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.

The Beautiful Prisoner, The Great War, and the Yetzer Hara – Ki Teitzei 5778

This morning’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, contains more mitzvot, more commandments than any other parashah in the Torah.  Many of those mitzvot have direct applications to our lives today.  It is easy to see how these are timeless principles by which we ought to lead our lives.

Other mitzvot seem to be better suited for a different time and place.  In fact, we sometimes encounter mitzvot that seem to run counter to what we understand to be proper, moral behavior.

Before judging too harshly, we must remember to read on multiple levels.  Our first task is to try to understand what this law meant in the time and place in which it was given.  The Torah is a very old book.  Ancient social norms were vastly different.  We cannot judge ancient practices by modern sensibilities.

The second way of reading the text is to see it through the lens of Jewish tradition.  It turns out that our ancestors were also disturbed by some of the same things that disturb us, and they often came up with creative ways to interpret or allegorize difficult texts that made them meaningful and applicable to life in their own day.

Then, we can begin to consider how this difficult mitzvah might have meaning for us today.

The first mitzvah in today’s Torah portion is of this kind.  The opening verses describe the treatment of female captives by victorious Israelite warriors.  At a time when plunder and rape were standard practice in warfare, the Torah places extreme limits on the behavior of Israelites soldiers.

If a soldier takes a beautiful woman captive whom he desires, he cannot touch her.  Instead, he must bring her into his house.  She must shave her head, trim her nails, and go into mourning for thirty days.  Basically, he makes her as unappealing as possible.  Then, if the soldier still desires her, he must marry her.  If not, she goes free.

The Torah’s restriction on the behaviors of Israelite soldiers stands out in the history of human warfare until modern times.  Nowadays, the Geneva Convention includes accepted laws of ethical behavior in war which are agreed to by most nations in the world, including Israel.

The Torah’s regulations, therefore, would seem to be no longer relevant.

Rabbi Isaiah HaLevi Horovitz was a Polish Rabbi who moved to Tzfat in the Israel in 1621.  He was an important Kabbalist who had a great influence on Chasidism.   As is often the case, Rabbi Horovitz is best remembered not by his name, but by the acronym of his major literary work, the Shlah.  The Shlah, Shnei Luchot HaBrit, meaning “Two Tablets of the Covenant,” is a commentary on the Torah that was popular among Ashkenazi Jews.

In discussing the opening theme of Parashat Ki Teitzei, the Shlah acknowledges that the pshat, or plain meaning of the Torah, indeed describes laws and limitations of warfare.

But that is not what interests him.  The text hints at a more personal lesson pertaining to each individual human being.  The law about the woman captured in war is an allegory for an internal war that all of us wage.  It is the greatest war of all, the war against the yetzer hara, the evil inclination.

The Shlah tells a story:

There was once a pious man who encountered some soldiers returning from a war against their enemies.  With puffed up chests, they were carrying spoils that they had captured during the fierce battle.

He said to them: “You have just returned from the small war with your spoils.  Now prepare for the big war!”

“Big war?” they asked, looking around in surprise, as if there was an impending sneak attack.  “What are you talking about?”

To which he responded: “The war of the yetzer and his legions.”

The Shlah explains that when the Torah speaks of the soldier’s desire for the beautiful woman taken captive, it is really presenting an allegory about the pull of our urges.  Those urges are hard to resist.  They lead us down paths of self-destruction.  The Shlah equates committing a sin to losing a battle against our urges.  

In a real war, if one is victorious against one’s enemies over the course of a few battles, the enemies (usually) learn their lesson and surrender.  But the big war against the yetzer hara never ends, whether or not we are victorious in its individual battles.  That is the great war which all of us wage.

The soldier’s feelings of desire for the beautiful woman are a metaphor for our attraction to those urges that tempt us.  We desire many things: good food and drink, honor, wealth, possessions, power, recognition, sex.  The ultimate goal is not to suppress those feelings entirely, but rather to channel them appropriately.  The Shlah suggests that we do so by figuratively paring the nails and trimming the hair.  In other words, by making those desirable things less desirable.

The Torah recognizes that these urges are real, and in some senses are even good.  For without the Yetzer HaRa, the midrash teaches, nobody would ever build a house, get married, have children, or conduct business.  (Genesis Rabbah 9:7)

To this list we can add that the proper channeling of our urges leads to healthy living, meaningful friendships, supportive communities, joy.

Through this channeling of our urges, what might have been a sin is transformed into a merit.

The Talmud teaches that “in the place where those who have repented stand, those who are completely righteous cannot.”  (BT Berachot 34b)  The Shlah explains that because the penitent person has made mistakes, worked on them, and trained himself in the ability to resist temptations, he is thus better equipped to deal with new temptations when they arise.

It is the middle of the month of Elul.  We are just over two weeks from Rosh Hashanah, followed ten days later by Yom Kippur.  This is the time when we are supposed to be focused on cheshbon hanefesh, taking account of our souls.

Where am I in life right now?

Have I wronged anyone and not made amends?

Did I make promises that I have not kept?

Have I gone astray in other ways?

In some way, our yetzer hara is mixed up in every mistake or transgression we have committed.

My wrongdoing, my inability to control my desires, comes from selfishnesss and greed, from putting my own desires ahead of the needs of others.  My yetzer hara was victorious whenever I expressed my anger in ways that were hurtful to others, whenever I allowed my fear to cause inaction or laziness.

Let us use this annual time of introspection and life review to understand those moments when our urges have gotten the better of us.  What can we do to channel those desires into constructive actions that bring us closer to our loved ones, our friends, our community, and God?

Cultivating the Ability to Say “I Love You” – Yom Kippur 5778

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, once said:

I came into the world to show another way, to cultivate love of God, of Israel, and of the Torah, and there is no need for fasting and mortification.”

Now don’t get too excited.  I do not think he was saying we should not fast on Yom Kippur.  But he is suggesting that the cultivation of our ability to love is the most important thing we can do.  How do we cultivate love?

Today’s Torah reading does not offer much guidance.  It describes the ritual that Aaron, the High Priest, performed on behalf of the Israelites on Yom Kippur.  It goes into all of the technical details of washing, dressing, offering sacrifices, and even sending a goat off into the wilderness.  All of this so that the Tabernacle could be purified of the sins that had accumulated over the course of the year.

The High Priest had a crucial role to play, and only he could play it.  In describing the ritual, the Torah speaks matter-of-factly.  We gain no insight into the internal emotional state of the High Priest as he performs the rituals.  But it must have been a terrifying and exhilarating experience.  I imagine that many High Priests might have been motivated by their love for the Jewish people.

The single hint of what Aaron could have been feeling appears in the opening words of the reading.  “The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of Adonai.”  (Lev. 16:1)  The language is cold and factual, but it draws our memories back to the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, six chapters earlier.

Is this a detail that we need?  After all, it does not add anything to the procedures.  Perhaps, as our Mahzor suggests, it is a warning to remind the High Priest of what is at stake if he is not careful to perform the ritual exactly as prescribed.

Or maybe the Torah is trying to remind us that the individual who performs this ritual on our behalf bears his own burdens and struggles.  “After the death of the two sons of Aaron” brings us back in time to the moment and its aftermath when Nadav and Avihu were inexplicably struck down.

Moses steps forward to take charge.  Explaining the tragedy, he comes off as something of a “know it all.”  His grieving brother’s response?  Vayidom Aharon.  “Aaron was silent.”

Moses instructs a couple of cousins to remove the bodies.  He tells Aaron and his sons that, due to their position, they are not permitted to engage in public mourning.  He instructs them to continue the sacred offerings, as if nothing has happened, reviewing in detail all of the procedures.  Then, when Moses sees Eleazar and Itamar, Aaron’s remaining sons, doing something which he thinks is improper, he scolds them.  That is a step too far.  Aaron ends his silence, pushing back against his brother’s cold, by-the-book attitude.

Moses relents.

Aaron needs something from his brother in that moment, and he does not get it.  Moses shows no compassion, no acknowledgement that Aaron has just experienced the worst loss a parent can suffer.  Surely Moses loves his brother, but he fails to look beyond the garments of the High Priest to the suffering person underneath.  What would have comforted Aaron?  What would have reassured him that his brother, his family, and indeed the Israelite nation, loved him?

We do not know.  The Torah is silent.

As human beings, we are social creatures.  Included in our basic core requirements, in addition to food, clothing, and water, is our need to be loved.  And not only romantic love, but the love between parents and children, siblings, other relatives, friends, and even God.

When a person knows that he or she is loved and accepted unconditionally, that person is better able to return love, feels more settled, and is more willing to take risks with the knowledge that love is not on the line.  And when that person suffers a loss, as Aaron did, he is able to move through the stages of grieving with more resilience.

One of the unconscious mistakes that most of us make is assuming that we know what other people need from us.  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is not necessarily the best advice, as each of us wants different things.

Centuries after Aaron performed the ritual in the Tabernacle, the High Priest would conduct a similarly intricate series of rituals in the Temple in Jerusalem.  As in earlier times, the purpose was to bring about atonement on behalf of the Jewish people.  Over the course of the year, the people’s sins accumulated, polluting the sanctuary.  God’s Presence could no longer remain in a polluted sanctuary.  The atonement rituals served as a spiritual cleansing, enabling God’s Presence to return.

The Talmudic Tractate, Yoma, goes into great detail about the rituals of Yom Kippur.  In the fifth chapter, it describes the incense offering.  (Yoma 5:1)  The High Priest places the specially formulated incense on hot coals in a metal pan so that the entire chamber of the Holy of Holies fills with smoke.  He then exits the Holy of Holies, walking backwards.  When he reaches the outer chamber, the High Priest pauses to recite a short prayer.  The Mishnah emphasizes that the High Priest would not pray for too long, so as not to alarm the people who are waiting for him outside.

It is known that a priest who alters the recipe for the incense, or who is not himself fit, can be struck dead on the spot while in the Holy of Holies.  If such were to occur, the regular priests waiting outside would have a problem, as none of them are permitted to enter the sacred precincts while the High Priest is in the Holy of Holies.  Maimonides reports that many Second Temple priests perished while conducting the Yom Kippur ritual .

After completing his duties and emerging safely from the Holy of Holies, the High Priest throws a big feast for his loved ones to express his gratitude that no tragedy has befallen him.  (Yoma 7:4)

The Talmud (Yoma 53b) relates a particular incident that occurs one year.  A certain High Priest is inside the Holy of Holies, reciting his prayer after the incense offering, but he is not coming out.  His fellow priests are worried.  Maybe he needs help?  Maybe he fainted?  Maybe he has been struck dead by a bolt of lightning!?

After speculating on the increasingly gruesome possibilities, they finally agree to enter.

Just at that moment, the High Priest emerges, triumphant.

“Why did you take so long to pray?” they ask him.

“What are you so worried about?” he responds.  “After all, I was praying for you and for the Temple to not be destroyed!”

Angry, they respond, “Well, don’t make a habit out if it.  You know what the law says; ‘He would not extend his prayer, so as not to alarm the Jewish people.'”

Clearly, there is a failure of communication.  The High Priest is convinced that he is doing the right thing for the people.  He loves them.  He is praying for their survival, and for the survival of the Holy Temple.  “Everything I did, I did for you,” he seems to be saying.  What could be wrong with that?

He has miscalculated.  In fact, his prayer is somewhat self-serving.  He prays for the people, and for the temple to not be destroyed.  He, of course, has a personal interest in the continued functioning of the Temple.  He assumes that everyone else wants the same.

It turns out, the people want something different.  “But what you did for us is not what we wanted you to do for us.”

What do they want?  He is their beloved High Priest, their religious leader.  They are worried about him.  They want his presence, not his prayers.  They are looking for a more intimate relationship than what he has offered them.  He does not seem to understand their needs – much as Moses fails to understand Aaron’s needs in his moment of loss.

This is one of the major stumbling blocks in relationships.  We do not pay the right kind of attention to what the people we love need.  Different people need to be loved in different ways.

Let’s each think for a moment about someone who loves us, either now or in the past.  It could be or have been a partner, a parent or child, a relative, or a friend.  Let’s ask, “How do I know that this person loves or loved me?”

The marriage and family counselor Gary Chapman wrote a well-known book called The 5 Love Languages which he has subsequently expanded into a small empire.  (I am indebted to Rabbi Laurie Matzkin for making this connection.)  His basic premise is that there are five essential ways of communicating love of all kinds.  Every person has a primary emotional language that determines how they best receive love.

Chapman argues that by knowing which is our own primary love language, and which is the primary love language of our partner, child, parent, or friend, we will be able to both give and receive love in a fuller way, and will have deeper, more fulfilling and compatible relationships.

If we are having difficulties in a relationship, it may very well be the case that the two individuals are not speaking one another’s love language.

The five love languages are, in no particular order:  “Words of Affirmation,” “Quality Time,” “Receiving Gifts,” Acts of Service,” and “Physical Touch.”  I will briefly summarize each of them.

Someone who responds best to “Words of Affirmation” likes to receive unsolicited compliments and kind words.  Saying “I love you,” sincerely of course, leave this person feeling great.  Conversely, this person takes insults very hard.

A person whose primary language is “Quality Time” appreciates nothing more than full, undivided attention.  Put the cell phone on mute, turn off the TV and be present with this person for focused conversations or shared activities.

Some people blossom by “Receiving Gifts” that reflect care and thoughtfulness.  Don’t mistake this for greed.  A meaningful gift could be a flower plucked from the garden.  Marking birthdays and anniversaries with a gift are important for those who speak this language.

Those whose primary love language is “Acts of Service” appreciates it most when things are done for them.  Washing the dishes, performing other household chores, or relieving a burden are received as expressions of love.  On the other hand, laziness and not following through communicate to this person that he or she does not matter.

Finally, some people communicate love through “Physical Touch.”  Hugs, a pat on the back, holding hands, or simply sitting close to another person are received as acts of love.  When a child who is feeling bad comes over to sit in a parent’s lap and nuzzles their neck, it is probably a good indication that “Physical Touch” is that child’s primary love language.  When a person who speaks this language does not experience physical contact, it can be lonely and insecure.

We all speak each of these languages, but for most of us, there is one that is dominant.

So… which do you think is your primary love language?  Think back to how you answered the question about how you knew you were loved.  “Words of Affirmation,” “Quality Time,” “Receiving Gifts,” Acts of Service,” or “Physical Touch.”

Chapman identifies three questions to help us figure it out.

1.  How do I typically express my affection for other people?  Our natural inclination is to express love in the way that we hope to receive it.  That is why the High Priest expresses his love for Israel by praying that they and the Temple will not be destroyed.  In Chapman’s language, we might say that the High Priest’s language is “Acts of Service.”

2.  What do I most complain about to my loved ones?  This could indicate that I am feeling abused in my primary love language.  The people complain to the High Priest that he was not there with them.  Their primary love language is “Quality Time.”

3.  What am I most likely to ask for from my loved ones?  The thing that we most often request from our friend, partner, or family member is likely connected to the thing that would most likely make us feel loved.  A spouse who insists that her partner mark her birthday with some sort of present or special activity speaks the language of “Giving Gifts.”

Knowing this about ourselves, and about each other, can make a tremendous difference in our relationships.  I may hate to do the dishes… with a passion.  But if I know that my spouse’s love language is “Acts of Service,” then by doing the dishes, I am actually saying “I love you” to her.  It even makes me feel differently about doing the dishes.  And my partner feels loved.

When we love another person, we want to make that person happy.  We want that person to feel secure, and to know that our love for them is unconditional.  Knowing which language to speak is key.

Can we apply this paradigm to God?  What is God’s primary love language?

Ahavah, the Hebrew word for love, means something different in the Torah than the word love means to us today.  The concept of ahavah is wrapped up in covenant.  In the Shema, we recite V’ahavta et Adonai Elohekha b’khol levavekha uv’khol nafshekha uv’khol me’odekha.  “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, and with all of your might.”

The Torah is not talking about an emotional feeling.  It is talking about actions.  How do we express our love for God?  Through actions.  By teaching our children, reciting words of Torah at home and on the road, at night and by day.  By putting up mezuzot on our doorposts and wrapping tefillin on our arms and our heads.  These are concrete deeds which express our relationship as individuals and as a people to God.

So we might say that God speaks the language of “Acts of Service.”  Through our actions, through performance of mitzvot, we express our love for God.

God has a different way of expressing love for us.  The language is all over our prayers.  How do we know that God loves us?  “Gift Giving.”  In the morning service, we recite Ahavah rabah ahavtanu.  “You loved us with a tremendous love.”  How?  Through the gift of Torah.

In the Torah’s covenantal language, God gives us the Promised Land, along with peace, security, and prosperity.  But is this all we want?  After all, the rabbis insist that we should strive to serve God not for a reward, but for God’s own sake.

In a more spiritual sense, what we long for is “Quality Time.”  In today’s Amidah, we say vatiten lanu Adonai Eloheinu b’ahavah… “You have given us in love, Adonai our God, this Shabbat day for holiness and rest, and this Yom Kippur for pardon, forgiveness and atonement…”  The ability to experience a sense of holiness in time comes through the weekly gift of Shabbat, as well as the annual cycle of holidays, each of which offers a unique opportunity to relate to God.

In Biblical and Temple times, the Yom Kippur ritual is what enabled God’s Presence to remain or return into the people’s midst.  With the knowledge that God was with them, the nation felt safe and protected.

The rituals of the Temple have been replaced by synagogue worship and personal teshuvah.  It is now we, individually, who long to feel the Presence of God in our lives.

As the 20th century theologian Martin Buber describes using the language of I-Thou, it is when we can fully encounter another person with our entire being that we experience God.  I would suggest that this can only happen when we are feeling loved, and are able to express love to someone else in the language that they understand.

In this new year, to experience God more fully, let’s strive to experience each other more fully.

Let’s figure out our own love language.  And them, let’s pay attention to our partners, parents, children, and friends to learn how to better express our feelings to them in the language that they will understand.

May we be sealed in the book of life for a year filled with the cultivation of love, both expressed and received, for God, for Torah, and for each other.

The Day Of Forgotten Things – Rosh Hashanah 5778 (second day)

A Hasid once complained to the Gerer Rebbe that he was always forgetting his lessons.

“When you are eating soup, do you ever forget to place the spoon into your mouth?” the Rebbe asked.

“No, of course not,” was the student’s puzzled reply.

“Why not?” asked the Rebbe.

“Because I cannot live without food,” said the student.

“Neither can you live without learning,” responded the Rebbe.  “Remember this and you will not forget.”

The Jewish people is a people of memory.  Over the millennia, we have gotten pretty good at it.  Maybe the best.  This talent of ours is rooted in the Torah.  The Torah opens with the Creation of the world in six days.  On the seventh day, God ceases laboring.  It is this ceasing which completes the act of creation.  Later, God instructs the Jewish people to replicate God’s act of Creation by laboring for six days and then resting on every seventh.  Shabbat, the anchor of Jewish life, is an act of memory.

This weekly cycle of work and rest creates, as Heschel describes it, a Palace in Time.  Every Shabbat becomes a memorial for what we are marking today – the Creation of the universe.

And it is does not end there.  The entire Jewish calendar is built around memory.  All of our holidays memorialize formative events of Jewish history.  Exodus from Egypt.  Dwelling in booths in the wilderness.  Overcoming destruction in ancient Persia.  Even in recent times, we memorialize our people’s suffering in the Holocaust, and celebrate the establishment of the State of Israel.  Wherever we are in the physical world, our Jewish calendar emphasizes that sacredness is experienced not in space, but in time.

We do not encounter God by walking into particular locations.  We encounter God by being present in discrete moments of time.

As America struggle with how to remember difficult parts of its past, it would seem that our Jewish expertise may be able to offer some guidance.

And yet, we are no different than anyone else when it comes to forgetfulness.  Especially when it comes to our own lives.  What have we forgotten?

At forty one years old, I have forgotten many things.

Sometimes I forget where I put my keys.

I have forgotten the wonder of childhood, the belief that anything was possible, that there was no barrier between what is real and what is magical.  At a certain point, cynicism and skepticism intruded and shackled wonder.  (For a reminder of what it used to be like, just talk to a four year old.)

I have forgotten the dreams and imagination of youth, when I longed to be an astronaut, a Jedi knight, and a baseball player.

I have forgotten what it feels like to fall in love, to feel unquenchable passion and longing.

I have forgotten what it feels like to be present when a new life comes into the world, or when my child takes her first steps.

The idealism of youth has been replaced by a realism forced upon me by responsibilities and disappointment.  The excitement of unlimited possibility has been stifled by the realities of bills and deadlines.

Even more numerous are those things that I cannot even remember forgetting.

We could fill books with everything we have forgotten.

Indeed, we do.

We call Rosh Hashanah Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance.

But perhaps that is not the best name.  Maybe it should be Yom Hanishkachot.  The Day of Forgotten Things.

In the prayer Unetaneh Tokef, our Mahzor paints a vivid picture of the Heavenly Courtroom.  God is the Judge, Prosecutor, Expert, and Witness.  Vatizkor kol-hanishkachot.  God remembers all of the forgotten things.  The Book of Remembrance is opened, but God does not read it.  Ume’elav yikarei.  It reads itself, for the hand-imprinted seal of every human being is upon it.

The image of a courtroom, with the evidence comprised of all of the things we have forgotten, is powerful and scary.  But why is the emphasis on the forgotten things?

The nineteenth century Hassidic Rebbe, Yisrael Rizhiner, teaches that God remembers everything we forget, and forgets everything we remember.

We read in the Rosh Hashanah Prayer: “For You remember all forgotten things,” and “there is no forgetfulness before Your Holy Throne.”  This means that when a person performs a mitzvah, but then forgets it and demands no reward, then the Lord remembers it; but if the person keeps it in his memory and expects a reward for it, then the Lord forgets.

Also, when someone transgresses and remembers it, and repents of it, the Lord forgets about the sin; but when the a person pays no heed and forgets his sin, the Lord remembers.  (Louis I Newman, Hasidic Anthology, p. 400)

According to the Rizhiner, the sins we remembered and corrected.  And the mitzvot that we performed for their own sake, the good deeds that we did not allow to go our heads and inflate our hearts, these count as merits on our behalf.

But I suspect that many of us tend to do the opposite.  We act as if we are entitled to be rewarded for our actions.  We behave greedily, without taking responsibility for our mistakes, and yet we expect everyone else to pay for theirs.

And today, on the day of Judgment, it is the forgotten things recorded in the Book of Remembrance that determines our fate.

One of the three special sections of musaf is Zikhronot, remembrances.  Let’s recall some of its opening words:

Before You stands revealed all that is hidden, and every mystery from the moment of creation.

Nothing is forgotten in Your awe-inspiring presence, nothing concealed from Your gaze…

We cite ten verses from the Bible extolling Divine memory.  God remembered Noah and all of the animals on the ark, and caused the waters of the flood to subside.  God heard the cries of our ancestors in Egypt, and remembered the Covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  As destruction threatened Jerusalem, God remembered the idyllic time during the Exodus when God and Israel were like newlyweds.

We bring up these memories to remind God of moments when compassion overcame the demands of strict justice.

Remembrance is more than just awareness.  It is attentiveness.  God does not just remember Noah, God saves him.  God redeems our enslaved ancestors and restores an exiled people to its home.

Why have we placed these verses in our Machzor?  Could it be that we are pleading with God to remember because we feel that we have been forgotten?

We are surrounded by so much suffering.  Recent hurricanes and earthquakes remind us that, for all of our civilization and technology, we are helpless before the power of nature.  As we have just seen, God does not seem inclined to hold nature back.

Despite our immense privilege, living in the wealthiest country at the wealthiest time in history, so many of us feel that we do not have control over our own lives.  Housing is insecure, employment is shaky, relations are frayed.  Has God forgotten us?

Maybe we pray so fervently to God, the Rememberer of Lost Things, because we feel lost and abandoned.  Or maybe, on this New Year, we are reflexively pleading with ourselves to remember.  Perhaps it is we who have forgotten.

We have forgotten to be attentive to the needs of our neighbors.  We have forgotten to look at the world with awe and wonder.  We have forgotten to open our hearts in prayer and gratitude for all of the blessings that we take for granted.

Perhaps we need to add an “al cheit,” to the list of confessions that we recite on Yom Kippur.  Al cheit she-chatanu lefanekha be-hese’ach ha-da’at – “For the sin that we have committed before You of neglect and lack of conscious attention.”

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov was a gifted storyteller and a vivid dreamer.  His tales are imaginative, mystical, and deeply symbolic.  He tells a story of an angel named Yode’a, which means, “he knows.”

There is an angel who watches over people, even in the dark.  This is Yode’a, the Angel of Losses.  He watches lives unfold, recording every detail before it fades.

This angel has servants, and his servants have servants.  Each servant carries a shovel, and they spend all their time digging, searching for losses.  For a great deal is lost in our lives.

Even we, who are ourselves lost, search in the dark, aiding Yode’a.

And with what do we search?  With the light of the soul.  For the soul is a light planted in us to seek after what has been lost.

What kind of light is it?  Not a torch, but a small candle.  With it we can search inside deep wells, where darkness is unbroken, peering into every corner and crevice.  (Howard Schwartz, Leaves from the Garden of Eden, p. 21.)

How much have we forgotten!  How lost we are!  But we are searching.  The way to search, the way of the tzaddik, is to use the light emanating from our souls to illumine the darkness.  How can we use our souls to remember forgotten things?

Let’s begin remembering right now.  Turn to the person sitting to your right.  Tell that person one thing that you appreciate about them.  It has to be something you have never told them before.

I bet it feels pretty good to be acknowledged, to be remembered.  I bet it also feels pretty good to acknowledge someone else.  That is the feeling of our souls illuminating something that has been forgotten.

Let’s each commit to doing this at least once more today.

We can make the angel Yode’a‘s job a little easier and help ourselves and each other regain a little bit of what we have lost on this Day of Forgotten Things.

Castrametation – Ki Teitzei 5777

I came across a new word just this past Thursday in a novel I am reading.  It was used as the title of one of the chapters.  “Castrametation.”  Does anyone know what it means?

Castrametation: the making or laying out of a military camp

Imagine my surprise the next day when I realized that castrametation is one of the themes in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki Teitzei.

And you shall have a marker outside the camp and shall go there outside.  And you shall have a spike (tent peg) together with your battle gear, and it shall be, when you sit outside. you shall dig with it and go back and cover your excrement.  For the Lord your God walks about in the midst of your camp to rescue you and to give your enemies before you, and your camp shall be holy, that He should not see among you anything shamefully exposed and turn back from you.  (Deuteronomy 23:13-15)

On a p’shat – plain sense – level, the Torah is describing castrametation – how the military camp should be organized.  Of course, there is the obvious element of sanitation and hygiene, which are at least as significant to the end results of a war as the actual fighting itself

The Torah frames it not as an issue of health, but as an issue of Sanctity.  When Israel goes to war, God is with them.  Their victory depends on God fighting on their behalf.  For God to remain, the latrines must be dug – and used – outside of the camp.  It is not about germs.  It is about holiness.

As we might expect, Jewish tradition digs through the p’shat to find broader messages for our lives.  Several Talmudic midrashim see the various elements of this law metaphorically.

The first midrash (BT Yoma 75b)understands this message not as an instruction about how to set up a military camp, but rather an allusion to the condition of the Israelites’ digestive tracks during their time in the wilderness.  The midrash begins by quoting Psalm 78 (vss. 24-25) which, referring to the manna, states “Man did eat the bread of the mighty (abirim)”  The Gemara asks what abirim are.  Eventually, it suggests that  the word abirim should actually be read as eivarim, which means “limbs.”  The manna was completely absorbed into the Israelites bodies.  There was no waste whatsoever.  How convenient!

If that is the case, the Talmud asks, why do we have to be told to dig a latrine and bury our excrement?  After tossing a few ideas around, the answer is given:

After they sinned, [the manna was not as effective.] The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: I [initially] said [that] they would be like ministering angels [who do not produce waste]; now I will trouble them to walk three parasangs [to leave the camp in order to relieve themselves].

So this is really a story about Israel’s sinfulness.  At first, there is no need to build a latrine, and God can walk about the Israelite camp without a problem.  But when Israel sins – by complaining about the manna, says Rashi – their intestines become less efficient.  Now the Israelites have to periodically leave camp to do their business so that they can maintain it as a place in which God can continue to reside.

Midrash number two, from Tractate Sotah (BT Sotah 3b) also tells a story of sin in the wilderness.  But this time, the focus is not on the entire camp, but on individual homes.  At first, Rav Hisda teaches, the Shechinah – God’s Presence – would reside within each and every Israelite home.  After they sin, however, God turns away from them so that God does not see any unseemly matter.

The commentator Rashi explains that the types of sin in question are those pertaining to sexual immorality.  That is why the focus is on God’s Presence within the individual homes of the Israelites.

The final midrash (BT Ketubot 5a) shifts the focus to the everyday situations in which each of us finds ourselves.  Like the first one, this midrash relies upon a pun in the Hebrew.

Bar Kappara asks what the Torah means when it says “And you shall have a spike (tent peg) together with your battle gear.”  “Battle gear” in Hebrew is azeinekha.  Don’t read it as azeinekha, Bar Kappara says, but rather as oznekha, which means, “your ears.”  This means that if a person hears something unseemly, an inappropriate thing, he should place his spike, that is to say, his finger, into his years.

We are exposed to situations that we know are not good for us on a daily basis.  I’ll give just one example: gossip – the most pervasive, and potentially harmful, sin in the Torah.  Even if I am not the person spreading the gossip, even hearing it can have terrible effects.

Gossip certainly harms the person being gossiped about.  The spreader of gossip is committing a sin which Jewish tradition compares to murder.  And when I hear it, it produces negative feelings about the other person, and even harms my own sense of self.

According to this midrash, whenever I find myself in the company of people who are gossiping, I should shove my fingers in my ears – figuratively by walking away, or perhaps even literally.

These three midrashim shift the focus from castrametation to our ability to maintain a community and home in which we are grateful for the blessings around us, respectful of each other’s boundaries, and cognizant of the kinds of people and situations we should place ourselves.  God’s Presence in our midst depends on our ability to maintain proper boundaries.

A 19th century Chassidic Rabbi named Jacob Kattina wrote a book called Korban He’ani.  In it, he directs our attention to an acronym hidden in the text.

כִּי֩ יְ-הֹוָ֨ה אֱ-לֹהֶ֜יךָ מִתְהַלֵּ֣ךְ | בְּקֶ֣רֶב מַחֲנֶ֗ךָ לְהַצִּילְךָ֙ וְלָתֵ֤ת אֹיְבֶ֨יךָ֙ לְפָנֶ֔יךָ

For the Lord your God walks about in the midst of your camp to rescue you and to give your enemies before you.

The last four words of this phrase – לְהַצִּילְךָ֙ וְלָתֵ֤ת אֹיְבֶ֨יךָ֙ לְפָנֶ֔יךָ “to give your enemies before you” – begin with the letters ל ,א ,ו ,ל – which are the letters in Elul – אלול, the Hebrew month in which we currently find ourselves.

Elul is the month before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we are supposed to be engaged in cheshbon hanefesh, taking stock of our lives.  What sins are we carrying from the past year?  Where are the broken places in our relationships with each other?  What is keeping us from experiencing God’s Presence in our lives?

Rabbi Kattina sees in this verse a “hint that in this month, the Holy One can be found among the Jewish people.  He then cites the Rabbis’ teaching about the verse from Isaiah: “Seek the Lord while He can be found, call to Him while He is near.”  (Isaiah 55:6) The gates of repentance are open, therefore let there not be seen in you anything unseemly and let your encampment be holy.

Let us use these next few weeks take an honest look at ourselves, our homes, and our community.  God wants to walk among us, in our homes, and in our communities.  But it is up to us to make our communities, our homes, and our selves worthy of God’s Presence.

Shabbat Shalom.

Reading – and Speaking – About Sexuality on Yom Kippur Afternoon – Parashat Acharei Mot/Kedoshim 5777

Our Mahzor Lev Shalem offers two possible readings for the afternoon of Yom Kippur.  The Traditional one from Leviticus, chapter 18, or an Alternate reading from Leviticus, chapter 19.

Leviticus 18 describes what are commonly referred to as the arayot – forbidden sexual relationships, mainly incest.  Also included  are adultery and the now infamous Leviticus 18:22, which describes male homosexuality as an “abomination.“

Leviticus 19 is known as “The Holiness Code.”  It opens with the instruction Kedoshim tih’yu ki kadosh Ani adonai Eloheikhem – “You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy.”  It then lists a variety of commandments that constitute a guide to a life of holiness.  The diverse subjects of these commandments include interpersonal relationships, business practices, ritual behavior, criminal law, and more.

Neither Leviticus 18 nor Leviticus 19 contain a single reference to Yom Kippur or any of its themes.

This morning,  as luck would have it, we read the double portion of Acharei Mot and Kedoshim.  In years when these parashiyot are combined, it creates a juxtaposition of the 18th and 19th chapters of Leviticus, the Traditional and Alternate Torah readings that appear in our High Holiday Mahzor.  In fact, parts of both chapters are even read in the same aliyah.

When they chose to add a second possible reading to Mahzor Lev Shalem, the Editors forced communities to ask themselves a question that they might otherwise never have considered: which portion should we read?  This year, our congregation has been addressing this question.

As the Rabbi of Congregation Sinai, I am the Mara D’Atra, Aramaic for “Master of the Place.”  This means that I am entrusted with the responsibility for making halakhic decisions for the community.

As you may recall, I wrote an article about it in the January Voice.  That month, there was an open meeting of the Ritual Committee to learn about the issues and hear from each other.  Personally, I have spent countless hours researching and consulting with members, colleagues, and teachers.

I am enormously uncomfortable being the decider.  When a decision is made to abandon or change a practice, there usually is no going back.  As a Rabbi, I think about that a lot.  Who am I to change thousands of years of tradition?  Sometimes, of course, change is necessary.  But when does the need for change outweigh the demands of history?  I don’t take that dilemma lightly.

For some people, this is a serious, emotional issue.  Whatever the outcome is, someone is going to be upset.  I lose sleep knowing this.  Please understand that I have attempted to reach a conclusion in good faith.  I take the sacred role that you have entrusted with me seriously.  I am strengthened by knowing that, whatever the outcome, you have my back.

Before I share my decision, let me clarify a few things.  We read the entire Torah every year.  We do not skip over any troubling passages because we do not like them.  And there is plenty in the Torah that is troubling.  This is not a question about eliminating a Torah reading.  We will continue to chant Torah on the afternoon of Yom Kippur.

Let’s be honest about Minchah on Yom Kippur.  When the service begins, around 5:00 in the afternoon, there are typically about 75 people in the room.  At that point in the day, they are weak from the fast, and a bit spacey.  Of those 75 people, how many of them are paying close attention to the Torah reading, and really pondering its message for their lives?  Our sanctuary is not exactly filled with kavanah – religious intension.  From that perspective, it does not matter which of the two readings we select.

I hope that by addressing this question, we can transform a relatively lazy part of Yom Kippur into a meaningful, kavannah-infused moment.

So why would a congregation choose to read the Traditional or the Alternate portions?  Mahzor Lev Shalem includes meaningful commentaries and explanations for both readings.  It does not, however, explain why the Alternate reading was included, nor does it suggest any reasons for why a community might choose to replace the Traditional reading.

I consulted with Rabbi Elliot Dorff, the Chair of the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards, which issues halakhic rulings for the Conservative Movement.  He responded to my inquiry that the particular selection of readings for the holidays is custom rather than law.  Rabbi Dorff explained that “the authors of Mahzor Lev Shalem were concerned with bringing up the prohibition of homosexual relations in Leviticus 18, given what we have done with that halakhically.”  He was referring to the CJLS’s decision in 2006 to overturn Judaism’s traditional ban on homosexuality.  He added that “Leviticus 19 is much more uplifting and much more connected to the theme of Yom Kippur than Leviticus 18 is.”

In other words, the Alternative reading was added because a lot of Conservative Jews are troubled by Leviticus 18:22, which states “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination.”

The question comes down to: do we change a long-established custom because we are offended by a particular verse?

Where did the Yom Kippur afternoon Torah reading come from? Even though it makes no mention of Yom Kippur and does not deal with any of the basic themes of the holiday, at some point, a person or community thought it would be a good idea to read about forbidden sexual relationships on the afternoon of Yom Kippur.

The earliest mention of it occurs in the Talmud, in Tractate Megillah (30b-31a).  A second century text from the land of Israel states “At minhah [on Yom Kippur] we read the section of forbidden sexual relationships (that is to say, Leviticus 18) and for haftarah the book of Jonah.”

The Talmud records numerous variant practices for which portions are read at the various holidays.  There were significant discrepancies between Israel and Babylonia.  But with regard to the Yom Kippur minchah reading, there are no differences.  We can say with a high degree of certainty that Jews have been reading Leviticus 18 on Yom Kippur afternoon since at least the second century, making it a 1,900 year old custom.

But why this reading?  The Talmud offers no answers.  In his commentary, Adin Steinsaltz writes:  “Given the solemnity and holiness of the day, this choice of Torah portion is quite surprising.  Various suggestions for the choice have been offered…”

One possible reason is suggested a Mishnah in Tractate Ta’anit that describes a custom that took place during Second Temple times.

There were never happier days for the Jews like the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur, for on those days the daughters of Jerusalem would go out wearing borrowed white clothing so that they should not embarrass those who did not own such… The daughters of Jerusalem would go and dance in the vineyards and say, ‘young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose. Do not look for beauty, look for family…’

With all of this matchmaking taking place on Yom Kippur afternoon, it would have been especially important to remind all of the single people who is and is not eligible to them.  This might explain why Leviticus 18 was chosen.  It should be noted, however, that the Talmud itself does not make this connection.

Rashi, in the eleventh century, points out that sins having to do with sexual relationships are ever-present, and a person’s desires and inclinations can be overwhelming.  They also tend to be secret.  And so, on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, reading about prohibited sexual relationships is meant to awaken a person to teshuvah about something which is so difficult to resist.

Tosafot, in Rashi’s grandchildren’s generation, adds that women are often dressed up fancy on Yom Kippur.  The Torah reading, therefore, serves as a reminder to worshippers not to stumble.

Turei Zahav, a seventeenth century commentator on the Shulchan Arukh by Rabbi David ha-Levy Segal captures it succinctly:

In my opinion, since a person’s soul thirsts for forbidden sexual relationships more than all [other] sins, we are warned about it on Yom Kippur, which is an awe-some day that is inscribed upon the human heart more than all the other days of the year.

Human nature has not changed much over the centuries in that regard.  Would anyone suggest that we, in our “enlightened” twenty first century, do a better job of controlling our sexual urges than in previous generations?

I think not.

Leviticus 18 certainly has something to tell us today.  It might not be quite as uplifting as Leviticus 19’s “You shall be holy…,” but it is a message we need to hear.

Judith Plaskow wrote an influential article in 1997 called “Sexuality and Teshuvah: Leviticus 18.”  In it, she writes:

As someone who has long been disturbed by the content of Leviticus 18, I had always applauded the substitution of an alternative Torah reading—until a particular incident made me reconsider the link between sex and Yom Kippur. After a lecture I delivered in the spring of 1995 on rethinking Jewish attitudes toward sexuality, a woman approached me very distressed. She belonged to a Conservative synagogue that had abandoned the practice of reading Leviticus 18 on Yom Kippur, and as a victim of childhood sexual abuse by her grandfather, she felt betrayed by that decision.  While she was not necessarily committed to the understanding of sexual holiness contained in Leviticus, she felt that in quietly changing the reading without communal discussion, her congregation had avoided issues of sexual responsibility altogether.

Our failure in the past has not been that we have continued to read a passage that is offensive to gay men.  Our failure has been that we have not openly addressed issues of sexual abuse and impropriety.  To cease reading the traditional Torah portion would be just as problematic as if we kept on reading the words while ignoring their meaning.

We cannot expand understanding, tolerance, and acceptance of GLBTQ individuals if we refuse to acknowledge that there is an issue.

If, instead, we maintain the traditional reading and address the issues that it raises, our kavanah will improve.

This is why I have decided, as Sinai’s Rabbi, that we will continue the traditional practice of reading Leviticus 18 during the afternoon of Yom Kippur – with an addition.  There will be a D’var Torah delivered by a Sinai member to introduce the Torah reading.  The purpose will be to reflect on themes raised by the portion so as to draw us into the reading, and provoke us to respond to it in some way.  Torah is not supposed to make us feel good.  It is supposed to challenge us.  If Torah makes us feel good, it is not doing its job.

Reading and speaking about Leviticus 18, on the holiest day of the year, will give us an opportunity to reflect on the most intimate aspects of our lives, rather than pretend they do not exist.  It will also allow us to recognize the pain and exclusion that our GLBTQ friends and relatives have faced over the millennia because of Judaism’s, and society’s, past intolerance.

In this ruling for our community, both aspects are equally important.  Our members will be called upon to consider how Leviticus 18 speaks to us today.  I hope you will consider giving a D’var Torah on Yom Kippur afternoon.  Of course, I am here to help.

It is important to recognize that this approach – dealing with a difficult text by speaking about it – has been embraced by numerous communities in every denomination: Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Orthodox.  This solution puts Sinai in good company.

One of the sidebar commentaries in our Mahzor is by Judith Plaskow.  She writes: “Leviticus 18 seeks to implement [its] ideas in its own time and place.  But we need to find ways to express those insights in the context of an ethic of sexual holiness appropriate for the 21st century.”

May Torah inspire us to holiness in all aspects of our lives.

 

Bibliography

Rabbi Jeffrey Brown, “Preaching Against the Text: An Argument in Favor of restoring Leviticus 18 to Yom Kippur Afternoon” – This is an important article by a Reform rabbi that argues why it is important for communities to continue reading Leviticus 18.

Keshet is a national organization that works for full LGBTQ equality and inclusion in Jewish life.  Its website contains a wealth of information, including numerous sermons and kavanot  on Levitucs 18.

Breaking the Stigma of Mental Illness – Yom Kippur 5777

There is a town in Belgium called Geel (Hyale), with a remarkable 700 year old custom of compassion.

Its origin lies in a legend about a seventh century Irish princess named Dymphna.  When Dymphna’s mother died, her father went mad, insisting on marrying her.  Dymphna fled to the continent.  When he caught up to her in Geel, he beheaded her.  Dymphna was sainted, and pilgrims began visiting the site of her martyrdom in search of miraculous cures, especially for mental illness.

A church was built in 1349, and later, an annex to house the visitors.  Eventually, the townspeople began to welcome the mentally ill relatives of pilgrims into their homes as “boarders.”  For the townspeople, it was an act of charity to open up their homes.  “Boarders” stay with their hosts for long periods of time, as many as fifty, or even 80 years, becoming part of the family.

At its peak in the 1930’s, there were 4,000 boarders living amongst a local population of 16,000.

The residents do not use terms like “mentally ill,” “psychiatric,” or “patient.”  Behavior that in any other part of the world would be considered odd or crazy, like people talking to themselves on the streets, is normalized in Geel.

This system does not take the place of medical treatment.  There is a psychiatric hospital on the outskirts of town.  What it does is treat people with dignity who would in any other community likely be hidden away or abandoned on the street.

Since the 19th century, Geel has been held up in psychiatric circles as the best way to address mental illness.  It is an ideal model for integration and normalization within a supportive community.

Sadly, as the world has changed, Geel is changing along with it.  As the result of the pressures of modern life, and the increasing medicalization of mental illness, there are today only 250-300 boarders left.  But for the residents of Geel, this custom of compassion is an important part of their heritage.

Let’s try to imagine, for a moment, what it would be like if our community was so accepting and welcoming to those who do not conform to what we typically think of as normal behavior.

Psychiatric care in the United States used to center on institutionalization in asylums.  People who were “crazy” were sent away to facilities that often had terrible conditions, where they received treatments that were often tantamount to torture.  In 1972, the psychiatric hospitals began to close.  This was supposed to be accompanied by investment of resources into community-based treatment centers.  But the investment did not happen.  As a result, many of those living with mental illness became homeless.  This is a tragedy that persists to this day.

Unlike the example of Geel, there has been no normalization of mental illness.  The mass shootings that we have seen over the past few years has prompted discussions of the need to invest more money and resources in mental health screening and treatment, but little has been done.

There is still so much fear and stigmatization.  The truth is, members of our community live every day with mental illness, whether it affects them personally, or someone close to them.

But we don’t talk about it openly.  We are scared of “strange” behavior.  When someone exhibits signs of mental illness, we tend to back away.

Think about language that we toss around casually: crazy, cuckoo, nuts.

Mental illness is so much more widespread than we typically acknowledge.  One out of every five adults in America experiences mental illness.  One in twenty five live with a serious chronic condition.

1.1% of the adult population has a diagnosis of schizophrenia.  2.6% has bipolar disorder.  6.9% suffer from major depression.  And 18.1% have an anxiety disorder.

Most signs of mental illness present themselves when we are young, with half of all chronic mental illness beginning by age fourteen.

We do not adequately treat mental illness.  60% of adults and 50% of youth aged 8-15 with mental illness did not receive mental health services in the last year.

There is a terrible price that we pay.

Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide.  It is estimated that serious mental illness costs America over 190 billion dollars per year in lost wages.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in America overall, and the second leading cause among those aged 15-34.  It is estimated that 90% of those who die by suicide suffer from depression.  As much attention as there has been to the mass killings, twice as many people die in America by suicide than by murder.

Rabbis give lots of sermons this time of year about teshuvah, repentance.  It is a wonderful concept – truly one of Judaism’s most insightful principles.  Every year, we engage in cheshbon hanefesh―self-reflection―examining our lives, and identifying ways we can be better.  We reach out to those we have wronged and seek to make amends.  We turn to God, confess our sins, and ask for forgiveness.

But what if there is no getting better?

Many of us live with mental health conditions for which there is no “cure.”  No amount of cheshbon hanefesh is going to enable us to “fix” ourselves.

But that does not make us failures.  “Depression is a flaw of chemistry, not character,” reads a Manhattan billboard.6fe75f9ff1353866f3da9ebdcc988d8c

The field of human psychology is just over a century old.  Our understanding of mental illness, and our ability to treat it, ha experienced a sea change in that time.  But that does not mean that our ancestors did not have any appreciation or compassion for those whose behaviors did not conform to social norms.

In the Bible, the best depiction of a major character suffering from mental illness is King Saul.  Listen to how the Bible describes the onset of his condition:  “Now the spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and a ruach ra’ah – an evil spirit – from the Lord began to terrify him.”  (I Sam 17:14)  Saul’s courtiers do not know how to address their king’s new state of mind, so they suggest searching for a musician to soothe him whenever the ruach ra’ah manifests itself.  A search leads to David, who, among other talents, is a skilled lyre player.

Saul’s ruach ra’ah comes and goes.  He has episodes of paranoia and mania interspersed with periods of normal function.  Some modern readers have suggested that he might have suffered from a bipolar disorder, although we should be cautious about making a diagnosis based on a three thousand year old text.

Some time later, David kills the Philistine Goliath and then has to flee from Saul’s wrath.  He winds up in the court of King Achish of Gat, Goliath’s home town.  To avoid arrest, David pretends to be insane, scratching marks on the doors and letting his saliva run down his beard.  Achish, afraid of this behavior, scolds his attendants.  “You see the man is raving; why bring him to me?  Do I lack madmen that you have brought this fellow to rave for me?  Should this fellow enter my house?”  (I Sam. 21:15-16)

Many of the Psalms, traditionally attributed to King David and his court, express the anguish of a troubled mind.

My soul is in anguish, and You, O Lord―how long?

Turn, Lord, set my soul free; save me for the sake of Your love…

I am weary with my sighing.

Every night I drench my bed, I soak my couch with my tears.

My eye grows dim from grief, worn out because of all my foes…  (Psalm 6)

These sound like the words of a person living with severe depression.

In Rabbinic texts, there is much discussion about mental illness.  The term that is used to describe such a person is shoteh.  The shoteh, along with the deaf-mute, is generally not granted much legal status, as they are assumed to not understand what is happening around them.

But what constitutes a shoteh?

A single talmudic passage offers an inconclusive definition.  “Who is a shoteh?  A person who goes out alone at night; sleeps in a cemetery; and tears one’s clothing.”  (BT Chagigah 3b)  One Rabbi explains that all three behaviors need to be exhibited, while another Rabbi argues that just one is needed.  Then, the Talmud suggests that there could be rational reasons for a person would go out alone at night, sleep in a cemetery, or tear clothing.  The question is left unresolved.

Nearly one thousand years later, Maimonides is discussing laws pertaining to who may serve as a witness in court.  A shoteh, someone who is mentally or emotionally unstable, is not considered to be obligated in the mitzvot, and thus cannot serve as a witness, he says.  But who is a shoteh?  As a legal scholar, a physician, and a community judge and leader, Maimonides offers a more nuanced, and I would suggest compassionate, way of looking at the shoteh.

First he describes someone who is unable to understand basic matters or recognize simple contradictions.  He is describing what we might call someone with an intellectual disability, or low IQ.

Maimonides then writes about emotional instability.  He says that is is not merely someone who “goes around naked, destroys utensils, and throws stones.  Instead, it applies to anyone whose mind is disturbed and continually confused when it comes to certain matters, although he can speak and ask questions to the point regarding other matters.”

But his final comment is the most poignant.  “This matter is dependent on the judgment of the judge. It is impossible to describe the mental and emotional states of people in a text.”  (Edut 9:9-10)

Every person is unique.  Someone might be capable and functional in some aspects of his or her life, but troubled in other aspects.  Emotional instability might come and go.  We cannot make categorical assumptions without even getting to know a person.  We have to take the time to listen.

Pretty progressive for the twelfth century.

Today, we know that mental illness is not a punishment from God, and it is not something that can be cured with sacrifice or prayer.  Whereas it was once attributed to possession by a ruach ra’ah, we now understand mental illness as being caused by chemical and/or physical processes in the brain.

And, there is often treatment that can reduce symptoms of mental instability and make it possible for someone living with a mental illness to flourish in ways that would have been unimaginable in previous eras.  Someone who once would have been considered a shoteh, and not held accountable for his or her actions, can now have a family and a successful career.

While not perfect, we do a pretty good job of accommodating the needs of people who live with physical disabilities.  The Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law in 1990, “prevents discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life.”

It has changed such basic things as how we design buildings.  When our synagogue was built ten years ago, for example, we included a ramp to enable someone who uses a wheelchair or walker to come up to the bimah.  Earlier this year, we installed railings to make it easier to walk up the steps to the bimah.

We do a reasonably good job of ensuring that our synagogue is a welcoming home for anyone with a physical disability.

But what about for someone suffering from a psychiatric illness?

One of the most meaningful parts of our weekly Shabbat services is the Mi Sheberach L’cholim, the prayer for the sick.  Our practice is to invite anyone who would like to include the name of someone who seeks healing to form a line.  Each person has an opportunity to recite the names of those who are ill.  It is one of the most personal parts of the service for many of us, including me.

I recognize many of the names that are recited, and I am familiar with the illnesses that many of them face: cancer, chronic conditions, acute sickness, dementia.  But have we created a culture in which we would think to include someone struggling with mental illness in our prayers for healing?

Would someone who is him or herself experiencing depression feel welcome to include his or her own name?

It would certainly be appropriate to do so.  The language of the prayer acknowledges that there are physical and spiritual dimensions to healing.  We pray for r’fuat hanefesh ur’fuat haguf―healing of spirit and healing of body―in that order.

Prayer is not a treatment for mental illness.  It is not a substitute for medications that address chemical imbalances in a person’s brain.  But religion, and a religious community, ought to be an important component in healing.  Where better for someone living with depression to turn for support and acceptance than a house of worship?

We need to do better.  Congregation Sinai needs to be a community in which those suffering with a mental illness can be open about their struggles.  We need to break the stigma that leads so many of us to keep our struggles inside.

If you feel comfortable sharing your struggles with someone else, please take the courageous step and do so.  For someone who feels embarrassed or self-conscious about opening up, knowing that there are others who have shared similar experiences can make a huge difference.  It sends the message that “you are not alone.”

I have an anxiety disorder and Adult ADHD, for which I take psychiatric medications.

Over the past ten years or so, I have experienced occasional panic attacks.  I get dizzy.  The world starts to spin.  The edges of my eyesight get blurry, and I worry that I am going to pass out.  On some particularly bad occasions, I feel like I am having a heart attack, or at least, what I imagine a heart attack would feel like.

Scariest of all is when I have a panic attack while behind the wheel of a car.  One of my triggers is driving over tall bridges.  A few years ago, I was driving over the Golden Gate Bridge with my brother-in-law in the passenger seat and our kids in the back.  Halfway across the bridge, I could feel an attack coming on.  “Keep an eye on me,” I told my brother-in-law.  As soon as we got to the other side, I pulled over to the shoulder and gave him the wheel.

A couple of years ago, I had a panic attack in the middle of the night.  I thought I was having a heart attack.  I woke Dana up, and asked her to keep an eye on me.  I was upset with myself.  “What is wrong with me?  I should be able to just get myself under control.  After all, this is all just in my head.”

Dana, in her wisdom, responded, “Your brain is the most complex organ in your body.  What makes you think that you can just get it under control?”

Looking back, I realize that I had succumbed to the stigma of mental illness.  I felt guilty for not being able to control something “that was just in my head.”

It is not “just in my head.”  It is “in my head,” and that is not something to take lightly.

While real to me, my struggles are minor inconveniences compared to the serious mental afflictions that impact some peoples’ lives.  I do not know what it is like to live with schizophrenia or a bipolar disorder.

But I can hold someone’s hand and listen.

This year, I ask that we make it a priority that our synagogue become a place in which those living with mental illness can find compassion, acceptance, and healing.  I will speak of it more explicitly from the bimah.  From now on, when I lead the prayer for healing, I will change the way that I introduce it to something like the following:

I am now going to recite the Mi Sheberach L’cholim, the prayer for healing for those with physical and mental illness.  If you would like to include someone, or if you yourself are in need of healing, please come up and form a line to my right.

I ask that we commit to being there for each other with open minds and open hearts.

We all bring our tzarot, our troubles, to shul.  Especially on a day like Yom Kippur, with its focus on sin, repentance, atonement, and mortality.

Yom Kippur is really a day for spiritual healing.  In the Temple, it was the day when the High Priest conducted the rituals that restored the spiritual relationship between God and the Jewish people.  Today, our prayers and our fasting accomplish the same.

Let this day, this synagogue, and this community, offer healing and comfort to all those who have brought their tzarot with them.

I would like to close with this prayer composed by Rabbi Elliott Kukla, of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center.

May the One who blessed our ancestors bless all who live with mental illness, our care-givers, families, and friends.  May we walk in the footsteps of Jacob, King Saul, Miriam, Hannah, and Naomi, who struggled with dark moods, hopelessness, isolation, and terrors, but survived and led our people.  Just as our father, Jacob, spent the night wrestling with an angel and prevailed, may all who live with mental illness be granted the endurance to wrestle with pain and prevail night upon night.  Grace us with the faith to know that though, like Jacob, we may be wounded, shaped and renamed by this struggle, still we will live on to continue an ever unfolding, unpredictable path toward healing.  May we not be alone on this path but accompanied by our families, friends, care-givers, ancestors, and the Divine presence. Surround us with loving-kindness, grace and companionship and spread over us a sukkat shalom, a shelter of peace and wholeness. And let us say: Amen.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah.  May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a year of blessing and healing.