It’s Easy to Promise Something You Don’t Have, But Hard to Deliver It When You Do – Vayetze 5779

If there is one thing that I have learned about parenting, it is this: never promise your kids anything.  They will hold you to it.  So whenever I am asked, “Do you promise?” the answer is always, “No.”

At the beginning of this morning’s Torah portion, Vayetze, Jacob is fleeing from the land of his birth, Canaan, on his way to Haran.  He is trying to escape from his brother Esau, who in his anger at Jacob for stealing the blessing that should have been his, has vowed to kill him.

When he reaches the border, Jacob stops at an unnamed place to lay down for the night.  Taking a rock for a pillow, he goes to sleep by the side of the road.  He dreams of a ladder extending from the ground up to heaven.  Angels are ascending and descending, and God stands next to him.  In the dream, God blesses Jacob, promising offspring as numerous as the dust on the earth.  They will inherit the land and be a blessing to the world.  Furthermore, God will remain with Jacob, protecting him while he is abroad, and never leaving until this promise has been fulfilled.

That’s a great dream!  Not bad for a night’s sleep.

Jacob wakes up, knowing that something amazing has transpired.  “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.  “How awesome is this place!  This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.”

He takes his stone pillow, sets it up as a pillar, anoints it with oil, and names the site Beit El—the House of God.  Then Jacob makes a vow:

If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house—the Lord shall be my God.  And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God’s abode; and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You.  (Genesis 28:20-22)

Jacob has just promised three things: 1.  The Lord shall be My God.  2.  This pillar shall be God’s abode—Beit Elohim.  3.  I will set aside a tithe—that is to, ten percent of everything he owns.

How are we to understand this vow?  It seems kind of redundant.  God has just promised to protect Jacob and return him safely to the land of Canaan.  Why does Jacob need to repeat it?

The cynic would take offense at Jacob’s audacity.  It sounds like he is bargaining with God, or even extorting God to protect him.  “You want to be my God?  You want me to worship You? Then You had better deliver!”

But remember, at this point in his life, Jacob has absolutely nothing.  He is so poor that he has to use a rock for a pillow.  He has, quite literally, nothing to give.  

So he offers God a share in future earnings.  All that he can do is make a vow:  “I don’t have anything I can give You now, but when You do what You say You are going to do, and I have become rich beyond my wildest dream, then I will promise to give You one tenth of everything I own.”

That is quite a promise.  Will Jacob deliver?

By the end of this morning’s Torah portion, twenty years have passed.  Jacob has established a large family and amassed a tremendous fortune.  The time has come for him to leave Haran and return to the land of Canaan.  The parashah ends with Jacob setting off on the return journey with his entire household.

Next week’s portion begins the long anticipated and feared reunion with Esau.  The reunion goes better than expected and Jacob moves on to Shechem with his family.  After the rape of his daughter Dina and the subsequent massacre of the men of the town, Jacob picks up and moves again.  Finally, he arrives at Beit El, the same place at which he had his dream of angels rising and descending a ladder.  This is the same place where, without a penny to his name, Jacob vowed to present a tithe to the Lord in exchange for God’s protection and blessing.

God appears to Jacob once again, blesses him, changes his name from Jacob to Israel, and promises that his descendants will inherit the land.  

God has certainly delivered God’s part.  Now it is Jacob’s turn.

Remember, Jacob promised three things:  Commitment to God, a pillar, and a tithe.  Jacob sets up a pillar on the spot to mark the occasion, pours a libation over it, and anoints it with oil.  Is this the same pillar or a different one?  Not clear, but Jacob clearly has indicated his commitment to God.  Promise one—check.  Promise two—check.  Promise three—…silence.

Did Jacob renege on his promise?  Has he broken his vow?

The Torah does not say, but let’s see if we can unpack it.  When Jacob returns to the land of Canaan twenty years later, he brings with him a large family and a significant fortune.  Ten percent would amount to quite a sum – made up largely of livestock.

Who is to be the recipient of Jacob’s tithe?  Tithe giving was a well-known, widespread practice in the Ancient Near East.  A worshipper would typically bring the tithe to the priests officiating at a temple or to the King in his royal court.  The problem for Jacob is that all of the temples in his day are idolatrous, and there is certainly no royal personage deserving of his loyalty.  There is no obvious person to whom he can give ten percent of his wealth.

Perhaps he could offer it up directly to God as a burnt offering?  That is what the commentator Rashbam suggests, but he does not seem to be bothered by the extraordinary number of animals that would have been slaughtered and burned to ash.  

Rabbi David Kimchi, known by the acronym Radak, is a medieval Bible commentator from Provence, France.  Radak interprets Jacob’s promise to set aside a tithe as a promise to give tzedakah to people in need who fear and worship God.  Feeding the hungry, he says, is a gift to God.

Radak cites another possibility from a midrash (Genesis Rabbah 70:7).  Jacob tithes his children.  He sets aside one tenth of his sons.  Who is the lucky lad?  Levi, whose descendants will spend more time than their brother tribes in service to God.  The Priests and Levites, who officiate in the Temple, both come from the tribe of Levi.  Radak suggests that Jacob dedicated extra time imparting to Levi the esoteric wisdom and teachings of the Torah.

Radak’s two answers offer important insight that suggests two ways that we can express gratitude for the blessings that we receive.  In the first answer, the tithe is a gift of wealth.  In the second answer, the tithe is a gift of service.  Both are accepted by God.  

It is easy to promise to do something tomorrow that I do not have the capacity to do today.  When tomorrow arrives, what is the likelihood that I will actually follow through?

Our elected officials do this all the time.  

It is for this reason that the Rabbis do not approve of vows.  They know that we have a hard time standing by our word, so they discourage us from making the commitment unless we are fully prepared to follow through.

To this day, many Jews use the expression b’li neder—meaning “without a vow.”  It is a way of saying, I intend to do something, but I am not promising, because something might get in the way that is out of my control.

As a totally hypothetical example, a person might tell a spouse, “B’li neder, I’ll clean out the garage over the Thanksgiving weekend, when I have all of that free time.”  Meaning, “I know you want me to clean out the garage, and it would make me really happy if I were to do that for you when I have all of that free time next week, but there is a really good chance that something else is going to come up that I want to do more.”

Jacob wants to do the right thing.  His vow is sincere.  But without a penny to his name, he’ll promise anything.  He is desperate.  The real test is going to come later, when he is wealthy.  Will he remember his earlier promise?  When he has made his fortune, will he be willing to part from it?

I’ll speak for myself.  I have never been in Jacob’s shoes.  I have never found myself in a situation in which I had nothing, and did not have anyone to whom I could turn.  So I am in no position to judge Jacob for his vow.  

I grew up in an upper-middle class family that could provide for my needs, including paying the majority of my college expenses.  I hope to be able to do the same for my children.

While it might not seem this way in wealthy Silicon Valley, this is not the reality for the majority of Americans, and certainly for most of the inhabitants of the planet.

I read just this morning about 3,000 migrants from Central America who are currently in Tijuana, Mexicot.  Their numbers are expected to swell to ten thousand in the coming months.  As I read about them, I began to consider, “what would it take for a person to uproot his children, leave his native land, and travel over 1,000 miles by foot to an unknown country?  How bad would things have to be?”  I cannot even begin to imagine.

I imagine that many of those who have chosen to make that journey have made promises to God, offering promises in exchange for blessing and protection.  I bet Jacob’s desperate promise, made on his journey leaving the only home he has ever known, might seem familiar to some of these migrants.  

Maybe we should try to put ourselves in Jacob’s shoes.  Each of us has been the recipient of enormous blessings to get to where we are today.  What should we give back?

Who in our community needs help?  Who in the global community?  What of our wealth can we give, and what service can we offer that can begin to repay all of the incredible advantages and privileges that we enjoy?

Perhaps the Torah’s silence on whether Jacob fulfilled his vow suggests that for those who have experienced blessing, it is easy to forget about those who still struggle.

We owe it to God to not forget, and we serve God when we use the blessings we have received to be the blessing that lifts up another person.

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.