The Earth Doesn’t Care Whose Fault It Is – Yom Kippur 5782

Mi va’esh u’mi va’mayim.  Who by fire and who by water?

We are halfway through what is already one of the worst fire seasons around the globe. More than 2.2 million acres have burned here in California so far, exacerbated by drought. Large swaths of land around the Mediterranean burned. In July, the town of Lytton, British Columbia, in Canada, reached a record 121 degrees Fahrenheit and literally burst into flame.

Less than one month ago, Hurricane Ida wreaked devastation from Louisiana to the Northeast, leaving at least 115 people dead and causing more than fifty billion dollars in damage.

Two months ago, record rainfall in Western Europe caused massive flooding, killing at least 220 people, and washing away an entire town in Germany.

Mi va’esh u’mi va’mayim. Who by fire and who by water?

The most urgent issue facing humanity is our imbalanced relationship with the earth. It outweighs every other concern: Covid, freedom, democracy, racism, poverty, education, and Israel.

Our out of balance relationship with the earth puts our species at risk of extinction. If that happens, nothing else matters – at least from humanity’s perspective.

Every one of us must do better when it comes to the ways that we utilize the earth’s resources. And since none of us can do everything, we can direct our efforts towards those issues which seem most urgent to us and which we have the greatest capacity to influence.

There are so many ciritical issues, including for those who do not believe human beings cause climate change. Much of the western United States is in extreme drought conditions. Microplastics are everywhere, from the deepest seas to the highest mountains. Humanity’s encroachment into unoccupied areas, called WUI, the Wildland Urban Interface, puts people at greater risk from disasters like fire. The oceans are acidifying.

I plead with all of us.  Pick at least one thing that you care about and do more than you are already doing.

Who is to blame for how things have gotten to be the way they are?

You may recall a famous ad that appeared regularly on television in the 1970’s. The scene opens with a Native American man paddling down a bucolic river in a canoe. His hair is in braids and he is wearing a leather “Indian” outift. The camera turns to the water. A single piece of trash floats by.  Now we see an industrial nightmare.  Large factories, container ships, and pollution spewing smoketacks dwarf the small canoe.The Native American drags his boat to the shore, where more trash litters the ground.  As he begins walking, a voiceover proclaims:

“Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country.”

He is now at the side of a busy highway. As the traffic zooms past, a driver carelessly throws a bag of rubbish out the window. It lands, scattering garbage across our hero’s feet.  The voiceover continues:

“And some people don’t.”

As the camera zooms in on the Native American’s face, a single tear rolls down his cheek and we are admonished,

“People start pollution, and people can stop it.”

This ad, which came to be known as the “The Crying Indian,” is considered by the Ad Council to be one of the “50 greatest commercials of all time.”

By every measure, it was super effective. 

Part of a campaign by a nonprofit organization called Keep America Beautiful, it helped lead to the reduction of litter by 88% across 38 states. But that was not the real goal of “The Crying Indian.” As they say: follow the money.

The nonprofit Keep America Beautiful was not founded, as its name might suggest, by a bunch of do-gooder hippies. It was created in the 1950’s by the American Can Company and the Owens-Illiniois Glass Company, which were later joined by the likes of Coca-Cola and the Dixie Cup Company.

The goal of Keep America Beautiful was to oppose the influence of environmentalists.  Prior to its founding, packaging was typically reusable.  If you bought a Coke, you paid a deposit and then returned the bottle so that it could be sterilized and reused.  In the 1950’s, as the plastics industry was taking off, bottlers and container manufacturers began to aggressively – and successfully – push single use packaging.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s there were increasing moves to enact legislation to limit the production of throwaway containers.  So Keep America Beautiful began to sponsor ad campaigns like “The Crying Indian.”

The cynical strategy was based on the simple economics of supply and demand.  If we want to do something about litter, we basically have two options: focus on the people who make the stuff or focus on the people who use the stuff.  The suppliers, or the demanders.  Supply or demand.

“The Crying Indian,” with its final message, “People start pollution, and people can stop it,” places responsibility on the demand side of the equation.

The suppliers of all of this packaging would shrug their shoulders and say, “we are just giving our customers what they want. It’s not our fault.”

In fact, it was their fault.  Through a decades-long marketing strategy, they shifted public consciousness to center all of the blame and responsibility on the demand side. The result is that there were few limits placed on supply. The companies avoided having to pay the costs of pollution and disposal, and they earned billions and billions of dollars while the plastic accumulated.

I go to Costco and discover apples on my shopping list. Organic apples.  But those apples come in a plastic clamshell.  Now I, the consumer, am stuck with this piece of plastic that I do not want, but that is now my responsibility to deal with.Does it go in the trash or the recycling bin? Well, it’s got the triangle thing on it, but I recently heard that those triangle thingies are not reliable.  Plus, the third world countries to which we used to ship all of our plastic are starting to say, “no thank you. We don’t want your trash.” As it turns out, much of that plastic heading for recycling was just being dumped in open air landfills.

Who is the manufacturer of that plastic clamshell?  Who knows. What is their legal responsibility? Nothing whatsoever.

It is because Keep America Beautiful‘s ad campaign worked.  Our economy does not include the price of disposal in the cost of manufacturing. The suppliers are off the hook.

By the way, the Indian who appeared in the ad was an actor who went by the name “Iron Eyes Cody.”  His real name was Espera De Corti. He was a second generation Italian American. 

What is your personal carbon footprint? How much CO2 and methane do your actions put into the environment? This is a question many of us have asked ourselves in recent years.

I can easily go online and find a website that will ask me to estimate the number of square feet in my home, my annual vehicle mileage, the number of airplane flights I take per year, and so on.  Enter all the data, click next, and presto – my carbon footprint!

Where did the idea for the carbon footprint come from? Follow the money.

The ad agency Ogilvy started the campaign in 2005 on behalf of its client, British Petroleum. Just like “The Crying Indian,” BP wanted to keep the moral responsibility for oil production on the demand side rather than the supply side of the equation.

So BP encourages us to calculate our carbon footprint and then offers suggestions for how we can reduce it, knowing that we will not actually follow through in any economically substanative way.  Meanwhile, BP will be there for us to supply all of the oil that we demand.

For its part, BP has made no effort to reduce its own carbon footprint. Quite the opposite – it has continued to expand its oil drilling, including a current multi-billion dollar project called “Thunder Horse” to construct an oil platform 150 miles south of New Orleans in the Gulf of Mexico. When all eight wells are completed sometime this decade, it will produce 250,000 barrels of oil and 200 million cubic feet of gas per day.

But it is our responsibility.  After all, BP is just meeting our demand.

This strategy has been used over and over again – by the petroleum industry, tobacco companies, sugary beverage producers.  “It’s not our fault. We are just giving the people what they want.”

But it is their fault.

Or maybe not entirely.

One of the most prominent sections in our Mahzor is the Vidui, the confessional. We recite Ashamnu and Al Chet. For the sins we have committed, forgive us and pardon us. We strike our chests in contrition. 

Both of these prayers are alphabetical.  The Ashamnu lists a single verb for each letter. Al Chet is a double acrostic, with two sentences per letter. We recite a litany of sins. Some are specific actions, while others are general attitudes of selfishness or duplicity.

All of the verbs end with -nu, which is the 1st person plural.  We did all of these things. Surely not! I have definitiely screwed up a lot this past year, but I’m not that bad.  I didn’t commit every sin on the list. For example, I know with certainty that I did not charge interest to anyone in 5781. I categorically reject that characterization.

We Rabbis will often explain this expression of collective guilt as a way to provide cover, to help those of us who might actually be guilty of one of these sins to face up to it. 

Or maybe, in another sense, we actually are accountable for each other’s sins. These confessions are not personal admissions.  We, as a collective entity, take responsibility for all that has happened in the lives of our congregation.

Or perhaps we, as Jews, take collective responsibility before God for all that the Jewish people have done.

Or if we widen the lens further, perhaps humanity is in some sense collectively responsible for all that we do as a species.

After all, we cannot avoid the consequences of each others’ actions. This has been made devastatingly clear during the Covid pandemic. Maybe the language of guilt and innocence is not the most helpful paradigm. Maybe it would be more constructive if we framed it this way:

There are actions that individuals and groups take which impact the lives of others. That is an unavoidable fact. When that happens, like it or not, we become responsible.

Humanity is responsible for humanity’s relationship to the earth.

As much as we might like to assign blame, the fire and the flood certainly don’t care whose fault it is.

Whether from a theological, ethical, or self-interest perspective, we are responsible for treating the earth appropriately.

Unfortunately, traditional Jewish law is somewhat deficient as a source of practical guidance. The basic categories developed two thousand years ago, at a time when there was no awareness of an interdependent global environment. Human beings did not know about chemicals that could not be seen or that could dissipate into the upper atmosphere.

Also, Jewish law tends to focus on the actions and responsibilities of individuals, not governments or corporations. In other words, on the demand side of the economic equation.

Nevertheless, our present situation is not entirely without precedent. In his twelfth century law code, Maimonides includes a section called Hilkhot Sh’khenim, Laws of Neighbors. He addresses a situation in which a person wants to build a feature or conduct business on his property that produces pollution that would travel beyond its borders. 

If a person constructs a threshing floor in the midst of his (property), or builds an outhouse, or does work which raises dust, particles of earth, etc., he must move far enough away so that the pollution does not reach his neighbor and cause harm. Even if the pollution is carried by the wind, he is obligated to move far enough away…

Rambam, Laws of Neighbors 11:1

Jewish law deals with directly identifiable harm. And we can see from the examples that Maimonides gives that the pollution in question is all what we would characterize as “natural” byproducts.

But when the harm is indirect, such as plastic in the ocean or CO2 in the atmosphere, Jewish law has no explicit prohibition. And the earth itself has no standing to sue.

I wonder, if he was writing today, what other forms of pollution Maimonides would have included in the law.

The lack of specific legal precedents does not mean that Judaism is ambivalent. A famous midrash expresses humanity’s ideal relationship with the natural world.  

When God created the first human beings, God led them around the garden of Eden and said: ‘Look at my works! See how beautiful they are — how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.’

Midrash Kohelet Rabbah on Ecclesiastes 7:13

Notice a few details. Human beings are the purpose of creation, but the world still belongs to God.

Detail two – All of the beautiful and excellent things in the world can be destroyed, but the damaged world itself will continue to exist.

Detail three – there is nobody else to repair it. We are on our own here. God will not step in to save the earth from our mismanagement. 

Let’s take this a step further. In the Torah’s language, adam, humanity, is created in God’s image. That is a theological statement.

A scientist would ask if homo sapiens is fundamentally different than any other species. The answer is no and yes.

Every living thing is comprised of the same chemical materials, and is formed and behaves according to its DNA encoding.

We share the same survival instincts as all life forms, from the great whale to the spot of mold on a rock. We are drawn to that which helps our particular genetic material reproduce and repelled by that which puts it at risk. Most animals know instinctively that fire is dangerous and it is best to run away from it. We would call this “biological knowledge.”

On the other hand, homo sapiens is the only species that can understand how the combination of dry conditions, heat, heavy winds, and a lightning storm increases the chances of a forest fire. A philosopher or scientist would call this “explanatory knowledge” – the ability to tell stories or develop formulas or ideas that explain why things are the way they are.

Those explanations may or may not be true, but they do enable a human being to approach a choice and consider, for example, “What is the ethical thing to do?” Religion, science, the arts – these are all made possible by humanity’s capacity for explanatory knowledge.

This is what makes us unique among living creatures on earth, if not the universe. Shifting back to theological language, we might say that our capacity for explanatory knowledge is what it means to be made in God’s image.

That capacity has made it possible for us to develop civilization and technology, to learn how to live in environments in which our bodies could not survive with biological knowledge alone.

This quality has enabled us to spread out across the world, to reach a global population of nearly 8 billion people, to harness the natural resources of the planet such that humanity has thrived beyond what its mere biology would allow.

This quality is also what puts our continued survival on the planet at risk.  And it is the quality that makes us the only ones who can restore the balance and save ourselves.

Whether from a theological or a scientific perspective, we are the ones who must radically change directions. Can we do it?

This afternoon, we will read the story of Jonah, the most successful prophet ever. 

Although he tries to escape his mission, Jonah eventually realizes that there is no avoiding God. Reluctantly, he marches off to the giant metropolis of Nineveh, a city so large it takes three days to walk across. He climbs up on his soap box and proclaims, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overturned!”

The people respond immediately.  They declare a fast, and put on sackcloth and ashes. When word reaches the king, he gets off his throne and he joins them, ordering everyone to participate, humans and even animals. God sees and forgives.  Disaster is averted. 

Can you imagine?

An entire society, top to bottom: the rich, the poor, the politicians, people of all ethnicities and religions – everyone recognizes the danger, accepts responsibility, and fully commits to change – overnight.

If only.

My children are really worried about whether the planet is going to be livable when they are adults.

While it would be nice to hold the greatest polluters accountable, I am afraid that it is up to humanity collectively, and us individually.

If you are in a position to make a difference on the supply side of the equation, you are our best hope. If you can influence the decision makers in government or are in government, or if you are in a position in your company to change policies and practices to be a better environmental steward, our children and grandchildren are counting on you.

Most of us are on the demand side of the equation. Whatever you are already doing, do more. If you can, install solar panels on your roof. Get rid of your gasoline powered car. Ride your bike or take public transit more. Rip out your lawn. Buy less stuff. Eat less meat. Move into a smaller space. Protect undeveloped land from human encroachment. We each have capacity, and we know best what we are capable of. Let others know what you are doing and celebrate each other’s actions. That is how we will make a difference.

May we be worthy of the trust given us by God to take care of this beautiful world with all of its excellent creations.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah.

https://www.sinai-sj.org/rjb-sermons/the-earth-doesnt-care-whos-at-fault-yk-5782

What Happens Behind Closed Tent Flaps – Rosh Hashanah 5782

When the Sofer was here last weekend to complete our new Torah scroll, he pointed out something that I had not thought about before. He asked, when in the Torah do Abraham and Isaac talk to each other?

The answer is, only during the story of Akedat Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac, which we read this morning. 

Abraham receives the call from God, a test, to “take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.”  (Genesis 22:2)

With alacrity, Abraham sets off on the journey, a donkey, two servants, Isaac, and wood for the sacrifice.  On the third day, Abraham leaves the two servants with the donkey and continues up the mountain.  He places the wood on Isaac’s shoulders, and himself carries the knife and the flint.

We now hear Isaac’s voice for the first time.

Avi – “Father”

And Abraham responds, hineni v’ni – “Here I am, my son.”

Hinei ha’esh v’ha’etzim, v’ayeh haseh l’olah – “Here are the flint and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”

Elohim yir’eh lo ha’seh l’olah b’ni, Abraham answers – “God will see to the sheep for the burnt offering, my son.” (Genesis 22:7-8)

And they continue on together.

That’s it, the only dialogue between Abraham and Isaac in the entire Torah.  

The angel comes to stop Abraham at the last minute. Indeed, God does see to the sheep for the burnt offering. Abraham looks up and sees a ram with its horns caught in a thicket, which he offers up in place of Isaac.

In reward, God reiterates the blessing to Abraham. His descendants will be as numerous as the stars in heaven and the sand on the seashore. They will seize the gates of their foes, and the nations of the earth will bless themselves by them.

Since ancient times, Jews have read the Akedah as highly significant. Although it might seem surprising to us, it is traditionally portrayed positively, the ultimate test and proof of Abraham’s faith, a test that he passes with flying colors.

But the scene ends on an ominous note — depending on how we read it.

Abraham then returned to his servants, and they departed together for Beer-sheba; and Abraham stayed in Beer-sheba.

Where is Isaac? He is neither seen nor heard from. 

Midrashim suggest a few possibilities. Abraham thinks to himself, “Everything I have is due to my commitment to Torah and mitzvot. I must ensure thay my offspring always maintain their faith.” So he sends Isaac off to study in the Yeshiva of Shem (Noah’s son).  (Genesis Rabbah 56:11)

Another midrash claims that Abraham partially slaughtered Isaac on the altar. So Isaac goes off to the Garden of Eden to recuperate for the next three years.

Other midrashim connect the Akedah directly to Sarah’s death, which follows at the beginning of the next chapter. In one legend, Sama’el, otherwise known as Satan, frustrated that Abraham passed God’s test of faith, goes to Sarah and asks her,

“Do you know what has just happened?  Your old husband has taken the lad Isaac and sacrificed him on the altar.  He cried and and wailed but there was nobody to save him.” Hearing this, Sarah herself began to cry and wail, three long gasps like the tekiah of the shofar, and three broken howls like the shevarim.  Then her soul departed.

Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 32:8

Even though the Akedah is traditionally seen as a “win” for Abraham, we still find notes of discomfort – a recognition of its painful and potentially alienating repercussions — if not for Abraham, then for Isaac and Sarah.

But I would like to come back to our initial question? Do we really think that this was the only conversation that ever occurred between Abraham and Isaac?

Of course not. 

Yes, old Abe was surely an intense guy, but I imagine they might have gone out to throw the ball around at some point.

Maybe, just maybe, they would get together from time to time over a beer and laugh about that time when Dad almost sacrificed his son.

And while the conspicuous absence of any reference to Isaac coming down from the mountain does seem ominous, we might be overreacting.

Is it possible that Abraham and Isaac had a more normal relationship than we generally assume; that the Torah’s story of their three-day father-son camping trip might not be representative of their relationship?

After all, we know only what is shown to us on the outside.

We make a lot of assumptions about the meaning of a story like the Akedah. How much do our assumptions mirror our own concerns and viewpoints rather than describe what [quote unquote] happened? This is true as well of our relationships with one another. We do not know what happens behind closed doors, or closed tent-flaps, as the case may be.

We have spent much of the past year and a half physically-distanced.  We cannot yet understand the full impact of this isolation. But let’s acknowledge for a moment some of the difficulties we have faced behind closed doors.

Much of our interactions have been by way of a two dimensional screen. We catch only partial glimpses of one another, and reveal just a fraction of ourselves, superimposed on a fake background of a tropical beach. The ability to mute ourselves or turn the camera off at will provides a further means of creating distance. Even when we have been together, we see just half of one another’s faces. We have been unable to see out of town family and friends. People who have been ill have had to spend their time in the hospital alone. Those who have lost family members have been unable to say goodbye in person. There are those who have experienced forced isolation with a sigh of relief. The removal of the pressure of social interactions has come as a blessing. Others have found their stress and anxiety levels rising. Parents have struggled to support their children, who have had to attend school from home and stay apart from friends. Often, we have been at a lost as to what to do when we see our children falling behind in schoolwork, withdrawing from friends, and suffering. We have coped with stress in ways both healthy and self-destructive.

Human beings are often quick to judge.  Quick to come to conclusions based on what we see on the surface. But just as when we read the Akedah, our judgments of others are just as if not more likely to be a reflection of ourselves than an accurate depiction of the other. Let’s keep in mind: A person who appears confident could be terrified. A friend who seems happy could be suffering. Someone who seems normal may be experiencing abuse at home.

To really see another person requires that we set aside our ego, that we be open to learning something we did not already know and could have no way of knowing. This is difficult under normal circumstances, and even more so lately.

We do not know what goes on behind closed doors, whether the physical doors of a home, or behind the doors into the soul of another person.

What we encounter of each other is limited, but God sees what is beneath the surface, perceives that which is hidden and invisible from one another. God remembers all of the forgotten things, taking note of that which we do not see, which we fail to take into account.

This day of Rosh Hashanah is a celebration of grandeur, of Creation and renewal. But as we celebrate such grandeur, we turn inward, to the innermost parts of our selves, the parts that are hidden from each other, that may even be hidden from us.  In the poetic language of the mahzor, however, all is revealed before God, for God is fundamentally different.

Atah hu yotz’ram, v’atah yode’a yitzram, ki hem basar va’dam – It is You who are their Creator, and it is You who knows their inclination, for they are flesh and blood.

This expression comes in the context of describing how God is waiting, every day of our lives, for us to turn in teshuvah. Each one of us is imperfect and mortal, our origin is from the dust and our end is to return to the dust. And the infinite God knows our innermost thoughts and feelings. The God of the universe, who surely has bigger, more important things to worry about, pays attention to the souls of each one of us. As we pray repeatedly during these holy days, God’s nature is forgiving and understanding, always willing to give us another chance.

Perhaps that is a lesson we might take to heart. The qualities we ascribe to God are those ideal qualities that we aspire to in ourselves. 

We do not know what is going on beneath the surface.  What happens inside homes, between family members. Behind the computer or smartphone screen. But it is safe to assume that there is an entire world. Each human being is an olam katan

So before we pass judgment on what we think we see, let’s make that extra effort to be compassionate, just as we ask God to do. To try to understand, with patience. To give each other the benefit of the doubt, a second chance, a third chance.

With so much alienation and distance between us, we need each other more than ever. May this new year be a year in which we open our eyes and open our hearts to one another.

Shanah Tovah.

The Courage to Act – Chayei Sarah 5781

Last Shabbat, the Jewish world lost one of its great teachers, thinkers, and advocates, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of Great Britain. Rabbi Sacks was an Orthodox Rabbi, a philosopher, theologian, and politician. He was one of the most recognized and respected Jewish thinkers in the world.

Rabbi Sacks served as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013. In 2005, he became a Knight Bachelor for “services to the community and inter-faith relations.” In 2009, he was granted the title Baron and given a life peerage with a seat in the House of Lords.

Rabbi Sacks emphasized the study of knowledge in all of its forms, both from within and outside of Judaism. He utilized the terms Chockmah and Torah to describe the pursuit. He wrote,

Chokhmah is the truth we discover; Torah is the truth we inherit. Chokhmah is the universal language of humankind; Torah is the specific heritage of Israel. Chokhmah is what we attain by being in the image of God; Torah is what guides Jews as the people of God. Chokhmah is acquired by seeing and reasoning; Torah is received by listening and responding. Chokhmah tells us what is; Torah tells us what ought to be.

Jonathan Sacks, Future Tense (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2009), p.221

In his drashot, Rabbi Sacks was as likely to cite Shakespeare as Rashi. He had a gifted ability to communicate the universal truths of human existence, drawing deeply on the wellsprings of Torah and Jewish teaching, 

He was committed to interfaith work, often appearing on British television as a commentator to wide audiences. “No one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth,” he wrote in his book The Dignity of Difference. Rabbi Sacks was noted for his deeply held embrace of both particularism and universalism, although he backtracked after receiving criticism from Haredi Jews. He believed that Judaism had something to say, and had an important role to play, in fixing the problems of the world.

In my work as a Rabbi, people sometimes share articles or drashot with me that they read and find to be meaningful. I cannot think of another person whose teachings have been shared more than Rabbis Jonathan Sacks’. 

At his funeral this week, Gila Sacks delivered an emotional eulogy for her father. She said about him, “He taught us that the world is to be challenged, and that there is no such thing as an unsolveable problem.”

The best way to honor a great teacher is to share his teachings. So I turned to one of Rabbi Sacks’ drashot on this morning’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah

Over the course of three parashiyot, God blesses Abraham numerous times. The blessings essentially come down to two promises. One, Abraham will inherit the entire land of Canaan. And two, Abraham will be the father of a great nation, a nation that will be a blessing to the world.

In fact, each of these blessings occurs five separate times over the course of the previous two Torah portions.

As this morning’s reading begins, however, Abraham’s prospects are not looking good. Over the course of Chayei Sarah, Abraham takes important actions that are the first steps towards the fulfilment of God’s blessings.

The first to be addressed is land. Sarah dies, and Abraham must prepared for her funeral. The problem is that he is a foreigner in Canaan, with no land to his name. He turns to the Hittites, living in Hebron, with a proposal. Ger v’toshav ani imachem. “I am a resident alien among you, please let me purchase land to bury my wife.”

Abraham is in a difficult situation and he knows it. As a foreigner in a highly tribal society, it is nearly impossible for him to own land. The Hittites, who seem to respect Abraham, offer him the opportunity to bury his wife wherever he chooses.

Abraham knows what he wants, and he asks for Ephron to sell him the cave of Machpelah. Ephron offers to give Abraham the field with the cave so that he can bury Sarah. But gifts can be rescinded. So Abraham asks again to purchase the land at whatever price Ephron names. Ephron slyly tells him the cost, “A piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver-what is that between you and me?”

Abraham pays the money, and the land becomes his. To emphasize the legally binding nature of the transaction, the Torah ends the story with a summary of the contract.

So Ephron’s land in Machpelah, near Mamre—the field with its cave and all the trees anywhere within the confines of that field—passed to Abraham as his possession, in the presence of the Hittites, of all who entered the gate of his town.

Genesis 23:17-18

Notice the details – the land is described by location, along with the trees growing on it. Abraham is identified as the new owner. And the witnesses are specified. The deal is accomplished in public, before the entire town.

Then the story concludes with Abraham burying Sarah. By performing an action on the land, he takes formal possession of it.

The importance of this story cannot be overstated. This is the first fulfillment of God’s blessing of Abraham

The Torah turns to the next part of the blessing. Abraham knows that it can only be fulfilled through Isaac, but things do not seem to be moving forward on that front. At this point, Isaac is at least 37 years old. He is unmarried and still living at home. “Failure to launch,” would be an apt description.

So Abraham sends his servant to Aram-Naharaim, outside of the land of Canaan, to find a wife for Isaac from among Abraham’s kinsmen.

As with the land negotiations, it is not easy. The servant, acting as Abraham’s proxy, embarks on the long journey, bringing ten camels laden with treasures.

Upon arrival, he meets Rebecca, and bestows lavish gifts of gold and silver jewelry upon her, her brother Laban, and her mother. As with the purchase of the Cave of Machpelah, this is an expensive transaction. And he must deal with deception as well. When the servant indicates that he would like to return with Rebecca, her mother and brother try to delay. When the servant insists, they put the question to Rebecca herself, who agrees to leave immediately.

As before, external politeness hides distrust and greed. In the end, Abraham gets what he wants, but the price is dear.

Noteworthy in both of these stories is God’s absence. There are no conversations with angels, prophetic encounters, or appearances of mysterious wells. Neither Ephron nor Laban have scary dreams in the middle of the night warning them of what will happen if they do not give Abraham what he wants.

These are stories of struggle and persistence, of taking charge of one’s fate in a way that has permanent implications for the future.

At the beginning of Chayei Sarah, the prospects of God’s blessings to Abraham being fulfilled are bleak. By the end, events are set in motion. Rabbi Sacks writes that

“yes, Abraham will have a land. He will have countless children. But these things will not happen soon, or suddenly, or easily. Nor will they occur without human effort. To the contrary, only the most focused willpower and determination will bring them about. The divine promise is not what it first seemed: a statement that God will act. It is in fact a request, an invitation from God to Abraham and his children that they should act.”

“…Now, as then, the divine promise does not mean that we can leave the future to God…. Faith does not mean passivity.  It means the courage to act and never to be deterred. The future will happen, but it is we – inspired, empowered, given strength by the promise – who must bring it about.”  

Jonathan Sacks, Covenant and Conversation, pp. 126-127

I can think of no more important message for us.

Thou Shalt Write a Torah – Rosh Hashanah 5780

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maimonides addresses this question as well. He writes:

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

Ibid.

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

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

Ibid.

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

What is so special about the Torah?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it fill our hearts with love and pride. 

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

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.