huge influxes of immigrants has the potential to be destabilizing for a country, especially when that country does not do a good job of assimilating the newcomers.  I don’t have answers to these challenges, but as a people whose founders are immigrants, we ought to approach the issue with compassion and understanding.

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.

Distance Yourself From Lying Words – Mishpatim 5775

In one of my favorite scenes from Seinfeld, Jerry claims to have never watched a single episode of Melrose Place.  He is called on it, and is being forced to take a lie detector test to prove it.  So he turns to the expert for advice.

Jerry: So George, how do I beat this lie detector?

George: I’m sorry, Jerry I can’t help you.

Jerry: Come on, you’ve got the gift. You’re the only one that can help me.

George: Jerry, I can’t. It’s like saying to Pavorotti, “Teach me to sing like you.”

Jerry: All right, well I’ve got to go take this test. I can’t believe I’m doing this.

George: Jerry, just remember. It’s not a lie… if you believe it.

How true.  How true.

A study published about fifteen years ago found that people say things that they do not know to be factually true up to about two hundred times per day.  Men tend to lie about 20% more often than women.  Women, it turns out, are much better at it than men.

The study’s author, a social psychologist from the University of Budapest named Peter Steignitz, found that 41% of lies are to cover up some sort of misbehavior, 14% are “white lies” that “make social life possible,” and 6% of lies are sheer laziness.  In most cases, Steignitz concluded, lies are harmless.  In fact, he claimed, if nobody on earth lied anymore, “then this planet would end up completely deserted.  There would be 100 wars.”  His advice:  “Let us be honest about our lies.”

So, how about some honesty?  Someone comes up to you and says, excitedly: “how do you like my new haircut.”  It’s hideous.  But what do you say?

Your friend skips out on a dinner that you are both invited to.  You know that he is at a hockey game, but he asks you to tell the host that he is home sick.  What do you tell the host?

There are many everyday situations in which the simple telling of a white lie could save embarrassment, smooth over social interactions, or even get us out of trouble.  Innocuous, right?

The social science notwithstanding, perhaps we should not be so flippant about the harmlessness of most lies.  The truth is, being truthful is considered by most religious and ethical traditions to be the morally correct path.

Indeed, the Torah insists on our honesty on numerous occasions, in numerous contexts.  On the other hand, the Bible’s stories are filled with people, including our greatest biblical heroes, lying themselves silly.

Both Abraham and Isaac lie about their wives, passing them off as their sisters, in order to not be killed.  Jacob lies to his father Isaac, claiming to be his brother Esau in order to steal the blessing.  In return, everybody lies to Jacob.  After Jacob dies, Joseph’s brothers lie to him about their father’s desire for them to make peace.  And all this is just in the book of Genesis!

There seems to be a discrepancy between the ideals of truthfulness contained in the Torah’s law codes, and the real-life experiences of human beings.  Of course, this is entirely consistent with our experiences as well.  We may, in theory, express our commitment to the principle of honesty, and yet, if we are truly honest with ourselves, most of us will probably have to admit that we lie on a daily basis.

The Torah includes many mitzvot that regulate our interactions with each other.  A significant portion of those mitzvot have to do with behaviors that are forbidden.  You shall not murder.  You shall not steal.  You shall not subvert the rights of the needy, and so on.  This morning’s Torah portion presents a particular behavior in a unique way.  מִדְּבַר שֶׁקֶר תִּרְחָק.  “From a lying word stay far away.”  (Exodus 23:7)

It does not say, “you shall not lie,” or “he who lies shall be punished in the following manner.”  It tells us, instead, to distance ourself from lies.  Lying is the only behavior in the entire Torah from which we are commanded to stay away.

Many commentators understand this requirement to be directed specifically at judges.  The commentator Rashbam explains that in a case in which a judgment seems contrived and the witnesses false, but in which we are unable to provide an effective refutation, it is best to stay as far away as possible.  A judge should stay clear of anything which could create the impression that he or she has dealings with something that is corrupt.  (Sforno)

But our sources also understand this injunction to distance ourselves from lying words more broadly.  The Maggid from Kelm claims that a liar is worse than a thief or a robber.  The thief steals when no one is watching, and at night.  The robber will steal at any time, but only from an individual person.  A liar, on the other hand, will lie day or night, to individuals and groups.  Our tradition has many other pithy statements like this extolling the importance of truth.

The truth is, honesty does not come naturally to us.  It is something that must be taught.  Any parent knows this.  The most indiscriminate liars in the world are toddlers.  “I didn’t do it.  It fell by itself.”  Our natural instinct for self-preservation pushes us to lie.

It falls on parents, teachers, and the community to educate children about the importance of truthfulness.  In our family, we try to emphasize that the absolute most important rule is being honest with each other.  Of course, to convey this with any success whatsoever, we have to be honest ourselves, because kids can sniff out dishonesty a mile away.

Perhaps that is what Rabbi Zeira, one of our Sages from the Talmud, is getting at when he teaches that “a person should not tell a child, I will give you something – and then not give it, because this teaches the child falsehood.”  (BT Succah 46b)

The Talmud (BT Yevamot 63a) tells a story about a Sage named Rav, whose wife would constantly mess with him, and it drove him crazy.  If he asked her to make lentils for dinner, she would make peas.  If he asked for peas, she would cook lentils.

When their son Chiyya got older, Rav would send him into the kitchen to pass along his requests for dinner.  Chiyya, a bright child, would switch the requests around.  If his father asked for lentils, he would tell his mother that he wanted peas, and she would then cook lentils, and vice versa.  That way, Rav got exactly what he wanted for dinner every night, and his parents’ fighting improved.

This went on for some time, until one day, Rav commented to his son, “Your mother has gotten better.”

Chiyya then confessed that he had been switching the messages around.

Rav was impressed with his son’s wisdom, acknowledging the popular saying “From your own children you learn reason.”  Nevertheless, he recalled the Bible’s warnings about dishonesty, and told Chiyya not to lie anymore.  Rav recognized that his parental obligation to teach truthfulness to his son overrode any short-term benefit this little white lie may have had.  He and his wife would have to deal with their issues on their own.

Jewish law emphatically emphasizes the importance of truth-telling in certain areas.  When it comes to business, for example, both business owners and customers must be honest at all times.

However, our tradition does not hold truth-telling to be an absolute.  There are circumstances in which it might be appropriate, or possibly even necessary, to say something that is not true.

The Talmud (BT Yevamot 65b) teaches that one may tell a lie in the interests of peace.  Various examples are given.  The question is asked regarding what one should say to an ugly bride on her wedding day.  Beit Shammai insists that one must always tell the truth, while Beit Hillel says that we must praise her as beautiful and full of grace.  Our tradition fallows Beit Hillel.

Other examples are given about when it is permissible to lie, including when life is in danger and when it would bring about peace.  Husbands and wives are not supposed to tell the truth to others about what goes on in the bedroom.  A person who is particularly knowledgeable on a subject should not claim to be an expert.  To do so would be immodest, or could lead to embarrassment if he is then asked a question that he cannot answer.  Finally, a person who has been graciously hosted is not supposed to go around telling people about it, because it could lead to disreputable individuals calling upon the wealthy host.

It would appear that our tradition does not define truth and lies as a straightforward reporting of factually accurate or inaccurate information.

Truth, considered to be one of the pillars of the world, is more complicated.  In Michtav M’Eliyahu (Vol. I, p. 94) Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler explains:  We had better define truth as that which is conducive to good and which conforms with the Will of the Creator, and falsehood as that which furthers the scheme of the yetzer harah, the power of evil in the world.

When the Torah urges us to distance ourselves from lying words, it is really setting an ideal for us to build families and communities that are rooted in honesty.  While little white lies may sometimes be called for, they do take their toll on us.

As the Talmud states (BT Sanhedrin 89b), “this is the punishment of the liar, that even if he speaks the truth – nobody listens to him.”

Our tradition recognizes that reality is complicated,  and that absolutes are often unrealistic.  Nevertheless, we can imagine what a community built on truth looks like, and we can strive to create it.

Jewish Sovereignty and Its Possibilities – Chayei Sarah 5775

In 1913, Sigmund Freud, the father of Psychoanalysis, wrote a book called Totem and Taboo, exploring issues of archaeology, anthropology, and religion through the perspective of psychoanalysis.  Freud was an Austrian Jew who was totally secular.  He did not observe Jewish traditions in any significant way.  He could not read Hebrew.  Yet, he felt himself to be a Jew, and he never renounced his Jewish identity.

In 1930, Totem and Taboo was translated into Hebrew.  In the preface to this version, Freud, writing from his home in Vienna, describes how he feels about his book appearing in the revived and modernized language of his ancestors.  You’ll have to excuse him.  He writes about himself in a somewhat disjointed third person.

No reader of [the Hebrew version of] this book will find it easy to put himself in the emotional position of an author who is ignorant of the language of holy writ, who is completely estranged from the religion of his fathers—as well as from every other religion—and who cannot take a share in nationalist ideals, but who has yet never repudiated his people, who feels that he is in his essential nature a Jew and who has no desire to alter that nature. If the question were put to him: ‘Since you have abandoned all these common characteristics of your countrymen, what is there left to you that is Jewish?’ he would reply: ‘A very great deal, and probably its very essence.’ He could not now express that essence clearly in words; but some day, no doubt, it will become accessible to the scientific mind.

Thus it is an experience of a quite special kind for such an author when a book of his is translated into the Hebrew language and put into the hands of readers for whom that historic idiom is a living tongue….

Freud is so moved by the translation of his book into Hebrew, but he has no idea why.  Something about the revitalization of the ancient national language of his people in their land has awoken in him a profound sense of identity, even though his active participation in Jewish life is negligible.  How can that be?  What has been awakened in the father of psychoanalysis?

Something quite ancient.

This morning’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, begins with the death of our first matriarch.  Abraham, the lonely widower, must now attend to her burial.  Abraham has a problem, however.  He has no place to bury her.  Although God has promised that his descendants would inherit the land, he has yet to take possession of any property.  He is still wandering.

Abraham turns to his neighbors, the Hittites, and asks them to sell him a plot of land so that he can take proceed with his wife’s funeral.  He identifies the Cave of Machpelah, owned by Ephron son of Tzochar, as his intended property, and offers to pay full price for it.

“No, my lord…” Ephron objects, “I give you the field and I give you the cave that is in it; I give it to you in the presence of my people.  Bury your dead.”  (Genesis 23:11)

What a deal!  Abraham should take it, shouldn’t he?  No.  He should not.  Abraham can read between the lines, and he understands that if the land is merely given to him, it will not be truly his.  Ephron or his descendants could come back to Abraham or his descendants and repossess it.  Abraham knows that he must pay.  Ephron knows this too, by the way.  So they enter into a back and forth negotiation, resulting in a final purchase price of 400 shekels of silver.  Abraham pays and takes possession of the land in the presence of all the Hittites, so there is no question that he now owns it.  This is the Jewish people’s first foothold in the land of Israel, nearly four thousand years ago.

This property remains highly significant.  At the end of the Torah portion, Abraham himself dies.  Isaac and Ishmael, estranged half-brothers, return to the Cave of Machpelah to bury their father together.  Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah would also be buried there in subsequent generations.

At the end of the book of Genesis, Abraham’s descendants are all living in the Diaspora, in Egypt.  His great grandson, Joseph, has risen to be the Viceroy, second only to Pharaoh.  At the moment, life is good for them there, but they know in their hearts that Egypt is not home.  As death approaches, Joseph calls his family to him and makes them swear an oath.  “I am about to die,” he says.  “God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land that He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob…  When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.”  (Genesis 50:24-25)  This is Joseph’s dying request: for his bones to be returned to the land of his ancestors.

It would take many generations to fulfill Joseph’s instructions.  The family of Abraham would transform into the Israelite nation, and be enslaved by a new Pharaonic administration.  When Moses arises to lead his people to freedom, centuries later, he still remembers the oath.  On the night that they leave Egypt, Moses makes one extra stop to collect Joseph’s bones so that they can be returned to the land of the Patriarchs.

The story ends at the end of the book of Joshua, where we are told that Joseph’s bones are finally laid to rest in Shechem, on land that Jacob had purchased from the children of Hamor for one hundred kesitahs.  We see that from the very beginnings of our people, connection to the land of Israel is intimately tied up with our national identity.

Perhaps this explains why Freud is so moved when his book is translated into the language that is being spoken by his fellow Jews who are trying to reestablish Jewish sovereignty in Israel.  Freud and Joseph both feel the same sense of longing for the land of their ancestors.

In 1950, soon after the formation of the State of Israel, the Knesset passed Chok Ha-Shvut – the Law of Return, giving Jews everywhere the right to live in Israel and become citizens.  In the debate preceding its passage, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion outlined the philosophy behind the Law of Return.

The Law of Return…. comprises the central mission of our state, namely, ingathering of exiles. This law determines that it is not the state that grants the Jew from abroad the right to settle in the state. Rather, this right is inherent in him by the very fact that he is a Jew, if only he desires to join in the settlement of the land…. The right to return preceded the State of Israel and it is this right that built the state. This right originates in the unbroken historical connection between the people and the homeland, a connection which has also been acknowledged in actual practice by the tribunal of the peoples.

According to Ben Gurion, the authority to pass the Law of Return does not come from the State of Israel.  The Law of Return does not exist because the Knesset said so.  It is, in fact, the other way around.  The Knesset exists because the Jewish people have a core connection to the Land of Israel that extends back in history to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, originating in God’s Promise to Abraham and Abraham’s purchase of the Cave of Machpelah for four hundred shekels of silver.  Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people.  This has always been an essential aspect of our national identity.  This has been true both during times of Jewish sovereignty, as well as when our people lived in exile.  The longing to return home has always been a source of hope for our people.

Why is sovereignty over our land so important to us?  Because it provides us with the opportunity to put Jewish values and principles into practice.  When we lived as an exiled people, always as a minority within a dominant culture, much of our values could only be dealt with theoretically, in the study hall or on the bookshelf.

Our tradition has a lot to say, for example, about how to conduct a criminal trial.  The Torah, and later the Rabbis, imposed a high burden of proof.  Witnesses are warned repeatedly about the importance of giving true testimony.  A verdict is thrown out as untrustworthy unless someone can make a strong case on behalf of the accused.  Our tradition has an extensive theoretical tradition about how to conduct a trial fairly.  Only in the State of Israel is it possible for our Jewish people to wrestle with how to bring principles that were once theoretical into the real world.  The result has been that, except for the solitary case of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann, Israeli courts have not executed a single criminal.

Another example is relevant right now.  This year is a shemitah year, the sabbatical year during which, according to the Torah, agricultural land in Israel must lie fallow.  Trespassing restrictions are lifted, and the poor are entitled to enter landowners’ fields to harvest whatever happens to be growing there.  Indentured slaves are released as debts are forgiven.  Shemitah, as it appears in our sources, reminds us that the land ultimately belongs to God, not ourselves.  It emphasizes the importance of social justice, and resets the economic inequities that inevitably develop so as to prevent multi-generational poverty.

There are many ways in which the laws of shemitah are incompatible with a modern, capitalist, globalized economy.  They were not practical in the ancient world either, and probably were never observed.  But with Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel today, we have an opportunity to bring the institution of shemita out of our books and into the marketplace.  What would it mean to create an economy that promoted the principles of social justice and ecological humility that are at the heart of shemita?  This has not yet happened in Israel, by the way, where people either ignore shemitah, or find a creative loophole by selling the land to a non-Jew so that they do not have to suffer the economic loss.

A third example has implications for health care policy.  I do not have to tell you that our Jewish tradition values children.  It is considered a mitzvah to have kids, although the reality is that this is sometimes a challenge, as expressed in numerous cases of barrenness in the Torah, including three out of the four matriarchs.  The Israeli health care system offers unlimited, free, state-funded in vitro fertilization up the age of forty five.  As a a result, Israel has the highest per capita rate of infertility therapy in the world.  This is a decision that is surely an expensive one, but one that has been deemed worthwhile by the State.  As an expression of Jewish values, this is only possible in a place in which Jews have sovereignty.

For Jews living and flourishing outside of Israel, sovereignty is also important.  It changes how we see ourselves, and challenges us to bring our expression of Jewish identity out of our homes and synagogues and into the world.  The pride and openness of being Jewish that we feel here in America is made possible, at least in part, by a flourishing Jewish community in the Land of Israel.

If this conversation interests you, I would like to encourage you to join a course that I am teaching on Thursday nights called Engaging Israel, from a course offered by the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.  My words this morning, along with some of the sources I have used, are taken from the topic of this past week’s class.  The overall goal is to explore our people’s connection to Israel and to identify how Jewish sovereignty in our ancestral homeland opens up new possibilities for the the expression and fulfillment of core Jewish values, whether a person is religious or secular, or living in Israel or the Diaspora.

Faith, Tzedakah, and Hope – Lech L’kha 5775

We take Abraham’s faith for granted.  He has been described as the Lonely Man of Faith.  Jewish tradition sees him as the paradigm for loving God.  Although it disturbs us, the story of the Binding of Isaac is seen as a story of Abraham’s selflessness, his willingness to go all the way in serving God.

But is it helpful for us to hold up such a “perfect” model of faith.  I’m not sure there are many people who can see themselves as truly following Abraham’s example.

On the other hand, maybe Abraham wasn’t the perfect man of faith that he is often presented as.  Perhaps Abraham had his moments of doubts as well.

This morning’s Torah portion, Lekh L’kha, opens with Abram (his name has not yet been changed to Abraham) as a seventy five year old man.  God promises him that he will be a great nation, and will inherit the Promised Land.  Abram obeys, and soon arrives in the unnamed land to which God leads him.  Things are going well at first, but then discord breaks out in the household.  Abram’s only living relative, his nephew Lot, is also a successful shepherd.  Their respective herdsman cannot seem to cooperate when it comes to pasturing the flocks, and so the two branches of the family are forced to split apart.  Abram is magnanimous about it, offering his nephew the first choice about where to settle, but the end result is that Abram is separated from his only family member in a foreign land.  He must be lonely.

Soon afterwards. Abram finds himself in a famine.  So he uproots his household and heads down to Egypt, where food is available.  There, he feels compelled to lie about Sarai his wife, passing her off as his sister rather than his wife.  Apparently, he feels that it would be better for Pharaoh to bring her into the palace under the assumption that she is available rather than risk being killed as competition.

These are not the actions of a secure individual.

Nevertheless, the subterfuge works, and Abram prospers greatly in Egypt.  We do not know about Sarai’s experience in the palace, however.  When God strikes the Egyptians with a plague, the Abram’s deception is revealed.  Needless to say, Pharaoh is not impressed, and Abram is expelled from Egypt.  Back to Canaan he goes.

Meanwhile, war breaks out between several cities in the Jordan valley and an alliance of foreign kings.  In the fighting, Lot is taken captive by the invading armies.  Abram marshalls his household and rides off to the rescue.  After restoring his nephew to safety, Abram once again returns to Canaan.

At this point, how might we imagine that Abram is feeling about his life?  He has left everything – his homeland, his culture, his family, his father and brothers, to follow a voice that leads him to the West with unspecified promises of land and progeny.  By now, Abram has put forth great effort.  While he may be wealthy, he is still a nomad, and he is still childless.  While Abram has been totally silent until now, I would think that he must be feeling his mortality.  “What have I done with my life?” he must be thinking.  “What is my legacy?  What do I leave behind me in the world.”

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, God appears to Abram for the second time in a vision.  “Fear not, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great.”  (Genesis 15:1)

That’s it?!

It seems to rub salt in the wound.  All of Abram’s doubts and fears bubble to the surface, and he finally expresses the frustration and disappointment that has been growing in his heart.

“O Lord God, what can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless, and the one in charge of my household is Dammesek Eliezer!”  He then continues, “Since You have granted me no offspring, my steward will be my heir.”  (Genesis 15:2-3)

In the ancient world, if a couple was childless, their estate could be inherited by a loyal servant.  (Nahum Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary, Genesis, p. 113)  This is the only time in the Tanakh that Abram’s head servant is mentioned by his name, Eliezer.  It suggests that Abram’s statement is not rhetorical.  He truly is resigned to the fact that he and Sarai will not be having any children.  What then is to become of God’s promise that he will be a great nation?

God responds by reassuring Abram.  “That one shall not be your heir,” God responds, “but your very own issue shall be your heir.”  (Genesis 15:4)  Then God brings Abram outside and instructs him to look up.  “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them… so shall your offspring be.”  (Genesis 15:5)

Would that reassure you?

It did reassure Abram.  “And because he put his trust in the Lord, He (God) reckoned it to his (Abram’s) merit.”  וְהֶאֱמִן בַּה’ וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לּוֹ צְדָקָה  (Genesis 15:6)

Rabbi Jacob Mann Rakovski, who passed away in 2012 and served for more than 50 years as the Rabbi at Hadassah Medical Organization in Jerusalem, comments on the final word of this phrase, tzedakah.  (Iturei Torah, vol. 1, p. 105)  What does the Torah mean when it describes Abram continuing trust, or faith, emunah, in God to be tzedakah?

Rakovski says that by having faith at such a seemingly hopeless moment, Abram offers a tremendous gift to the world.  That gift is the ability to live a life with purpose and meaning, which is only possible through faith.

When a person lives without faith, Rakovski says, that person’s life has no meaning.  When such a person experience difficulties, he or she is inclined to ask, “what good is my life?  Why bother?”

Abram saved the world by demonstrating that there is, indeed, something for which to live, and thus, life is immeasurably precious.  That is why the Torah uses the word tzedakah to describe what Abram did.  His gift is a kind of tzedakah.

Abram may be unique in his ability to maintain faith in God’s promise that he will have children when he has not managed to do for the first 80-plus years of his life.  But the lesson to us is important.

Think about a time when you were disappointed.  When the things you hoped for did not come to be.  Perhaps it was a college program you were hoping to get into, a dream job that you could not get, a romance that did not develop the way you were hoping, not being able to have the family that you imagined.

To be human is to face disappointment.  Our challenge is to keep going when things do not turn out as we are hoping.  And that is where faith comes in.  I found it interesting that Rakovski does not actually specify faith in God, although I imagine that he probably implied it.

But I’ll suggest that when we have faith in something, whatever that something is, we are far better suited to deal with life’s challenges when they come our way, and we experience life’s blessings as far more momentous and meaningful when they happen.

In 2004, the This I Believe project was founded.  It was actually the resurrection of a radio program hosted by Edward R. Murrow in the 1950’s in which famous, and not-so-famous people were asked to speak about the guiding principles by which they lived.

At this point, more than 125,000 people have submitted essays about the values that guide their daily lives and give them a sense of meaning.

For several years, This I Believe essays would be read on NPR, and I had a chance to hear some of them during my commutes to Rabbinical School.  There was one essay in particular that stuck with me.  I would like to share it.  It is by Harold Taw, an attorney from Seattle and the son of Burmese immigrants.  He comes from a totally different tradition than that of the monotheistic religions, and yet the thing in which he believes, gives his life meaning and purpose.

I could say that I believe in America because it rewarded my family’s hard work to overcome poverty. I could say that I believe in holding on to rituals and traditions, because they helped us flourish in a new country. But these concepts are more concretely expressed this way: I believe in feeding monkeys on my birthday, something I’ve done without fail for 35 years.

When I was born, a blind Buddhist monk living alone in the Burmese jungle predicted that my birth would bring great prosperity to the family. To ensure this prosperity, I was to feed monkeys on my birthday. While this sounds superstitious, the practice makes karmic sense. On a day normally given over to narcissism, I must consider my family and give nourishment to another living creature.

The monk never meant for the ritual to be a burden. In the Burmese jungle, monkeys are as common as pigeons. He probably had to shoo them away from his sticky rice and mangoes. It was only in America that feeding monkeys meant violating the rules. As a kid, I thought that was cool. I learned English through watching bad television shows, and I felt like Caine from “Kung Fu,” except I was a chosen warrior sent to defend my family. Dad and I would go to the zoo early in the morning, just the two of us. When the coast was clear, I would throw my contraband peanuts to the monkeys.

I never had to explain myself until my 18th birthday. It was the first year I didn’t go with my father. I went with my friends and arrived 10 minutes after the zoo gates closed. `Please,’ I beseeched the zookeeper, `I feed monkeys for my family, not for me. Can’t you make an exception?’ `Go find a pet store,’ she said. If only it were so easy. That time I got lucky. I found out that a high school classmate trained the monkeys for the movie “Out of Africa,” so he allowed me to feed his monkey.

I’ve had other close calls. Once a man with a pet monkey suspected that my story was a ploy and that I was an animal rights activist out to liberate his monkey. Another time a zoo told me that outsiders could not feed their monkeys without violating the zookeepers’ collective bargaining agreement. In a pet store once, I managed to feed a marmoset being kept in a bird cage. Another time I was asked to wear a biohazard suit to feed a laboratory monkey.

It’s rarely easy, and yet somehow I’ve found a way to feed a monkey every year since I was born. Our family has prospered in America. I believe that I’ve ensured this prosperity by observing our family ritual and feeding monkeys on my birthday. Do I believe that literally? Maybe. But I have faith in our family, and I believe in honoring that faith in any way I can.

What do you believe in?  Maybe it’s feeding monkeys.  Or maybe it has something to do with serving humanity, or supporting the Jewish community, or following Jewish law and tradition, or raising a family.  When we can articulate the values and beliefs that inspire us to live lives of immeasurable meaning.  What gives your life meaning?  What gives you strength when things are not going well?  What inspires you to get out of bed each morning and face a new day?