What Is Life Worth? – Yom Kippur 5779

[I got the idea for this sermon from an interview of Kenneth Feinberg by Steven J. Dubner on the podcast Freakonomics (of which I am a regular listener).  You can listen to the podcast here.]

Last week, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we observed the seventeenth anniversary of 9/11, when 19 terrorists hijacked four airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.  Nearly 3000 people were killed and more than 6000 were injured.

Almost immediately after the attacks, the airline industry started lobbying Congress.  It worried that the victims would bring lawsuits that would bog them down in court for years.  Congress worried that lawsuits would cause Americans to lose faith in air transportation and stop flying, which could have devastating effects on the country.  It quickly began drafting a law to limit the airlines’ liabilities.  But that meant victims’ family members, as well as those who were injured, would be restricted in their abilities to seek compensation.

At the last minute, Congress added a provision to address this concern.  They created the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund of 2001, to which eligible persons could apply in exchange for foregoing all rights to sue.  The American people would collectively pay damages to the victims of 9/11.

On September 22, 2011, just eleven days after the towers fell, the Air Transportation Safety and System Stabilization Act passed and was signed into law by President Bush.

The Act required the Attorney General to appoint a Special Master, who would be granted sole authority over the entire program.  The Special Master would be responsible for developing procedures by which family members and injured persons could apply for compensation.  He would have to develop a formula for determining award amounts.  He would also determine the total amount of money that the fund would distribute.  No distinctions whatsoever were to be made between citizens and non-citizens, including victims who were undocumented.

In effect, Congress gave the Special Master a blank check with which to compensate the victims and family members of 9/11.  Short of being fired by the Attorney General, there would be no oversight and no review.

No program like it had ever existed.

Attorney General John Ashcroft turned to a lawyer by the name of Ken Feinberg.  Feinberg was a Democrat, having worked for Senator Ted Kennedy early in his career.  Feinberg also had prior experience serving as a mediator for victim compensation funds.

Although a Democrat. Feinberg was well-respected and liked across the aisle.  Perhaps most importantly, he could be easily jettisoned if things did not go well politically.

Feinberg turned out to have been the perfect choice to serve as Special Master.  He demonstrated wisdom and sensitivity for the victims and their families.  He took his role as fiduciary for the American people seriously, and he considered the precedent that his decisions would set.  After closing the compensation fund three years later, Ken Feinberg wrote a book called What is Life Worth? in which he describes his experiences.

Consider the difficult position into which Feinberg was placed.  In administering the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, he found himself in the unenviable position of having to determine how much the lives of thousands of human beings were worth—in dollars.  He would have to weigh the relative merits of competing claims and decide whose death would be compensated with more and whose would be compensated with less.

It would have been far easier to simply state: “a life is a life.  We are all equal in the eyes of God,” and allocate identical amounts for each victim. 

But, in its hastiness, Congress ruled that the awards needed to be based on economic loss, that is to say, current and future anticipated earnings.  That meant that the family of a bond trader who earned $20 million annually would receive a greater payout than a firefighter, police officer, or soldier, not to mention a busboy who earned $20 thousand per year.

So Feinberg went to his Rabbi for advice.  It was not so helpful.  His Rabbi acknowledged that 9/11 was unique.  There were no ready-made answers contained in the Torah or Jewish wisdom.  “I alone had the ultimate responsibility of determining each award,” Feinberg wrote,

based largely on a prediction of what the victim would have earned had he or she survived.  It was a job that called for the wisdom of Solomon, the technical skill of H&R Block, and the insight of a mystic with a crystal ball.  I was supposed to peer into that crystal ball, consider the ebbs and flows that made up a stranger’s life, and translate all of this into dollars and cents.  (87)

Reactions by victims’ family members were all over the place, as one might imagine.  There was tremendous distrust of the program at first, and of Feinberg in particular, who became the public face of the U.S. government’s response to the families.

This program became the primary way that the American people would acknowledge the families’ losses in the first few years after 9/11.  It was inevitable that these payouts would be perceived as determinations of the worth of a person’s life in the eyes of the public.  

But money cannot bring closure.  Feinberg tried hard to emphasize that the purpose of the fund was to meet financial need, and not to value the moral worth of the victims.  But in creating this fund, Congress set up a dynamic which encouraged people to translate the value of their loved ones in dollars.  That perception was difficult to overcome.

Feinberg knew that the families’ emotions were raw, and that they would need time and space to vent.  At the beginning of the process, he personally led public meetings, strongly encouraging all family members to attend.

He and his office personally tracked down the relatives of every single victim, in the US and abroad.  That included eleven undocumented workers, whose foreign relatives were especially difficult to locate.  He made himself available for one on one meetings with anyone who desired, at any stage in the process.  In two years, Feinberg personally met with over 900 families.

In those meetings, they told him stories about their loved ones.  They expressed anger and sadness.  They wanted to know why it happened, and why their loved ones had to die.  Some expressed faith.  Others shared their loss of faith.

Of course, every family had a story to explain why their loved one was unique, and why their death deserved greater compensation.  After all, if money is the measure of a life’s worth, I would be disrespecting my loved one’s memory if I did not argue for more.

How can the pain and suffering of two different people be compared?  Is the loss more difficult for a spouse who enjoyed thirty years with another person, or for a newlywed who had an entire lifetime taken away?

Should the family of a firefighter who died saving the lives of dozens of other people be worth more than that of a secretary, or a chef, or a lawyer?  Should age be a determining factor?  What about the more than 60 widows who were pregnant with a child who would never know their father?  Is that worth more?

In the end, Feinberg decided that he would not distinguish.  Each victim would get $250,000 for pain and suffering, and each surviving spouse or dependent would receive $100,000. 

Nevertheless, he encouraged families to talk about their loved ones, inviting them to share what was special and unique.  This program could help serve as witness to their grief.  It was an important step in reframing the program and helping families begin to move on.

Senator Kennedy advised Feinberg “to make sure that 15% of the families don’t receive 85% of the taxpayers’ money.”  While the awards could not be identical, they also did not have to be proportional to income.  Feinberg could nudge low amounts upwards, and nudge higher amounts downwards—and he did.

He developed a formula to determine awards, and further reserved the ability to make adjustments in special cases.

In the end, ninety seven percent of all eligible families entered the program.  Spouses and dependents of 2,880 victims received almost six billion dollars in tax-free compensation.  The median award was just under 1.7 million dollars, and the maximum award was 7.1 million dollars.

2,682 of those who were injured received more than one billion dollars in compensation.  

When the fund was closed at the end of 2004, it was considered to have been a tremendous success.  The families were appreciative of Ken Feinberg and his team.  The compensation they received did not bring their loved ones back, but did help them to piece their lives back together and begin to move on.  It was not so much the money that did that, but the respect and dignity that was afforded to each individual life.

Judaism has many teachings about the extraordinary worth of an individual human life.  The earliest law code, the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:3), imparts this lesson as early as the second century.

Therefore, Adam was created by himself, to teach us that whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.

The context of this teaching is important.  It is a short speech that is delivered to witnesses in a murder trial before they present their testimony.  It is supposed to warn them of the importance of testifying truthfully, as the accused’s fate will be determined by their words.

Each human being must be considered to be like Adam, the first human, from whom all of humanity descended.  “Choose life,” the Torah instructs us.  Life is of such enormous value that, with just three exceptions, we are commanded to violate every mitzvah in the Torah to save it.  In Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, we learn that a person is an olam katan, a small world, a microcosm of heaven and earth itself.

To quote a certain credit card company, a human life is “priceless.”

Valuing a life in dollars and cents is cold and arbitrary.  But we tend to do exactly that.  Think about the expression, “So and so is worth x amount of dollars.”  Or a company.  Apple recently became worth more than one trillion dollars.  I hope we can agree that a person’s real value, and even a corporation’s real value, should not be determined by income or wealth. 

To do so would seem to go against everything that Judaism teaches us.

But, in other contexts, Judaism does value human life in shekels.  In ancient times one of the ways in which a Jew could express gratitude or hope to God, would be to proclaim a vow.  A vow is essentially a promise to deliver something specific of value to the Temple.  

In making a vow, I might dedicate a field, a particular animal, or the income that someone will earn over a period of time.  Or, I could dedicate a person—either myself or a member of my household.

If I dedicate an animal, I am obligated to bring that specific animal to the priest.  No substitutions are permitted.  So if I offer a person, must that person be sacrificed, or sent to work in the Temple for the rest of his or her life?  How do I dedicate a person to God?  

The Torah establishes that to fulfill a vow for a human being, I must pay that person’s value, in shekels, to the Temple treasury.

The exact value is determined by the priest, and is based on the ability of the vower to pay.  But there is a minimum and a maximum.  The minimum, according to the Mishnah, is 1 shekel of silver.  That is about $9 in today’s money, at current silver rates.

The Torah lists the maximum amounts, based on age and gender.  Adult males between twenty and sixty are worth 50 shekels of silver.  Females are worth 30.  And so on for children, babies and elders.

The only factor that can be used is personal wealth.  The Mishnah specifically states that the maximum assessment of 50 selas (the replacement for the shekel) would be identical for the finest looking and the ugliest person in Israel.  (Arachin 3:1)

This formula is not so dissimilar to the formula that Ken Feinberg used.  Values based on wealth, with minimum and maximum caps.

What is a life worth?

Since none of our riches will come with us, what can serve as the true measure of a person’s value?  

The High Holidays bring the question of our life’s value to the forefront of our consciousness.  It is nowhere better expressed than in the prayer Unetaneh Tokef in our mahzor.

This prayer, which is really an allegory, takes place in a courtroom.  God is never mentioned directly by name, but presides as Judge, Prosecutor, Expert, and Witness.  Each of us is the plaintiff, with our actions serving as evidence and the fate of our lives hanging in the balance.  Every deed, public and private, remembered and forgotten, is entered into the record.

The shofar sounds, and the allegory shifts.  Now we are sheep passing before the Shepherd, one by one.  The Shepherd examines each one of us, counting and inspecting, and determining our fate for the year ahead.

Who will live, who will die.  Who by fire, who by water.  Who will be impoverished.  Who will be made rich.  Who will be brought low, and who will be raised up.

The results are not shared with us.  But that is not all.  Read the prayer closely.  There is no causal relationship between the verdict and the sentence.  We emerge from the courtroom in suspense, with our destinies hanging.

Unetaneh Tokef captures the fragility of our existence.  There is no appeal for the Judge to change the verdict, nor for the Shepherd to alter the decree.  The imperfect world we live in does not work that way.  Despite the illusion of control, we know that so much of our lives are determined by forces outside of our control.

In the year ahead, it is certain that each one of us will experience disappointment and loss, joy and success.  At some point, may it be many years from now, each of us can be certain that we will face the end of our own life.

While terrifying, this allegory invigorates.  It tells us that every action, in every moment, matters.  Every deed in the Book of Remembrance is a record of our impact on the universe.  

So what is a life worth?  From one perspective, almost nothing.  One of the prayers after Unetaneh Tokef compares a human being to: a broken shard, withering grass, a shriveled flower, a passing shadow, a fading cloud, a fleeting breeze, scattered dust, and a dream that flies away.  In the vastness of the universe, we are almost nothing.

But each of us is also an olam katan, a microcosm of that same universe, with a spark of divinity hidden inside our hearts.

The knowledge that there will be a reckoning makes life matter.

The value of the lives of the 9/11 victims could not be measured by any dollar amount.  It is measured by the deeds they performed in the time they were allotted; the love they shared; the people they helped; the mistakes they made; the husbands, wives, children, brothers, sisters, parents and friends they left behind; the communities they enriched; the traditions they passed down; the beauty they paused to acknowledge; and the growth and learning they experienced each day that they were blessed to be alive.  The lives of those who died rescuing others are valued by those whom they saved.

The same is true for all of us.  Unfortunately, that is a lesson that we too often learn at the end.

What is life worth?  It is worth what we decide to make it worth.

Rabbi Harold Kushner once told the story of a man who, at the end of a full life, dies and suddenly finds himself standing at the end of a long line that leads to two doors — and there is an usher. 

“Move along,” says the usher.  “Keep the line moving.  Choose a door and walk through.”

Looking ahead, the man sees, at the very end, one door marked “Heaven” and the other marked “Hell.”

Gradually, the man proceeds up the line.  He observes that most people, without hesitation, walk confidently to the door marked Heaven, open it, and enter.  For every person whose turn arrives, someone new joins the back of the line.

Eventually, the man finds himself up front.  This is his chance to ask the question that has been burning inside.  “Wait a minute.  Where’s the Last Judgment?  Where am I told if I was a good person or a bad person?  Where are all my deeds weighed and measured?”

The usher looks at him and says, “You know, I don’t know where that story ever got started.  We don’t do that here.  We’ve never done that here.  We don’t have the staff to do that here.  I mean, look, you’ve got ten thousand people showing up every minute.  I’m supposed to sit here with everyone and go over his whole life?  We’d never get anywhere.  Now move along.  You’re holding up the line. Choose a door and walk through.”

“You mean I really have to choose?”

“Yes.  Now pick one already.”

Heaven.  What would that mean?  All would be wiped away — the acts of cowardice, the mistakes and regrets.  But also the agonized moral choices, the moments of courage, the times he chose the more difficult path.  

Hell.  That would bring judgment and accusation.  It would mean risking punishment.  Can he face that?  Will his merits outweigh his misdeeds?

“Come on.  We don’t have all day,” complains the usher, tapping his foot.

Taking a deep breath, the man says to himself, “I want my life to have mattered,” and walks through the door marked “Hell,” ready to be judged.

Uncontrolled Anger and its Remedy – Shelakh Lekha 5778

Anger is powerful.  It is a core emotion, one we all experience.  It is a natural part of being human.

When we feel angry, we should pay attention, because it indicates when something is not right.  Anger is what alerts us to injustice.  It is how we prepare emotionally to respond to a perceived threat.

Uncontrolled anger, however, makes us forget important details, overrides our moral training, and makes us generally unpleasant to be around.  It causes us lose our ability to self-monitor and maintain objectivity.  Uncontrolled anger, with its partner, irrational fear, is responsible for much of the polarizing behavior in America today.

Anger will lead to Moses being banned from the Promised Land in a few weeks’ Torah portions.

To illustrate this point, the Torah depicts even God slipping into uncontrolled anger.  This morning’s reading, Parashat Shelach Lekha, describes the infamous story of the spies, who are sent to scout out the land of Canaan and bring back an advance report.

We enter the story at the moment when God is furious.  The Israelites have panicked after listening to the spies’ depressing assessment of their chances against the inhabitants of Canaan.

God is incredulous about the Israelites’ lack of faith.  He is frustrated beyond imagination.  “Let me strike them down with pestilence and start over with you, Moses!”

This is when Moses shows his true mettle.  In his prophetic role, he steps into the breach.  “But think about what the other nations will say,” Moses warns.  “‘This God of the Israelites did not have the power to finish the job.  Since he could not bring them into the land that He promised, He just killed them off in the wilderness.’  Is that how You want to be known?”

That is argument number one for Moses.  Argument number two is more personal.

Here it is in Hebrew:  וְעַתָּה יִגְדַּל־נָא כֹּחַ אֲדֹנָי כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ לֵאמֹר  “And now, let the strength of my Lord increase, as you have spoken.”  (Numbers 14:17)  What is this koach, or strength, that Moses mentions?  And when did God speak about it?

Moses continues:

ה’ אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב־חֶסֶד נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן וָפָשַׁע וְנַקֵּה לֹא יְנַקֶּה פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל־בָּנִים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִים:

“Adonai, patient and full of lovingkindness, bearing iniquity and transgression, yet clearing, not clearing, calling-to-account the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons to the third and to the fourth [generation].”  (Numbers 14:18)  

Does this sound familiar?  Partially.  When is the last time that God threatened to wipe out the Israelites and start over with Moses?  At Mount Sinai, during the incident with the Golden Calf.  Moses talks God down at that time as well, using similar arguments.  While he is on a roll, Moses asks to behold God’s glory.  God agrees, and hides Moses in a cleft in a rock and passes the Divine Glory next to him.  While passing, God proclaims the thirteen attributes.

In this deja vu moment, Moses repeats God’s words back to Him.  He quotes some, but not all, of those attributes.  Maybe it will remind God, he thinks, of the last time when really really wanted to kill the Israelites but changed His mind.

Most of the commentators connect the koach, the strength that Moses wants God to increase with the term erekh apayim.  Literally, it means, long-nosed.  In Hebrew, this is a euphemism for patient.  The opposite is charon af, which means the burning nose, or flaring nostrils, a euphemism for anger.

So Moses is appealing for an increase in the relative strength of God’s patience.  Or, as Ibn Ezra puts it, that “the attribute of mercy should be victorious over the attribute of judgment to conquer Your anger.”

Anger has led God to forget about His own nature.  Moses is trying to awaken Divine compassion, which has become blocked.

Citing a midrash, the commentator Rashi takes it a step further. 

When Moses goes up Mount Sinai to get the Torah, he finds God writing down the Divine attributes.  Erekh apayim, Moses sees.  Long-nosed, patient.  Moses asks: “that is just for the righteous, right?

God corrects him, “Nope, it is for the wicked as well.”

“But should not the wicked be punished?” Moses asks.

“By your life,” God responds, “you are going to need these words one day.”

Today is the day.  The entire nation of Israel sins by listening to the ten spies.  God wants to obliterate them.

“But God,” Moses pleads.  “Didn’t you say that you are erekh apayim, patient?”

The Holy One replies, “I thought you wanted that to be just for the righteous.”

“No, no, no” Moses shakes his head.  “You said that it would also be for the wicked.”

Moses concludes his appeal by asking God to forgive the nation’s sin in accordance with the greatness of God’s love.  

God responds: סָלַחְתִּי כִּדְבָרֶךָ – “I forgive just as you have spoken.”

What a wonderful parallel.  Moses uses God’s words to remind God to be His best self.  And God responds by forgiving, according to Moses’ words.

So was God actually angry?  The midrash suggests that the story might have been told this way to teach a lesson about the danger of uncontrolled anger, and to offer a remedy.

The danger is that anger can cause me to forget who I am.  What are the values and principles that govern my life, that lead me to be me best self?  When I allow myself to be consumed by anger, I lose my way.

The remedy is another person.  Moses is the courageous prophet who has the nerve to confront God during God’s moment of rage.  To His credit, God accepts the intervention and snaps back, forgiving the Israelites.

I need to have people in my life who I can trust to step into the breach and tell me when I have lost my way.  And I should have the courage to be that person for someone else.  And most importantly, I should be receptive to hearing the voice of someone who has the courage to tell me, with love, when I am being an idiot.

The Unclaimed Crown – Terumah 5778

Parashat Terumah is the first of two parashiyot that describes the design of the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle that the Israelites build and then carry with them throughout their time in the wilderness.  It also describes the furnishings that resided within the Mishkan.

The Mishkan becomes a somewhat “permanent” temporary structure.  Even after the Israelites enter the Promised Land, it will take several centuries before the Beit Hamikdash, the Temple, to be built by King Solomon in Jerusalem, using the Mishkan as a model.

V’asu li mikdash v’shakhanti b’tokham.  “Build for me a Sanctuary that I may dwell in your midst,” God instructs Israel through Moses.  The Mishkan is the place where God’s Transcendent Presence becomes immanent.  The people can simply look to the center of the camp, see the clouds of incense hovering over the Tent, and know that God was there to protect them, bless them, and bring them prosperity.

Everything pertaining to the Mishkan, and later the Beit Hamikdash, is deeply symbolic.

In the ancient world, the belief was that when people sin, impurity becomes attached to the Mishkan, and specifically to the altar.  God’s Presence cannot remain in an impure Sanctuary.

That is where the priests come in.  By conducting the rituals, they cleanse the Mishkan and the altar of impurity, allowing God’s Presence to return, bringing blessings to the people.

This is true for the Mishkan in the wilderness, and later for the Beit Hamikdash in Jerusalem.

But something begins to change when the Rabbis come on the scene about two thousand years ago.

They take over from the biblical prophetic tradition, which tends to be skeptical of the automatic nature of the Temple rituals.  Prophets like Isaiah, Micah, and Amos recognize that while the priests conducted all of the Temple rituals with care and precision, people continues to behave with greed and callousness.  There must be more to being a people of God than merely offering sacrifices.

The Rabbis inherit and replace this countercultural prophetic tradition.  They interpret the Mishkan and Beit Hamikdash symbolically, deriving universal moral lessons from the specific rituals that were once conducted only by the priests.  Even before the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE, certain Jewish circles are starting to imagine a decentralized Judaism.  They embrace the ancient Temple symbols, but add them new layers of meaning that make them accessible to any Jew, in any place.

Three of the important pieces of furniture in the Mishkan are described in Parashat Terumah – the altar, the ark, and the table.  The altar, the mizbeaḥ, is where the sacrifices are performed.  The Ark, the aron, houses the tablets of the Ten Commandments and serves as God’s footstool in the Holy of Holies.  The table, the shulḥan, is where twelve loaves of bread are placed every week on Shabbat.

In describing each of these items, the Torah indicates that they are to have a zer of gold encircling the top.  It is not clear what a zer is.  Our English translation uses the word “molding.”  It is some sort of decorative gold rim around the top of the altar, ark, and table.  The Talmud (Yoma 72b) describes this zer as a crown, with symbolic meaning that extends way beyond mere aesthetics.

Rabbi Yoḥanan teaches: “There were three crowns on the sacred vessels in the Temple: The crown of the altar, and of the Ark, and of the table.”  Each of these crowns is available to be claimed by someone who is deserving.  For the crown of the altar, it is Aaron who is deserving.  He takes it, becomes the High Priest, and passes on the crown of priesthood to his sons after him.  The crown on the table is understood to represent kingship.  David is the deserving one.  He takes it for himself and passes it on to his children after him.  What about the third crown – the crown of the ark?  It still sits unclaimed, says Rabbi Yoḥanan.  Kol ha-rotzeh likaḥ, yavo v’yikaḥ.  Anyone who wishes to take it may come and take it.  What is this crown of the ark?  It is the crown of Torah.  Anyone is allowed to come and wear the crown of Torah.

The midrash continues: You might think that this third, unclaimed, crown is inferior to the crowns of kingship and of priesthood.  After all, nobody has taken it.  This is not the case.  It is in fact greater than both of them.  The Book of Proverbs states, “Through me kings will reign”  (Pr. 8:15).  The strength of the crowns of priesthood and kingship is derived from the crown of Torah, which is greater than them all.

This midrash undermines the old system.  Torah, that is to say, learning, has replaced the old dynastic systems of religious leadership.  This is one of the great legacies that the Rabbis have left to us: a meritocracy based on learning that is accessible to anyone who chooses to embrace it, regardless of lineage, wealth, or background.

This idea is developed further.  What does it mean to take the crown of Torah?  The Talmud again derives its answer through a creative analysis of the Mishkan.  We have already identified the ark as representing Torah.  It contains, after all, the Ten Commandments.  This ark, we read in the this morning’s Parashah, is constructed preciselt.  It is kind of like one of those Russian nesting dolls, with three compartments.  The middle compartment is a box made out of acacia wood.  It is sandwiched between an inner compartment and an outer compartment, each of which are made out of gold.

In other words, the exterior part, that is visible to the outside world, is gold.  But so is the inner part, the part that nobody sees.  In the Talmud, Rava teaches kol talmid ḥakham she’ein tokho k’voro eino talmud ḥakham.  “Any Torah scholar whose inside is not like his outside is not a Torah scholar.”

Torah is not meant to be merely an intellectual pursuit.  It is a living document, one that must transform the behavior of the one who studies it.

The Shemitah Ideal: Forego Profit and Renounce Ownership – Parashat Behar 5776

Parashat Behar presents the laws of shemitah, the sabbatical year.  The Israelites are allowed to plant and sow, prune and gather for six years.  Then, on the seventh year, the land is to be given a sabbath of complete rest.  No cultivation can take place, but people are allowed to consume whatever happens to grow on its own.  The Torah explains that when the laws of shemitah are followed, the sixth year will produce such abundant crops that there will be plenty of food to go around for the next two years.

Another aspect of shemitah required indentured servants to be set free during the seventh year.  There were elements of the shemitah system in effect during years one through six as well.  Landowners had to give ma’aser oni, 10% of their crops to the poor every 3rd and 6th year.  They had to allow the poor to come on to their fields to harvest the corners and gleanings every year.

Maimonides identifies two separate mitzvot, commandments, pertaining to shemitah (Hilchot Shemitah v’Yovel 1:1, 4:24).  1.  It is a positive commandment to suspend work on the land and cultivation of trees.  2.  It is a positive commandment to release all agricultural produce.  In other words, farmers are not allowed to put up barriers around their fields, vineyards, and orchards.  Their property must be open to the public.  Furthermore, Maimonides adds, farmers are not allowed to gather in excess produce into their homes.  Small quantities can be brought in.  But for the most part, everyone is supposed to have equal access to the produce that happens to grow during the shemitah year.

In his Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides suggests two reasons for the shemitah requirements.  The first is that these laws promote sympathy for our fellow human beings.  The second is that by letting the land lie fallow on the seventh year, it will result in greater overall production.

Regarding the second reason, Maimonides is wrong.  Farmers have practiced crop rotation since ancient times.  Without going into specifics, simply letting land remain uncultivated once every seven years is not crop rotation.  Many other commentators specifically repudiate Maimonides for suggesting this.

Most agree with Maimonides, however, regarding his first explanation.  Sixteenth century Italian Rabbi Abraham Porto writes, for example:

This law was given in order that we may show sympathy for our fellow men who have neither land nor vineyards, and that they may be happy in the Shemitah year, as the rich are happy every year.  (Minchah Belulah)

Another commentator explains that

the suspension of work in every seventh year causes us to realize that our mission on earth is not to be slaves to the soil but a much higher and nobler one.  Work should only serve the purpose of providing food and other needs, while our task is to attain to the supreme end…  (Akedat Yitzchak)

Think about what it would be like to be an Israelite landowner in a society that observes Shemitah.  I have to stop all work on the land.  I cannot even allow my non-Israelite workers to do anything.  I have to take down any fences or barriers around my fields.  As for produce that happens to grow naturally, I am not allowed to harvest it.  Instead, it remains in the ground, on the tree, or on the vine.

When I need food, I can go out to my field.  But I will be joining everyone else from my community when I do so.  The poor, the strangers, the property-less Levites.  All of us have equal access to the lands that I once thought of us as mine.

For one year, all social and economic differences are set aside.  The wealthy stand side by side with their servants, the poor, and the strangers among them.  Just think about the impact on social interactions if our society followed an institution like shemitah – to forego profit and renounce ownership.

Perhaps this is a utopian socialist ideal – but remember that it is only once every seven years.  The Torah recognizes the inherent competitive nature of humanity.  Rather than try to suppress it, it asks us instead to harness it.

We desperately need this ethic here in California, where we are living the opposite of the shemitah ideal.

There is an unprecedented housing crisis in our state.  The cause of this housing crisis is not a secret: income inequality.

This week, the Mercury News reported the following statistics:  Home ownership rates statewide are at the lowest level since the 1940’s.  The median price of a home in Santa Clara County is $1,070,000.  To qualify for a mortgage for such a home, a homebuyer would need an annual income of $219,870.  Assuming the homebuyer made a down payment of 20%, the resulting payment on a 30-year fixed rate loan would be $5,500 per month.

So many people struggle to meet even their basic housing needs; the idea of taking off a year to pursue more spiritual matters is a pipe dream.

Our society is structured in such a way that people of different economic levels are separated from one another.  There is not a whole lot of social interaction taking place between blue collar and white collar workers.

These kinds of inequalities are precisely what Shemitah addresses.  The walls between us, quite literally, come down.  The pursuit of wealth is put on hold.  Rich and poor, executives and janitors, stand shoulder to shoulder as they pick food for themselves and their families.  And everyone uses their time to pursue spiritual matters: the study of Torah, the development of relationships, the cultivation of compassion.

Rav Kook, the early religious Zionist in the early twentieth century, wrote a book about shemitah called Shabbat HaAretz. – the Sabbath of the Land.  You can hear the idealism in his beautiful words as he imagines Jews living in harmony in with each other and the land.

It is a year of equality and rest, in which the soul reaches out towards divine justice, towards God Who sustains the living creatures with loving kindness.  There is no private property and no punctilious privilege but the peace of God reigns over all in which there is the breath of life…  Sanctity is not profaned by the exercise of private acquisitiveness over all this year’s produce, and the covetousness of wealth stirred up by commerce is forgotten.

Bibliography

Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Vayikra, pp. 509-522

 

It Takes One to Know One – Vayetzei 5777

As this morning’s Torah portion opens, Jacob has just left the land of Canaan.  He is fleeing home after deceiving his father and stealing the blessing meant for his brother Esau.  He has nothing with him.  Following his mother Rebekah’s orders, he makes his way to her family in Haran.

Arriving with nothing but the shirt on his back, Jacob comes to town, stops at the local watering hole, and there meets his cousin Rachel.  She brings him home, and Jacob is incorporated into the family.

Twenty years later, Jacob has built up his own family, marrying both Rachel and her sister Leah, fathering eleven sons and a daughter, and becoming extremely wealthy.  The Torah portion ends where it started, at the border.  This time, Jacob is returning home.

During the intervening years, Jacob gets his comeuppance.  The deception that brings him there is returned many times over.

Simply put, Laban, Jacob’s uncle and soon to be father-in-law, is not a nice man.  He is greedy and selfish; duplicitous and conniving – making him a suitable match for Jacob.  They make a great pair: the perfect frenemies.

Throughout his time in Laban’s household, Jacob is subjected to lies and deception.  On Jacob’s wedding night to Rachel, Laban sneaks his older daughter Leah into the dark tent, forcing Jacob to work an additional seven years for his beloved’s hand.  He changes Jacob’s wages ten times.  He makes a deal with Jacob to divide the flocks, and then steals all of the animals that should have gone to his son-in-law.  Finally, he refuses to grant a dowry to his daughters, effectively disinheriting them.

The midrash imagines that even more is taking place between the lines.  Before he even meets his uncle, Jacob is already anticipating the kind of man to expect.

When Jacob sees his cousin Rachel, the first thing he does is to roll the large stone covering off the mouth of the well.  Next, he waters her flock.  He kisses her.  Then he cries.  Finally, he introduces himself.  (Seems kind of out of order, doesn’t it?)  Listen to how the Torah describes the introduction:

Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s brother, that he was Rebekah’s son…  (29:12)

Rashi, citing the Talmud (Bava Batra 123a), notes that Jacob is not, in fact, Laban’s brother, but rather his nephew.  Furthermore, why does Jacob repeat himself by emphasizing both his connection to Laban and to Rebekah?  It seems redundant.

Beneath the surface, Jacob is really asking Rachel about his uncle’s character.  He wants to know what to expect when she brings him home.  If Laban is a deceiver, Jacob says, know that I am his brother in deception; his equal.  But if he is an upstanding individual, know that I am the son of the honorable Rebekah.

Jacob is prepared to play either role in his uncle’s household.  That is classic Jacob.  Always calculating, always thinking ahead.

Tragically – although it makes for a better story – Laban is the former.

The midrash continues, noting that Laban runs to Jacob, embraces him and then kisses him.  Why is he so eager?  He must be up to something.

Laban remembers what happened many years earlier, when the servant of Abraham showed up looking for a wife for Isaac.  Laban was much younger then.  He recalls the servant arriving with ten camels, all loaded with valuable gifts.  The servant left with Laban’s sister, Rebekah.

Now, decades later, when he hears about the arrival of Rebekah’s son, Laban imagines to himself, ‘if a servant from that household brings so much wealth with him, how much more will a member of the family bring!’  We can almost hear him salivating.  In his greed, Laban is so excited that he runs.

But he does not see any camels, nor luggage.  Where are the precious gifts?  He gives Jacob a big hug.  Laban’s hands start to wander, as he pats him down, frisking him in his search for gems that might be hidden in Jacob’s clothing.  He finds nothing.

In his final, desperate effort, Laban kisses Jacob on the lips, imagining there might be jewels concealed inside his nephew’s mouth.

Disappointed, Laban concedes “you are truly my bone and flesh.”  (29:14)  Then the text tells us that Jacob stayed with Laban for one month’s time.

Rashi explains that, since there is no profit in it, Laban does not want to have to put Jacob up.  But since he is blood, there is a familial obligation – an obligation that lasts exactly one month.

This explains why Laban raises the question of Jacob’s payment exactly one month after his arrival.  Don’t be fooled.  He is not actually being generous.  He is trying to change Jacob’s status from freeloading nephew to employee.

This is the man who will control Jacob’s fate for the next twenty years.  Remember, Jacob has been blessed by his father and by God.  After meeting Laban, he has to be wondering about that blessing.

Despite his uncle’s duplicitousness, Jacob manages to do well, the result of a combination of Divine providence and his own wily nature.  But there is a cost.

Jacob will never have peace.  His household will be plagued with dishonesty and deception

Jacob’s wives, Rachel and Leah, struggle for position in the household.  As the family leaves home – in secret in the middle of the night, keep in mind – Rachel steals her father’s household idols.  She places them under her cushion, and when her father comes to search her tent, she lies, claiming that she is having her period and cannot get up.  Her lie puts Jacob in the position of telling an unintentional lie as well.  It also leads him to invoke a curse that would eventually lead to her demise.

In the next generation, the dishonesty will repeat among Jacob’s sons.

Jacob’s life illustrates the principle of midah k’neged midah – measure for measure.  We reap what we sow.  What goes around comes around.  Or in the case of Laban and Jacob: it takes one to know one.

Does real life work this way?  I would hope so.  But in the inverse, as I would not want to wish evil on anyone.  A person who makes the effort to conduct him or herself honestly and fairly will be treated honestly and fairly.  One who treats others with compassion will be treated with compassion.  Those who are available to a friend in need will not be abandoned in their time of need.

Pirkei Avot, the ancient collection of ethical teachings from the Mishnah, teaches Eizehu m’khubad?  Ha-m’khabed et ha-b’riyot  Who is honored?  The one who honors every person.  (4:1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You behave like a czar,” [he] said…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shanah Tovah.

You May Not Hide Yourself – Ki Teitzei 5776

Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa was known as a very pious man – so pious indeed that miracles were performed on his behalf.  He was also quite poor.

One day, his wife, let’s call her Mrs. Ben Dosa, found a a sack of chickens outside the front door of their house.  Someone had clearly bought them in the marketplace, and then misplaced them on the way home.

Looking around and seeing that there was nobody nearby, she brought the sackful of chickens inside the house and released them into the yard.  The birds started clucking away and pecking at the dirt, as chickens do.

When Rabbi Hanina found out, he instructed his wife, “don’t eat any of the chickens, they do not belong to us.  We have to wait for the owner to come back for them.”  But the owner did not come.

After a few days, the hens began laying eggs.  Mrs. Ben Dosa was overjoyed.  They could really use the extra food.  But Hanina insisted, “The eggs do not belong to us.  We must wait for the owner to return for them.”

Since the Ben Dosa’s could not eat them, the eggs eventually hatched.  Time passed, and the chicks grew into hens and roosters.  Pretty soon, the Ben Dosa home had become overrun with poultry.

Mrs. Ben Dosa was getting fed up, so she turned to her pious husband and demanded, “My darling husband, I was fine when you told me we couldn’t use the eggs.  But this is getting ridiculous.  You must do something about all of these chickens!”

So Rabbi Hanina took all of the fowl to the the marketplace, where he sold them.  With the proceeds, he bought two baby goats, which he brought back to his house.

The goats grew.  The goats begat more goats.  Eventually, the Ben Dosa house became even more crowded, smelly, and loud than ever before.  But Hanina insisted that they could not slaughter any of the goats, or drink any of the milk.

When she could not take it any more, Mrs. Ben Dosa stamped her foot and ordered her husband to do something about the goats.

So Hanina gathered up all of the animals and led them to the marketplace.  He sold them, and with the proceeds, he bought a calf.  The calf grew and grew until it had become a cow.

Some time later, there was a knock on the door.  A man asked, “Hi.  Some time back, I was coming home from the market with a sack of chickens.  I set it down somewhere, but I forgot where.  As I was passing by your home, it seemed familiar to me.  I’m curious.  Do you perhaps know what happened to the sack of chickens?”

Rabbi Hanina asked the man to describe the sack, which he did.  “Wait here one second,” Rabbi Hanina told the man, and then went inside the house.  “Here is your chicken,” Hanina declared, leading a healthy, full grown milk cow, “we tried to take care of it for you.”

“But, this is a cow!” the man declared.

Rabbi Hanina explained what happened, how the chickens became goats, which became a cow.

Overjoyed, the man exclaimed, “Rabbi Hanina, you are so kind.  I have never met someone so careful about returning lost things.  Thank you.”

When the man left, Hanina ducked his head back inside the house and shouted to his wife, “Honey, the guy came back for his chickens!”

“Thank God,” she declared, “but did he recognize them?”  (from BT Taanit 25a and The Family Book of Midrash, by Barbara Diamond Goldin)

This is a story from the Talmud about how far a person might go to fulfill the mitzvah of hashevat aveidah, returning lost objects.  The origin of this mitzvah appears in this morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki Teitzei.

If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow.  If your fellow does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him.  You shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent.  (Deut. 22:1-3)

Jewish law has a lot to say about this mitzvah.  If we find a lost object, our tradition teaches us that we are supposed to care for it, that we may not profit from  it, and that we owe any earnings that accrue to the owner once it is restored.

As we might imagine, the tradition unpacks the issue, taking into account where an object is found, what constitutes an identifying mark, the reimbursement due to the finder for expenses incurred caring for the lost item, how long the item must be cared for before the finder can claim it, and so on.

On its surface, this mitzvah is about property.  But the final phrase that the Torah uses suggests that there is something more at stake.  Lo tukhal l’hit’alem.  “You may not remain indifferent.”  Or perhaps a better translation would be, “You may not hide yourself.”

Why does the Torah, which never uses superfluous language, add this extra phrase?

Bahya ibn Paquda, a medieval Spanish philosopher, suggests that the mitzvah of returning lost objects is related to the principle v’ahavta l’re’ekha kamokha – “love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Lev. 19:18)  Property is an extension of the person.  So to care for another person’s lost possession is to care for that person.

There is a similar passage in Sefer Shemot, the Book of Exodus, but with a notable difference.  Instead of instructing us to return our “fellow’s” lost item, we are told we must return even our “enemy’s” lost item.

Perhaps this might help us understand the significant of “You may not hide yourself.”  It is so easy, when seeing another person experiencing hardship, to avert our eyes.  To not step in to help.  Getting involved takes time and effort.  It distracts us from our own interests, and keeps us away from taking care of our own needs.

For many people, the natural instinct is to turn away.  So the Torah tells us that when we find something that is lost, we can’t ignore it.  Even if it belongs to our enemy.  Keep in mind that if it is lost, the owner is not around.  It is so easy to hide ourselves, or to simply claim the item as our own.  Finders Keepers.  After all, no one will know.  But God will know.  And we, ourselves, will know.

Rabbi Aharon of Barcelona, the author of Sefer HaChinuch, says that the mitzvah of returning lost objects benefits everyone in society, and indeed the social order itself.  After all, we all lose things from time to time.  Goats, donkeys, chickens, car keys, cell phones.

Wouldn’t it be great to live in a society in which we knew that our fellows, even those whom we don’t get along so well with, took care of one another’s things, and one another, as an expression of love?