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?

Where is God? – Terumah 5775

Where is God?

I learned the answer when I went to Camp Gan Izzy, the Chabad Day Camp, in the summer before third grade.  Sing along if you know this one:

Hashem is here, Hashem is there,

Hashem is truly everywhere!

Up!  Up!  Down!  Down!

Right!  Left!  And all around!

Here!  There!  And everywhere!

That’s where He can be found!

Up!  Up!  Down!  Down!

Right!  Left!  And all around!

Here!  There!  And everywhere!

That’s where He can be found!

So there is the answer.  God is everywhere.

Once, Rabbi Menahem Mendl of Kotzk, the Kotzker Rebbe, walked up to a group of scholars and asked them a simple question:  Where is the dwelling of God?”

They laughed at him.  “What a silly question!  Is not the whole world filled with God’s glory?!”

To which the Kotzker answered his own question:  “God dwells wherever we let God in.”

Two diametrically opposed answers to the question of where God is:

The first answer:  Everywhere.  God is big!  Nothing can contain God’s Presence.  God fills all of Creation, and then some!

The second answer:  God is small and lonely.  God is outside, knocking on the doors of our hearts, waiting to be invited in.

The first King of Israel is Saul.  When he loses God’s favor, Samuel the Prophet is called upon to anoint his replacement, and so God sends him to Beit Lechem to find a man named Jesse, one of whose sons will be anointed as the next King of Israel.

Samuel arrives, and sees Eliav.  Tall, strong, and handsome, he is Jesse’s eldest.  Samuel takes one look at him and says to himself, “Surely this is the Lord’s anointed.”

But God has other plans.  “Pay no attention to his appearance or his stature, for I have rejected him.  For not as man sees [does the Lord see]; man sees only what is visible, but the Lord sees into the heart.”  (I Samuel 16:7)

So Jesse brings up his next son, Avinadav.  “Nope,” says the Lord.  Shammah.  “Next!”  And so on, down the line.

After rejecting seven sons, Samuel asks him, “You got any more?”

Jesse looks at him, shrugs, and says, “Well, there is my youngest son.  He’s out tending the flock.”

“Well hurry up, man” Samuel urges, “bring him to me.”

Samuel takes one look at the kid and hears the Divine voice saying “This is the one.”  So Samuel anoints David as the next king of Israel.

Where is God?

God peers into young David’s heart, and finds an opening.  We are told that after Samuel anointed him, “the spirt of the Lord gripped David from that day on.”  (I Samuel 16:13)

As this morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Terumah, opens, Moses is on top of Mount Sinai and the Israelites are encamped below.  God instructs Moses to launch a capital campaign to raise money for a new building.  This is in the days before money, so they are going to have to collect raw materials:  gold, silver, copper, wool, fabric. precious woods, animal skins, and so on.  The gifts start pouring in.  The people respond so enthusiastically to the fundraising campaign, that Moses has to end it early – before the big donors can even come forward.  The first – and last – time in history that has happened.

They are going to use all of these materials to build the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle or Sanctuary, that the Israelites will take with them throughout their wanderings in the wilderness.

This and next week’s Torah portions are filled with detailed descriptions of how to build all of the furniture, make the clothing, and construct the building.  At the end of the Book of Exodus, the final two portions will repeat much of these details as Moses passes on the instructions and the Israelites build it.

This Mishkan will enable them to install the Priests who will perform all of the special sacrifices and rituals, thereby maintaining the relationship between God and the Israelites in its proper balance.  Moses will confer with God in the inner precincts of the Mishkan.  It will also serve as a physical location for God’s Presence among the Israelites – a cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night hovering to let the Israelites know that God is with them.

So where is God?

In the Mishkan, it would seem.

But, wait a second.  I thought God was everywhere, or waiting for hearts to open to be let in!  Now we are describing God’s Presence materializing in a physical location.

The truth is, God has no need whatsoever for a house.  God is way too big for that.  To suggest otherwise, that God’s Presence can somehow be contained in a physical space, is blasphemy bordering on idolatry.

It is we who need a Sanctuary.  Sefer Hachinukh teaches that it is the act of building the Mishkan which is transformative, not the building itself.  It is the journey, not the destination, which matters.

But why a Mishkan?  Why is it so important for the Israelites to build this thing in the first place?

Nachmanides, the 13th century Spanish Rabbi, connects the Mishkan to the Israelites’ encounter with God at Mount Sinai.  The Revelation at Sinai was a glorious, indescribable moment.  The challenge for the Israelites after such a supremely spiritual experience is what to do the day after, and the day after that, for the rest of their lives.  Everything else will be a let down after Mt. Sinai.  Nachmanides notices that there are a number of similarities between the Torah’s description of the Mishkan and the Revelation at Sinai.

God speaks to Israel through Moses from inside the Holy of Holies just as God spoke to Israel through Moses on top of the mountain.

The Tablet of the Covenant that the Israelites carry with them in the Mishkan was given on Mt. Sinai as a symbol of the covenant that was struck there.

The cloud of smoke created by the incense offering in the Tabernacle recalls the cloud that covered Mt. Sinai.

Similarly, the fire on the altar symbolizes the fire that descended on Mt. Sinai from the heavens.

The building of the Mishkan is meant to capture the essence of what happened to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai and enable them to take it with them on the road.  The Mishkan will serve as a kind of portable Mt. Sinai.

A Talmudic teaching (BT Sanhedrin 16b) takes it a step further.  The building of the Mishkan is not a one time project.  It is timeless.  We are to constantly build a Tabernacle in every generation.

So does that mean that we should launch another capital campaign tomorrow?  I think we might be able to get it to fit in the parking lot.

Just kidding.  Our tradition understands the Mishkan as a metaphor in and of itself.

God tells Moses, v’asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham.  These words appear in many, if not most synagogue, usually on donor plaques.  We have it in a beautiful mosaic right there in the foyer above the names of those who contributed significantly to the building of this sanctuary.

V’asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham.  “Make for me a Tabernacle, and I will dwell in… ” – finish the sentence. It should say b’tokho, “in it.”  But it doesn’t.  It says b’tokham, “in them.”

“Make for me a Tabernacle so that I can dwell within them.”  The Israelites build this beautiful, expensive building, and now God is not going to even move in?!

This leads many commentators to suggest that each human being corresponds to the Mishkan.  The eternal command to build the Tabernacle is as relevant to us in this moment as it was to our ancestors in the wilderness thousands of years ago.

The purpose of building the Mishkan is to transform those who are building it.

The 19th century commentary, the Malbim, teaches that “each one of us needs to build God a Tabernacle in the recesses of our hearts, by preparing to become a Sanctuary for God and a place for the dwelling of God’s glory.”

How do we transform ourselves into holy vessels worthy of God’s Presence?

The answer is quite straightforward: by doing mitzvot, we not only alter the world around us, we also transform our inner selves.  And then, God has a place in which to reside.

So where is God?

Everywhere? Waiting outside the door? Or in the mishkan?

The three answers merge.  The potential for God’s Presence to enter the mishkan of our hearts is with us at all time and in all places.  We return to the Kotzker Rebbe:  “God dwells wherever we let God in.”

But when we look inward, do we truly see ourselves in this way?  Are our hearts capable of becoming holy vessels that can house the Divine?  While these concepts are embraced in our tradition, notably by some of the Great Hassidic Masters, it seems to me that many of us struggle to see ourselves in this way, if we even consider it at all.

Our lives are so busy, our society and economy so material-driven, that the inner life is easily silenced and ignored.

Transforming the self into a holy vessel, a sanctuary for God, a Mishkan, requires kavannah, the intention to do so.

We approach an act with the mindset that its performance can open up our hearts, draw in sparks of holiness, and possibly even let God in.

We can introduce this kind of kavannah into our lives at any moment.  We just have to slow down, alter our perspective, and consider that our actions can have cosmic ripples beyond the physical world that we see around us.

The next time we give tzedakah, say a blessing before eating a meal, or study something, let us consider that what we are doing can transform our hearts in a profound way.

Right now, we are all here together in this physical sanctuary.  This is an opportune moment.  Let’s push the distractions aside, and make this an opportunity for holiness.  What better time and place is there than right here and right now?

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.

The Origin of the Hebrew Calendar – Bo 5775

Parashat Bo continues the story of Moses and Aaron confronting Pharaoh, demanding that the King of Egypt allow the Israelites to go out into the wilderness to worship God.  As he refuses, they announce each calamity that God is about to bring upon the Egyptians.  The devastation wrought by the plagues on Egypt worsens, and Pharaoh’s stubbornness begins to show cracks.  He offers to let just the men go, but then he changes his mind.  Then he agrees that the children and the elderly can go as well, but he backtracks once again.  Finally, Moses announces that the entire nation is simply going to leave with all of their belongings.  Furthermore, Pharaoh himself will supply the cattle that will be used as offerings to God.

Moses declares the upcoming tenth plague, the death of all first born humans and animals in the land of Egypt, and then the Torah takes a break.

God speaks to Moses and Aaron, saying the following:

Hachodesh hazeh lakhem rosh chodashim, rishon hu lakhem l’chodshei hashanah

This chodesh shall be for you the head of the chodashim, it shall be first for you of the chodashim of the year.  (Exodus 12:2)

Our tradition understands this to be the first of the Torah’s 613 mitzvot.  Because of its position as number one, and because it interrupts this dramatic story, we can assume that it is telling us something highly significant.

Indeed, this verse is the origin of the Hebrew calendar.  The Rabbis do some very close reading to explain how the Hebrew calendar, which came into existence long before they came along, is rooted in the Torah.

Moses and Aaron are told that this chodesh will serve as the first chodesh of the year.  But what is a chodesh?

Chodesh is from the same root as chadash, meaning new.  The chodesh is something that is mitchadesh, that experiences renewal.

The appearance of the moon changes from one day to the next, such that it renews itself once per month.  The sun, on the other hand, appears the same each day.  Thus, the Rabbis of the Talmud (BT Megillah 5a) explain that we count the year by months, rather than by days.  The term chodshei hashanah, the months of the year, illustrate this requirement.  This is why our calendar is a lunar calendar, rather than a solar calendar.

But this leads to several problems.

A lunar month is 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes, and 2.976 seconds, approximately.  Twelve months is 354 days and a fraction.  This would make a lunar year about 11 days shorter than a solar year.  If we were to follow just a lunar system, the months, and the Jewish holidays, would float across the seasons, taking about 33 years to return full-circle to the season in which they started.  That is, in fact, how the Muslim calendar works.

Deuteronomy states shamor et chodesh ha-Aviv v’asita Pesach.  “Observe the month of Aviv and offer a passover sacrifice to the Lord your God, for it was in the month of Aviv, at night, that the Lord your God freed you from Egypt.”  (Deuteronomy 16:1).  Aviv is the only named month in the Torah.  It literally means “new ears of grain” because it is the month in which the ears of grain first appear.  If the calendar were to float over the course of the seasons, then we would not be observing Passover during Aviv.

Furthermore, with regard to Succot, the Torah says b’asaf’cha et ma’asecha min hasadeh – “when you bring in your produce from the field.”  This means that Succot must always take place at the time of the fall harvest.  Therefore, the Rabbis of the Talmud explain, we have to occasionally make an adjustment by adding a thirteenth month.  (BT Rosh Hashanah 7a)  In this way, we will be able to celebrate Passover and Succot in the appropriate seasons.

In ancient times, the adjustments would be made based on the observance of spring-like changes.  If the trees had not yet begun to blossom or barley had not yet started ripening, then the Sanhedrin, the ancient Jewish court that met in the Temple, would delay the beginning of the year by adding a thirteenth month.  The additional month, following Adar, we now refer to as Adar Bet.

Now that we have a fixed calendar, the addition of the extra month happens on a predetermined schedule, seven times out of every nineteen years.

But there is another problem.  When is the Jewish new year?

In the Mishnah, we read that there are actually four, or maybe even five new years, each marking something different.  Nisan is the New Year for counting holidays and for kings.  Tishrei is the new year for counting years, sabbatical and jubilee years, and for several other agricultural purposes. (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1)

The Talmud records an argument between two rabbis about when the creation of the world occurred.  One Rabbi says that it happened in Nisan.  The other says it happened in Tishrei.  So we seem to have some ambiguity.

In the Torah, the new year occurs on the first day of the month we know as Nisan.  This is the same month as the month of Aviv I just mentioned.  The Torah, indeed most of the Bible, does not have names for any of the months.  Instead, it references the month number, always referring back to the month in which the Israelites went out of Egypt.

For example, what we refer to as Rosh Hashanah, occurring on the first of Tishrei, is instead name Yom Teruah, a Day of Blasting, and takes place on the first day of the seventh month.  When the Israelites get to Mount Sinai and camp out around the base, preparing to receive the Ten Commandments, the Torah states:

On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt, on that very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai.  (Exodus 19:1)

The Book of Numbers begins as follows:

On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai…  (Number 1:1)

Centuries later, the Bible continues to look back to this moment.

In the four hundred and eightieth year after the Israelites left the land of Egypt, in the month of Ziv―that is, the second month―in the fourth year of his reign over Israel, Solomon began to build the House of the Lord.  (I Kings 6:1)

Throughout the Bible, whenever dates are referenced, it is by a number counting back to the first of Nisan in the year in which the Israelites left Egypt.

What we know as the Hebrew months (Tishrei, Cheshvan, Kislev, Tevet…) do not appear until later books of the Bible, such as Esther.  In fact, the “Hebrew months” are in fact Persian names which were assimilated into the Jewish calendar at some point late in the Biblical era.

Why is all of this important?  Couldn’t the Israelites haves simply taken the Egyptian calendar with them, or adopted the Canaanite calendar?  Why did our ancient ancestors need to have a different calendar?  Why is it important for us to continue to keep a different calendar?

How we measure time is extremely important.  Having a Jewish calendar, and marking our years according to it, distinguishes us, especially when we are living in a society that counts time differently.

The twelfth century Torah commentator Rashbam explains that the calendar is oriented in this way so that we always have the Exodus from Egypt in our consciousness.  The Exodus is the formative moment of the Jewish people.  Its memory is supposed to have a profound effect on our lives, both individually and collectively.

As we read in the Haggadah for Passover, we are instructed to recall the Exodus all the days of our lives, and even the nights.  We mention it in our daily prayers.  We connect it to Shabbat by calling it zekher liztziat mitzrayim, a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt, when we recite Kiddush.  And, our calendar itself also reminds us of that formative event.

Nachmanides points out that when the Torah states “this month shall be for you…” it puts things into a relative context that is particular to the Jewish people.  While Tishrei might be the universal month of creation, and the month from which we count the earth itself, we are also to think of time in its relationship to our particular story.  Our story began when our ancestors first became free.

Being conscious of Jewish time offers great meaning for our lives.  We count our week from Yom Rishon, the first day, up to Yom Shishi, the sixth day, keeping ourselves oriented towards the day of rest throughout the week.  We mark our months by the waxing and waning of the moon, and experience renewal every 29 or 30 days.  We remember our exodus from Egypt, and express our gratitude for freedom by caring for those who are suffering.  And we mark the yearly birthday of the world, marveling at the miracle of Creation and committing ourselves to do better and be more.

That is what it means to live in Jewish time.

A Covenant of Peace – We Must Not Give in to Rage – Pinchas 5774

These have been difficult days for our brothers and sisters in Israel, who as we speak, are experiencing war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.  I have found myself this week checking the various news sources every few hours for updates on the situation.  I have also felt what I think many Jews in the Diaspora feel at times like this, a desire to be in Israel, to be with our people as they experience this terror.

Thank God that Israel has developed such effective ways of protecting its people from the indiscrimate launching of rockets at population centers, now reaching as far as Haifa.  The Iron Dome defense system has managed to successfully intercept ninety percent of the rockets it targets.  Israel’s siren warning system gives advance notice to Israelis so that they have time to reach a nearby bomb shelter.  The result has been an extremely low casualty rate thus far.  For this we must be grateful and pray that it continue.

Nevertheless, the terror and psychological trauma of living under constant threat is awful, especially for children.

The Israeli public is almost universally behind the military’s efforts to defend the population against hundreds of rockets that are being launched with the explicit goal of killing and terrorizing civilians.

The IDF has targeted Hamas’ military and command centers, taking great efforts to limit civilian casualties, including calling cell phones in advance to warn residents to evacuate.  Hamas, which deliberately locates its weapons in civilian areas, has issued calls for civilians to congregate at those sites so that they can be human shields.  That the Israeli military has destroyed more than 1,000 underground rocket launchers, smuggling tunnels, command centers, and other strategic locations with only 100 deaths is extraordinary, and suggests a concerted effort to limit harm to the Palestinian population.

Nevertheless, every life is precious.  Every human is created in the image of God, and we must never delight in the death and suffering of the innocent.  While I am glad for the low casualty rate in Israel, I find myself feeling terrible when think about what it must be like for someone trapped in Gaza.

Sadly, it feels like we have been here before.  In 2008, Israel invaded Gaza in reponse to rocket fire in Operation Cast Lead.  In 2010, Israel launched air strikes in reponse to Hamas rockets in Operation Pillar of Defense.  This track record suggests that violence might not bring about the goal that I think all reasonable people share: in the short term, the halting of rocket fire; amd in the long term, peace.

Indeed, violence so often begets more violence.  This current crisis has come about due to violent acts spiralling out of control.  First was the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teens: Naftali Frankel, Eyal Yifrach and Gilad Shaar, by three suspected terrorists from Hebron.  Then came the revenge murder of an Arab teenager, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, by three Jewish terrorists.  Since then, the violence has only escalated.

This morning’s Torah portion, Pinchas, shows us that there are threats that must be met with violence, but warns of the slippery slope towards which unchecked passion and vengeance can lead.

The Parashah continues a tale that began at the end of last week’s portion.

The Israelites, specifically the men, consort with Midianite (or in one reference, Moabite) women, who have been luring them to sacrifice to their foreign gods.  Predictably, this provokes God’s anger, and a plague results that indiscriminately strikes the innocent along with the guilty.

What is going on here is nothing less than an existential threat to the entire nation.  The idolatry of the Israelites threatens the moral integrity of the people, while the plague threatens their physical existence.

Something must be done to counter this threat.

Pinchas, the son of Eleazar the High Priest and Moses’ great nephew, takes immediate action.  He grabs a spear, and publicly impales an Israelite named Zimri and a Midianite named Cozbi.  This bold act stops the sinning in its tracks, calms God’s wrath, and ends the plague – but not before 24,000 Israelites have already been killed.

This morning’s Torah portion, named after Pinchas, continues the story with God’s enthusiastic approval and endorsement of the hero.  “Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the Priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me…”  (Numbers 25:11)

God continues with a blessing for Pinchas and his future descendants.  “Behold I give to him b’riti shalom, ‘my covenant of peace.'” (Ibid. 25:13)

This glorification of Pinchas’ zealous actions does not sit well with our Sages.  A midrash in the Palestinian Talmud (Sanhedrin 9:7) describes how the elders of Israel disapprove of Pinchas taking matters into his own hands without first going through a judicial process.  They fear that permitting zealous actions is a recipe for disaster.  Without a trial, how can we distinguish between an impassioned believer carrying out God’s will and a fired-up individual acting out on his own whims and desires.  The purpose of a judicial system is to remove the passion and zeal which so often ends in violence and injustice.

The elders of Israel are so terrified of what Pinchas represents that they want to excommunicate him, but a heavenly spirit comes to overrule them, affirming that Pinchas’ zeal has been only for the sake of God.

Pinchas’ reward is a brit shalom, an everlasting covenant of peace.  On its surface, it is a promise that Pinchas need not fear revenge from the families of those he has just killed.  On a deeper level, God’s granting a covenant of peace is a warning.  Yes, passion for God is a good thing.  Stepping in boldly to avert a crisis or to combat evil is sometimes necessary.  But we have seen too many cases throughout history, up to and including the present time, of impassioned people acting out of their own selfish interests, claiming that it is God whom they serve.

This is the rhetoric of Hamas, and it is also the rhetoric of the three Jewish murderers of the innocent Arab teenager.

Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the nineteenth century principal of the Volozhin Yeshiva, explains that God’s promise to Pinchas of a brit shalom, a covenant of peace, is a blessing “that he should not be quick-tempered or angry.  Since, it was only natural that such a deed as Pinhas’ should leave in his heart an intense emotional unrest afterward, the Divine blessing was designed to cope with this situation and promised peace and tranquility of soul.”  (Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Berlin, Ha’amek Davar, in Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar, p. 331)

The brit shalom is a protection against the burning passion buried in each of our hearts that pushes us to violence and revenge, that causes us to gloat over the fall of our enemies, and that leads us to dehumanize the other.

At a time such as we now face, we need the blessing of a brit shalom more than ever.  As the Israel Defense Forces uses violence to legitimately combat Hamas and protect the citizens of Israel, the risk of us succumbing to our inner zeal rises.

I am heartened by the outpouring of anger and deeply-felt embarrassment by Jews across the religious and political spectrum at the evil murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir.  In the last week, thousands of Israelis have paid condolence visits to the Abu Khdeir family.  It reassures me that we have not lost our moral compass.

Let us pray for a brit shalom, a covenenat of peace in our own hearts and the hearts of the Jewish people to always exercise restraint, to always treasure the sanctity of human life, whether a Jewish child hiding in a bomb shelter in Beer Sheva, or a Muslim child living in Gaza.  May we always have the sense to stop those among our own people who would act out on their rage and desire for vengeance.

Let us also pray for the other kind of brit shalom, a covenant of peace with human beings who today are our enemies, but who may one day, God willing may it be soon, become our friends.

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Ki Tov Hu – Shemot 5773

When my sister in law had her first child, she called up my wife and asked her, “Isn’t my baby the most beautiful baby you have ever seen?”

To which my wife responded, “No. My baby is the most beautiful baby ever.”

Of course, they are both right. To every mother, her baby is the most beautiful, and she would do anything for that child.

This is a phenomenon that goes all the way back to the beginning of the book of Exodus. The Israelites are enslaved in Egypt. Pharaoh and the Egyptians have been oppressing them. After trying, unsuccessfully, to compel the midwives to murder any male child born to an Israelite, Pharaoh issues a more specific decree: all Israelite boys are to be thrown into the Nile.

Then, in chapter two, the camera zooms in from the wide angle lens to focus in on one particular baby boy: “A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months.”

And so begins the story of Moses. A couple of problems with our text.

First, as illustrated by the interaction between my wife and sister in law, there is nothing extraordinary about a mother looking at her newborn baby boy and noticing how beautiful he is.

Second, there is also nothing unusual about a mother trying to defy a horrific decree by keeping her son in hiding.

As Nachmanides says: “All women love their children, beautiful or not, and they would all hide them to the best of their ability; there is no need to say that he was beautiful to explain why she hid him.”*1*

The universality of a mother and father’s love of her or his child is a given, across all time and culture. So why would the Torah take the time to mention something so obvious?

Naturally, there are a number of commentaries from our tradition that give us additional insight into Moses’ birth. The Torah states, Vatere oto ki tov hu – “When she saw how tov he was…”*2* What does tov mean in this context? The Talmud offers five explanations*3*:

“Rabbi Meir says: His name was Tov” Remember that he does not receive the name Moshe until the Egyptian daughter of Pharaoh rescues him from the Nile River. Tov was his birth name.

“Rabbi Judah says: His name was Tuviah” – This answer is similar to the first one, with two additional letters, yud, heh. These are letters from the name of God. It is common for biblical names to incorporate the Divine name.

“Rabbi Nehemiah says: [She foresaw that he would be] worthy of prophecy” – That is to say, Moses’ mother saw something in him that was not typical. Guided herself perhaps through prophecy, she saw God’s presence in this child in a way that made her confident he would be saved if she took extraordinary measures, which might explain why she sent him off in a basket down the Nile River.

The Talmud’s final two explanations are based on another appearance of the word tov in the Torah: Va’yar elohim et ha’or ki tov*4* – “And God saw that the light was tov.”

The word tov appears seven times in the account of creation. It indicates God’s satisfaction that each of those things that are declared tov have been made complete. The Talmud’s fourth explanation builds on this.

“Others say: He was born circumcised” Circumcision is the perfection, or completion, of the male body. So when Moses’ mother sees him and declares him to be tov, it means that he came out circumcised.

Finally, the last explanation is by the Sages: “At the time when Moses was born, the whole house was filled with light — it is written here, ‘And she saw that he was tov,’ and elsewhere it is written: ‘And God saw that the light was tov.'” Moses came out glowing. He was glowing with potential, a new creation. Like the light that God created and separated from darkness on the first day, Moses’ birth heralds the dawn of something new.

Moses is certainly an extraordinary human being. He deserves to have a a story recorded in the Torah about his birth. But the truth is, every child born is beautiful, tov, in all of these senses. Beautiful, complete, perfect, blameless. A continuation of creation. But more than just tov in the present, in that miraculous moment of coming into being. A new human being is also tov in the sense of containing the potential for redemption.

That is why we welcome Elijah the Prophet at a Brit Milah or a Simchat Bat ceremony. Elijah, Jewish tradition teaches, will announce the coming of the Messiah and the redemption of the world. Every baby who is born has the potential to bring the world closer to redemption.

This is why, in our family, we tell our children “I can’t wait to see who you will become.”

This past week, the children of Newtown went back to school for the first time. Our nation is still going through a process of soul-searching after the tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school. Those twenty children, all of them tovim: beautiful, perfect creations, contained within them so much potential for goodness in our world.

The tragedy has opened up a conversation about violence in our society, gun control, mental health services, violent video games, eroding moral values, and more. These are important conversations to have. While the connections between any one particular policy issue and different outcomes is often difficult to establish, there is a widespread sense that we are off course, and not doing enough to protect and cultivate the tov in our children.

Many faith communities are getting involved in these issues, including among American Jews. The leadership of Conservative Judaism, representing all of the various bodies of the movement, have recently reiterated its call for tighter regulations of the sale of guns and ammunition through adoption of common sense gun policies.

I am skeptical, given our fractured society, whether anything will be done.

But I want to come back to Nachmanides, who stated the obvious, declared, and I’ll take the liberty of making a couple of slight adjustments “All men and women love their children, beautiful or not, and they would all protect them to the best of their ability…”

We may think we are doing the best we can in our own sheltered communities. But we are part of a much larger society, in which the evidence would suggest that we are falling short of Nachmanides’ assumption. We are not protecting our kids to the best of our ability. And that has to change.

When Moses was born, light filled the room. When his mother saw it, she saw his beauty, his potential, his ability to bring goodness into the world, and she declared him tov. Every child fills our world with light. It is up to us to recognize it and build a society in which it can shine.

*1*Commentary on Exodus 2:2

*2*Exodus 2:2

*3*BT Sotah 12a

*4*Genesis 1:4

 

Joseph’s Land Reform – Vayigash 5771

Wherever you see yourself on the political spectrum, I think you will probably agree with me that we are facing serious economic problems that need to be addressed.  Problems of long term debt, of expenditures that are far exceeding revenues.  Our elected leaders are going to have to do something pretty dramatic to deal with these problems.

And it has been so frustrating watching both parties in Congress  quibble over politics.  First the Republicans promise to block anything that President Obama sends their way, even if it is an idea that originated in the Republican Party, and then when he finally gets them to agree to a compromise, the Democrats refuse to accept it.

California is even worse.  We have seen the budgetary problems pushed off from one year to the next, with the State Legislature refusing to ever actually address the real issues.

Perhaps there is some wisdom to be gleaned from an ancient source.  We read this morning of one of the most remarkable, peaceful, successful, and well thought out national economic transformations in history.  And it all happens in just fourteen years.

7 years of plenty, 7 years of famine

Joseph was appointed as Prime Minister because of the plan that he outlined to Pharaoh after he interpreted his dreams

Let all the food of these good years that are coming be gathered, and let the grain be collected under Pharaoh’s authority as food to be stored in the cities.  Let that food be a reserve for the land for the seven years of famine which will come upon the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish in the famine.  (41:35-36)

When the famine hits after seven years, Joseph, and the Egyptian government, are ready for it.  People start flocking in from all over the Egyptian empire, and even from surrounding lands.  Enough food was saved to feed everyone, even the foreigners.

The Torah describes how it played out.  First, the people bring their money to pay for the food.  When the money runs out, they pay for food with their livestock.  When the livestock all belong to Pharaoh, the people beg Joseph to feed them in exchange for their land and their selves.  They ask to become serfs to Pharaoh.  As part of this plan, the population of Egypt is resettled, town by town.    Joseph then gives the people seed to plant their crops, and requests that they turn over twenty percent of their yield to Pharaoh.  Only the Egyptian priests are allowed to keep their land, along with receiving their food allotment from the government.  The end of the account informs us of the Egyptian people’s gratefulness to Joseph for his successful guidance of them through the famine.  In a postscript, we are told that it is still the law “today” that one fifth of the produce belongs to Pharaoh, except that which is owned by the priests.

How do we read this story today?  One twentieth century Israeli writer called it “State Communism.”  “Control, centralization of food supply, and equal distribution accompanied by the nationalization of private property, first of money, then cattle, and finally, land.  Henceforth all the lessees of Pharaoh’s lands pay him “the state” ground rent, and live on the residue.”  (Nehama Leibovitch, New Studies in Bereshit, p. 525)

I think there is a modern tendency to read this story too negatively.  To blame Joseph for strengthening the power of the central government, and for ultimately turning the Egyptian people against the Israelites.  This sets the stage for the eventual enslavement of the Israelites by a populist, and possibly fascist Pharaoh who the Torah reports “did not know Joseph.”

Of course, interpretations like this reflect more about twentieth century political discourse than they do about the ancient world.  If we want to understand Jewish values, then we have to look at how this episode has been understood by our tradition.  We will find that the tradition views Joseph’s actions quite favorably.  It suggests something about the values that society and its leaders ought to bring to public crises such as the famine in ancient Egypt, and perhaps even the economic situation that we are facing today in California and in the United States.

There are some interesting details of Joseph’s plan that the midrash and commentators do not overlook, and nor should we.  The Torah notes that he had the grain collected and deposited “in the cities.”  The midrash explains that Joseph decentralized the food distribution system by locating the storehouses in local cities and towns.  That way, people did not have to travel all the way to the capital for food.

Another midrash describes how he collected all sorts of different kinds of foods, from various grains, to raisins and figs.  And each type was stored in a way that was most appropriate to avoid spoilage.

Joseph oversees the rationing system to make sure that everyone in society is able to get through the lean times.  Most of us in this room have not had to live through periods of food rationing.  The great twentieth Israeli Bible commentator, Nechama Leibowitz,  who knew scarcity, writes, “For those who have experienced one and even two world wars, Joseph’s rationing operations are no novelty, but for previous generations they were, and we may presume that they constituted something entirely revolutionary in his own time.”  (New Studies in Bereshit, p. 520)

Without the rationing, I think it is safe to assume that the wealthy would have gotten through ok, and the poor would have starved.  It seems to be the way of the world.

And without careful administration, profiteering would have been rampant.  Indeed, a midrash explains how Joseph prevented price gouging by restricting people to enough food for their own needs, but not extra that they would be able to sell on the black market.  Further, nobody was allowed to enter the country without first registering his name and that of his father and grandfather.  In other words, he established a passport control system.

But if everything was organized so well that nobody was left to starve, why does the Torah describe the Egyptians as crying “out to Pharaoh for bread”?  (41:55)  The 18th century commentary Or-Ha-hayyim answers that the cries were more for psychological reasons than for physical ones.  And Joseph responds to their cries appropriately:

Since a person who has bread in his or her basket cannot be compared to one who has not.  [Joseph] therefore meant to satisfy the psychological feeling of want by opening the granaries for them to see the plenty garnered there and rest secure .

Now one might be inclined to assume that Joseph reserved special treatment for his own family.  After all, the Torah describes how he gave them the best land for raising livestock.  Not so, says the commentator Sforno.  The Torah states that “Joseph sustained his father, and his brothers, and all his father’s household with bread, down to the little ones.”  But Sforno quotes the Talmud to explain Joseph’s honesty.  “When the public experiences calamity, let no person say, I shall betake myself to eat and drink and couldn’t care less.”  (BT Ta’anit 11a)

Furthermore, the text describes how Joseph collects all of the money, and brought it faithfully to the house of Pharaoh.  He does not skim anything off the top to build up his own private hoard, explains medieval Spanish commentator Ramban.  Joseph is an honest civil servant.

When the Egyptian people beg to sell themselves into slavery, Ramban explains, Joseph actually refuses.  He purchases the land from them, but not their bodies.  Normally, Ramban claims, the King would keep eighty percent and the serf only twenty percent.  But he treats the Egyptian people like landowners, and the Pharaoh like the serf, reversing the relative percentages.

Ramban’s numbers are a bit exaggerated, but we do have some data from the ancient world.  A tax rate of twenty percent would not at all have been considered excessive.  During the reign of Hammurabi, the state received between half and two thirds of the net produce, after deduction of expenses.  Interest rates in Babylon for loans of produce were thirty three percent.(Nahum Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary:  Genesis, p. 322)  It seems that Joseph’s economic policies, in light of the times, were quite reasonable.

And I think we have to take the Torah at its word when it says that the Egyptian people were grateful to Joseph.

But is this the Torah’s final word?  Is it presenting for us an ideal model of the economic makeup of a society, or of how to get through a national crisis?  Is this a model that we ought to be looking at for moral guidance today?

There are some internal hints that suggest that the answer is no.    That the Israelite approach is different than the Egyptian one.  The first hint is in the role of the priests.  The Egyptian priests come off as a privileged elite.  They get to keep their land, and they continue to receive their regular allotment from Pharaoh.  Compare this to the tribe of the Levites, about whom it is written, “they shall have no territorial share among the Israelites.”  (Num. 18:23-24)  In exchange for their service on behalf of the nation, they receive tithe payments, but they do not get to own land.  So what is their inheritance?  According to Deuteronomy, “the Lord is their inheritance.”  (Deut. 10:9)  The Torah seems to be concerned with not allowing them to take advantage of their status to become overly powerful.

Another way in which the Torah signals that this is not the ideal is in subtly emphasizing the role of the Egyptian people in the economic transformation.  It is the people who offer themselves to be serfs to Pharaoh.  Rather than take responsibility for their own redemption, they willingly turn over responsibility to the state.  As Nahum Sarna explains:  “The peasants initiate the idea of their own enslavement and even express gratitude when it is implemented.”  (Ibid., p. 323)

In contrast, what does the Torah say about land ownership and serfdom in the land of Israel?  In Leviticus, God states:  “The land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.”  (Lev. 25:23)

And regarding serfdom, it states:  “for they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt; they may not give themselves over into servitude.”  (Lev. 25:42)

The ancient Israelite economic model is based on private ownership, with limits.  And it works pretty strongly to prevent citizens from becoming enslaved to one another.

Where does this leave us?  Do we find anything in Joseph’s shrewd leadership that might help us in our current predicament?

Well, everything I have been reading seems to suggest that the only way to really solve our economic woes is through pretty radical changes to some very expensive programs, as well as a significant reworking of our taxation system.  I don’t think anything that is currently before Congress or the State Legislature comes close.  When you compare it to about what Joseph managed to accomplish over a fourteen year period of time, it seems pretty remarkable.

The important thing to remember is that Joseph, at least the version of him that is presented by the Jewish interpretive tradition, is being guided by certain core values:  That nobody will be left to starve.  That regulation should prevent profiteers from taking advantage of the system.  And that special interests are not given special treatment.

It is also important for us to remember that the Torah’s ideal is  ultimately not what is to be found in Egypt, but rather that which is to be found in the Promised Land.  It is the establishment of a society in which the fundamental equality of all human life is valued, regardless of one’s socioeconomic status, and in which freedom is a core right.

I pray that sooner, rather than later, we will be able to responsibly, and effectively, address the current problems in our society with the same kind of courage, commitment to morals, and compassion for all human beings that our ancestor Joseph once did in Egypt.