Go Forth.

November 11, 2016 § 2 Comments

Our Torah portion this week advises Abraham to go forth, to leave behind what is comfortable and familiar, to leave his father’s house.

Go forth from the land of your birth, from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

Anything worthwhile requires a risk, a departure, a breaking-away from what has gone on before now.

We are at a crossroads as a nation, deeply divided. We do not even agree on the basics: who is at fault here for our divide? What is at stake in this election? Is this outcome a good thing or a bad thing?

Go forth from the land of your birth, from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

What we do know is that there are large numbers of people in this country who feel like their way of life is threatened. They disagree profoundly as to what exactly is causing that threat. But the feeling itself, that perception, has its roots in something real.

On the afternoon after the election, I was scheduled to teach “Introduction to Judaism” at Plattsburgh State. The class has seventeen students: fifteen are between eighteen and twenty two years of age; the remainder are older than I am.

Our topic on this day is Shtetl life: the experience of Jews in Poland, Russia, and Lithuania in the late middle ages/early modern period. In other words, on this day I am trying to bring to life the world that is depicted in The Fiddler on the Roof.

Hoping to attract their interest, I try linking the lecture to the storyline of Fiddler. Most of them have never seen it, but the two older students know it well. Singing snippets of songs as I lecture doesn’t rouse the enthusiasm of the rest. They look glum. Not surprisingly, shifting to a discussion of the history of pogroms in Russia does not improve their mood.

As for me, I am working on five hours’ worth of sleep, having stayed up way too late for the election results. After experiencing a lifetime of gender discrimination myself, I really wanted a woman to win. I spent most of the evening practicing meditation techniques whenever the state results came in too close to call. I was hoping to celebrate.

Okay, I tell them. I get it. We’re all tired from last night.

That’s when some of the students started talking about Trump; that is when we found out that they voted for him. That’s also when it became clear to me that the rest of the class could not understand whatsoever how a sane, reasonable person could vote for the man. They just don’t see the appeal. From their point of view, a vote for Trump was a vote for racism, sexism, and bullying. Why would you admit that in public?

There are pictures taped up in the hallways of the campus. They are color pictures of Trump, printed on copy paper. Someone has taken a sharpie marker and given him a Hitler mustache. They appear every ten feet throughout the halls.

That is where the conversation started: “I think that these pictures of Trump as Hitler are disrespectful of Jews and the Jewish experience,” ventured one of the two Trump supporters.

“Well,” I pause for comic effect, “I wasn’t the one who put them there.” The class laughs, including the student who raised the point. Good. I was hoping to lighten the mood a bit. We are all tired and still raw. It has been a long year.

I would have liked to address his concern in depth, to explain why a significant portion of the population feels that the comparison to Hitler is apt. But it was not the time or place, not yet. He was not yet ready to hear that I have friends who are actively planning to emigrate because they are quite literally afraid for their lives; the rest of the class was not yet ready to hear why I don’t think that emigration is necessary. It has been a long year, and we are all tired and raw.

So let me tell you what I told them:

I am a member of a cusp generation. I link what went before to what comes after. I went to a liberal arts college – emphasis on liberal – twenty-five years ago, where we necessarily learned about European history but did not necessarily learn Chinese history. The knowledge of other cultures that you are expected to know, now, as an undergraduate, is vastly different than what I was expected to know. But that was changing, even then, and changing quickly.

I grew up in a world where the white Protestant culture was considered normative, and everyone else was ‘ethnic.’ Nowadays that kind of thinking is labeled ‘ethnocentrism.’

That’s when I introduced an example: as a member of the cusp generation, I am in fact fully engaged in technology. I tweet and text and use emoticons and the like. But, unlike the native-born, those for whom this technology was present at birth, I routinely use the wrong one. I texted a red heart to my niece, who promptly wrote back hahahahahaha. I was oblivious to the distinctions between the pink hearts (which are family friendly) and the red hearts (which mean a relationship kind of love). What I know, I explained, is not what you know. What I take for granted, I said, is not what you take for granted. They seemed to be a lot more responsive to that message. It gave them a concrete example as to the difference between our worlds.

So, I said to them – and I say to you now – here is your charge: go find someone really different from you. Seek out someone who sees the world in entirely different terms. Get to know them. Get to know why they think the way they do. Avoid lapsing into stereotypes and false generalizations. You may be filling in reasons for them that are not actually true. You may be engaging in projection or fantasy. You will not know until you ask.

I have been engaging people, respectfully, on Facebook as well as I can. Last night I had an eighty-message exchange with a letter carrier and veteran from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho – a friend of my cousin – and that conversation was both enlightening and helpful. Today, though, he decided that the conversation could go no further. We won’t change each other’s minds, he argued, and emotions are still too raw.

I hope that he is wrong about that. 

Anything worthwhile requires a risk, a departure, a breaking-away from what has gone on before now.

Want to make our nation great? Go forth.

 

About Eden

October 28, 2016 § 1 Comment

What is the meaning of the story of Adam and Eve?

My rabbi, Allen Krause, z”l, read it as a narrative about the human condition. When we are children, we live in Eden: all of our needs are met and we have no need to till the soil.

Eventually, we grow up and become parents and have to work for a living. Eventually, we become knowledgeable in the ways of the world. Eventually, we have to leave Eden to know what it means to feel pain.

It is not simply a cautionary tale, however: the process of growing up also means gaining knowledge. When we eat from the tree of good and evil – when we gain that knowledge – we become aware of our ability to affect the world around us. We learn how to take responsibility for our lives.

For us, therefore, the Adam and Eve narrative is an acknowledgement that growth involves some pain and rupture.

We have to leave behind what is comfortable and familiar to venture into a new realm, one that is profoundly unfamiliar. At times, it seems that the land itself is resistant to our efforts: The soil is rocky, the task is difficult, and the yield is poor.

But this growth is also what allows us one of the greatest joys: that of nurturing new life.

But is that the only way that the story could be understood?

Maimonides provides us with a second interpretation. In Maimonides’ view, Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden basking in the glory of God. This ‘glory’ is considered to be a form of energy, like a golden light, that overflows from God and animates all things. This energy, known as the Active Intellect, is also the source of wisdom.

When Adam ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, it meant that he shifted his attention away from God’s glory to the world around him.

Adam’s turn away from God to consider the lesser subjects of good and evil was the reason why he lost his immortality. Whereas he had been contemplating pure truth, he was now thinking about mundane things – what is good and what is bad.

What is particularly interesting to note here is that good and evil are not considered to be absolutes, according to Maimonides; instead, they are relative terms that relate to social conventions regarding the regulation of the appetites of the body.

That is not to say that Maimonides believes in relativism. For him, truth and falsehood are absolutes. But ideas regarding what is good and what is evil are related to social conventions. It is a strikingly post-modern formulation for someone who wrote in the 12th century.

Even though Adam turned away from truth, we can still perceive it. Even as mortals, humans are still sometimes able to turn back to God in isolated moments.

That capacity to turn toward God, in fact, is the true source of righteous behavior. As Maimonides observes, “all of man’s acts of disobedience are consequent upon his matter and not upon his form, whereas all his virtues are consequent upon his form.”(1)

To put that in more modern language: we are sinful when we follow our bodies’ desires but we are righteous when we follow our minds’ analysis. In the act of thinking, we have the ability to rise above ourselves.

What is another possible interpretation of this text?

For the mystics of Lurianic Kabbalism, the Adam and Eve story is an explanation of how evil entered into the world.

First, God created the holy light. That’s what’s meant by ‘God said, ‘let there be light’ – and there was light.’ After the creation of the light, then God then created vessels to hold that light. But when the light poured into the vessels, they shattered.

The story, therefore, is read as an allegory by the Kabbalists: it describes the processes within God that unfolded during creation. In their view, our role is to redeem those scattered rays of primordial light. We do so by performing the commandments with pure intentionality.

Later, the Hasidic movement added to this Kabbalistic textual inheritance, and provided additional insights as to how these texts might be applied to our own lives. It offers quite a lot of wonderful material. Over this past year, I have been reading Hasidic texts with a hevruta, a study partner, as part of my work as a fellow in the second clergy cohort of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.

In this coming week, we will study a text from Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Halevi Epstein of Cracow. According to the text, our task as Jews is to repair the original orderliness of creation, the one that existed prior to the first sin. Our job is to release all of the sparks, the ones that fell into inanimate matter, plants, animals and human beings.

I found two things that are interesting here: the first is the idea that at every level we are able to help repair the world. Even when we are doing our regular work, we are able to have an impact on the larger project of perfecting the world. I find that particularly encouraging.

If you do a good job, even when doing a mundane thing, that work can affect the people around you for the better. Are you cheerful? Are you helpful? Are you kind? These things matter. Regardless of whether your role in the world is large or small, you can be a force for good.

The second thing I found interesting here: according to the text, even your mistakes can be helpful to others. In fact, mistakes are how the sparks within human beings are released. Why is that? If you should repent for what you did – even if it is a small thing – and then say that you are sorry, your example can influence others to do the same. You release the misdeeds of others by modeling this behavior.

This lesson demonstrates why pursuing integrity in all our deeds really matters: how each of us respond to others can be a source of inspiration – or a source of pain. You are the one who decides. You can always choose to be kind.

 

(1) Maimonides, Guide, III:8, vol. 2, p. 431.

Sacrifices

September 23, 2016 § Leave a comment

Some years ago, before I became a rabbi, I had the opportunity to go to a URJ Biennial convention, to join 3,000 Reform Jews in study, song, and worship. Even though I was part of a fairly large congregation at the time, I had no idea that it could be so moving to pray with such a large crowd. The Biennials are simply awesome, in the best sense of the word.

Along with all the events, the convention had a hall dedicated to the vendors of every kind. They had every imaginable form of Judaica, from paintings to books, from kippot to challah covers. And, of course, there were vendors for congregational services.

One of the vendors there was a Torah scribe – a Sofer. He was selling his Torah-checking services: a congregation could hire him to come and check their Torahs for missing letters, tears, and other forms of damage. I was fascinated by his work, and he was happy to answer my questions. He patiently explained how the Torah scroll is made.

The scrolls themselves are made of parchment paper obtained from a kosher animal, usually sheepskin or deerskin. The ink is hand blended by the Sofer – he declined to explain how – and then the letters are hand-written using a feather quill from a kosher bird.

To create the smooth, even lines of Torah text, the Sofer etches guide-lines into the parchment. This process that was once done entirely by hand with a straight-edge and a razor; now they have a machine. And, unlike English, in which all the letters ‘sit’ on the line, in Hebrew the letters all ‘hang’ from the line.

A sofer will follow the Masoretic tradition when writing the text. The Masoretes standardized the Torah text, so that all Torahs written thereafter will have exactly the same content, following the same rules of transmission.

The accomplishment of the Masoretes should not be underestimated: note, for example, that the Dead Sea Scrolls – the scrolls that were found in caves near the Dead Sea, that date back to the time of the late Temple period – have a number of variations in the texts, and we are not entirely certain as to why. The Masoretes included some known errors in the text – they made the decision that it is better to keep the error intact than to create new ones by guessing what was the correct version.

Personally, I also like that they gave up on the possibility of perfection. Of course the Torah scroll has small errors in it – that is how life unfolds.

The Sofer writes out the Torah by hand. He will only write the Tetragrammaton – the four-letter name of God, which is the most holy name and is not pronounced – after visiting a mikveh that same day. The mikveh is a pool of water gathered from living waters – either a lake or stream or rainwater – for the purposes of ritual purification. If no mikveh is available, or he does not wish to go that morning, then he can skip the name and write it later, but there is an upper limit as to how many lines he may write beyond that point.

After he is finished writing the whole Torah, the text is checked by another scribe. They also have computers to do this task, but according the Sofer, ‘humans are more accurate than machines.’

The Torah, after it is written out, is attached to two poles, called etzim. These poles are what allow us to roll it in one direction or another without getting tangled. The use of a scroll, in fact, is an old form of technology: it is the form of printing that predates books. If you’ve ever noticed in paintings and drawings of the ancients, they are always reading from scrolls. That’s because books haven’t been invented yet.

Books are medieval; they originate from hand-written folios and then eventually become volumes made on the printing press. The Talmud, for example, is standardized in its printed form in a folio layout, and it continues to be printed that way today. One difference is that each page has a number, with a front and a back, rather than the continuous pagination of books today, because it may or may not be bound together. And each page has a small repetition of the page before it, in order to identify the order of the text.

The act of reading Torah before the congregation is at least 2000 years old, and possibly older.

We have the story in Ezra, for example, of the discovery during the post-exilic period of a scroll of law that had been lost; Ezra records the decision to read it before the congregation of Israel at regular intervals.

According to the Babylonian Talmud in tractate Sanhedrin 21b, “We learn that Rabbi Yose said: Had Moses not preceded him, Ezra would have been worthy of having the Torah given to Israel through him. And even though the Torah was not given through him, its script was changed through him.” Ezra specified that the Torah text should be written in the Assyrian block letters – the ones we use now.

Dividing the Torah into weekly portions dates back to the rabbinic period. In this week’s portion, we are told about the procedure for bringing the first fruits to the ancient Temple: the person brings a basket, sets it before the priest and makes a declaration.

The ancient rabbis, writing after the destruction of the Temple, disagreed about what was included in the declaration before the priest. At the time that they were writing – primarily from the second to sixth centuries of our common era — the first fruits were no longer brought before the priest, and they were seeking to preserve a cultural memory of what had happened in the time when we were still in the land.

They were the ones who decided that studying about the first fruits was the equivalent to bringing the first fruits. So, by their logic, in reading this text, you have fulfilled the commandment of bringing the first fruits to the ancient Temple.

Similarly, with regard to the sacrificial offerings that were brought in ancient days: the rabbis determined that the prayer of the heart would be an appropriate substitution. Thus, it is possible to atone for our sins by engaging in fasting and self-reflection on Yom Kippur.

 

 

Honor

September 16, 2016 § 1 Comment

Created in God’s image, each of us is worthy of honor.

Our Torah portion reminds us that we need to be mindful of the humanity of others, particularly those who are vulnerable: “You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pawn. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment.”[1]

We may well be owed money, for example, but we still have to let the widow keep her garment. Her very humanity is deserving of honor, because she is a creature of God.

Yet the objection may be raised, and rightly so, that you don’t have to believe in God to honor the humanity of others. And, more to the point: if you can honor others without invoking God, then why invoke God? God, it would seem, is superfluous to this conversation.

For example, you might be someone who objects to all the usual names for God, seeing them as idolatries. You may have the sense that there is something out there, perhaps, that is bigger and grander than what the Bible might hold. If that is the case, then, you might be willing to extend your belief that the world has purpose to include the idea that we are here for a reason. You might use this belief as the basis for honoring others.

Or, alternatively: if you cannot believe in God, then you might conclude that our tradition provides a basis for honoring others. That is to say, our tradition is organized around a set of rather demanding ethical commitments. Our tradition argues that each human being, by virtue of being, is worthy of honor.

Or, alternatively: you might conclude, along with the great French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, that we must extend this sense of honor in God’s place. Levinas argues that we are expected to fulfill the role of God for each other and extend this gracious honor to others without limits or conditions. If God does not do it, then we must act in God’s place.

In other words, we can reach this end-point of honoring the humanity of others, regardless of whether or not it is grounded in a belief in God. What is most important is the idea that all of us, every one of us, is worthy of honor.

But perhaps you might rebel at that suggestion. You might be offended. What of the abusers, the sociopaths, the murderers, the hostage-takers? How can we find it within ourselves to honor these individuals? And is it not an outrage to even suggest that we ought to honor them?

It is, of course, one thing to suggest that we should give people the benefit of the doubt, or to adopt a non-judgmental attitude regarding the people we meet. But it is another thing entirely to use this approach to excuse the behavior of known killers.

Some might argue that there’s always a hope for redemption, a possibility for repentance. This position, by the way, is very well represented in our High Holiday liturgy. God waits until the very last moment for sinners, hoping that they will repent, calling to us: ‘return, O you wayward children, return.’ As we intone: ‘Lord, it is not the death of sinners that you seek, but that they should turn to you and live.’

But what of the scoundrels, and those whose misdeeds are so great as to outweigh half-measures and simple apologies? You might argue, like Maimonides, that it is possible for a person to behave so badly that they no longer can achieve true repentance. He suggests that the sinner must acknowledge so much wrongdoing and make such great changes in his or her character that the goal becomes nearly unreachable. As Maimonides explains: “It is possible that a man might commit a grave iniquity or many sins so that the sentence of the Judge of Truth might be that the doer of those wrongs, done intentionally and deliberately, would be denied repentance.”[2]

“Consequently it can be said,” he writes, “that the Lord did not decree Pharaoh to do ill to Israel, or Sihon to sin in his country or the Canaanites to act horribly or the people of Israel to be idolatrous. All these sins were their own doing and consequently they deserved no opportunity to repent.”[3] In these cases, the magnitude and multitude of the person’s sins has eliminated the possibility for repentance. The pattern of behavior may have become too ingrained to renounce.

You should know, by the way, that this situation is very rare. Maimonides is speaking of tyrants and other forms of extreme behavior.

Even so, we still must ask ourselves: are these individuals ineligible for honor? Have they gone so far that it is no longer possible to extend that sense of humanity to them?

At this point, we might want to argue for a distinction: there is honor, and there is respect. It is possible to honor the humanity of a person but not respect their deeds.

Many of us have family members or friends who might fall into this category: people who have treated us or others badly, who have abused their power and position to dominate others, or who have created endless drama in their lives and the lives of the ones who try to love them. We know of alcoholics and wife beaters and child abusers; we are aware of thieves of all kinds; we know of those who are untrue.

Honoring someone is not the same thing as cooperating with them.

Sometimes the best way to honor someone is to refuse to be a codependent in the bad behavior. Sometimes the best way to honor someone is to say no: you and I both deserve better than that.

One of the most difficult parts of the approaching High Holiday season, in fact, is this process of self-inspection. Have I acted honorably? Have I respected those worthy of respect, and honored the humanity of all? Have I acted in a way that magnifies the image of God in the world? Have I sought to enlarge the realm of the holy? We should treat each other as holy: ‘you shall be holy for me, as I, the Lord, am holy.’

We all fall short, of course: that is what it means to be human. We should make use of that awareness to grant honor to others as well, graciously, whether or not it has been earned.

Be gentle, forgive easily, and treat everyone with honor — everyone, including you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] JPS translation.

[2] Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, Shlomo Pines, transl. (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 6:3, p. 124.

[3] Ibid., p. 125.

(Major) Injustices and (Minor) Slights

September 9, 2016 § Leave a comment

We all make mistakes. It’s one of those basic truths.
So, the question is not ‘how do we become perfect?’ Rather, it is, ‘how do we learn to learn from our mistakes?’

In our Torah portion this week, it states that guilt or blame is not established on the basis of the testimony of a single witness. Rather, “a case can be valid only on the testimony of two witnesses or more.” One person’s testimony is not enough; it needs to be validated by the testimony of another witness – someone who can say, ‘yes, that’s what I saw too.’ The idea here is that the court should not easily fall sway to one individual’s interpretation of the events.

There is wisdom in this approach: how the witness interprets events actually matters quite a bit. Let me use an example derived from Max Kadushin’s works on rabbinic thought. If Plonit enters a building, one where Ploni lives, and takes something from Ploni’s room when he is not there, is that a theft?

Maybe. For this action to be a theft, it is necessary to have a whole series of concepts in place. In order for this to be theft, Ploni and Plonit need to be part of a group that has a defined sense of possession and ownership. The group must agree that Ploni has a room and that it is his and that the stuff in it is in his care and he has a right to say ‘no one may take this from me.’

There also must be some kind of working legal definition of theft; a court or forum in which it is possible to accuse someone of theft, and process by which such accusations might be actionable.

So, for example, if your sister comes in and takes one of your blouses from your room, that’s not theft, even if you’d like to see her convicted of it.

It’s not a theft if Ploni and Plonit are married.

If, on the other hand, Ploni and Plonit are strangers and there has been no prior agreement made between them regarding this object, then yes, it is indeed a theft for Plonit to take something from Ploni’s room.

Context matters greatly. You can’t take the action out of context, because the context is what gives it meaning.

So, the witness is actually pretty important, because the witness must not just report what was seen, but also (at some level) be able to construct some kind of narrative regarding the events, to put them in context for those who hear the case.

That is to say, the stories we tell ourselves matter quite a bit.

Sometimes, of course, the narrative that the witness constructs is mistaken or wrong. And sometimes the witness constructs a false narrative. As our text acknowledges, sometimes witnesses lie, and those cases it is necessary to respond. So this is what it says to do in that situation: “If a man appears against another to testify maliciously and gives false testimony against him, the two parties to the dispute shall appear before the Lord, before the priests or magistrates in authority at the time, and the magistrates shall make a thorough investigation.”

It says ‘man’ here because women were not counted as full witnesses. The concern was that they could be bullied by their husbands into giving false testimony. But note that this case also requires a thorough investigation by more than one magistrate. You cannot convict on the basis of a single witness’ testimony.

So what happens if the witness is found to be lying? The Bible’s answer is a one-for-one retribution: “If the man who testified is a false witness, if he has testified falsely against his fellow, you shall do to him as he schemed to do to his fellow. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst; others will hear and be afraid, and such evil things will not again be done in your midst. Nor must you show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”

The ancient rabbis, the inheritors of this text, did not like the implied barbarism of putting out someone’s eye in exchange for an eye. How could that possibly work? What if the person already was missing an eye? What if one man had small eyes and the other had large eyes? This is how their discussion of the subject goes. They decide that clearly it must mean monetary compensation.

It means that they must pay the value of an eye for an eye, the value of a tooth for a tooth, and so on.

In our own lives, we have to decide on an ongoing basis how to interpret the events that occur. Which events are actionable? In the case of theft, it is usually fairly clear as to whether or not you should press charges. But what about the murkier events, the interpersonal stuff that never sees a court of law but that creates a sense of loss? How do we evaluate these events?

Here is what I would propose:

First, determine whether the series of events represents an injustice or a slight. An injustice is when someone of greater power takes advantage of the situation to the detriment of the person in a weaker position.

A slight, on the other hand, is something that hurts your feelings. A slight is when you were not invited to an event when everyone else was.

In fact, the intensity of your hurt is one possible indicator of whether it is an injustice or a slight: an injustice might make you angry or sad, but a slight wounds you. The injustice challenges your sense of reality; a slight feels like a thorn in your side.

If it is an injustice, try to right the wrong. Injustice should be challenged.

But if it is a slight, try to let it go. You might want to talk to the person. But an attitude of forgiveness will go a long way toward resolving the situation.

 

 

Choosing

September 2, 2016 § Leave a comment

“See, this day I set before you blessing and curse…”[1]

Set before us, in this week’s Torah portion, is a choice between doing good and doing evil, between doing the right thing and doing the wrong thing. When it is put that way, it seems so easy, really: you should choose to do the right thing.

Some things are in fact that clear: when you are standing in line at the cash register, it is indeed wrong to take one of the items on the counter and put it in your pocket without paying for it. Perhaps, when you were younger, you had this sudden awareness when standing there – at a moment when the cashier’s back is turned – that you could do something like that. Maybe it startled you, or frightened you: why am I thinking of such things?

But you should know: this awareness that it is possible to do something wrong is actually your moral insight at work. It means, in fact, that you are making an active moral choice. You know better. In the course of your moral development, you will encounter these decision-points and have to choose. And eventually, through the force of repetition, a particular decision-point becomes second nature. It’s no longer a choice but rather a habit to do the right thing. That’s a good thing.

The shoplifting scenario I just mentioned – the awareness that you could take something without paying for it – is one that adults don’t usually have much trouble resisting. Most of us have worked through that temptation and put it aside. Our habits are well-established in adulthood, in favor of paying for what we use.

So let’s talk about how Judaism frames these choices that we make. Judaism teaches that we are born with competing impulses – the impulse to do wrong, called yetzer ha-ra, and the impulse to do good, called yetzer ha-tov. These two impulses pull us in opposite directions. The image of an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other is really a Jewish image: the idea that we have these competing views, urging us to make a choice.

Our view is that we have a dual nature. Sin does not always win. In fact, it shouldn’t always win. You are presented with a choice between doing good and doing wrong. And you are expected to choose to do good.

In some areas of your life, that choice is easy. Once you’ve mastered your impulses and grown into adulthood, you don’t need to be congratulated for ignoring the temptations of the candy on the cashier’s countertop: of course you pay for what you take. But there are other places, other points in your life, where that choice is much harder.

Every one of us has a decision-point where it is necessary to make an active choice: Maybe it’s the choice between gossiping and refraining from gossiping. Maybe it’s the choice between fudging the numbers and giving full disclosure. Maybe it’s the choice between giving in to sexual temptation and remaining chaste. Any one of these things has the potential to be a decision-point.[2]

One of those decision-points, for example, might relate to issues of race, class, and gender: how do you approach someone who is different than you – someone who comes from a different background? Do you choose to learn about the other, to find out what makes that person tick, so that you might find common ground? Or do you retreat into stereotypes? Do you assume you know a person’s motivations? Or do you ask to hear a person’s story?

I will give you a hint: if you ever find yourself saying ‘oh, but they’re like that’ you are engaging in a generalization – a stereotype – and haven’t yet done the work of finding out what really is motivating this group’s behavior. Ask yourself: how do I know that’s true? Have I actually ever met someone who’s like that? And did we ever have an extended conversation to learn why that might be true?

We are fed a steady diet of stereotypes in our movies and television shows. If you don’t actually know an immigrant or a migrant personally, for example, it’s easy to start believing the stereotypes, whether you intend to or not.

Judaism’s answer to this difficulty is found in the edifice of the commandments. We have this elaborate list of do’s and don’ts as a way to give us a way to structure our lives. In the midst of the chaos of competing impulses, the commandments provide an external grid by which we might measure our response. We are taught: you should not oppress the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

But there’s a catch: it is entirely possible (in the words of the ancient rabbis) to be ‘a scoundrel within the bounds of the law.’ It is entirely possible to oppress the stranger while fulfilling the letter of the law to its outermost details. You can’t just give over all of your moral authority to the law and assume that its literal fulfillment will save you from any wrongdoing. We don’t believe that.

Rather, the Jewish view is that you must save yourself.

As a matter of fact, you must save yourself by working painstakingly through the moral code that you have inherited, deciding point-by-point, decision-by-decision how to act. It’s really difficult work, actually.

But we build a better world in these small steps, in these small acts of moral courage. It’s those moments when you say the right thing or resist the temptation or choose well. That’s how we live a life of dignity and integrity. That’s how we redeem the world.

 

[1] JPS translation

[2] The idea that we face these decision-points is one that I learned from the Jewish Mussar movement. Mussar teaches how to build character in response to these decision-points so that the choice to do good becomes easier.

Rain in its season

August 28, 2016 § Leave a comment

Sometimes the Torah presents us with a viewpoint that we find challenging.

In Parashat Ekev, we find one of the speeches that Moses delivers to the Israelites just before they enter the land of Israel. Even though it is an important text, I am not a fan of its theology.

Here is what it says:

If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil — I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle — and thus you shall eat your fill. Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Lord is assigning to you.[1]

I have always objected to the tit-for-tat approach advocated here: is God allocating good things as rewards and bad things as punishments? I can think of so many counter-examples as to why this theology simply does not work.

And I am not alone in this approach: this text appears in the traditional v’ahavta recitation but not in the Reform version, on account of its problematic theology. This is one of the parts that we skip.

However, a book by Nogah Hareuveni has caused me to re-think this passage.

Don’t get me wrong – it is still problematic theology to say ‘God will clearly reward you if you do good and clearly punish you if you do wrong’ – that’s not what has changed in my view. Rather, Hareuveni has suggested an interpretation of the text that shifted my understanding of what is being said here.

Noah Hareuveni was the founder of Neot Kedumim – The Biblical Landscape Reserve in Israel. I visited Neot Kedumim during the year I lived in Israel and found it fascinating. His work has influenced my understanding of the Bible in many ways – for example, if you have heard me speak about the link between matzah and beer, you should know that my interpretation was inspired by his scientific study of Israel’s nature in Jewish sources.

So here’s what Hareuveni had to say about this passage: “On entering the land of Israel, the Israelites were faced with the problem of adapting to very different conditions and farming methods.” In Egypt, crops were watered from irrigation ditches that had been drawn from the Nile River. In Israel, however, the local agriculture “was totally dependent on rainfall brought by wind-driven clouds.” So, he argues, “it could have seemed reasonable to assume that in the land of Israel the rains were controlled by some deity unknown in either Egypt or the Sinai.”[2] New terrain, new agricultural methods, new gods.

So, according to Hareuveni, this passage regarding early rains and late rains is directly related to the difficulties faced in successfully farming the land of Israel.

In Hareuveni’s view, it is not a coincidence that this speech names the seven species, the quintessential list of the produce of Israel. Specifically, Moses tells the Israelites that “…the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey…”[3] The species on this list are there for a reason.

“The common denominator,” Hareuveni explains, among these seven species
“becomes apparent during the fifty days between Passover and Shavuot…During this period, between mid-April and mid-June, the flowers of the olive, grape, pomegranate and date open, and the embryonic figs begin to develop. During this same period, the kernels of what and barley fill with starch. Thus the fate of the crops of each of the seven varieties is determined.”[4]

And, as he explains, “In the land of Israel…[the Spring] season is distinguished by multiple changes and climatic contrasts. Scorching southern winds alternate with cold winds from the north and west. The former bring with them extreme dryness and heat, while the latter darken the skies, generating tempestuous storms, with thunder, lightening and rain.”[5]

In other words, the north wind is needed for the wheat to ripen properly. But if it does not come at the proper time – if it arrives too soon, for example – then this much-needed rain ruins the olive, date, grape, and pomegranate harvests.

On the other hand, the dry southern wind that is rather beneficial for the olive, date, grape, and pomegranates, can yield disastrous results for the barley and wheat if it should scorch them before they ripen.

So, if it is read in context, the main point conveyed in this difficult passage is not that God will reward and punish us for obeying the commandments, but rather, that there is only one God who has created everything, including the northern and southern winds. These opposing winds that ripen the seven species in due time are not two opposing demi-gods vying for power. God, and God alone, is responsible for everything that happens in this world. Do not go astray and start thinking otherwise.

Interestingly, this passage underscores the fact that Israel’s climate is a particularly fragile one. In our era, I worry that Israel is particularly vulnerable to the effects of global warming and rising oceans.

Which brings me back to the question of theology. When it says, “If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late,” – does that mean that careful observance of the commandments will prevent catastrophe? No. We are responsible for the consequences of our actions. Ignoring the environmental effects of what we do will indeed invite catastrophe.

And that may well be the point of the next part of the passage: It says, “Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Lord is assigning to you.”[9]

Perhaps this isn’t retribution – it’s a statement of natural consequences. What you do matters.

So let me propose a different way to look at this text. I would say that pretending that the world works differently than it does – that is, ignoring the laws of science – one is, in a sense, bowing to other gods. Pretending that our actions do not have an impact is not unlike saying there are many gods, each responsible for a specific outcome, and you can get the outcome you want by praying to that god and asking for magic.

Monotheism is the recognition that all of the various things that happen are all interrelated. What you do matters. And will continue to matter. And hoping that some magic demi-god will erase our efforts and make it all better will not save us.

In preparation for the High Holidays, I recommend thinking about this question: what would you do – how would you act – if you lived continuously with the awareness that everything you do really fundamentally matters?

 

[1] Deuteronomy 11:13-17, JPS translation.

[2] Nogah Hareuveni, Nature in Our Biblical Heritage, Chapter 1.

[3] Deuteronomy 8:7-8

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. Author’s emphasis.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. Author’s emphasis.

[9] Deuteronomy 11:13-17, JPS translation.